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Book review: Transforming Vocation

Monday, 16 May 2022  | John Bottomley

Transforming Vocation: Connecting Theology, Church and the Workplace for a Flourishing World

Edited by David Benson, Kara Martin and Andrew Sloane

(Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2021)


Transforming Vocation: Connecting Theology, Church, and the Workplace for a Flourishing World is an Australian College of Theology Monograph Series publication comprising articles from fifteen contributors edited by David Benson, Kara Martin and Andrew Sloane, with a preface by Mark Greene of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. The articles are organised in three parts: workplace, church and pastoral ministry and theology of work; book-ended with an introduction overview of the faith and work movement; and a conclusion asking, ‘where to from here?’. The publication flows from the Transforming Vocation Conference held in July 2019 at Sydney’s Morling College. Further resources from the conference may be accessed from the Transforming Vocation website:

The conference organisers and editors locate their initiative in the evangelical Christian tradition, noting the sparse attention given in Australia to the world of work by Australian churches. This initiative is welcome and may serve as encouragement to other theological colleges to give greater attention to this important sphere of ministry. The lack of academic theological research into the way work in Australia shapes our lives may also explain the disparate nature of the contributions, which seem to range far and wide in their response to the theme of transforming vocation.

Contributions ranged in their focus and depth, from Kara Martin’s study of the spiritual formation of six Christian doctors using the repertory grid technique; Peter Docherty’s examination of Wolterstorff’s epistemology for a Christian perspective on economics; David Fagg’s doctoral research with fifty youth workers to study the church as formative ecology; to Sam Curkpatrick’s encountering subjectivity through a conversation with Terry Eagleton and Luke’s account of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). All contributors exhibited a serious academic intent, and the extensive bibliographies that concluded each article provide a rich resource for future researchers and readers with an interest in a particular topic.

The breadth of the contributions should ensure there is something here for everybody, but you may find as I did that not everything was of equal value to you interests. It will be interesting to see where the organisers for the proposed conference in 2022 decide to focus, because while there is value in casting a wide net, my feeling is that there is greater value for succeeding conferences in sharpening the focus of theological enquiry.

I am not convinced that Mark Greene’s central challenge for this collection of transforming a sacred-secular divide is helpful. Greene asserts this divide puts ‘more focus and value on the gathered church than the sent church’ (Greene, xiv), a dualism that leads him to locate the cause of the church’s failure to address the world of work and support Christians at work within the theology and structures of the institutional church itself. This focus on the church facilitates a turn away from the world of work, giving work a benign status that echoes through several articles. Sarah Bacaller’s chapter on Hegel and vocation offers an elegant argument drawing on G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy that also challenges the utility of the sacred-secular divide. Her conclusion states this theological truth: ‘the secular is already a shared space where infinite and finite dialectically exist together: this is the logic of incarnation’ (Bacaller, 217).

I have researched the harm due to work-related injury and death in relation to the ideology of hard work (see my Hard Work Never Killed Anybody, 2015), studied work’s psychological injury through the capitalist ethics of profit maximisation (see Flett, Byrne and Bottomley, Justice Tempered, 2020) and studied the socio-economic inequality resulting from globalised economies captive to neoliberal ideology and culture (see Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age, 2019). This will explain my disappointment when Andrew Matthews’ detailed study of labour in Ecclesiastes noted a direct link between work and the sorrow associated with overworking due to striving for more (4:6), which he seemed content to accept, thus locating the cause of the pain in the psychology of the worker rather than the exploitation of the corporation. But as our research of injustice experienced by finance sector workers for the Religion and Social Policy Network of the University of Divinity suggested (see Flett, Byrne and Bottomley, I held a knife against my wrist, 2020), a word from any of the prophets here would not have been out of place.

There are exceptions to the largely benign view of work in Transforming Vocation, such as Gordon Preece’s critique of ‘techno-creatives’. However, Preece’s chapter also illustrated a difficulty I have with the gathered/scattered dualism when it shapes theological research. It is as if when the church is in scattered mode in the world of work its primary understanding of work is first provided by the research of social scientists and journalists, and the voice of faith is only raised secondarily in putting forward its solutions to the problems diagnosed by social science. Overall, the contributors drew on a wide range of social science, philosophical, and spiritual theories to advance their arguments for transforming vocation. Yet what was missing for me was their reflection, not on a person’s calling/vocation, but on their relationship with the Caller.

When I asked the Board members of the agency where I was CEO about the event that confirmed for them their calling to be a Board member, each of them had a story to tell. Then, when I asked them what they had learned about their relationship with the Caller that was important to them, each one had a treasured insight into the God who called them. It was a surprise and a joy to learn of the richness and diversity of their knowledge of God. Somehow this collection of articles brings to my mind a static image of God, who calls people into Christian mission, and from then on fades into the background, while the foreground is all about Christians being busy sent on mission.

Maggie Kappelhoff’s chapter invoking the writing of Miroslav Volf comes closest to addressing this concern with Volf’s ‘understanding of work as “cooperation with God”’ (235), in which ‘the “gifts” of the Spirit can be developed as human agents engage as co-creator’ (236). However, I am not sure this deals fully with the challenges of working with God’s unmaking of creation in God’s judgement on sin and evil, and what it means for resistance to the ‘heavenly’ principalities and powers. I would like to hear more about how to reflect on the building up of gifts for our consultant whistleblower who lost their job after blowing the whistle on corruption in one of Australia’s biggest banks, or the woman who volunteered to help families bereaved by a work-related death seven years after her son was electrocuted at work.

I was surprised that this collection of evangelical researchers seemed to have little to say about God’s covenant relationship with God’s people and its central theological truth of God’s judgement as a transforming mercy. If God’s judgement is understood and received as an expression of God’s mercy, then perhaps we may better understand God’s transforming work. This book is timely in drawing the church’s attention to the need to draw even closer to such transformation in relation to its captivity to the prevailing culture, and in relation to the idolatries that dominate the horizon of the world of work.


John Bottomley is the Director of Transforming Work, a member of the Creative Ministries Network congregation and a retired Uniting Church minister.



John Bottomley, Hard Work Never Killed Anybody: How the Idolisation of Work Sustains This Deadly Lie, (Northcote, Vic: Morning Star Publishing, 2015).

John Flett, Brendan Byrne and John Bottomley, Justice Tempered: How the Finance Sector’s Captivity to Capitalist Ethics Violates Workers’ Ethical Integrity and Silences their Claims for Justice. A report for the Finance Sector Union by the Religion and Social Policy Network (Melbourne: University of Divinity, 2020).

John Flett, Brendan Byrne and John Bottomley, I held a knife against my wrist: ethical conflict and work harm in Australian financial services. A report for the Finance Sector Union of Australia by the Religion and Social Policy Network (Melbourne: University of Divinity, 2020).

J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is stranger than it used to be: Biblical faith in a postmodern age (Downers grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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