The Value of Christian Fellowship at Work

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(Note: This article was published in the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog and the Coram Deo blog.)

I was reminded of something of major theological importance at work this week.  I had taken for granted and had not given much thought to it.  I had never even addressed in my writing on various theology of work topics over the past four years.

An abundance of fellowship

It occurred to me after our Tuesday lunchtime Bible study that I and my brothers and sisters who attend this study have a rare gift.  We have the freedom to meet regularly where we can learn about God’s word, fellowship, pray for, and care for one another.  The army chaplains who have facilitated have rotated out every two or three years, but we have kept a consistent study going.

What has been so great about this group? I love our diversity.  We have men and women from different denominations and races, Soldiers and civilians, young and old, folks who retired from the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy, and folks from the Chemical School side of the house and others from the Military Police School.  Every one of us joined together in the family of God through our faith in Jesus Christ; each one eager to learn and grow in wisdom and knowledge.

An honest assessment

As I reflect on my military career over the past 34 years, I have not always had the opportunity to fellowship with a dozen fellow Christ-followers where I have served.  As a matter of fact, in some of my assignments, I may have been the only believer.  To be totally open, I am not sure this even bothered me much.  I usually had plenty of fellowship in our church or chapel.

I do recall a unique experience in my second tour in the Republic of Korea from 2003-2004.  I worked for the brigade staff operations officer, a soft-spoken African-American major.  It is hard for me to remember how or when we learned that we were both strong Christians, but it did not take long.  I do recall that he took the initiative to see if I would be willing to pray with him in his office on occasion.  He was a big manly man; I think he played football in college.  But I can still feel his huge hands gently holding mine as we prayed for our wives and families back home and for our leaders, and I can see the tears streaming down his face.  Such sweet fellowship!

However, this was a rare experience for me.  For several of my assignments, mostly due to the nature of my job as a chemical noncommissioned officer, I would spend much of my time alone.  As an introvert and a Christian who practiced the presence of God, that usually suited me just fine.  But looking back I do think that I may have missed out on some of God’s blessings that come when His people come together to build each other up.

An opportunity to practice the “one anothers”

Let me return to my lunchtime Bible study group.  On Wednesday evening, as I was about to head out the door of our headquarters building, I noticed one of my sisters in Christ talking on the phone next to the window.  I did not want to disturb her.  As I walked by, I sensed the Lord wanted me to give her a word of encouragement.  She was one of the few members of the Bible study group who was a Facebook friend.  She had posted a few inspiring things lately, and she had responded to some of my posts.  I wanted to thank her specifically for her kind words.

I turned around and went back. She had just finished her call, so I reached out.  For the next five minutes, she and I had the best conversation.  We talked about how much we enjoyed our study group.  She mentioned how valuable it was to know that there were other Christians at work who knew what it was like to be working in a secular organization who could encourage each other to stand fast against the schemes of the devil.  We both were grateful there were fellow believers who we could share our prayer requests with.  I also expressed appreciation that we could continue to fellowship outside of the Bible study on social media, where we could rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

This is what I realized at that moment.  I had been proactive in allowing God to use me at work through my work as I took care of Soldiers, served my customers, and accomplished the missions I was given.  However, it seems like I may have missed opportunities to deepen my relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ along the way.  I had been practicing doing those things that the New Testament writers instructed the church to do with fellow believers: love one another, be devoted to one another, exhort one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc.  But I had been doing it at church.  I had not been nearly as intentional doing this at work.

An invitation to see the Body of Christ at work while at work

What are the benefits of taking the time to deliberately interact in a biblical way with our brothers and sisters in Christ who God placed in our midst so that we could build each other up?

In addition to the benefits we enjoy when we actually obey what the Bible tells us to do, and beyond the value of the encouragement we feel when others pray for us, I think it is worth indicating another benefit that causes the Body of Christ to grow in quality and quantity.

