Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Smashwords Interview

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my life and work on the Smashwords website (click here to go to that site). Here is the text of that interview.

We’re talking with Dr. Ron Johnson from Spring Arbor University, and we’re asking him how he started writing about finding God in the workplace.

When I was in high school, I was surprised to discover that God was interested in more than just religion. I prayed about my homework, and God helped me in concrete ways. I prayed about my extracurricular activities and ended up flourishing in them. At first I didn’t want to talk about it because I was afraid of being branded “religious,” but some of my experiences were so extraordinary, I just had to tell people. “Listen!” I said, “Did you know that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life wondering whether God exists? You can find out. Pray about everything… and watch what happens!”

I went to a state college (Grand Valley State University) and was quite vocal about it there. I know I turned some people off, but I couldn’t keep quiet about it. Day after day I found God guiding me in my studies and leading me to people I could help in some way. It was an amazing experience.

After graduation, my denomination sent me out to the Pacific Northwest, and I spent two years telling my stories to congregations in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. Although I was mostly appealing to high school and college students, I also reached out to adults. I said that God could be found not only in the classroom but also in our factories, our high-rise office complexes, our government agencies, and anyplace where people worked. People of all ages found that message compelling. A number of them reported that they tried the experiment and received concrete answers to their prayers. But some adults told me they had tried to pray about their jobs but had not had as much success as I had had. “What am I doing wrong?” they asked. “How can I find what you’ve found?”

I didn’t know how to answer their questions. I prayed for them, and I told them things that should have been obvious (make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, don’t ask for anything that contradicts scripture, watch carefully for unexpected answers), but I found I was unequipped to help most of them. It took me years to figure out why.
What did you discover?

I already knew that this was not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Each individual had his or her own obstacles to overcome in their approach to God in secular life. I also knew that these obstacles could vary greatly. Some people might have to change their attitudes, while others might have to change the way they think. I realized right from the start that I would have to know a lot more about each person in order to help them.

But over the years, I became convinced that there are also some general obstacles that we all face. Contemporary life is structured in certain ways that make it very difficult for people to see what God is doing from day to day. Our upbringing trains us to view the world in certain ways that rarely intersect with religious or theological concerns.

Can you give an example?
Certainly. As I scanned the literature on workplace spirituality, I found that a lot of it talked about how to win our coworkers to Christ. Now, while sharing our witness is part of being a Christian, this approach to workplace spirituality filters out the most important questions. What is God doing in my place of employment? How is God seeking to make the world better through me as I perform the job I’ve been hired to do? Those are the questions that will help people to have a vital experience of the Living God in their workplace. And yes, part of the answer will be to share our witness with our coworkers. But that’s only a small part.
In the mid-1980s, you were a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, studying to become a minister in the United Church of Christ. Why did you leave seminary?
I realized that I was never going to find the answers to the questions my people were asking unless I went out into the work world and experienced God there for myself. So I left the path to pastoral ministry and did a number of other things instead. I was a platemaker in a printing company, acting as the middleman between the people in the darkroom and those out in the pressroom. I worked in the produce department of a supermarket. I was a professional storyteller. I joined a writers’ group. I was a substitute teacher. I sold advertising for a suburban newspaper. I was a computer software trainer. I worked for Western Union, first as an operator (taking telegrams and money transfer orders over the phone), then working my way up to Operations Manager.

In each of these places, I had vivid experiences of the presence of God, teaching me and helping others through me.

During these years, I also earned a masters degree in Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I began to believe that God was guiding me in a certain direction — that, as a professor, I would share the things I had learned in both academic and popular writing.

But things didn’t work out quite like you expected…
No, they didn’t. I was unable to obtain a tenure track position in Philosophy. In order to support my family, I went back to the field I had been in before graduate school: I took an entry-level position in a customer service call center. It was the lowest point of my life. But as I prayed and tried to make sense out of it all, I found God even there — even in this nightmare job. And then I began to see a larger plan. I wrote about my experiences as a call center representative, and that became my book, CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST.
Is that book just for Customer Service representatives?
No, it’s for working people in all walks of life. A number of readers have told me that they found it deeply meaningful even though they aren’t CSRs (Customer Service Representatives). Here’s what I was trying to do. Through all those years, I had never forgotten the people in the Pacific Northwest who had tried unsuccessfully to experience God in their workplaces. I wrote CUSTOMER SERVICE AND THE IMITATION OF CHRIST as just one detailed example of how I had found God in my place of employment. Although I intended it to be useful for CSRs, I also hoped that people in a wide variety of jobs could use it as a springboard for their own spiritual lives in the workplace.
Why did you write WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5?

