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Q&A: Hugh Whelchel on Calling, the Significance of Work, and More

This is part of the Values & Capitalism Q&A Series. Hugh Whelchel We recently asked Hugh Whelchel questions related to the significance of work, what it means to have a “calling” and more. Hugh Whelchel is the executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE). Hugh has a unique combination of senior executive responsibility, creative educational administration, and technical innovation that builds upon more than 30 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years in the IT industry. Hugh left his business career to serve Reformed Theological Seminary’s Washington, D.C., campus as executive director and guest professor before founding IFWE in 2011. In addition to his business acumen, Hugh has a unique passion for helping individuals integrate their faith in their vocational calling. He is frequently called upon to teach and speak on this topic—on the radio, at conferences, in churches and seminaries, with business groups, and in universities. Most recently, he authored “How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.” Hugh graduated from the University of Florida and earned a master’s degree in theology from Reformed Theological Seminary. He is an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. You begin your book by telling a story about a conference where a speaker asked the audience if they would go to work the next day if they inherited 10 million dollars that night. The people in that audience shouted “No!” If people could answer “yes” to this question, what impact would that have on the way we work and do business?
If everyone could answer yes, it might mean they take calling seriously. And if Christians took their calling seriously, it would bring about an entire paradigm shift—which is what we are trying to do at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.
Many Christians silo their faith from their work, but if we can grasp the biblical significance of our work, we can have a positive influence in our communities and culture. This is more than just loving our co-workers, it means increasing human flourishing by working efficiently, diligently and honestly. It means creating wealth for the common good and serving others through the marketplace with our unique gifts and talents. That’s what it looks like to be salt, leaven and light in the world
How has a biblical understanding of vocation shaped your view of economics?
A Biblical understanding of vocation has shaped my view of economics in three different areas: comparative advantage, stewardship and economic freedom.
If each person is created in the image of God with unique gifts and a desire to fulfill their God-given talents through their work, that means we each have a comparative advantage in a particular vocation. This has shaped the way I think about the importance of the principle of comparative advantage in economics.
I’ve also come to a realization that we have a very limited view of stewardship in our Christian culture—it’s more than just tithing our income. The biblical view of stewardship is about faith, work and economics. Stewardship is using biblical economic principles to most effectively use our talents and resources to further God’s kingdom in the here and now.
Finally, if we understand that our work matters to God and is an integral part of His purpose for the world, I believe we must cherish an economic environment that provides the freedom to flourish in our work.
You distinguish between a primary calling and a secondary calling. Can you explain these terms? Do you think each person needs to look for the one, specific job they are called to do?
Our primary calling is “to be” and our secondary calling is “to do.” Os Guinness says in his book “The Call,” our primary calling is to be a disciple of Christ. Our secondary calling, “to do,” involves four areas of our life: family, church, community and vocation. Your calling is not your job; it’s a bigger picture of what God has called you to do based on the talents and skills He has given you. Your job can change over time, but your calling remains constant because it’s who God has created you to be.
Colossians 3:17 comes up in your work quite a bit: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” What are some of the workplace and “daily grind” principles you draw from this verse?
We don’t work for an earthly boss and therefore have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It means I don’t slip out at 3 pm, because I am ultimately accountable to God. But it also means knowing that your work doesn’t just have earthly value, it has eternal value. Colossians 3:17 brings significance to the most mundane jobs. Even the factory worker who builds widgets on an assembly line day after day is participating in God’s work and offering a foretaste of his Kingdom.
How would you describe the Protestant work ethic, and how has it impacted American business and economics? In what ways has this impact been positive or negative?
The Protestant work ethic grew out of the Reformers’ understanding of faith and work, that all work was important to God. Martin Luther said, “God himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” The Protestant work ethic had a very positive impact on business and economics because Christians understand that their work was the number one tool God uses to impact culture and society in a positive way. Unfortunately, the Protestant work ethic is all but gone from our country. We view work only as a means to an end. We need to leave this “work to live” mentality and return to the understanding of the good that our work does for the Kingdom of God.