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Barna Group’s Bill Denzel on Christians Connecting Calling with Career

Bill Denzel is Vice President at Barna Group and the Executive Director of the Barna Vocation Project. Barna has a multi-year vision for studying vocation and providing data-driven resources to help people discover and activate their calling. Both Denzel and David Kinnaman, Barna’s President, are passionate about the concept of vocation—what we are called to do in the world.
The first major contribution to this multi-year initiative is the Christians at Work study, carried out in partnership with Abilene Christian University (ACU). Denzel and Kinnaman hope to play a large role in the redefining and reimagining of work. As the introduction to Christians at Work proposes, “a new theology of work that speaks to who we are and how we are uniquely made.”
Barna’s leaders believe these conversations about vocation will happen with or without the church. “Our hope is that Christians will lead the charge in rethinking what work means and what changes we need to make in order for work to lead to our personal and collective flourishing.”

Collaborating with ACU

Barna Group is a leading research and resource firm focused on the intersection of faith and culture. Bill Denzel explains that a large part of the firm’s work involves explaining the church to the secular culture of the world around us, not surprising for an organization that has specialized in tracking the role of faith in America for the past 30 years. From Sunday sermons to major media outlets, Barna studies and research are widely cited across the nation. “A lot of the work that we do is consulting with organizations that want to understand who Christians are and what Christians think.”

And on the flip side, the firm spends equal time and resources explaining the culture to the church. Much of it is in the form of free printed or online material, but Barna also performs custom studies for different ministries and nonprofits. These can range “from churches to big ministries like The Navigators or World Vision or Compassion International to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the ONE Campaign. It’s all focused on really knowing what Christians are thinking and feeling today.”

Barna recently partnered with Pepperdine University to create “The State of Pastors,” a groundbreaking study and research report published in January 2017. It was based on interviews with more than 10,000 pastors from 40 denominations across all 50 states.

Denzel explains that Barna had been “dabbling” in projects that involved vocation and calling, but the firm had really wanted to take a much deeper dive into the subject matter. The recent partnership with ACU made it possible to jump more fully into the topic of vocation and calling. “We see it as a tenure campaign and have a bunch of research studies that we intend to do over the next 10 years; books, resources, trainings, and different initiatives that we want to launch.”

Although nothing specific is currently envisioned for a future collaboration between ACU and Barna, Denzel states that the company is hopeful there will be more partnerships down the road.

Most surprising findings

Much of the information used to create the extensive quantitative survey used in Christians at Work came from interviews with 33 practitioners, or “exemplars.” Barna chose these people because they are Christians doing some really interesting things in the world with “a kingdom-oriented focus.”

Researchers used a flexible script when talking with these thought leaders from various industries, exploring their personal experiences with faith and work, calling and career. Bill Denzel performed a good deal of these interviews himself.

“One of the surprising things to me was that most of them didn’t have a clear objective. They didn’t say, ‘This is what I’m going to do. This is my goal. I’m moving towards this and I’m going to become X. I’m going to become this for the kingdom.’”

“It was more a process of step-by-step obedience and faithfulness and listening to God’s voice as directing them rather than ‘I’m going to take these eight steps over the next 10 years to get here.’ A lot of them weren’t necessarily entrepreneurial—they were just kingdom-focused. They had kingdom values in their mind as they were working and they’re in the workforce.”

Denzel was repeatedly struck when speaking with  these successful Christians that the path they took resembled what recently deceased pastor Eugene Peterson called, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Another finding that struck Denzel was the discrepancy between single women and single men when it came to attitudes toward vocation and personal satisfaction.

“Single women were at the top of the list. So, it’s just fascinating to me that single women were very happy and satisfied, integrated in their faith and their work. They felt satisfied with how their work fits their calling, but their work is utilizing their unique strengths, talents, and capabilities.”

He continues, “But then single men were at the very bottom. There’s a 20-point gap between single women and single men in the question, ‘My work utilizes my unique strengths, talents, and capabilities.’ And why is that? It doesn’t make any sense that single women would be feeling so successful and strong at work, and they’re feeling like they’re in the right place and the zone, and then as soon as they have kids, the story completely changes.”

The findings for single men are the complete opposite, Denzel notes. “They’re not satisfied, they’re not feeling strong at work, they don’t necessarily feel called, and their strengths, talents, and capabilities aren’t being used. And then as soon as they have kids, it goes in the opposite direction. They start feeling much stronger and supported. And so it is fascinating. I think there’s a lot more to learn there. We’re just kind of scratching the surface.”

A greater effort on the part of both church and business leaders to support and encourage single men and mothers in the workplace would help these lowest-scoring groups to better “operate in their strengths and calling,” suggests Denzel.

Concluding thoughts on Who’s calling?

When reflecting further on his candid interviews with the study’s exemplars as well as the high-scoring “Integrators,” Denzel notes: “A lot of these success gurus teach about singular focus, right? It’s like if that’s the key, I’d like to know exactly where you’re going.”

While he believes most successful Christians probably do possess a single-mindedness, “I think it’s more a singular focus on what I’m here to do, which is to obey—to hear God and to obey what he’s telling me to do next.”

The Integrators in the study are more focused on the Caller than the calling, Denzel feels. There is a much greater emphasis on “Who’s calling us rather than on what we’re called to.”

Bill Denzel also notes that the Christian practitioners he interviewed seem to have achieved some level of success in whatever their ultimate field of work ended up being have “calling in community” in common.

“Calling is not found in a vacuum. And so much of the world talks about looking within yourself and crafting yourself. There’s a lot of talk about inventing yourself. But I think for those of us that are Christians, it needs to happen in the context of a community of others that know us well and that can kind of help us see a clear picture of ourselves.”

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