Lessons from excavators: a post from a Kern Pastor

Lessons from excavators: a post from a Kern Pastor February 18, 2014

Tom Olson

Over the week of Thanksgiving 2013, I traveled to Victoria, Texas to see my sister and her family. Besides eating some of the best beef brisket of my life (go to Mumphord’s!), my brother-in-law invited me to take a tour of his workplace. He works for Caterpillar, at a plant where they build massive excavators. With the concepts of faith, work, and economics (FWE) increasingly swirling in my head, I felt like I left the factory tour with three pastoral lessons.

1. I need to visit my congregation in their workplaces.

I was struck by how much more I felt I knew my brother-in-law after seeing where he worked. I had better questions to ask him. We, in general, had much more to talk about. I also got to see his passion. I got to see where he spends a large majority of his time. I got to see how his co-workers reacted to him. I got to see him on his turf in his area of expertise. I already had a good relationship with my brother-in-law, but in many ways, I feel like this was one of our most “intimate” experiences. He was really letting me into his life!

In his book “Work Matters,” Pastor Tom Nelson encourages pastors who are looking to take their first step into the realm of faith, work, and economics to simply visit their congregants at their workplaces (Nelson makes his residents/interns do this!), and now I see why. I plan to implement this into my monthly routine of pastoral visitation. And if these visits have even a small percentage of the impact my time at the factory with my brother-in-law did, I am going to be a better preacher and shepherd. I am going to know far better how to bridge the Sunday-to-Monday gap.

2. Blue-collar work contributes deeply to the common good.

I have noticed in FWE literature that many people quickly talk about the biblical and vocational importance of white-collar jobs. That is for a reason. It is easy to understand how a doctor serves the community, or how a small business owner creates jobs. But much of FWE literature does not find case studies for blue-collar work (and if it does, it is about the OWNER of the auto shop – not the auto technician in the auto shop).

Yet, as I stood looking at the assembly line, watching more than 100 people work on building these massive excavators, something became crystal clear; every job builds into the common good. On the assembly line, if one person does their job poorly, it will shut down the entire plant for an hour. But when that worker faithfully and excellently completes his or her work, he or she a) makes a better life for the worker at the next station, who now has excellent work to build upon, b) serves the supplier, using his or her goods to excellence, and so on and so on.

The FWE conversation has produced some wonderful, helpful, and good insights into white-collar life and its contribution to the common good. But let’s understand that this is not exclusive to that world.

3. The economy really matters.

As my brother-in-law showed us around the factory, it was amazing to see the economic implications of each aspect of the assembly line. He is dependent on his suppliers. So much so that his company is helping one of the suppliers build their own factory across the street! The excavators, when they finish, are driven across the parking lot to a dealer (located there for obvious reasons), and that dealer has a special railroad docking station so that he can easily ship these massive machines by rail.

But further, someone needs to buy the excavators. If there is no construction or development taking place, it is not just the contractor who is in trouble, it is the Caterpillar plant in Victoria and all their different workers, as well as suppliers who are literally all over the world. Even the companies that clean and polish the concrete floors of the factory are impacted.

Think about this. A contractor needs an excavator, which enables Caterpillar to buy parts from numerous suppliers, each of whom supports many employees. Caterpillar can thus build a factory in Victoria, Texas, where they can employ more than 500 people, becoming a key part of the changing economic health of the city, and providing high-integrity, good-paying jobs (Caterpillar sets time boundaries for their employees to ensure that they have time to be with their families). All of this lets an entrepreneur in the same city start a business cleaning and polishing concrete floors so that dirt and dust cannot compromise the quality of the assembly line, enabling the contractor to produce his excavators and start the cycle all over again!

The more I think about it, the more I’m blown away at how complex and important the economy is. That is why I’m glad that in the Kern Pastors Network, we are talking about faith, work, and economics, not just faith and work.  Every vocation is so dependent on the economy that if I’m going to pastor my people to think about their work biblically, I must see how their lives are intertwined with everyone else’s.

Tom Olson is the pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church’s Barrington Campus. He also serves as the KPN’s Chicago-based regional network coordinator.  From the Kern Pastors Network. Image: “Concrete Mixing for Power Plant Construction in South Moravia, Czechoslovakia,” Josef Konecny. Courtesy of the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

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