As I said earlier, those of us who live in the contemporary world, at least here in the West, are trained to view the world around us in certain ways. Most of us are quite unreflective about it. We do it without even knowing we’re doing it. But those ways of thinking act like blinders, keeping us from seeing how God is active in our lives… or is at least trying to be.

In WHAT DOES GOD DO FROM 9 TO 5? I encourage the reader to view daily life as a vast web of interrelated stories. Both as individuals and as social groups, we are who we are because of all the things we’ve said and done in all the stories we’ve lived through so far. But the truth is, we don’t think about most of those episodes even while we’re living through them. In this book, I ask you to step back and look at what we’re doing, and to locate the ways in which God is trying to get us to grow and develop through those stories. And God is doing that everywhere and always, both while we’re working and when we’re doing other things. I hope this book will help readers think differently about their daily lives so that they can begin to see how God is already trying to interact with them right now.

Although this is a philosophical book, there are some great concrete examples in it, too.
Yes. The entire last chapter presents a number of cases in which people pray about their jobs and get concrete answers like the ones I’ve received over the years. A badly-divided department comes together when a woman is led to write a clear set of procedures, in answer to prayer. A salesman learns how to listen to his customers. A bill collector widens his repertoire of strategies. A manager finds ways to get along with union representatives.
None of your examples are about people getting rich or being promoted. You don’t preach a Gospel of Success, do you?
No. After all these years, I still work in a call center by day and teach college courses at night. I think my own career path speaks for itself. You can find out to your own satisfaction that God is real, and you can discover God actively engaged in your daily life even if you’re stuck in a dead-end job. But don’t base all your hopes on a promotion or on a path to riches. God wants to give you an adventure right where you are, by working through you to make the world a better place. You may not get all that you want in life, but you can have HIM for the asking, if you’re willing to turn over the wheel. What’s stopping you?
Published 2016-08-20.

Radio Interview

On Thursday, June 9, 2016, I was once again a guest on iWork4Him with host Jim Brangenberg. We talked about my book, What Does God Do from 9 to 5?

To listen to the hour-long broadcast from Tampa Bay, Florida, click here.

For more about Jim and his show, here is a link.

A Farewell to Students

Commencement 04-30-16 015

As a faculty member, I’ve listened to lots of commencement addresses, but here’s what I wish I could say to my students as they prepare to leave us…

To hear an audio version of this post, click here.

To our graduates:

We congratulate you on finishing a challenging course of study.  We hope that you have learned much and learned it well, and that you will become productive members of your communities and of this nation.  But now, after all that you have learned, there is one question that remains to be answered—and it must be answered by each of you individually:

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you can afford to ignore this question.  If all you’re interested in is making money, be on your way, then, and have joy of it.  If all you want is fame, good luck.  If you really just want to settle down and work at a job and earn a good living, we wish you the best.

But if you want your life to be more than that—more than grubbing for money or fame, more than the routine of going to work day after day after day and then you die—if you want your life to make a difference, so that people will know, long after you’re gone, that you lived, and that your life mattered… if that is your choice… then this is the one question you must not ignore.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

You have completed the courses which we believe to be of the most use to you at this early stage of your career.  You have been given basic information on a number of subjects.  We hope that you have gained proficiency in thinking for yourself about those subjects and in expressing your thought clearly in writing and speaking.  You have learned a great deal about one particular field.  In short, you have been equipped to address certain live issues—issues which are of importance to our society or to some segment of society.  This has all been preparation.  Now the story begins, and the shape that your story takes—the quality of life that you will live—depends primarily on your answer to this question.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Did you notice, once you cleared away your required courses, how your classes started to become more open-ended, and how you were invited to see, from the inside, the current issues in your field?  Did any of those issues reach out and beckon to you?  Were there any questions or problems which quickened your pulse, or which made you stay behind to talk to your professor or your classmates after the hour was over?  Did you ever hear anything at this school that made you realize—even if only for a moment—that there might be something worthwhile left to do in this old world, and that it might be something for you to do?

