DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Shadow Side of a Work Ethic

Written by: on March 8, 2018

It’s an intimidating book, isn’t it? We’ve all heard of it, we’ve all talked about it, and it’s a cultural reference point. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism by Max Weber has generated enormous scholarship, literary-critical response, as well as discussion within popular culture. And yet, this is a book that I had never read before and I suspect I am not alone. Originally published around 1905, this is a book that has stood the test of time, as every generation has wrestled with it in their own way.

The first point that I would like to make is that this book is more nuanced than it is sometimes given credit for. Max Weber was interested in exploring the way that Protestant (especially Calvinist) spirituality led its practitioners out into the world and the marketplace, as an extension of their religious faith. He draws on the Christian “ascetic” tradition, whereby people forgo earthly comforts or pleasures in order to discipline their bodies, minds and spirits for God. This is the basis of what Weber wants to draw out.

He discusses the classic Catholic monastic tradition, in which he identifies the “spiritual aristocracy of the monks, who stood outside and above the world” (83). And then Weber suggests that instead of this other-worldly asceticism, that it be replaced by the “saints in the world, predestined by God from eternity… (which) was more awe-inspiriting than that which outwardly cut off the medieval monk from the world.”[1] Weber calls this “the sanctification of life”[2], and lifts up the claims of Richard Baxter in saying, “work hard in your calling.”[3]

Weber is calling on Christians to be spiritually active, not only in church, or in their private life with God, but to let their spiritual strength actually lead them out and fortify their life in the world around them. However, as Matti Beltonen writes, “Unfortunately, Max Weber’s argument was too complicated for the contemporary Western mind and his views were simplified… to that of the theory which we nowadays recognize as the Weber Thesis.”[4] This simplification of Weber’s thesis became the claim that the Protestant religion (through the Reformation) was the root cause for the rise of Western capitalism.

This is reminiscent of the line from Inigo Montoya in the film, The Princess Bride where he says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”[5]

In the introduction of the 2002 English translation of the book, the editors note the challenge they have. They write, “if Weber’s ‘thesis’ were self-evidently true, simple, or translucent, it would never have engaged a critical audience in the first place or survived to become a classic… Weber’s achievement was not to definitively answer a riddle but to stake out a territory fertile of new puzzles…”[6] Their point is that while the popular understanding of the Protestant Ethic may be overly simplified, the book provides a rich set of ideas for people to explore and debate.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. Maybe because I am a Protestant, within a Calvinistic tradition.  Or maybe because I resonate with the ideas of hard work within a calling, and of the virtues of self-discipline and delayed gratification. All of these sound familiar to me and a reminder of important and good ways to order one’s life.

Weber draws heavily on Richard Baxter, the English Puritan leader and quotes him as saying, “outside of a well-marked calling the accomplishments of a man are only casual and irregular, and he spends more time in idelenss than at work.”[7]

But then, the idea of working hard out of a sense of calling, which is so attractive to me, also leads quickly to the dark side of my own personality and leadership. As we read last week in McIntosh and Rima, “for each of us the particulars will be different, but the basic process will be essentially the same.”[8] For me, I often work in order to please others. I work in order to “show God” how dedicated I am. I work at the expense of friendships, of family, and of time for myself. On my day off, or even on vacation, it is so hard to step away from my cell phone or my email or to check in on the people in my care.

One example is Monday of this past week. I had my kids with me on my “day off”, so what did we do? In the morning, we went to the church where they played while I cleaned out my office after a hectic Sunday. Then, we went together to visit a woman who is dying from cancer and some other friends from the church. Then, later that night, I brought my kids to visit another woman who is dying and to have them play with her grandchildren while I counseled with her husband and sons. At the end of that same night, I topped off my day off by hosting a “bible study in a bar”, and led a theological discussion with a dozen people who showed up.

This is the shadow side of the Protestant work ethic. This is the shadow side of working “out of my calling”. Weber writes, “wasting time is therefore the first and most serious of all sins. The span of life is infinitely short and precious, and must be used to ‘secure’ one’s own calling. Loss of time through socializing, ‘idle talk’, luxurious living, even more sleep than is required for health… is morally, absolutely reprehensible.”[9].  And if I’m honest, then I’ll say that this sounds familiar.

