Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Reflections of a Brain-Dead Sloth

Written by: on February 18, 2022

Reflections of a brain-dead sloth on the Protestant work ethic, and its interrelationship with the “spirit of Capitalism.” [1] I sit in the silence of my home now that the stalwart construction workers of the past two weeks have ceased their pounding. In an economic season of labor shortages and supply chain issues, the timely workers supplying my needs blessed me with the “providence” [2] timely, quality products. Although, much more expensive than I could have imagined. What contributed to their quality work? Was it the influence of their values and beliefs that rooted in some form of faith? In the current market, they could produce a lesser quality product and not have it effect their amount of work. Are they driven by their own desires to consume? Do they experience a since of satisfaction for a job well done or is it just the reward of the paycheck? Those who do live a life of faith, how does that impact their perception of assurance,[3] if at all? What about me? I ramble around my house, read, write, ponder great thoughts, I hope. Am I working? Is what I am doing really of significant value? Am I doing enough to earn my keep? Why do I struggle? I know that my relationship with my Creator is secure. But the unspoken pressure of church leaders and supporters to perform or produce something from the approved list of evangelical tasks, hangs like a cloud in the back of my mind. Accountability is important but I am not so sure this is the same thing.

Dr. Jason Clark debates in “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” [4] the historical evolution of the Christian faith values and beliefs that formed Protestant and Puritan expression to Capitalism and consumeristic society that influences the church today. At the center of this discussion is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism.[5] Weber, a “German sociologist and historian” [6] used his expertise to write the debated standard of the development of Christian ethics, the interrelations of Christianity and Capitalism, and the Christian work ethic. While Weber’s work is not exhaustive it has stood the test of time and extensive debate. Dr. Clark further explores the strengths and weaknesses of Weber’s arguments on assurance, anxiety and the Protestant work ethic.

Clark explains how Luther’s position on everyday life being just as holy as the life of clergy. The Christian has a moral obligation to live a life of moral excellence within their daily duties. [8] This one thought led this brain-dead sloth down some rabbit trails, one of which was on the possible impacts this one idea. The first trail was that our work is as holy as spiritual practices, and that God challenges us to complete it to a standard of excellence (Colossians 3:23). [9] Although, much of Protestantism believes this, do I as a leader behave in such a way that communicates to the people, I serve that I see their work and daily duties as holy? Do I celebrate daily duties done with integrity and in holiness to the same degree that I celebrate and encourage the approved spiritual practices?

The second rabbit trail was the sign over Auschwitz I, that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei”, [10] work makes you free. The deceptiveness of this sign plays out every day, as we somehow feel the need to work harder and harder, in hopes of being free from a financial burden or to obtain that one item that will bring happiness. I do not believe we have signs over our doors, but I sense that this concept is written in our subconscious. Is this a contributing factor to our need to be right, correct or the perfectionistic mentality? Somewhere in the evolution of Protestantism the “monastic aesthetic” [11] no longer influences us as it once did. We produce so that we can consume and often consume more than we produce, only adding to our anxiety.

[1] Max Weber, Peter Baehr, and Gordon C. Wells, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).
[2] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary, 2018), 108, https:// digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship.”
[5] Weber, Baehr, and Wells, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings.
[6] Ibid, iii.
[7] Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 77.
[8] Ibid., 80.
[9] Richard Sasanow, The NIV Study Bible/10th Anniversary Edition (Place of publication not identified: Zondervan, 1995), 1819.
[10] Jennifer Rosenberg, “Arbeit Macht Frei Sign at Entrance of Auschwitz I,” Thought Co. (blog), November 5, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/arbeit-macht-frei-auschwitz-entrance-sign-4082356.
[11] Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” 95.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

14 responses to “Reflections of a Brain-Dead Sloth”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, thanks for taking us from vomit last week to brain-dead slots this week! I really appreciate your rabbit-trails and the questions accompanying them. You reference the desire to treat all work and people as holy. Do you have ideas about how to make that desire a reality? Also, what do you think Friedman might say about our over-consumption leading to increased anxiety?