For if you have learned only facts… only theories… only skills… then you have missed the most important part of your education.  You needed to learn facts and theories and skills so that you could build on them to wrestle with the problems in your field—for it is those problems to which you will be expected to contribute at least some small part of a solution.

Are you entering the field of education?  The main problem is still a live one: What is the best way to teach a person something?  As an educator, you are going to devote the next years of your life to solving that problem.  Are you committed to it?  Is that the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you are headed for law enforcement. The community in which you are employed could either turn against you or work together with you to maintain peace. It’s up to you how you will approach them. Is that the great problem to you which you will devote your life?

We could list each major course of study and look for the open-ended problems that are just waiting for you to solve them. Is there something in your field that has reached out and claimed you? Something that keeps you awake nights, thinking about it?

Everything up to this moment has merely been a prelude.  Your education was supposed to awaken you to what needs to be done, and to equip you to do it. Over the past few years we have pushed your poor tired brain almost beyond its capacity for this reason: because you are now being entrusted with the great problems of the human race, and we are looking to you to help us solve them.

As a result of the time you spent here, you now know a little about history, about science, about the arts… but can you identify the great problems that are facing your society?  Did you pay attention to what needs doing?  Are you ready to pitch in, ready to make the world a better place in some way?  Are you full of ideas about how you will improve on our past mistakes?

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Answer that… and the path will open before you.

The Commute

You decide to take your Christian discipleship seriously, starting today. Today you will be a Christian in everything you do and say. Today you will stop talking about it and do it.

Then you get behind the wheel of your car, and the deal’s off.

Bob's personal journey of spiritual growth gets bogged down behind some idiot going half the speed limit.

Bob’s personal journey of spiritual growth gets bogged down behind some idiot going half the speed limit.

For many of us, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as the daily commute. Driving itself isn’t so bad; it’s the other people. If it weren’t for the others on the road, it wouldn’t be so maddening. It’s the fact that there are so many others getting in the way, and that some of them are so inconsiderate. That’s the problem.

Have you ever stopped to consider how long this problem has been going on? If you will read some of the diaries of American settlers who traveled westward, you’ll find the same frustration expressed, only they were stuck in a rut (literally) and couldn’t go around the slow guy in the front. They just had to trudge along. Did they complain about it? Absolutely.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner give another interesting example in their novel, The Gilded Age. They talk about one steamboat trying to go around another one on the Mississippi River in the late 1800s. The slow one in the front tries to speed up to keep the one in the back from passing, and the passengers on both boats are screaming and cheering. Then the boiler blows up on one of them. Did that really happen? Mark Twain should know.

We could go back and back. (Reread the Oedipus story in ancient Greek mythology. Why did Oedipus kill the father he never knew? It sounds to me like an early example of road rage.)

My point is that this problem has been going on for as long as people have been traveling and getting in each other’s way. Who knows? Maybe someday…

Air Traffic Control

But here’s what I try to think about. We’re all part of a massive story: the unfolding story of the human race living out its life upon this earth. Naturally, each one of us has someplace to go, and we get impatient when others detain us. But all of us together are going someplace, too, and a traffic jam can be a visual representation of that fact, if we are willing to think of it that way. During the morning commute, for example, we’re all trying to get to jobs that must be done, for all of our sakes—jobs that our society needs to have done in order to function. In that sense, I need all the others on the road to get where they’re going, just as much as I need to get where I’m going. I know it’s hard to remember that, especially when some of them act like jerks; but it’s true. We’re all in this together. I need those people to get where they’re going, and even if they don’t know it, they need me to get where I’m going, too. Whenever possible, we should make room for each other and help one another. If we can only bear in mind our mutual dependence on one another, it might make the drive a little easier.

