In my capacity with 4word’s ministry to Christian professionals, I hear often from men and women who long for more “meaningful” work. They want to feel excited and purposeful when they head to the office on Monday mornings. And who wouldn’t? A sense of purpose is a powerful motivator, and it’s something I think God built a hunger for in our hearts. But in looking for purpose, people pay too much attention to a job’s “big picture” objectives, and not enough to the process of getting the job done.
This sentiment is reflected in one particular question I’ve heard variations of over and over: “How am I supposed to find purpose in my work when my company just exists to make money?”
Worthless or Worthwhile?
It’s true that some types of work appear more purposeful than others. Doctors and nurses work to save lives, police officers protect the community, teachers educate and inspire. It’s tempting to romanticize such consequential professions, especially if you have trouble seeing the greater value in your own company’s mission.
But in truth, a “meaningful mission” doesn’t necessarily lead to a purposeful or motivating career. If it did, medical professionals, police officers, and teachers wouldn’t rank so consistently on lists of professions with the highest rates of burnout and depression.
In contrast, consider the story of Vivian, a hotel maid who worked with such joy and inspiration that she caught the attention and admiration of the owner of the hotel chain. Hotelier Chip Conley described her remarkable approach to work in his 2010 Ted Talk, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile:
“[Vivian] didn't find joy in cleaning toilets. Her job, her goal, and her calling was not to become the world's greatest toilet scrubber. What counts for Vivian was the emotional connection she created with her fellow employees and our guests. And what gave her inspiration and meaning was the fact that she was taking care of people who were far away from home. Because Vivian knew what it was like to be far away from home.”
Conley goes on to explain how Vivian helped inspire him to reevaluate his company’s whole approach to employee management and client satisfaction. Vivian didn’t have a job that looked like “purposeful work,” but she worked with purpose, and in doing so, she quietly revolutionized her entire workplace.
3 Ways to Make Work Meaningful
What does your work mean to you? Is it inspiring and invigorating, or does it feel like drudgery? Are you making an impact or just doing what you have to do? What would it look like to start working with purpose? Here are three ways you can get started.
1. Connect with people. How you treat the people around you at work will communicate more about your values and your faith than almost anything else you do there. Writing to the Philippians, Paul gets pretty specific about how Christians should relate to the people around them: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3–4).
Recently I experienced the gift of someone taking an interest in me. As the leader of a nonprofit, one of my biggest responsibilities is to make sure that the organization is financially secure and fiscally responsible. It’s crucial work, but it can be quite draining. Last week I got a call from a 4word leader who congratulated me on the progress of one of our grant applications. Her call came at the perfect time on a hard day, and the fact that she wanted to offer thanks and celebrate with me was invigorating. That two-minute conversation required very little effort on her part, but it made my day and helped carry me through the week.
Strive to be known in your workplace as a person who builds others up, not one who cuts them down. When you need to confront or correct an employee or coworker, do so respectfully. Don't engage in gossip of any kind. Learn people’s names and the names of their kids, not just the people who sit near you, but the security guard and the janitor too. All of the lives happening around you are lives of consequence, and you never know when taking even a few seconds to connect could impact those lives in a positive way. Long after your coworkers forget the latest report you’ve presented, they will remember how (or if) you acknowledged the other contributors.
2. Work excellently. The Bible directs you to do whatever work is set out before you “with all your heart,” and to do it “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17, 23, NIV). On a practical level, doing something with “all your heart” means to go beyond good. It means challenging yourself to constantly improve, learn, and grow.
It helps to have some objective measure of your work so that you can set goals. At 4word, our staff and volunteers plan events and offer services throughout the United States. At first it was hard to know how their efforts were being received, but we’ve recently started using a mobile survey system that lets people provide almost immediate feedback. It’s exciting and powerful for all of us to be able to really see how we’re doing as we work toward excellence.
Your employer may already offer some tools to help you assess how you’re doing, but even if they don’t, there are other ways to try to measure your progress. Ask for feedback from your manager or clients as appropriate, and show them your receptiveness and desire to improve. Approaching your work this way is energizing for you, and often for the people around you as well.
3. Choose joy. There are many things about your work that you cannot control, but your attitude is not one of them. Choose to look for the positive in every project, every staff meeting, every request that hits your desk. Find a connection to something that lights a spark for you, and focus your thoughts there. Follow Paul’s instruction in Philippians 4:8 to “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” I spent decades building a career in commercial real estate, but I don’t happen to find leases, development deals, or giant construction projects particularly inspiring. I do, however, love meeting and connecting with people. So when a new deal or project came up, I focused on the opportunity it would provide to work with new people and learn how to serve them well. Doing so made the work more fun for me, and it made me better at my job.
Your Workplace: Your Mission Field
Many Christians I know seem to imagine a line between their physical jobs and the work that God cares about. These people aren’t leaving their Christian principles at the office door, but they tend to view their time at work as somehow less valuable or meaningful to God than time spent with family, volunteering, or attending Bible study.
If you work 30–40 hours a week for the length of your career, that adds up to about 80,000 hours of your lifetime. That’s more waking hours than you will likely spend at church or even with your family. It’s more than you have available for volunteering, self-improvement, or other hobbies. God can do the math. If he called you to work, it’s not because he wants to fill your time on this earth with “less significant” activity.
To work with purpose, you must understand that your job is not a distraction or diversion from God’s plan. Know that your job is a key part of God’s perfect purpose and mission for your life, and then start treating it that way.