'Building the kingdom': How Christians integrate their faith in 'secular' careers

Maybe it was the summer internship at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that disabused John-Michael Forman of his plan to be a youth minister.

He enrolled at Covenant College in the mid-2000s eager to work for a church. He majored in psychology and minored in youth ministry.

"But, as I started to learn more, hear more stories, I realized that ministry is actually a lot more interesting when it's not vocational, in the sense of being a pastor, being a missionary, working for [a non-government organization], that there's a lot more creative stuff out there that you can do to 'build the kingdom of God,'" Forman said.

Near the end of his time on Lookout Mountain, Forman became interested in pottery, a trade he picked up from an older sister. He began making pottery on the side, in the time he could find between working various construction jobs. At times, he would sneak back into Covenant's art facility through a window.

His initial attempts at market sales did not go well, he said, but he was refining his craft.

For a while, he said, there was this nagging feeling with his faith. The feeling of not being a pastor, of wondering if he was living out his Christian calling.

"I think it took a long time to get [over] this idea of, in order to really be doing God's work, you have to be doing something that looks like preaching and teaching, evangelizing."

In 2012, he moved to full-time pottery, selling mugs and other wares under the name "Forman Pottery." He does not see running a business to be at odds with his Christian worldview. Instead, he said, they can be integrated in ways that benefit his business as well as his customers. He can help "build the kingdom of God" from his home studio in St. Elmo.

The perhaps centuries-long debate about what constitutes a righteous Christian job, what work is building the kingdom and what is not, came to a head this spring after Covenant College posted an alumni profile of a man discussing using his Christian faith in Washington, D.C., as a federal lobbyist for Walmart.

The post and the reaction that followed forced the college president to issue a statement saying God calls his people to serve in a host of fields and industries. For some graduates, the debate echoed similar conversations they had internally and externally as they navigate seemingly secular jobs as faithful Christians.

Discern a student's gift

For Scott Quatro, professor of management and chairman of the business college at Covenant, business is part of God's creation. God created the world perfectly resourced but not perfectly prospered. That task was left up to humans, he said.

Each student has unique gifts, Quatro said, and part of the journey is discerning what that gift is. For some, it may be traditional ministry. For others, it could be consulting or launching a startup.

"There's nothing more sacred about studying Biblical studies and going into the pastorate than there is about studying business and going into business or studying studio art and becoming an artist," Quatro said.

There is a place for Covenant graduates in almost all spheres of life, Quatro said, whether that is starting a business or helping direct a massive company that employs thousands of people. They can bring a sense of ethics and worldview to help make decisions from a moral framework that others may not have.

Along with working in D.C. as a lobbyist, Covenant graduates are in a variety of fields, such as running a successful flower farm or working in Fortune 10 companies. U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who ruled against the federal mask mandate on airplanes this month, is a Covenant graduate.

Derek Halvorson, president of Covenant College, said a key contribution of the Protestant Reformation was the reframing of the world so that there was not a difference between sacred callings and secular callings.

Halvorson majored in history at Covenant and, after graduating, was trading foreign currencies in Chicago.

Echoing examples highlighted in his public statement, Halvorson said there are biblical examples of faithful people working in immoral spaces for the greater good, such as Joseph working for Egyptian rulers or Daniel serving the Babylonians.

"I think it's critically important that Christians not isolate themselves only inside the church," Halvorson said. "The Bible says we're called to be salt and light. And I think that means you go into these challenging places and you seek to honor God through your service in this place and seek to bless others through your service in those places."

Some may view secular work as compromised, according to Halvorson, but "we believe that God is honored by Covenant graduates who serve faithfully in places that would not readily be identified as 'Kingdom' by many American Christians."

Halvorson and Quatro pointed to the example of the film industry, a seemingly secular space. There is a lot of good that can be done in the industry and having strong Christian voices there is important, they said. But the adult film industry is where they would draw a line of crossing into the immoral, they said.

Moving away

As a child, Anne Marie Rowe looked up to Covenant athletes. Her father led the college's alumni relations department and her mother coached basketball there. All of her immediate family was Christian, she said.

"I felt like I was given this really great framework, strong Christian education, and a desire to really put that into practice and just share with people who maybe didn't get to have quite the experience that I had growing up," Rowe said.

In the summer before her senior year and after graduating in 2013, Rowe moved to Boston, a place a pastor warned her would be trying. Rent would be high. She would be away from her community on Lookout Mountain. It was a city that required a lot of grit, she was told.

Rowe worked her way into a full-time job with the Boston Red Sox. Her work involved studying and improving the fan experience. It was not the type of job in which she could talk about God every day, Rowe said, but it provided opportunities to embody values of service and self-sacrifice.

She also got to see the Sox win two World Series.

Moving nearly 1,000 miles away was a conscious choice, a challenge, Rowe said.

"I think it's really easy to just sit back and just stay where everyone's going to agree with what you're thinking," she said. "And that is just not a mindset that I have."

An act of worship

Forman knows his pottery business can sometimes be behind the market. The ethics of Jesus were driven by people, not profit, he said. And while he has to maintain a business, sometimes being driven by those ethics means making different decisions than what the market may incentivize, he said.

"It's just a more egalitarian kind of view of running a business, where I don't want to become somebody who makes products for a certain class of people, but remains approachable, kind of across the spectrum, the socio-economic spectrum," he said.

The day-to-day work can be an act of worship, he said. It can be seen in the way he interacts with customers. The types of products he sells, where he sells them and what he sells them for. It can be seen in how he responds when things go wrong, when he cannot fill an order or when his work suddenly cracks hours after coming out of the kiln.

He thinks about ways to incorporate new ideas for community and interaction with others into his life. For example, building a walkway from the Virginia Avenue Greenway just beyond his backyard to his studio. Customers could get a free coffee with a purchase, he said.

Around six years ago, Forman read "Surprised by Hope" by N.T. Wright. The book helped open him to the idea that the gospel message is not simply to save souls and wait for heaven, but the more central message is to help establish a new order of humility, self-sacrifice and caring for the vulnerable.

"It's helpful in thinking about my business like, man, if I'm not winning souls for the gospel, am I really doing the work of the kingdom?" Forman said. "But it's like, no, I'm just one little piece over here presenting a new way of living to the world and fumbling in doing so constantly, but trying, trying to show people. And just through my actions, do the work of creating a new kingdom, a new world order that defies the one that human nature has created around us, which leads to the invasion of vulnerable countries, and all of the awful things we see going on in the world right now."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.