But there’s also a metaphor playing itself out on these roads, and I find that useful to think about, too. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass includes a poem entitled, “Song of the Open Road.” I’ve posted some short reflections on that piece in my audio blog, Mythic Adventures, but “The Profound Lesson of Reception” is especially relevant. Roads can be a metaphor for The Road of Life, and as Whitman points out, both roads and The Road of Life receive everybody. So does God. So when I pray, I’m praying to a God who accepts everyone else around me, both on this particular road and on The Road of Life—even that jerk who just cut me off.

That’s something to think about, the next time our pulse starts to race while we’re driving down the road.

My Doctor and His COW

Dr and Cow 004

I’ll never forget the day my doctor had a COW.

It was four or five years ago. I was there for a routine check-up, and the nurse came in with one first. It was a tall wheeled table with a laptop computer on it: a Computer on Wheels. She took my vital signs and keyed them all into her COW. She also typed in my answers to her routine questions. Then she left, taking her COW with her.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about this. I thought it was long overdue, actually. Computers had become such a part of our lives that it seemed only right for the nurse to key in my information. But my doctor was the surprise.

You have to realize that I have a very down-to-earth physician. If he wasn’t a doctor, I think he’d be a carpenter or a mechanic. He’s quite knowledgeable, but he talks like a regular guy. Instead of spouting Latin medical terms, he speaks in plain English. “Don’t you feel that gunk at the back of your throat?” he asked me on one occasion. He doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner, but I’ve always liked his direct approach.

So on this occasion the door opened and in came my doctor, pushing this COW in front of him. He was not in a good mood. He sat down and started reading off questions. I answered them, and he typed in my answers, hunt-and-peck style. He made a mistake, swore, back-spaced, and typed again. I tried to tell him about a health issue that had come up and he barked at me, “Wait a minute. We haven’t come to that yet.” He asked me another question and wrote my answer. Then, with a sigh, he said, “Okay, now… what did you want to tell me?”

It was about my heart. I had always been in excellent health, but lately I had started feeling a slight flutter, and I didn’t know why. Normally, he would have been receptive to my problem, but on this particular day he just sighed. Paging down the app, he looked for an appropriate place to document my concern. More expletives followed. He asked me a few probing questions, typed a bit more, then applied his stethoscope to my chest and back. I don’t remember what came of it (I’m still alive), but I’ll never forget his response. He didn’t seem concerned about my health; he just seemed annoyed that I had asked him about something outside the script.

Then I made things worse: I told him about a mole that had lately grown on my neck. With an even bigger sigh, he stomped out of the examination room and came back a moment later with a tall, thin silver canister, which he pointed at my neck and sprayed at me without warning. The mole never had a chance. It was frozen instantly, and he told me it would fall off in a couple of weeks.

“Oh,” I said. “Um… okay.”

It was a very revealing visit. Generally speaking, doctors don’t relinquish control to anybody or anything. You rarely hear them saying, “Jesus take the wheel.” But on this occasion, the COW – or rather, some anonymous computer programmer – was running the show. My doctor had no choice in the matter, apparently. He was part of a local hospital network, and he was just one of countless physicians in our community who were linking up to the network. He was now forced to dispense with his routine and conduct the doctor-patient interview according to the script. He was clearly not happy about it.

But the story does have a happy ending. On my next visit, everything was changed. He had become accustomed to the new situation and was now using his COW quite naturally. He came through the door and shook my hand, smiling, just like he used to do in pre-COW days, then sat down at the computer and asked me the questions as if they were unscripted. My answers were promptly keyed in, without expletives, and interruptions were not only tolerated but welcomed, just as they had before the wheeled fiend had invaded our lives. The COW was not in charge after all; it was merely a tool that my doctor had somehow come to terms with and had successfully integrated into his routine. I was very interested in knowing how he had arrived at that stage, but I didn’t ask him. What mattered was that he had gotten there.

The COW really was overdue. It has made a big difference. I no longer have to decipher the doctor’s handwriting on prescriptions and other notes, because everything is typed. Medical terms are elaborated by the system, which adds a definition and examples. The results of blood tests are available online soon after I leave the office. And I know that, if I should end up in the emergency room for any reason, all my information will be available to the doctors and nurses there. It’s a much better system than we had before. Far from upstaging my doctor, the COW has made him even more valuable. But it took time for him to come to terms with the new system and integrate it into his routine.

