“Building the Kingdom”: How Christians Integrate Their Faith into “Secular” Careers
Perhaps it was the summer internship at a church in Birmingham, Alabama that disillusioned John-Michael Forman from his plans to become a youth pastor.
He enrolled in 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, to hear more stories, I realized that ministry is actually much more interesting when it’s not vocational, in the sense to be a pastor, to be a missionary, to work for [a non-government organization]that there’s a lot more creative things you can do to ‘build the kingdom of God,'” Forman said.
Toward the end of his time at Lookout Mountain, Forman became interested in pottery, a craft he learned from an older sister. He started making pottery on the side, in whatever time he could find between various construction jobs. Sometimes he would sneak into the Covenant art installation through a window.
His first attempts at selling in the market didn’t go well, he said, but he was honing his craft.
For a while, he says, there was this nagging feeling with his faith. The feeling of not being a pastor, of wondering if he was living his Christian vocation.
“I think it took a long time to get [over] this idea that in order to really do the work of God, you have to do something akin to preaching and teaching, evangelism.”
In 2012, he switched to full-time pottery, selling mugs and other items under the name “Forman Pottery”. He doesn’t consider 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.
“Building the Kingdom”: How Christians Integrate Their Faith into “Secular” Careers
The perhaps age-old debate over what constitutes righteous Christian work, what kingdom-building work and what isn’t, came to a head this spring after Covenant College released a profile of an alumnus of a man discussing his Christian faith in Washington, DC, as a federal lobbyist for Walmart.
The post and the backlash that followed forced the college president to issue a statement saying that God is calling 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.
Discerning a student’s gift
For Scott Quatro, professor of management and president of the Covenant School of Business, business is part of God’s creation. God created the world perfectly resourced but not perfectly prosperous. That task was left 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 a traditional ministry. For others, it may be consulting or launching a startup.
“There is nothing more sacred in the study of Bible studies and in the ministry than in studying business and going into business or studying art in the studio and becoming an artist “, said Quatro.
There’s a place for Covenant graduates in nearly every walk of life, Quatro said, whether it’s starting a business or helping run 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.
In addition to working in DC as lobbyists, Covenant graduates are in a variety of fields, such as running a successful flower farm or working at Fortune 10 companies. U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, who this month spoke out against the federal mask mandate on airplanes, 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 is no difference between sacred and secular callings.
Halvorson majored in history at Covenant and, after graduation, traded foreign exchange in Chicago.
Echoing the examples highlighted in his public statement, Halvorson said there are biblical examples of faithful people working in immoral spaces for the greater good, like Joseph working for Egyptian rulers or Daniel serving the Babylonians.
“I think it’s extremely important that Christians don’t just isolate themselves inside the church,” Halvorson said. “The Bible says we are called to be salt and light. And I think that means you go to those tough places and you seek to honor God through your service in that place and you seek to bless others through your service in these places.”
Some may view secular work as compromised, according to Halvorson, but “we believe that God is honored by Covenant graduates serving faithfully in places that would not be easily identified as ‘Kingdom’ by many American Christians.”
Halvorson and Quatro cited the example of the film industry, an apparently secular space. There is a lot of good that can be done in the industry and it is important to have strong Christian voices there, they said. But the adult film industry is where they would draw a line into immorality, they said.
As a child, Anne Marie Rowe admired Covenant athletes. His father ran the college’s alumni relations department and his mother coached basketball there. Her entire immediate family was Christian, she said.
“I felt like I was given this really awesome framework, a solid Christian upbringing, and a desire to really put that into practice and just share with people who maybe haven’t quite had the experience I had growing up,” Rowe said. .
During the summer before her senior year and after graduating in 2013, Rowe moved to Boston, a place a pastor had warned her she would try. The rent would be high. She would be far from her community on Lookout Mountain. It was a city that required a lot of courage, he was told.
Rowe worked his way up to a full-time job with the Boston Red Sox. His job was to study and improve the fan experience. It wasn’t the type of work in which she could speak of God every day, Rowe said, but it offered opportunities to embody the values of service and self-sacrifice.
She also got to see the Sox win two World Series.
Going nearly 1,000 miles away was a conscious choice, a challenge, Rowe said.
“I think it’s really easy to sit down and stay where everyone will agree with what you think,” she said. “And that’s just not a mindset that I have.”
an act of worship
Forman knows his pottery business can sometimes be late to the market. Jesus’ ethic was driven by people, not profit, he said. And while he has to maintain a business, being guided by those ethics sometimes means making different decisions than the market may prompt, he said.
“It’s just a more egalitarian view of running a business, where I don’t want to become someone who makes products for a certain class of people, but who remains accessible, sort of across the spectrum, the socio-economic spectrum,” he said.
Daily work can be an act of worship, he said. It shows in the way he interacts with customers. The types of products he sells, where he sells them and why he sells them. It shows in the way he reacts when things go wrong, when he can’t fill an order, or when his work suddenly cracks hours after coming out of the oven.
He thinks of ways to incorporate new ideas for community and interaction with others into his life. For example, building a walkway from Virginia Avenue Greenway just beyond her backyard to her studio. Customers could get a free coffee with a purchase, he said.
About six years ago, Forman read “Surprised by Hope” by NT Wright. The book helped open him up to the idea that the message of the gospel is not simply about saving souls and reaching for paradise, but that the most central message is to help establish a new order of humility, self-sacrifice and caring for the vulnerable.
“It’s helpful to think of my business as, man, if I’m not winning souls for the gospel, am I really doing kingdom work?” said Forman. “But it’s like, no, I’m just a little piece here presenting a new way of life to the world and groping around doing it constantly, but trying, trying to show people. And just through my actions, making the work of creating a new kingdom, a new world order that challenges the one that human nature has created around us, which leads to the invasion of vulnerable countries and all the horrible things that we see happening in the world in this moment.”