(Note: This article was published on the Coram Deo blog.)
In my blog and in my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, I have applied my unique perspective of work to a wide variety of workers. As a former Soldier and current civilian employee in the Department of the Army, I have written on the value of those who hold these jobs. I have also shared biblical principles that apply to artists, mothers, teachers, wall-builders, those who manufacture pallets, professional athletes, writers, students, tabernacle construction workers, and those in business. (See later articles on healthcare workers and those who do law enforcement.)
One demographic I had not yet singled out is the community of senior executives. You will find these high-speed, type-A personalities in business, academia, politics, and the military. What does my unique perspective on the theology of work have to say to encourage these folks?
Let me unpack some of what the Old Testament patriarch Joseph displayed as a divinely appointed executive, share some of the struggles those in high-level leadership positions face, and summarize what I have observed in those who have integrated their faith at work well.
Insights on Joseph as an executive
The Joseph narrative in Gen. 37-50 is the best illustration of a young man who became a senior executive by the sovereignty of God. After he was sold into slavery by his brothers, he served in Potiphar’s house, was put in charge of his own prison, and was second in command under Pharaoh. Joseph succeeded everywhere he worked because God’s presence was with him in his work. (See Gen. 39:2-3, 21-23, and 41:38.) Joseph is one example of many of “Immanuel labor” – the connection between God’s presence and human work. (For a reflection on how Joseph illustrates this idea, I invite you to read an article I wrote and posted on my blog.)
In Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture, R. Paul Stevens discusses the pivotal scene where Joseph reveals to Pharaoh the meaning of his dream in Gen. 41:16-36. Stevens indicates, “Many people imagine that God cannot be found in high-ranking political circles or in the boardrooms of multinational corporations. But Pharaoh himself says, ‘God has made all this known to you’ (v. 39). Then, partly at Joseph’s suggestion, Pharaoh hires Joseph to be second to him to garner food during the seven years of plenty for distribution during the upcoming seven years of famine.” God elevated Joseph to this high position for His ultimate purpose to provide for, protect, and preserve His covenant people.
Al Erisman, in The Accidental Executive, observed: “I saw how the events of his life prepared him for a position of leadership, how he dealt with success as well as failure, how he worked hard regardless of his circumstance, how he created a strategy and executed that strategy, how he dealt with temptations, and how he gained perspective on the purpose and meaning of his work.” Erisman concluded, “The career of Joseph provides a helpful perspective for responding to our own vocational call. While he wasn’t perfect, he kept his connection with God, worked hard and honorably regardless of his position, and brought a sense of meaning and purpose to his work.”
The challenges senior leaders face
Because of their position at the top of the food chain, executives struggle with many things that the rest of us may not. The work of senior executives is marked by its own unique set of “thorns and thistles”. Let me address just a few of them: pride, power, and fear.
John D. Beckett, in Mastering Monday: A Guide to Integrating Faith and Work, summarizes this well. He states, “Pride causes people to set themselves on pedestals and look down on others. . . Pride justifies lavish indulgence. Pride dupes people into illicit relationships, damaging marriages and families. Proverbs 16:18, frequently quoted but not often enough observed, warns of the inevitable consequence: Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Another temptation that Christian executives often face is to misuse their power and authority for personal gain. Given the lack of accountability, opportunities to travel, total privacy, and luxurious expense accounts that often accompany those in high positions, senior leaders in business, government, academia, and in other fields are tempted to make unethical decisions.
Fear is another common enemy of many senior executives. They are often fearful of making mistakes or losing their job, which can lead to not trusting or micromanaging those under their leadership. This fear can cause them to be anxious, angry, or overly competitive.
Each of these challenges can be addressed by applying our understanding of God’s presence with us in our work. Christian executive, do you struggle with pride? Remaining in God’s presence will humble you, when you see the depth of your own sinfulness and inability to do anything good without his grace and mercy. Do you struggle with overstepping your bounds to selfishly control and influence others? When you are aware that God is present with you, you learn to submit under His authority. Are you fearful of failure or financial insecurity? When you know that God has always provided for you, you can rest in His sufficiency.
What right looks like
Let me describe the kinds of things have I seen in the handful of men and women at the rank of Colonel or higher who have who have faithfully followed Jesus in their work and have succeeded at being senior executives.
I have seen a Christ-like humility. These leaders understand that they are not in their position merely to make a name for themselves. They serve those who work for them. They ask them what they need. They consistently express appreciation for the hard work to get the job done. They lead, not boss people around. They are compassionate. They take time to listen to others to engage them in making decisions. They take a genuine interest in the lives of their team.
I have seen them mentor those under their charge. They recognize a teachable moment when they can share a story that will underscore a lesson they have learned to make us better. They speak the truth in love when they need to confront. They help their team to understand the big picture, so we can see how our combined efforts have contributed to the strategic mission.
Finally, I have seen these leaders set the example for others to follow. They don’t ask someone to do something that they are not willing to do themselves. They are honest. They treat all with dignity and respect, regardless of their rank or position. They keep their promises. They stay late when the mission requires it. They diligently support their own boss’ intent and guidance.
The impact of a godly senior executive
Allow me to return to Joseph for a moment. I would be remiss if I did not mention the impact that his work (which was infused with the very presence of God) had on those around him.
At the end of Gen. 41, we see the results of Pharaoh putting a 30-year old Joseph as second in command. There was indeed seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. And yet, because of Joseph’s bold vision, strategy, and execution, the entire nation had plenty of food. Moreover, we read that “all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world” (Gen. 41:57). Future generations of God’s chosen people were preserved through this famine due to the sovereignty of God working through one leader.
In the same manner, God still does amazing things through godly men and women who follow Christ and become servant-leaders in their respective fields. It all belongs to God! (See Psalm 24:1). Just imagine what He can do in business, academia, politics, and the military by senior executives who remain in His presence and are conduits of His grace around the world!
I trust that these thoughts will encourage Christian senior executives to continue to pursue God and encourage those who are not to support them in their strategic work for the Kingdom of God.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.