I’m not advocating that we all bow down to the Golden COW. Far from it. At first, my doctor seems to have felt he was being asked to do that, and he hated it. But I’m celebrating the fact that my doctor, who is a good man with a lot of common sense, found it within himself to use the COW as a tool rather than to be used by it. And there’s a lesson there for all of us.

 

Nameless, Faceless Public Servants

Here in America, we’ve been getting ready for the presidential election this fall. The news has been dominated by a long list of Republican and Democratic candidates who have engaged in a seemingly-endless series of debates. It’s an ugly process, and it’s been that way from the very beginning. Although our first president, George Washington, was highly respected, our second president, John Adams, was ridiculed in the papers and lied about by the other candidates, including his friend Thomas Jefferson. There has never been a time when American politics was carried on politely. It makes me wonder why anyone has ever sought the top spot.

But it’s not the presidency that I want to talk about today. Rather, I want to point out that a democratic republic such as ours employs large numbers of public servants, and it is those government employees who keep things running properly. We elect only a very small number of the public servants in this country; there are many, many more government employees who are appointed or hired. The more I think about God in the workplace, the more I appreciate the unsung heroes of government: the people who serve us from day to day but are largely unknown to us.

Consider, for example, the support staff of each member of Congress. Recently I talked with a Michigan State University student who was working as an intern in Lansing, which is not only the home of Michigan State but is also the state capital. She was working for a member of Michigan’s House of Representatives, and her job description was varied and interesting. She researched issues for her boss and wrote up her findings, to help him decide how to vote on proposals brought before the House. She went through his mail and wrote some of his replies. She kept him current on voters’ attitudes about various issues. He, of course, is the one who’s in the news; his name is the one everybody knows. But behind every well-known politician is a staff of people like this intern, and much depends on how well they do their jobs.

Speech writers are another fascinating example. In the 1980s, Peggy Noonan left a job with Dan Rather at CBS to become a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan. (Can you imagine a more unconventional career path than that?) In her book, What I Saw at the Revolution, she explains why speech writing for the president is a thankless job: because the president’s advisers are constantly engaged in turf wars with the speech writers, accusing them of trying to make policy. The speech writers, meanwhile, feel that the president’s advisers are trying to tell them how to write. For Peggy Noonan, at least, it was about more than just politics; it was about the power of words and how they can be used or misused, how they can communicate or obfuscate. (Peggy Noonan, by the way, is the person who came up with President Bush’s “thousand points of light.”)

These are just two examples of the vast numbers of public servants who keep our government running. They have important work to do, and they work hard for us. It seems to me that we focus entirely too much on a few people in top positions, but our government is the way it is because of all of those nameless, faceless people who support them. If you don’t mind a little homework, why not do some research of your own? Why not search the internet search for behind-the-scenes positions within government (preferably on the local, county, or state level, rather than on the federal level) and try to get a clearer picture of the wide variety of public servants there actually are out there?

 

Once More, With Feeling

In my book, Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ, I poked fun at a Cincinnati firm that offered acting lessons to people who worked in customer service call centers. They said that the key to good customer service was not to care about the customer; it was to act like you cared. So they offered acting lessons.

That makes a good joke, but I’ve often thought that there’s a particle of truth to that. Acting lessons might not be such a bad idea for those of us who work in customer service call centers — not to help us pretend that we care, but to empower us show that we do.

I’ve had a lot of co-workers over the years who really seemed to care about their customers, but they had a problem communicating that sense of caring, especially over the phone. One person in particular was so intense, she sounded mean. She wasn’t really angry; she was just passionate about helping people. Unfortunately, that’s not what came across over the phone. The people she was trying to help were intimidated, and the people in the back offices were often uncooperative. If she could only have softened her voice, she could have communicated her passion for people-helping. Her customers would have loved her, and the people in the back offices might have respected her. It was all in the way she came across.

