John Lewis is founder and co-director of the WorkShop, an organization in San Antonio, Texas, which sponsors a variety of groups and classes designed to disciple people in the way of Jesus and help them find their way to a richer, more joyful life. As a New Testament scholar, Episcopal priest, and former attorney, John is passionate about helping people integrate faith into their daily lives—especially by applying the scriptures to lived experience. With Jane Lancaster Patterson, co-director of the WorkShop, John is writing a book, titled Everyday Callings, to help ordinary people sense how they are being called by God to work and relationships.
John is a member of the Collegeville Institute’s Seminar on Vocation and Faith in the Professions. John notes that being part of the Professions Seminar helps him construct a wider approach to vocation through dialogue with members of the Seminar representing other disciplines and life situations. The small group program, Called to Work, reflects the Seminar’s efforts to help congregations engage people around questions of vocation and professional work.
John spoke to Janel Kragt Bakker about the WorkShop’s approach to helping people embody Christ in their daily lives.
What was your vision for founding the WorkShop?
The WorkShop started as something that we called “The Center for Faith in the Workplace.” In 2001, I returned to Texas after having completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at Oxford University. In the place I’m from in Texas which is full of small, rural churches, there is not a lot of need for Oxford-trained New Testament scholars. So I was looking for a vocation that would put my training and passions together.
As an Episcopal priest, I also wanted to be a good steward of my priesthood and the resources the church and my support networks had poured into my education. I connected with a large Episcopal church in downtown San Antonio, and it just so happened that the leaders of that congregation were looking for a way to start a ministry to people in the downtown workforce. As a former lawyer in San Antonio, I thought, “Here is a way to make use of all my vocational callings.” So I began to look for ways people could connect their faith with their life in the workplace.
The model that I put together for helping people connect their faith with their work arose out of my doctoral studies. This model focuses on the way Paul shapes communities in the first century around the practice of discernment. At the WorkShop, we form discernment groups that use biblical texts to help people imagine how to embody Jesus in their daily living, and to help people measure the fruit of that embodiment in various contexts.
People learn how to use scriptural texts to shape their own discipleship, and they use these texts to interpret how the power of God is enriching the lives of people around them through their faithful practices. Eventually, as I was able to dedicate myself to the ministry full-time and partner with my colleague Jane Patterson, we changed our name to the WorkShop. The name is grounded in the Rule of Saint Benedict. In the Rule, the monastery, where people learn to work with the tools of the spiritual life, is called the workshop. So that’s how we broke the ground.
What do weekly reflection groups look like at the WorkShop?
The way a group works is that one person from the group begins by telling the rest of the group about an ongoing situation in his or her life. It might be a problem, a relationship issue, or a decision that needs to be made. After a few minutes of silence, the rest of group begins to bring biblical texts to bear, sharing how a biblical text might help us interpret the person’s story or help us imagine how Jesus’ response to a situation might inform the person’s response to his or her situation. The person who shared the original story is left to process everything he or she heard from the group. Just as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14, in his model of group reflection, everyone leaves the room in some way changed or transformed.
People in the group, whether or not they shared the initial story, often see some situation in their own lives in a new way—either because of their interaction with the presenter’s story or the discussion that ensued which linked the presenter’s story to a biblical text. All sorts of revelations happen around the circle as we talk about different ways we see the texts coming alive in the stories that we’re working with.
Are the stories typically about people’s jobs or other aspects of their lives?
JL: It depends. Some of the groups are mostly made up of professionals, while others include stay-at-home parents or retired people or others outside the workforce. We try to interpret life contexts, and the workplace is a central context for most people.
What are some insights that you’ve gained in your work regarding the struggles people have integrating their faith with their daily lives and daily work?
I think people have a hard time knowing what it even means to integrate their faith into their work lives. And for that reason, a lot of people have a hard time finding meaning in their work. This is where vocation comes into play. At the WorkShop we maintain that God calls us multiple times every today. So if we cross paths today, and you’ve got some need that I might be able to help you satisfy, then God is calling me into service to you.
In our group contexts, we try to recognize where God is calling us in each event or situation. Many people go to work, and they do it to earn a living, but they are not finding Christian or spiritual meaning in what they do. They don’t really have the super-structure on which to attach meaning to what they do. So we are trying to help give people a sense of what it means for Christ to come alive in them—in all sorts of relational contexts, at home, or work, or school.
What practices do participants in your groups find helpful for sustaining them in their sense of calling?
When somebody walks away having presented a situation and connected that situation to biblical texts, they will come back to the group later and tell how they responded to the situation. The whole conversation picks up again because of this practice, which the Apostle Paul calls “proof through testing.”
So let’s say you present a situation to a group, hear some texts, go home, pray, and then decide you are going to take a particular course of action in the hopes that Christ will come alive in you and you will be faithfully responsive to the situation. If you are responding to a call in a way that you become a conduit of grace to enrich other people or to enrich the context of a story, you are living into your vocation. You might come back and report that a conflict was dissipated or a relationship reconciled. Or you might come back and say that despite your attempt to embody Christ, the situation got worse. At that point, we would talk about other possibilities, trying to discern again what your calling in this situation might be, continually testing what faithfulness looks like by considering the fruits of an action.
This practice is a dynamic, fluid, ongoing engagement with life. We desire to see Christ living in us in more and more regular ways—habituated into our character. We engage in this practice to be formed in the image of Christ. Over time we see more and more what the image of Christ looks like in our own lives and in others’ lives. Our groups are not for people who are looking for principles and rule-based living. Instead, we approach what we are doing imaginatively, as practice in formation in the image of Christ.