God’s Presence with Christian Senior Executives

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(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-buildersthose 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.

Russ Gehrlein

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. 

Thoughts on the United States Army’s 244th Birthday

20190613_225256(Note: Two years ago I wrote an article on my blog about the eternal value of the work that Christian Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines bring to the Kingdom of God.  It was published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.  I also addressed this topic in chapter 13 of my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.  I want to expand on these ideas and present a few more thoughts.)

Over the past week, I attended three formal change of command ceremonies.  I was also directly involved in planning one promotion ceremony for two senior noncommissioned officers.  Watching each of these ceremonies made me proud to be a member of the Army team.

As a Department of the Army civilian employee, I get to work with Soldiers every day.  I love Soldiers.  I used to be one for 20 years, six months, and seventeen days.  (But who’s counting?)  More importantly, I know that I am able to love God and love my neighbor by doing my job which directly involves taking care of Soldiers and accomplishing the mission of the organization that I serve.  So, on this day, the U.S. Army’s 244th birthday, I wish to reflect on a few simple things.

The values inherent in those who serve

I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who serve our nation.  So much more is expected of Soldiers now than when I served on active duty.  I have first-hand knowledge.  I see the results every day as thousands of civilians are trained and transformed into Soldiers by dedicated drill sergeants, instructors, and leaders here at Fort Leonard Wood and other places.

Training is much more physical than it was.  Moreover, rapid advances in technology and equipment modernization have changed everything for the Soldier, including newly developed protective masks, weapons, vehicles, and commo equipment.  Constant emphasis is placed on Army values and ethical decision-making.  Many Soldiers still face long, dangerous deployments, which increases stress on their Families.

While things may be different than they used to be, there are still several basic Army values that have remained unchanged: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage.  There is more: attention to detail, discipline, resilience, and never leaving a fallen comrade.  These are the things that are instilled in our Warriors that have made this Army great for 244 years.

Let me offer my perspective from a biblical worldview on just one aspect that speaks to the intrinsic and instrumental value of what Soldiers do every day.

The eternal value of the work of those who serve

I imagine that most military personnel, especially those who have deployed, understand the value of their individual contribution to the overall success of the team.  If they don’t fix the trucks, they can’t roll out.  If they don’t process the paperwork, Soldiers don’t get paid.  If they don’t hit their targets accurately, people die.  They are trained to understand how the mission of their squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, or corps fits into the strategic campaign plan.

But I wonder.  Does the average Christian Soldier truly understand that their work contributes to what God wants done in the world?  Do they know without a doubt that their work as a follower of Christ serving in their specific military occupational specialty serves God purposes?  Do they know that the God of the universe is their ultimate Drill Sergeant or Commanding Officer?

God’s Word states in Psalm 18:34, “He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”  It states something similar in Psalm 144:1, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”  The writer of both these psalms was King David, a leader of Soldiers.

These verses tell me that God is present in the work of Soldiers.  He needs them to be trained, individually and as a team, ready to fight and defeat the enemy when called upon.  Their work matters to God.  It also teaches me that God is present in the work of drill sergeants, instructors, and leaders who develop, coordinate, support, and execute the training that God provides to these new Soldiers.  Their work matters to God also.

There will come a day when Jesus returns and wars will cease.  But until that time, a strong offensive capability is one of the ways that God keeps peace in the world.

These are the reflections that cause me to celebrate this Army’s birthday.

Russ Gehrlein

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.

Where is God When I Have Been Fired?

pink-slip-fire-yourself(Note: This article was published on the Coram Deo blog, the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog, and the 4Word Women blog.)

I have been reading William Morris’ book, Where is God at Work? since last August.  His fresh approach aligns so well with my own view on the theology of work, which can be summarized in the term “Immanuel labor”.  Morris highlights the many ways that God’s presence is connected with our work in a variety of challenging situations.  In chapter 10, which I read this morning, he discusses the subject of being fired.  This is not something I have addressed much in my own writing.  Let me summarize the biblical perspective he brings to this critical topic.

Morris begins with recounting a talk he gave where he highlighted his work history.  He had marked one of the entries with a “jagged black line”.  He then explained to his listeners what he called “the low point of my professional life” where “my career at that firm was effectively at an end.”  He said that he did not see it coming, although he had not been enjoying himself there.

As I read his account, I could identify with what he was saying.  I immediately recalled my own experience when I was fired as a church youth ministry director in July of 1985.  This was also a low point for me.  It was one that I did not see coming, although I probably should have.

He acknowledges that it was “a horrible time and it changed me in ways that I’m still working out today.”  However, he also recognized that “it was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally – without a shadow of a doubt.”  I can echo his assessment.  (See my reflection on how God worked all things out for good through my own job loss in an article on failure that I wrote in April for the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work blog.)

As someone who has gone through this difficult experience himself, Morris has deep compassion for those who have been let go.  He knows that “nothing can blunt the immediate pain for the recipient . . . it is as simple and as fundamental as being told that you are not wanted.”

Morris points out that there can be some “godly potential” for both the workplace and the individual with regards to a situation where someone probably should be fired.  He observes that when a person is in a job that is beyond their capabilities, this can become an opportunity to be “honest about why that person doesn’t have the skill sets needed, but also what skills they do have and in what jobs those skills might work.”  Morris continues, “honesty and empathy in this process can turn it from being something unremittingly awful into something which, while difficult, holds some potential for change, for growth.”

Morris also brings a biblical view to the subject of being fired.  He notes that Job suffered the loss of everything, which made him question God.  Job asks God, “Why me?”  God does not seem to answer Job’s question directly.  However, God implies that because He is God, He knows what He is doing.  Job just needs to continue to trust Him.  Morris indicates, “Job does trust, and eventually all is made right again.”

At the end of the chapter, Morris brings us back to his story about the talk he gave.  He drew the audience’s attention to the next item on his resume, which was circled in blue.  This signified “a job that had allowed me to recoup and recover.”  He pointed out that it was a job perceived by others as a “lower status job”.  And yet, “it was one of the best things I ever did.  It laid the foundation for everything else that I’ve been able to do since.”  It built his confidence.  Morris concludes that “God occasionally intervenes in ways we cannot understand and that may even seem painful at the time, but that turn out for the best.”

Once again, I could identify with his gratitude-filled conclusion.  I joined the Army about six months after I had been fired from my youth ministry position.  Ironically, God used this new beginning to bring healing and recovery to my soul, despite the fact that many (including myself) saw this as a step backwards.  It was also clearly the best thing that I could have done, bringing me to where I am now, over thirty three years later.

There are no easy answers when a person loses their job.  However, knowing and trusting that God will provide for His children and that He will work all things out for good can give us hope, peace, and rest as we navigate the rough waters ahead.  After we land in a place of refuge and recovery, we will be able to point others to the God who lifted up our heads during our struggle.  We can comfort those who struggle with the same comfort that God gave to us.  (See 2 Cor. 1:3-4.)

Russ Gehrlein

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.