Finding Meaning in Blue-Collar Work
Religion & Liberty Online

Finding Meaning in Blue-Collar Work

Over at the Patheos Faith and Work Channel, Larry Saunders shares about his journey from pastor to grocery-store clerk to blue-collar factory worker to current MBA student in search of a white-collar job, offering deep and personal reflections on faith, work, and meaning along the way.

When he became a United Methodist pastor, Saunders enjoyed certain aspects of what he calls the “white collar work of ministry,” finding “a strong correlation between my personal sense of vocation and my gifts.” “I believed was contributing value to the world,” he writes.

Eventually, however, due to the conflict and stress involved and various other factors, he left the ministry in search for something different. After struggling to find work elsewhere, he settled into a factory job, working second shift for about 30% less than he made previously.

The job had its advantages, but after two years in the position, Saunders was struggling to find meaning in his work, and he wasn’t the only one:

Based on my limited anecdotal evidence, I think most [of my co-workers] do not find their jobs meaningful, but they never expected to in the first place.  For them, work is only a means to meet their basic needs and desires for leisure. Their major sense of meaning is derived totally outside the workplace.

If I had been a pastor to my blue collar co-workers, I would have advised them generally not to get too tied up in an identity derived from their day jobs anyway, but rather to focus on doing a high quality of work and not to equate their jobs with their callings. In the midst of my own foray into working the factory floor, I am now not so sure I would have found that very helpful to hear from my pastor. It is surely easier said than done.

Whatever negative forces were at work to take me out of the white collar work of ministry, they couldn’t overcome the simple reality that I am not challenged at all in this work, and I want something more. No amount of reminding myself that the products I am helping make in the factory really do make people’s lives better could sustain me over the long haul. My brother actually put it pretty well when he told me that in this line of work, when I come home after my shift, I will never have the feeling of having done something smart – nothing I contribute to this job results from being a critical thinker.

Each individual will vary in this, of course. Surely there are many blue-collar workers for whom it rather easy to find meaning in their work beyond a mere means to an end. But Saunders’ journey serves as a helpful reminder of how varied we individuals are in our giftings, how powerful a role our vocational “compasses” can play, and how complex and difficult the path may be to discovering our gifts and aligning them with the needs of those around us. Throughout that journey, we are likely to find ourselves in settings that don’t feel so snug with our gifts and long-term callings and vocations. For Saunders, who had dreams of white collar work from a very young age, the factory was one such situation.

Yet even here, we should be careful to remember that God uses these situations, and perhaps has even designed them from the very beginning, to shape and mold our very souls, preparing us for other unforeseeable purposes and ends. When a well-educated Moses found himself shepherding sheep in the desert for 40 long years, surely he had his share of frustrations, knowing he could do so much more to add value. But there was meaning and dignity in that station, and God used that period to prepare Moses for other things, even as God was making other preparations in other people and places.

Faithful in All God's HouseAs Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write in Faithful in All God’s House, work is not only meaningful for the service it provides to civilization, but also in the way it matures the worker and, in turn, influences the larger trajectory of one’s spiritual life:

Work matures the worker because it requires ethical decision. Merely to rise to one’s daily tasks requires an act of will, a decision to serve the community, however reluctantly, however unaware the worker may be that such is the case. Such willed acts of service not only make and sustain the fabric of civilization and culture, but also develop the soul. And, while the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.

This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

This doesn’t mean it’s any easier to find or feel that meaning when we’re in the thick of it, as Saunders’ story aptly illustrates. Saunders himself recognized that the goods he was creating added value to others, but even still, he felt underutilized and uninspired.

As DeKoster notes in a different book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life: “The utter boredom of routines and the mind-numbing monotony of endless repetition is a form of cross-bearing required of many in order that civilization may bless both them and us.” We need not “endow our work with meaning,” as DeKoster writes elsewhere, for the meaning is already there.

Yet cross-bearing it remains.

As Saunders demonstrates in pursuing his MBA, regardless of our current circumstances, we should continue to pursue our callings and vocations, listening eagerly to the voice of the Holy Spirit and always seeking to maximize our gifts in new ways that yield a higher return on the talents given to us. But those more difficult stations along the way play their own part in that process, painful and “cross-bearing” though they be.

Work shapes the soul, adds value to others, and in the process, knits together the fabric of civilization and culture. Instead of struggling to “endow our work with meaning,” as DeKoster says, we can rest in peace and confidence, patient and persevering, knowing that the meaning we seek is already there.

We will endure seasons of difficulty where we feel underutilized and ill-fitted, but those burdens are taken up in service to our neighbors, and thus to God.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.