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thanks for indulging me. As far as, honoring people and their work, it is part of my NPO. I think that there is a missing key in our discipleship and church community that is lacking behaviors that demonstrates and empowers people in who they are and where Jesus has planted them. I have heard many times to bloom where you are planted but to actually have leadership see, value, and celebrate that, not so much.
      Freidman, hmm. My immediate response is “Stop It”. Oh, I guess that isn’t Freidman. I think Freidman would encourage a simplifying of one’s life and developing a sense of contentment.

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Denise: I think the brain-dead sloth was not as slow as she perceived herself this week 😉 I appreciate how you process the readings and its relationship to your specific context right now. In particular I was struck by your question: “Do I celebrate daily duties done with integrity and in holiness to the same degree that I celebrate and encourage the approved spiritual practices?” Asking myself that question, I feel as if I like to articulate that I do, but in reality I don’t, which tends to drive the need to produce or perform more. In this transitional season you are in, have you experienced pressure from supporters to continue to do or has that been more of an internal anxiety you are feeling?

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Great question Kayli!
      I haven’t gotten any particular push back from supporters yet. But there are some that I don’t have as close of a relationship with that are a bit more insecure. For example, I met with a couple that recently took over one of my supporting churches. I have that feeling that they maybe reevaluating their commitment. Yet, I got an anonymous donor this week that made up for probable three months of what I would get from this church.
      It is definitely a faith walk of trust. I have to admit I saw a job offer for a local university that I thought, I can do that.
      Being a very practical person who would prefer to go to work than to relay on donors, it is always in the back of my mind to some degree.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    You ask some good questions about work and faith Denise. At the church where I work we talk about how we are expected to give our very best because we are ultimately working for God and his kingdom. We have a staff of 71 people in total (three campuses) and the amount of communication and coordination still surprises me (I’ve only been working there for 5 months). The mindset of faith informing our work ethic and striving for excellence is necessary to have all the pieces fit together. Do you see this in your work as well?

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      I can’t even begin to image working for a church like yours. I was briefly on staff of a church that had about 3000 people. If I remember correctly, we had 5 services a week. I was responsible for children’s ministry 0-junior high. We saw 1000 kids a week. Total children’s staff 2 full time and 2 part time.
      So, to answer your question, I struggle with churches relaying on staff to meet the needs of the congregation. I think that it sets the stage for a consumer mentality and the staff to get caught in a performance mentality.
      Coming out of that style of leadership I have had to rethink how I minister in Poland. I have come to a place where I realize that I am responsible “to” be a signpost directing toward Jesus and spiritual growth versus being responsible “for” their spiritual growth. If they want a program, I will be happy to empower and help them get the resources to accomplish what Jesus is encouraging them to do.
      I’m not sure that answered your question exactly.

  4. mm Eric Basye says:

    Thanks Denise. Boy, how I wish we could have these conversations in person over a cup of coffee! There is some rich thinking going on here in your post!

    One passage that has drastically changed my perspective on many things is Gen. 1:26-28. One of the calls in this passage is to cultivate; to co-create in a sense with God. This passage, in connection with Ephesians 2:10 gives a sense of “works” the Lord has set before us to do as we seek His kingdom. I fear that we have lost the redemptive value of work at times, minimizing it to a sheet title and monetary gain. But what if WORK (His works He has set apart for us) are the very things we are in fact intended to do? And the beautiful part is this… what He will have YOU do most likely will be very different than what He has me or someone else do, but all these works (when done in subjection to Him) have great Kingdom value.

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      I would love to discuss these things over a cup of coffee, even virtually. Your reference to Ephesians 2:10 is interesting as it has become a foundational in my NPO. The language in the NLT says “He has created us anew so we can do the good things…” I think it takes us out of the “must” of works and into the partnership opportunity or adventure for which we were designed. I think we have a lot to talk about.