When our unbelieving co-workers see our love for one another, a love that is full of grace and truth supernatural, unconditional, and one which crosses all human boundaries that divide the world because we are one in Christ, they will take notice.  We used to sing this song at retreats: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Christ’s love draws people to Him.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 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.

Experiencing God’s Presence in my Military Service (Part 2)

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(Note: This is the second article of a two-part series on this topic.  In part 1, I reflected on five aspects of how I experienced God’s presence as I served in and with the U.S. Army over the past 34 years.  Here, I will expand my thoughts by covering my next five observations.  You can read part 1 here.  This article was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

In preparation for an upcoming podcast interview later this month where I will have the opportunity to share my unique career journey, I have been reflecting on my military experience over 34 years of serving in and with the U.S. Army.  There is abundant evidence that God has been and is present with me in this work.  Let me share observations six through ten.

God used me to love my neighbors

Let me give you a couple of examples where my work was an act of loving my neighbor.  I did not see this at the time, but looking back now, I realize that God was using me in practical ways to increase the readiness of Soldiers, which directly met their needs and the needs of their families.

In my first assignment at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I was selected to be the commander’s driver and unit armorer, responsible for the maintenance of every weapon in our company arms room.  I had no idea that I could learn to set up and maintain systems to schedule and perform quarterly inspections, order parts, and repair several types of weapons.  God empowered me with the necessary aptitudes and skills to do this job well for one year.

Two and a half years later, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Soldiers in this unit deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Storm with these very same weapons I had fixed.  This reinforced the absolute importance of my work when I was there.

Flash forward to 9/11, when America came under attack.  In response, a number of Army Reserve and National Guard units were deployed overseas.  In God’s timing, I was assigned to a training support battalion in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose mission was to assist these units.  I provided technical training and logistical support to hundreds of Soldiers that were going into harm’s way.  I knew that my job provided an opportunity to love God and love my neighbors, since it directly involved taking care of Soldiers and accomplishing the mission of the units in which I served.

In addition to God using me through the work He had called me to do as a chemical NCO, my family and I had plenty of opportunities to minister and be ministered to through our local church or chapel everywhere we were stationed.  Several examples come to mind.

My wife and I started a college and career Sunday School class at our church in Tacoma, Washington.  While at Fort Hood, we directed a children’s Christmas musical at our church, and my wife served on the board of the Protestant Women of the Chapel.  In our chapel in Germany and in my second tour in Korea, I started a bi-weekly men’s breakfast, where we sang manly songs from Promise Keepers CDs and discussed men’s issues from a biblical perspective.  I also had the opportunity to lead our chapel council in Germany after several of our men got deployed to Bosnia and served on the board of the European Protestant Men of the Chapel.  I taught Sunday School in many of the places we were stationed.  We also provided hospitality in our home to many Soldiers and their Families.

God gave me understanding

Over three decades of prayerful reading and study on the theology of work, in teaching this topic with several adult Sunday school classes, during an independent study while earning my seminary degree, and in writing my book, God gave me a deep understanding of the eternal value of military service.

While on my first unaccompanied tour in Korea from 1988-1989, I read an amazing book, Your Work Matters to God, by Doug Sherman and William Hendricks.  God brought it to me at a critical time in my career. It was life-changing.  The authors tore apart the myth of “sacred” vs. “secular”.  They clearly explained the intrinsic and instrumental value of everyday work.  I began to see for the first time how God could use me wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as I did it for His glory.  For the first time, I felt that what I did truly mattered for eternity, that I was not a second-class citizen or wasting my time as a Soldier.  My work as a chemical Soldier in the Army really did matter to God!

Additionally, God helped me understand that a strong defense brings peace in the world. God is very much present in the work of Soldiers.  He needs them to be trained and ready, individually and as a team, prepared to fight and defeat the enemy when called upon.  He is very much present at Fort Leonard Wood, where I work and serve, through the drill sergeants, instructors, leaders, and staff members like myself who develop, coordinate, support, and execute the training that God provides to thousands of new Soldiers annually.  The OT prophets indicate that there will come a day when our Messiah Jesus returns and wars will cease.  (See Isa. 2:4 and Micah 4:3.)  But until that time, a strong offensive capability is one of the ways that God keeps peace in the world.