I myself have been blessed with a good voice that I know how to use on the phone. I get a little embarrassed when some callers say, “Wow, you sound like a radio announcer,” but I’m very careful about modulating my voice to meet the needs of the moment. When a caller sounds especially frustrated, I make sure I keep my voice soft and sensitive. When they sound like they’re in a good mood, I try to match them.

Sometimes I catch myself feeling impatient, and I deliberately (and prayerfully) take the irritation out of my voice. Am I acting? Yes, but I’m doing it because I don’t want to be impatient. I’ve just caught myself being less than my best, and with the help of God, I deliberately try to sound the way I want to be. As long as the caller doesn’t catch onto the fact that I’m feeling momentarily frustrated, I am at least behaving in the way that I believe is right.

What I’m describing, of course, is not the same as saying, “The key to good customer service is not to care about your customer; it’s to act like you care.” What I’m saying is that we must, above all, care about our customers, and because we care, we should work very hard to make sure that our concern for them comes across in our voice. It might not be such a bad thing to have acting lessons for customer service representatives, as long as we use those acting skills to help us communicate our very real concern for our customers.

 

Why It’s So Hard to Make a Career Choice

A university student is trying to choose a major. She doesn’t feel strongly about any particular kind of employment, so she must make a deliberate choice. She has imagined herself in various work settings and has thought about what she would most enjoy doing. She has not only researched different fields but has also interviewed people and pictured herself in the roles they occupy. It’s hard work choosing a career, because so much is at stake. She wants to make a choice that she’ll be happy with years from now.

She may not be able to put her dilemma into words, but deep in her heart she senses that she is something more than any job will ever allow her to express. Suppose she leans in the direction of becoming a Personnel Manager. You are more than this, her heart tells her. You are more than just a Personnel Manager.

But she doesn’t know how to act on this feeling. She doesn’t know how to take on the role of a Personnel Manager and still, at the same time, be a person who is MORE THAN THIS.

The nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was a smart guy. He recognized that young people in modern times have trouble committing themselves to a particular line of work because they believe that, by so doing, they’re giving up their freedom and becoming less than they were before. Even in the early 1800s, Hegel already put his finger on the problem.

It seemed to him, though, that young people were mistaken. They weren’t losing anything by taking on a job. On the contrary, it was only by choosing a particular role in life that a person could become somebody. Young people believed themselves to be free only because they had no limitations, but precisely because of their lack of commitment to the larger social sphere, they were also powerless to do anything really important in society. Only by choosing a particular role and embodying it could they become participating members of society, and only in that way could they ever become someone of consequence.

(He said these things, by the way, in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W. Wood, ed., H. B. Nisbet, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), § 207.)

In certain respects, Hegel was right. His diagnosis was correct, for even in the twenty-first century, young people often feel a strange constricting of life’s possibilities when they have to choose a career. He was right, also, in saying that the choice must be made in spite of this feeling, and that, if it is not made, then we risk doing nothing of consequence in our world.

But Hegel failed to appreciate the depth and persistence of the problem. Even when people do choose their place in society, they often do not lose the nagging awareness that they are more than the sum total of their social roles. Hegel believed that a well-formed society would allow people full expression of themselves and full recognition from others, but this seems to imply that people truly are nothing more than the roles they play in society. The gospel invites us to believe otherwise.

Christ taught that we are always “more than this” — more than the sum total of the tasks we perform in our daily work. We are not just what we do; we express who we are through the things we do, but there is far more substance to us than a single lifetime will ever give us opportunities to express.

For young people who are trying to decide on a career, it might be useful to think about it this way:

You are more than any one job will allow you to demonstrate, but you’re called to make a difference in this world. In order to do that, you’ll have to commit yourself to some line of work, at least for this period of your life. But no matter what kind of job you undertake, always remember that the job itself cannot define you. Use it to express certain aspects of your personality, but also remain on the lookout for new career directions — new parts of yourself that can be brought into the public sphere, for the good of others. But above all, remember that you’re still somebody even if you’re unemployed or underemployed, or if you’re retired. You’re more than any of these things. You’re made in the image of God — and God is not defined by what He does. Indeed, He cannot be defined at all. But He is known, insofar as He can be known, by Who He Is.