  5. Elmarie Parker says:

    Denise, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I have to agree with our colleagues…though you may have felt a brain-dead sloth, your post does not reflect that reality :). I’ve always loved Luther’s (and later Calvin’s) focus on the holiness of everyday work and vocation. Another person who helped me enter more fully into this way of living is Brother Lawrence (Carmelite Monk) who wrote “Practicing the Presence of God” in the 17th century. I’m sad about how this beautiful lens on the holiness of everyday work has become distorted over the years…to the point for many that the determination of living our daily lives to God’s glory is measured more through a capitalistic lens (more of anything means better) than a Kingdom lens (which seems to consistently hold up the value of the small (leaving the 99 to search for the 1, etc.).

    So, I love one of your closing questions: do I as a leader behave in such a way that communicates to the people I serve that I see their work and daily duties as holy? I find I have to let go of the capitalistic informed performance standards to enter more fully into the posture invited by your question–for example, to see the beauty and holiness in an elderly woman’s determination to compassionately listen to her neighbor’s daily journey with a debilitating illness. She is not adding to anyone’s bottom line with that holy work. She isn’t increasing the number of people coming to her church with that work. But she is living the compassion of Jesus Christ for someone who is overlooked by the larger society. It’s been fun to affirm that in her and see how this encourages her to continue to serve her neighbor in this way.

    I’d love to hear from you what you think will help you as a leader to communicate to others that you see their work and daily duties as holy?

    Thank you again for sharing your journey with these texts…your post has encouraged my spirit today.

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thank you for bringing up, Brother Lawrence, “Practicing the Presence of God”. That book was a part of my early faith development.
      To answer your question, I really try to see the whole person and encourage them to discover their personal adventurous mission with Jesus. That includes all of who they are, where they are, keeping in mind God’s ask will most certainly will be bigger than their abilities. But their abilities are uniquely matched.
      I think I am aware of the connections, but I don’t know that I have been very good at communicating that an individual’s gifts are holy.

  6. Elmarie Parker says:

    Here’s the Prayer of Confession from the church we visited with today. The Assurance of Pardon particularly caught my attention in light of your post and the conversation this has generated.

    Let us search for the light that leads us toward life. Let us stand in this light
    and see ourselves clearly.
    You call us and we ignore your whisper, listening to the voices of
    this world.
    You call us and we choose a different path, following our own devices.
    You call us to be your voice in this world, to be your hands in this
    to be your feet in this world, to proclaim your peace, your comfort,
    forgiveness, healing, love and grace.
    Forgive us, open our ears, call us again, and let us respond in faith
    and hope.
    Spirit of God, search our hearts.
    The grace of God is always doing a new thing—whether we are prepared, or
    worthy, or not. Let yourself live and believe this good news: In Jesus Christ
    we are forgiven. Thanks be to God! Amen

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thanks for sharing this. It is so good. It stirs up more questions for me.
      Why do we choose to not participate in the things of the kingdom?
      It is like when Paul talks about not doing the things he should and doing the things he shouldn’t.
      But why do we behave that way?
      Could it be that we have been deceived to think we aren’t good enough?
      Or maybe that we aren’t properly prepared?
      I have to believe that when people get ahold of the cutting edge of adventure that Jesus invites us into it will have a dopamine effect.
      Not sure how to get there at the moment…working on it.

  7. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Denise….I found your first paragraph so engaging!! It seems King and Pressman found voice in you 🙂
    “work makes you free”….what is work? Prayer can be work, eating can be prayer, eating can be work. I think one of the reasons I am so engaged with your first paragraph is that it reveals that literal thought is usually narrow…when we broaden what can be understood we can actually find ourselves going deeper. So what can be revealed when be begin to define work differently? I really sense you are onto something huge!
    Does it matter if work is done excellently to satisfy the obligation to God vs doing work excellently because God knows that we can find holy joy in it since God gifted us with seeing the beauty in it?

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thanks for the encouragement.
      I think your questions around the definition of work are important. The original definition of work in Genesis was really more of a missional purpose that was to be done in partnership with the Creator.
      As I wrestle with this, I can’t help but have the feeling that much of our anxiety is because we have elevated the “work” above our relationship with the one who defines us, by how he created us.
      Recently, I have been challenging myself to be more of a “gift miner” with the people I lead. If I can help them to see all of whom God has created them to be. It is then that I can help resource them in their fulfilling partnership with God.
      There are still a lot more questions than answers.

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