God was with me as I transitioned from active duty                    

During my twenty years on active duty, my wife and I learned first-hand how to trust God as we were sent to various duty stations around a world. A Christian in the Army needs to rest in the sovereignty of God; that He is in always in control.  He is an all-powerful, loving, all-knowing, and faithful God.  We knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lord always had us in His hands.

When it came time to move to a new assignment, God knew where we needed to go, what we needed to do, who we needed to serve with, and when it was the right time that He needed us to be there for His purposes.  (I invite you to read an article that I wrote and posted on my blog on trusting God in new assignments.)

Even before I arrived at Fort Leonard Wood in 2004, I knew that my wife and I had a decision to make.  After much prayer, we decided that this was going to be an ideal place to finish out our time of active duty service.  I began to prepare myself and my family for life after the Army over the next two years.  It was a big step of faith, but it was made with relative ease, as we looked at various opportunities to work.

At first, I thought I would go back to teaching math.  I began working on a master’s in education at a local university that would allow me to get my state teaching certificate.  I applied for a position at the middle school that about a half-mile from my house.  I was offered the position.

However, the starting salary for a new teacher was not enough to match what I was going to lose going from active duty to a retired status earning only 50% of my base pay.  I believed God had another job that would actually meet our financial needs, so I turned it down.  (See article on compensation that I posted on my blog.)

Two to three months before my retirement date of October 1, 2006, I received a job offer as a lessons learned integration analyst.  It was a contract position that paid a lot better than the teaching job.  I did this job for a year and a half until I applied for and was offered the position that I currently hold.

God provided a position that fits my unique skill set

Since March 2008, I have served as a Department of the Army civilian at the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School as a member of the Commandant’s primary staff.  As the Operations Officer, I provide continuity and management of the school operations section.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says repeatedly that everything is meaningless, especially work: “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3).

However, in Eccl. 3:12-13, and 22, we find a curious admonition.  Despite the thorns and thistles associated with our jobs that make work seem meaningless, when he considers the fact that God is in control and has “made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11), Solomon states that men should “be happy and do good while they live . . . eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God . . . there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.”  I have found that satisfaction.  (For more thoughts on this topic of personal job satisfaction, see article I posted on my blog here.)

It took me a while to fully appreciate the gift that God gave me, but after doing this same job for the past twelve years, I can honestly say that it is a great fit.  God had clearly prepared me for it by giving me consistently good experiences doing operations at a variety of levels while I was on active duty for thirteen of my twenty years.  Moreover, God equipped me with the right skills and aptitudes that fit well with my responsibilities.  I am uniquely qualified to do this work that daily brings me joy.

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God continues to use me      

I have a great example of how God has used me in this position in the planning of a special event.

In June 2018, the U.S. Army Chemical Corps celebrated its 100th anniversary on Fort Leonard Wood.  Our week-long celebration consisted of a variety of events.  We held a seminar that brought together a select group of senior chemical leaders from around the world, a technology exhibit, an espirit-de-corps two-mile run, sunrise service honoring our fallen heroes, a ceremony to honor veterans that served from WWII to the present day, and culminated with a formal ball.

We spent over ten months planning these events in great detail.  I want to give all the glory to God, as its success.  His unseen Hand protected and provided extraordinary strength, wisdom, and peace as I worked in His presence and for His kingdom.  During the entire process, I was “leaning on the everlasting arms”.  I constantly depended on God to help me meet the unique challenges and high expectations of the leaders I was commanded to serve “as unto the Lord”.

There were many days I was overwhelmed by the thorns and thistles brought on by the curse.  At these moments, I would remember that God’s grace was greater.  His peace that passes all understanding came at the right time when I needed it most.  I clearly saw God work in and through me every step of the way.