Phone Trees, and the People Who Hate Them

Stand up in a public place sometime and ask, “How many of you hate phone trees?” and you’ll probably get a lot of takers. One of modern life’s biggest pains is hearing a recorded message that says, “If you are calling about A, B, or C, press 1. If you are calling about D, E, F, or G, press 2,” and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to make a choice? You dial the phone and a human being answers, and he or she helps you. What’s so hard about that?

Well, it is hard. Like it or not, we live in a highly complex society with lots of choices, and people call an 800 number for a wide variety of reasons. No matter how much we may detest them, phone trees satisfy a real need: they route us to the people who can give us the particular kind of service we’re calling about.

As a call center representative, I am grateful that my company’s phone tree works as well as it does. Oh yes, I listen sympathetically to callers who complain that there was no appropriate option, and then after I ask a few more questions, I usually tell them that they’re in the right place and I’ll be glad to help them. Sometimes I have to transfer them to another extension, but they got to the right place even then: they were routed to me (a human being), who assessed their need and decided which department was right for them. Either way, the phone tree did its job.

The truth is, phone trees work well most of the time. And when I say “most of the time,” I mean way more than 50% of the time. Every company keeps statistics on the number of calls received, and out of that total, how many were serviced by the automated system, how many had to be routed to a human being, how many were transferred a second time, and so on. For any of the companies I’ve worked for, a large majority of calls are handled entirely by the automated system, and those that reach me were properly routed. We all have our horror stories, of course, but they truly are exceptions. If they weren’t, then our society would come to a grinding halt.

And in recent years, voice recognition software has become so sophisticated, we can have a conversation with a friendly-sounding computer while we wait to be routed to a human being. (And let’s be honest. Sometimes the human being isn’t nearly as friendly as the digital person was.)

There is, however, one significant issue that’s worth thinking about, over and above our natural distaste for talking to computerized voices. The people who program those phone trees give a lot of thought to their jobs. There’s a philosophy behind what they’re doing. They’re intelligent people (highly intelligent, I should say), and they have certain views about the world and about human nature that they’re programming into those phone trees.

Lately it has seemed to me that their philosophy is this: It isn’t about who you want to talk to; it’s about what you’re calling about. You may think you want to talk to Department A, but you’re wrong. We know better than you do. Tell us what you’re calling about, and we’ll tell you who you need to talk to.

Like I said, these are very intelligent people. Maybe they do know better than we do. Maybe we’re in good hands, and we should just sit back and go for the ride. But the problem is, Sometimes we really do need to talk to Department A, but the phone tree isn’t programmed that way. It can only help us if we tell it what we want, not who we want.

So then WE have to get smart. We experiment. We try different options and write down where they take us. Before long, we’ve learned our own way around the labyrinth, and we choose the options without listening to the recording. “Pleeeease listen carefully,” the voice cries out, but we don’t. “Our menu options have changed,” the voice warns us, but we know they haven’t. We used these options just last week and everything worked fine. When things stop working fine, then we’ll listen again. Until then, no thanks.

But phone trees really do accomplish their mission most of the time. I think we should admit that more than we do. We should also recognize all the thinking and planning that goes into them. Having said that, however, we should be aware that they’re based on a certain philosophy, and that philosophy may not always be the best one for every situation. But since the people who program them are smart (very smart, I should say), maybe they’ll figure that out. Who knows? Maybe they already have.

Introducing…

…What Does God Do from 9 to 5?

BookCoverImage 2-01-16 (2)

“What role does God play in our lives while we’re working?”

That’s the question that two young professionals, Dayton and Savannah, set out to answer. With the help of a unique discussion group led by Dr. Grizzled Mane, Philosopher-in-Residence at the Cathedral of Our Lord (C.O.O.L.), they begin to view the work world as a web of stories, with God acting as both observer and participant. Along the way, they consider other questions:

*Is God interested in science, accounting, education, law, and other secular pursuits?

*Are we the product of our environment or of our genetic inheritance?

*Does God micromanage our lives?

This book will prompt you to think in new ways about your job and your life.

For more information, click the link below to visit my Author Page on Amazon.com:

amazon.com/author/whatdoesgoddofrom9to5

 

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