When I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church, I stood with my fellow ordinands before our Bishop, clergy colleagues, friends and family, fellow congregants, and God and answered the 19 “historic questions” instituted by John Wesley. One of those questions was this:
Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.
By every account, Wesley was a machine. He was famous for the long hours he spent working each day, the thousands of miles he traveled on horseback, and the impact he had on the early Evangelical movement. It is easy to see how his views about employment and personal industry would influence the kind of ethic he wished to see in clergy who would follow in his footsteps.
As a younger pastor, I tried hard to live up to Wesley’s example and fully embrace the commitment I had made. My calendar was filled with church activity- committee meetings that I believed required my attendance, visits to members of the congregation, engagements in the broader community. Typical work weeks were usually 60 hours or more. I worked as though the church’s success was totally dependent on me. For the first several years of a church plant, I set up the church office in our house. I could slip away for minute to check email at any time. But it was not unusual for a minute to turn into an hour. Telephone calls would come at all hours. There was always something more to do. And it was easy to justify the behavior- I was not supposed to trifle away time.
The so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” was an idea ingrained in me from childhood. My parents were both hard-working people. My father was a pastor who modeled a diligent life of long-hours and my mother worked to put herself through nursing school when I was young. Both of my grandmothers worked outside the home in education. One of my grandfathers was a farmer who was still active up until his death. My other grandfather was an auto mechanic who retired at 65, then worked another 25 years as an instructor at the community college. I was taught to value hard work and stay busy.
The phrase is a cultural interpretation based on Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” written in the early 20th century as a way of linking the development of the early Protestant movement with modern capitalism. Richard Swedberg writes, “‘The Protestant Ethic’ addresses and tries to explain why modern people live in a world where two of the most central and cherished values are hard work and profit-making, regardless of one’s political and religious beliefs.”
One particular intersection of religious belief came from John Calvin’s development of the doctrine of predestination. This inherently created uncertainty among Christians as there was no way for believers to know if they were truly among the elect, to be totally assured of their salvation. Work and the acquisition of wealth came to be interpreted as signs of God’s blessing and place among the elect of God. Weber writes, “the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it.”
Much has been written and said about the workaholic nature of US American culture- far beyond what I described above. A closer reading of Weber reveals the link between the development of economic policies with emerging forms of religious doctrines and practices. Is it any wonder that the values of the modern church are virtually indistinguishable from the general society? Since salvation ultimately comes from God, how are we to know if we are saved? One possible response is to show our faith through our work in the hopes that God will notice and offer us some confirmation of salvation.
Churches today (as well as those who lead them) are notoriously busy. Calendars are filled with meetings, programs, service opportunities, social activities, Bible studies, etc. We teach people that good Christians are active Christians. We even encourage people to strive for success in their work, hoping their response will be to donate more money.
The relationship between the rise of capitalist ideals and practices with the teachings and practices of the church is fascinating. Efforts to reach grow the church usually begin with market-driven questions like, “What service can we provide or what need can we meet in order to attract people to the church?” Motivations range from competitive (“we want to keep pace with the trendy church that just launched across town,”) to survivalist (“our aging congregation will not exist in 15 years unless younger people start joining,”) to evangelistic (“the Great Commission of Christ compels us go into all the world and make disciples.”)
So we stay busy. And then we complain about the consumerist nature of our congregations and how worn out everyone is. If one holds to the belief that hard work and worldly success are proof of one’s salvation, then the faithful life must naturally be a never-ending conveyor belt of work, work, and more work. However, if salvation is a gift of God’s grace, offered to all and received by faith, then vocation takes on a different, and higher, meaning. Our work becomes an opportunity to co-labor with God in the task of finishing the new creation. We learn to see our vocation as a means in which to serve God and neighbor.
There is honor in valuing time and striving to maximize one’s gifts and opportunities. There is honor in hard work. But if the work is a mere transaction in order to buy something from God, its greater meaning is lost. When the work is a response to the gift of God’s grace, it becomes an expression of gratitude. And ironically, gratitude just happens to be a leading indicator of the assurance we so desperately desire.
 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016,) 270.
 Richard Swedberg, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in The Montreal Review, October 2011. http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-protestant-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-capitalism.php
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge, 2001,) 111, ProQuest Ebook Central.