I believe that these events had a lasting impact on the veterans, leaders, and Soldiers who attended.  After key leaders met with our commandant to discuss issues and solve problems, they went back to their assignments a more unified team, committed to support the Army as a whole.  Our veterans’ recognition ceremony inspired young Chemical Soldiers and leaders to strive to achieve great things with their own Army careers, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.

Celebrating our 100-year history helped prepare the enterprise to meet the challenges of the future in defending our nations and allies against weapons of mass destruction.  Our efforts here directly increased common grace throughout the world, which is something that our Lord Jesus desires for us.  (You can read more about this event in an article I posted here.)

Closing thoughts

My main purpose in writing these two articles was to give glory to God as I reflected on more than three decades of experiencing His presence, seeing His faithfulness, and knowing He has worked through me during my Army career.  It has truly been a spiritual journey.  God will do the same for you, as you keep your eyes open to how He has led, provided for, and used you to love your neighbors at work.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 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.

Experiencing God’s Presence in my Military Service (Part 1)

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(Note: This is the first article of a two-part series on this topic.  You can read part 2 here.  This article was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

In preparation for an upcoming podcast interview later this month where I will have the opportunity to share my unique career journey, I have been reflecting on my military experience over 34 years of serving in and with the U.S. Army.  There is abundant evidence that God has been and is present with me in this work:

  1. God led me to serve in the army
  2. God brought me through every challenge I faced
  3. God enabled me to perform beyond my expectations
  4. God developed my character and caused me to grow in spiritual maturity
  5. God met my family’s needs
  6. God used me to love my neighbors by meeting their needs
  7. God gave me understanding about the eternal value of military service
  8. God was with me as I transitioned from active duty to civilian government service
  9. God provided a position that fits my unique skillset and background as He designed
  10. God continues to use me in a critical role to advise senior leaders and staff

This is an appropriate day to post this article, as I enlisted on February 7, 1986.

Let me expand on each of these points and illustrate with a few stories to help my readers better understand how God has been present with me in every single assignment where I have served.  Here, I will address the first five out of the ten points listed above.  I will discuss the second set of five in a subsequent article.

It is important for me to note that my military experience was preceded by short seasons of math education and ministry.  (See article on my career journey.)  I am only able to share biblical insights about work due to God’s presence on the long and winding road on which He had gently led me.

God led me to serve

I was in a tough spot in early 1986.  I had started seminary in the fall of 1982.  Due to a number of doors that God had closed after three years of struggling, it was clear that I had exhausted all options to continue pursuing my master’s degree.  I had to let go of my dream.  My pastor of the church that we attended gave me some wise advice.  He said, “When your dream dies, find a new dream.”  Little did I know that God was going to answer my prayer in a most unique way.

Be all that you can be!” was the U.S. Army slogan at the time.  Perhaps I needed to be willing to consider joining the military to get some financial stability for my young family.  The medical benefits were a plus, as was the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund which would help me get my seminary degree down the road if I still felt led to pursue furthering my education.  After much prayer, I decided to enlist for three years in early February.   I shipped out to begin my basic training five weeks later, just one week shy of my daughter’s first birthday.  I was 27 years old.

Thirty-four years later, I am still with the army.  After serving on active duty for twenty years, six months, and seventeen days (but who’s counting?), I continued my service as a Department of the Army civilian.  I had no idea how amazing this answer to prayer was going to turn out.

God brought me through every challenge

I can easily say that there were a lot of challenges when I first joined the army.  In basic training, there were the physical challenges of long days, running for miles and miles, and doing hundreds of pushups.  In my next phase of training, there were mental challenges to learn new technical skills.

When I got to my first duty station at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I had to learn how to submit to my squad leader’s authority.  He was a year younger than me, a staff sergeant with ten years in the Army.  There were things I had to learn about the way things were done, and quite often my pride got in the way.  During these humbling times, I had to trust God and depend on His grace, mercy, and wisdom to strengthen me and get me through on a daily basis.  It was years later before I knew what I was doing and had developed confidence in my abilities as a Soldier.