I am left with more questions than answers after reading through this book. Even in attempting to understand the complexities of Weber’s argument, I still wonder if its right. I want to live in the world and to express my life with God in all that I do. And yet, the truth is that for myself and many of the other “good Protestants” that I know, it can feel like a hamster wheel that is hard to get off of. What if I found a way not to run at this same pace? What would it reflect about my spirituality or my sense of calling? These are the questions that persist after reading this forceful book.

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), 83.

[2] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), 85.

[3] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), 107.

[4] Matti Beltonen, “Cultura Historica,”, 2008, (accessed March 8, 2018).


[6] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), ix.

[7] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), 109.

[8] Gary L McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Sr., Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 62.

[9] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (London: Penguin, 2002), 107.


About the Author

Dave Watermulder

7 responses to “The Shadow Side of a Work Ethic”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    I appreciate how you so nicely wove Weber into your own experience. I resonate with much of what you have said, as a recovering workaholic myself. For me, the best antidote to the unhealthy “driven” side of my Protestant work ethic has been integrating the practice of Sabbath rest into my weekly Regula. Saturday is my Sabbath, and it is a practice that we kept even when our boys were young. It was great for our family, and the boys know neither mom or dad were going to do any work (or school) and that the goal of each Saturday was to rest, recharge, play, and connect with each other and God. We made it fun (not dreadful, like I have heard many do, where no one is allowed to do anything but sit and ponder.) We would take hike, play games, read books, bake cookies, anything that would relax or recharge us both individually and collectively. I sincerely believe that the main reason I have never experienced burn out is because we make a weekly 24 hour Sabbath a high priority.

    What habits do you practice to avoid falling into the trap of over-work?

    PS I think it’s lovely that your children accompanied you to do ministry. Children play such an important role in the Body of Christ, and often we can keep them from doing their part because we want to “protect” them from pain. Bravo for allowing your children to play an active and important role in ministry.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    Great job connecting this week’s reading to last week’s, where you bring up correctly the “dark side” as it relates to our work ethics. I lament forcing my own kids to accompany me on church business so many times, and wonder often if my son’s current drug issues are related to my workaholism? I am not sure I will ever get the answers I search for.

    I am glad you are willing to examine yourself and seek answers to your questions. I heartedly respect you for it.

    Now go play with those kids!

  3. Wow Dave, what a busy “day off”. I liked how you brought out the shadow/dark side of this work ethic because I think it is the very thing we have done to our pastors and Christians in general, which is why I think we have so much burn-out. I’m hoping you have some days off when you get to play with your kids the whole day and truly get a break from the work/ministry. I know pastoral ministry is not a 9-5 job, but I do think healthy boundaries can go a long way to help prevent burn-out. Great post once again Dave, and very inspiring how you love your sheep!

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:


    I also resonated with much in this book and found overlap with my own life and search for purpose and meaning through work. Is it because we have been raised in a Protestant tradition, or that we were raised in the US, or is it our nature to be bent this way. Regardless of the answer Weber’s text helped to clarify some things that I see in our culture and in my life. Things that I may now at least be more aware of. Like you, I had never read the text though had read around it since undergrad. It was good to have a reason to actually work through it.

    Kudos for getting a line from ‘The Princess Bride’ into your post. I believe that you are the first one. Your next challenge is to get one in from ‘The Sandlot’.

  5. Chris Pritchett says:

    You make an excellent point about the unrecognized nuance that Weber uses in his book. It seems to me that Weber’s understanding of Calvinism is much more nuanced than his critics give him credit for. And many of his critics come from the field of sociology and do not know the nuances and various streams of Calvinism, even by the beginning of the 20th century. Only a Princetonian would know this. Also I resonated with how you connected these wonderful virtues with the dark side, but man, you are a machine! Take it easy, if for no other reason, you’re making the rest of us look bad. 😉

  6. Dave,

    What a great post tying everything together!

    I had to smile when you likened our Christian walk like a hamster wheel that is hard to get off of. Isn’t it bizarre that those of us who were raised in Protestantism (like me) were told the Catholics believe they have to work for their salvation? When we are doing the same thing! It’s truly exhausting.

    Time to hold some babies and just be. 😉

  7. Greg says:

    I will first of all say anyone that can quote Inigo Montoya and it not be a forced quote has my vote for whatever you are running for.

    Dave thanks for including us in a snapshot of your world. I want to be critical of “your day off” but find myself having done the same thing. How do we live in that tension of wanting to do good work for the Lord and not because we are earning it and finding space to just rest. Keep thinking, keep reading, and keep on the journey with us brother.

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