[By Alumnus Mike Clayton, delivered at our Alumni Dinner at Me Wah restaurant on the 13th November]
Thanks for the invitation to spend a few minutes talking with you about some of the issues facing Christians in the secular workforce.
I have been thinking about why Mikey asked me in particular, and the only answer I can think of is that he was looking for some kind of cautionary tale.
Anyway, I am a lawyer working for the United Nations, based out of a regional office in Canberra. We cover 16 countries including Australia, NZ, PNG and the Pacific and my functional responsibility is for resettlement of refugees in this region.
I suspect you’ve heard the debate about asylum-seekers and boat people arriving in Australia and the claims that they are sneaking in by the back door or jumping the queue. People who arrive at a country’s borders and claim asylum are exercising a fundamental right under international law. There is nothing illegal in seeking asylum.
The problem is that there are 15.2 million refugees in the world, and about 80% of them are hosted by poor and developing countries. Pakistan alone has 1.7 million refugees.
As a way of helping to share the burden on the developing world, which is hosting huge numbers, some wealthy countries – Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand among them – have started something they call “resettlement.” Resettlement involves selecting small numbers of the most vulnerable refugees from overseas and giving them a solution in one of the resettlement countries. Resettlement is only open to small numbers (about 80k p/a out of 15m total) and it is a totally separate process from seeking asylum. Next time you hear someone talk about queue-jumpers, tell them there is no queue and, even if there were, it would be several hundred years long.
Anyway, apologies for the soapbox. My particular job involves casework, policy and advocacy related to all aspects of resettlement in this region. In some ways it is my dream job but, as I have discovered, the grass is always greener on the other side.
I’m assuming that there are a few people here who are still at Uni or recent graduates. I thought I would take a few minutes to outline a couple of issues I have met along the way. I’m not going to try to give answers, but just pose a question or two.
I graduated from UTAS in 2001, having drunk a lot of coffee and learned some important life lessons. Among these were: that 51% on an assignment indicates one per cent’s wasted effort and that 2am is not the ideal time for white water rafting.
Uni was also where I was challenged about the fact that I was happy to call myself Christian but I didn’t really look like one. One of the things that really strikes me, looking back, is that we should never underestimate the importance of the time and openness to philosophical challenge that you have while you are a student. As soon as you get in the workforce and start to be paid to be right, you will never have quite the same mental freedom again.
Anyway, shortly afterwards, Uni ended and I had to get a job. So what next? To keep a healthy sense of perspective, my closest group of friends (most of them non-Christian) made a pact that we would all spend the next 20 years generating stories, then get together over a cigar (each) and a glass of cognac and compare notes.
Sadly I don’t think I’m winning – one of the group (a doctor) was in Sri Lanka when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, and he had to rip the bathroom door off his bungalow to drag out his fiancé and swim with her to safety. In case that wasn’t enough, they then set up a Red Cross outpost together. Another member of the group (an engineer) has been using materials including the burned out shells of tanks in Afghanistan to rebuild canal walls and weirs. I’m a lawyer, and hence not really good at doing anything useful, so I’ve been struggling by comparison. Even though those guys are not Christian, they have been doing great humanitarian work. The thing I wonder about is whether my stories and my decisions are going to look any different from theirs in 20 years time because I’m a Christian.
I spent a few years practicing criminal law (trying to get justice for people who really needed grace) and then took up my current post with the UN. The first change which struck me was that I was now working for the benefit of those who were in trouble through no fault of their own. That was a relief.
The second was that I had a pretty dramatic change in perceived status and actual income.
Working under a respected banner like the UN insignia is significant from a professional perspective, but from a personal point of view the status of work tends to get mixed in with pride and other less helpful things. After I started, I found myself wanting to give people business cards. (I’m talking checkout chicks, random people in the street, etc.) A prestigious job also attracts ambitious competition, and tends to cultivate a sense of superiority. You can’t admit your limitations or mistakes because it feels like there are a dozen people wanting to push you aside. The more important you let yourself believe your job is, the stronger the temptation is to find your sense of self-worth and identity in the job.
The gospel is a fantastic cold shower in that respect: not only am I such a lost cause that Jesus had to go to the cross for me, but actually there is nothing I can do for God in my job that he needs. I’ll just do it well because he asked me to.
Then there’s income. Needless to say, for anyone who may be heading out into the workforce for the first time, you probably won’t get paid much in your first couple of years, but your income will creep up. The challenge is to keep track of what happens to your standard of living. After a few years in the workforce, could you go back to living on the income you had in your first year?
There is a story of a man who went to his Minister and said he was really struggling to give to the church these days. He had always given 10% of his pay, not because he had to, but because he could. But in the early days he was earning 50,000 per annum and giving 5,000 wasn’t too hard. But, he said, “now I’m earning $500,000 and I just can’t give away $50,000.” The Minister was concerned for the man and asked whether he could pray with him about the problem. The man agreed and so the Minister prayed: “Dear God, please help our brother to resolve this difficulty regarding the income you have given him. Please reduce his income to the point where he is once again able to give away 10%.”
Income can be a bit of a blind spot – after all, the worker deserves his wages and we feel entitled given the hours we put in. But what is ‘wage’ and what are we just given custodianship of?
The last issue I want to touch on is the question where I should be working in the first place.
If you’re a Christian, you accept the sovereignty of God and you know that he has a plan for the world. If you also happen to be human, then you’re tempted by the idea that his plan is depending on me to play the vital role. What does God want me to be doing? Am I where God wants me to be? Or more importantly, am I where God NEEDS me to be?
It’s not inconceivable that God has an “Esther moment” planned for me – that he is preparing me to marry the King of Persia so I can save his people – but it’s more likely that he just wants me to do what I do with my sights set on the Kingdom.
That’s not too hard. The thing that is harder is to remember there are a couple of bits of explicit guidance that we do have. One of them is that there is a definite hierarchy which places work beneath family, which is beneath God. That’s the one that I find really difficult. I’m always heading in exactly the opposite direction: my work is the main thing and my family has to fit in around it. God gets any gaps left over.
In my job at the moment, (which, like I said, was pretty much my dream job), I work every second week away from my family, up in Canberra. Every second month or so I’ll get sent somewhere interesting overseas for a while. I work long hours and feel like I provide for my family – that should keep them happy. I do work that benefits the poor and oppressed, and I do it with integrity and try to set an example as a Christian in the workforce – that should keep God happy. And, in the mean time, I get to have adventures and generate stories to share with my friends over cigars and cognac.
But actually my commitment to the Church gets pushed aside while I’m traveling, and, with the time spent away in Canberra, my daughter doesn’t really know me all that well.
Whatever my job is, if it pushes God or my family aside, then I know explicitly that it is not where God wants me to stay.
I don’t know: perhaps God put me in the job as a test to see if I’m strong enough to leave it.
Like I said, a cautionary tale. For any of you who are about to dive into the professional world: I’ll be keen to hear your stories in 20 years.
By Mike Clayton http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/