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God enabled me to perform above my expectations

There were many occasions when God blew me away by enabling me and allowing me to perform way beyond my expectations.  I found unexpected success as a Soldier throughout my twenty years on active duty.

I was promoted quickly.  I did well in the schools the army sent me to attend as I strove to compete for top honors.  I was the distinguished honor graduate at my chemical basic noncommissioned officer (NCO) course, honor graduate (#2 spot) at my chemical advanced NCO course, and made the commandant’s list at the Battle Staff NCO Course.  In Korea in the fall of 1988, I was chosen as the Eighth Army NCO of the quarter, and in February 1991 I was selected as the Fort Lewis NCO of the year.  Every time I achieved something, I sought to give all the glory to God.  It was abundantly clear that I could have done none of it on my own.

With each new assignment, I never knew how it was going to turn out, but God usually enabled me to learn and adapt fairly quickly.  Several jobs stand out in my mind.  By the grace of God, I had a positive experience working on the III Corps headquarters as operations NCO in the chemical section staff.  I also thrived as a company operations sergeant, working at division headquarters, and especially as an observer/controller trainer.  There, I conducted numerous chemical training exercises, provided mobilization support with deploying Army Reserve and National Guard units, and wrote a few articles for Army publications to share some of the lessons I had learned.

God developed my character

However, among these many successes, I also had some unexpected failures, which humbled me, and made me more Christ-like.  As an Army recruiter for sixteen months, I failed miserably, despite the fact that I had gotten myself sent to Fort Collins, Colorado, my old college town.  Several years later, as a platoon sergeant in a chemical company in Kitzingen, Germany, it became obvious after about eight months that I was ill-prepared for that job also.  This was mostly due to conflicts with my platoon leader, but it also had to do with my lack of leadership experience.  (See article I wrote last April, “How God Uses our Failures at Work”, published by the Nashville Institute for Faith + Work.”)

It was during these difficult assignments, God caused me to depend on Him as my source of confidence and identity.  The fruit of the Spirit grew by leaps and bounds as I increased in compassion, patience, kindness, and peace that passed all understanding.  I also came to appreciate those times when God had truly blessed my efforts.  I did not take them for granted.

I also saw God graciously work out all things for my good in spite of my failures.  After my assignment as a recruiter came to an abrupt end, I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas in the spring of 1993.  It was there that I saw God use me in a mighty way to be a catalyst behind the scenes, which resulted in 168 Soldiers from multiple units across post attending the Dallas and Houston Promise Keepers Conferences in 1995.  This was a huge faith-building experience for me and a life-changing event for these men and their families.

God met my family’s needs

I am ever grateful how God provided abundantly for my family while I was on active duty.  Although the starting pay wasn’t great, by the grace of God I was promoted fairly quickly, which always helped.  My wife was able to be a work-at-home mom for about fifteen years, which gave our three children immeasurable security and stability.  The medical benefits were a blessing and housing was more than adequate.  It was a good quality of life.  We lived, worshiped, and served with great Americans from all backgrounds and races, which was a beautiful gift.

Not only were our family’s financial needs met, but our physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs always seemed to be met as well.  We literally saw God answer hundreds of prayers as we journeyed through life by faith.  Our children (known for the rest of their lives as “Army brats”) thrived as we were stationed in six states and Germany.  We had some great adventures as a family.  Our kids learned independence and resiliency as we had to move every three years or so, saying goodbye to friends and having to make new ones.  We all made some lifelong friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom we have stayed in contact for twenty or thirty years.

My experiences are not unique.  There have always been Christians serving in the military.  I hope there always will be.  God is faithful.  He will always lead His children, guiding, strengthening, comforting, and providing for us so we can be His ambassadors serving Jesus around the world.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 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.