Ministry in One’s Workplace as a Path to “Over the Shoulder” Knowledge

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I’ve long had the feeling that we as a society lost something valuable when we moved away from the model of apprenticeship at work.  But it was in a recent conversation with some United Methodist pastors that it struck me how Church revitalization will never—and has never—occurred without incorporating elements of the apprenticeship model.

As I lament our society’s move away from apprenticeship as the core model for marketplace training, I’m not suggesting that anyone is to blame. Obviously, many of the crafts that formerly required 3-5 years of apprenticeship before one was competent to set up shop—such as dressmaking, newspaper printing, woodworking, metallurgy—are now highly automated.  And because of the fast rate of changing markets in today’s economy, the norm has become multiple careers and not the single, lifetime pursuit for which it makes sense to spend several years training.

Although no one’s fault, I think this loss of the apprenticeship teaching model in the workplace nevertheless has had distressing consequences.  This change has, among other things, helped to perpetuate an attitude which is dispiriting to Christian parishioners, and is destructive to the Church’s quest for revitalization.  Here’s how I would describe the attitude: “The parishioner’s work as an accountant, or cashier, or stay-at-home parent, or sales manager is all well and good.  But in the hierarchy of Christian ministry, the kind of teaching done at church in confirmation class or in sermons or in Sunday school is markedly ‘higher’ than the parishioners’ work Monday through Friday.”  I think that message gets communicated to parishioners in a hundred and one ways, even if usually subtly and perhaps unintentionally.

Now, I’m not suggesting that catechesis and pastoral teaching on Sunday mornings is less than crucially important in making mature disciples of Jesus. I wouldn’t be spending my days teaching theology to future pastors if I didn’t believe that.  Indeed, everything I want to say here is consistent with Church communities recognizing that some people among them will have particular spiritual gifts, training, and a track record of Christian faithfulness. It is proper that these folks be given responsibilities of leadership, of ministering to the rest of us ministers.

Still, the point I want to emphasize is something that any parent already knows: the pronouncements and lectures we may offer our children take root only if they see us living out what we say to them.  My wife homeschools our two children; and it is glaringly obvious to me that most of the life-shaping knowledge they are gaining isn’t coming from the textbooks she helps them study.  It’s coming as they observe her giving piano lessons from our home at low or no cost.  It’s coming as they participate in the music and arts classes in which children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds are intentionally included.

Steve Garber, founder and principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, has a great summary line about his approach to teaching after his many years of nurturing future leaders from around the world: “deep within my pedagogy is the conviction that we learn the most important things over the shoulder.”  I think the phrase “over the shoulder” is a good one.  It captures the idea of apprenticeship.  It captures what my children are doing as they get caught up in the ministries my wife is engaged in.

It also captures the kind of teaching model into which Jesus invited his 12 disciples.  He invited the disciples to follow him, to come and see, to look over his shoulder for three years as he related to others in a variety of contexts.  As ambassadors of Jesus in our world, this is our teaching model.  It’s a model in which most of the teaching ministry takes place “out and about,” in the daily flow of work, family life, interaction with those on the margins, and shared reflection and prayer.

The knowledge we are trying to give others—as we follow the Great Commandment to make disciples—is “over-the-shoulder” knowledge.  Interestingly, among the people best placed to take advantage of this teaching model are those who work in professions that still require extensive on-the-job training, adopting elements of the apprenticeship model: electricians, plumbers, roofers, mechanics, lawyers, those in health care.  I don’t know if these folks are hearing at church that they are among the key church personnel called to a ministry of teaching.  But they need to be hearing this!

The alternative to this wider understanding of teaching ministry is an unhealthy separation of clergy vs. laity, professional ministers vs. those who work outside the walls of the church building, life on Sunday vs. life on Monday.  That alternative ensures that parishioners in their places of work will strive for less than what God has called them to be, with demoralization being the inevitable result.  And it ensures that our blueprint for Church revitalization is ignored.

So we must find a hundred and one ways to reinforce to marketplace workers that they are uniquely placed to invite others to look over their shoulders. To look over their shoulders as they work at their craft with integrity and dedication.  To look over their shoulders as they relate to customers, suppliers, bosses, and co-workers with honesty, encouragement and pastoral care.  Over-the-shoulder knowledge gained in this way is a kind of knowledge in which facts, values, behavioral expectations and relational commitments are intertwined.  (The school teachers I still remember were the ones who somehow did this.)   The kind of knowledge Jesus imparted to the twelve disciples, the kind of knowledge needed for anyone to be a faithful disciple, is this over-the-shoulder knowledge.  The teaching ministry of the Church is a call for all followers of Jesus to transmit this kind of knowledge—wherever they live and do their work, every day of the week.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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