Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World by Michaela O’Donnell. Baker Books. 238 pages. 2021
Michaela O’Donnell is the executive director of Fuller Seminary’s De Pree Center for Leadership. She has taken her research findings and paired them with theological reflection to come up with a set of tools that people can use in order to discover more about themselves, God’s callings, and their work. She has spent the years since finishing her degree testing the tools with hundreds of people in lab-like classrooms, workshops, retreats, small groups, and coaching sessions.
She tells us to think of Make Work Matter like a map. As you read it, you’ll do the work you need to do and lay aside the rest. Whether you’re hoping to move from stuck to unstuck, be liberated to take new risks, or discover deeper truths about what God has for you, there is something in this book and in these tools for you.
As a result of the author’s research, she has come to believe in what she calls the “entrepreneurial way” – a way of thinking and acting that is about paying deep attention to the needs of people and creatively joining in God’s mission of redemption in the world. The entrepreneurial way is a way of working and living that helps us respond faithfully to God’s callings. The author is convinced that the entrepreneurial way is for anyone trying to do meaningful work in a changing world.
A section of the book that I found particularly interesting was the author’s view of Luther’s doctrine of vocation and calling. She writes that some of the most influential work on calling was done in a time period when commerce was almost exclusively local and people’s work was fairly fixed. Today, neither of those things is true. She writes that theology is always contextual. In Luther’s work on vocation and calling, theology that was absolutely liberating in sixteenth-century Europe still holds up in some ways. But in other ways, it is incredibly limiting for twenty-first-century America. I don’t recall previously reading anyone analyzing Luther’s doctrine of vocation and calling in this manner.
The author summarizes her findings in a helpful model:
- Practice Empathy Along the Way
- Convert Empathy into Imagination
- Take the Next Doable Risks
- Reflect on Where You’ve Been
Among the many topics the author addresses include a holy wrestling, change, grief and hope, failure, empathy, risk, relationship, creativity, rest, resurrection, the parable of the Good Samaritan, imagination, reflection, iterating and growth.
The book ends with a benediction for the way forward. It is the author’s prayer for the reader, herself and anyone who seeks meaningful work and the way of Jesus in a changing world.
This was a book that I read slowly, letting the author’s words soak in. The book, which would be a good one to read and discuss with others, is filled with stories of those she has interviewed and from workshops she has conducted which illustrate the points she makes in the book. A helpful “Exercise” is included at the end of each chapter.
Here are my favorite quotes from the book:
- We don’t make our way to the meaningful work we crave without a bit of holy wrestling.
- I’ve come to believe that the changing world of work is part grief and part hope: grief for what was, hope for what might be; grief for what felt doable, hope for what feels possible.
- Today, we’ve got to focus on cultivating skills such as grief, resilience, adaptability, agility, creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy, self-reflection, and the ability to perform well amid ambiguity.
- It’s no longer enough to have a good education, technical skills, and a good network. In addition to these, we also need the ability to thrive in the midst of constant change.
- Sometimes it’s the case that we need to stay and help to redeem broken systems. Other times that’s absolutely not our work to do. Regularly living in these tensions constantly demands that we use our energy to decide what to do and how to do it, and to hope that we’ve made the right decisions.
- We’re made to belong to Jesus and to creatively work toward God’s mission of redemption in the world. Our identity is found in our belonging to Jesus. Our purpose is to participate in the mission of redemption. Our God-given creativity becomes a vehicle for the first two.
- For most of us, God’s callings don’t come all at once and don’t stay fixed for our entire lives. Our lives and our work environments are dynamic, not static.
- We are called to follow Jesus by creatively working in love for others, especially toward God’s mission of redemption in the world, through particular relationships, roles, places, tasks, and moments.
- At the heart of God’s work in us is an invitation to close the gap between who we are and who we’re continually called to become.
- If we’re truly bearing God’s image, we never start from scratch. We always start in the middle of things.
- In our work, our creativity is part of what might close the gap between what the world is and what the world might be.
- I am convinced that our very best and most meaningful work can be traced back to empathy.
- Reflection is the intentional practice of pausing to consider what has happened and what it has to teach us.
- Much of the meaningful work we crave is found when we embrace our own growth as followers of Jesus. When our work is less about changing the entire world and more about being a people who grow and change, alongside others, for the sake of God’s redemptive work in the world.