The Church needs Tentmakers


“As a tentmaker, you have a unique role to play in the Church – that of evangelist, of disciple, in the nitty gritty of life, in the ‘temporal order.'”


In his memoir, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken details his conversion to Christianity, a journey in which the writings of C.S. Lewis played a part. After readings the works of Lewis, Vanauken began correspondence with him, and a friendship was soon forged. A Severe Mercy includes several letters from Lewis from before, during, and after Vanauken’s conversion. One portion of a letter really gave me pause. Vanauken asked Lewis’ advice about making theology his new focus of study at Oxford, with the goal eventually of making theology a career.  Lewis responded,

“Would it be better for your soul?  I don’t know. I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man.  St. Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I should have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation; and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap.  Contrariwise, there is the danger that what is boring and repellent in the job may alienate one from the spiritual life.  And finally, someone has said, ‘None are so holy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things’; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job. You now want spiritual truth for her own sake; how will it be when the same truth is also needed for an effective footnote in your thesis? In fact, the change might do good or harm.”

As someone who works for the Church, I (usually) love my job.  I love being able to spend my days working in a very tangible way to spread the Gospel, speaking of the beauty of the Church, and forming hearts and minds in the Christian life.  Aware that I am very fortunate to have the position I do, I wish there were more young women working directly for the Church.  I am grateful.

So while I won’t be quitting my job based on Lewis’ caution, I do read a good reminder in Lewis’ words. I can think of definite instances in my own life where I’ve begun to approach the Gospel as more of a job and less for its own sake.

For example, a few years ago, on the morning of the release of an encyclical, I woke up approaching the document with duty and not a little dread, seeing it as something I had to read – and as soon as possible—for my job.  I had to get through it so I would know what it said, out of duty to the people of the diocese, so that I could answer questions and address concerns.  I was not approaching the document with joy.

In the end, I didn’t read it that day. I realized I didn’t want to approach it with that frame of mind. I didn’t want to read it because I had to—and frankly, I didn’t have to, at least not that day. Instead, I wanted to wait and read it with reflection and not rush through it. I wanted to read it with joy.

There’s also the very real danger that Lewis mentions about the “repellent” things in the job might affect one’s spiritual life. There was a recently an informal poll on Twitter asking lay people who work in the Church if they would recommend it to a young person to follow in their footsteps. It’s an interesting question, and it’s not one I can answer across the board in a general way. I am convinced that working for the Church in a formal way is not for everyone. The expression about sausage-making comes to mind.

Lewis’ reflection gives good food for thought. The Church needs wonderful people working inside of it. But it also needs lots and lots of people who are working outside it. It needs people who are talking to their neighbors about Jesus, who are witnesses of good Catholic family life, who are living the Faith joyfully while working as bankers and realtors and electricians and mothers and fathers and students.

I know lots of people who are completely on fire for the Faith. Many of them work for the Church, but most of them do not. These are people who have educated themselves through reading, attending conferences, and listening to Catholic podcasts. They are knowledgeable and well-spoken, ready to defend the Faith, explain its riches, and spread it.

This is what the Church needs, especially at this time.

Not everyone needs to work in the Church to spread the Gospel. We need more tentmakers. Randy Hain details in his great book Joyful Witness, the greatest workers for the Church are not always working in the Church. As a tentmaker, you have a unique role to play in the Church—that of evangelist, of disciple, in the nitty gritty of life, in the “temporal order.”

As the Second Vatican Council reminded us in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God’s kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life and adapted to the shifting circumstances of time, place, and peoples.” (Apostolicam actuositatem 7)

After telling us what we are called to do, however, the document ends by emphasizing the need for formation and education to make our mission possible. We need to be formed. We need to never stop learning, never stop reading, and most of all, never stop praying.

Don’t leave it to those of us working “in” the Church to be the only ones reading the Church documents, studying the Catechism, or praying the Scriptures. These were written for every single person, not just the “professionals.”

We need more tentmakers. And we need tentmakers willing to study the Truth, know the Truth, and most of all, love the Truth.

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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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