The Work Before the Work

At Echo Conference a few weeks ago, Blaine Hogan shared a wonderful and challenging quote from Parker Palmer:

“Before I turn to my work in the world, I have inner work to do.” — Parker Palmer

When I hear quotes like that one, the air in my chest tends to escape in a burst. It’s funny how ideas can punch us in the chest and we can have a tangible reaction to an intangible blow.

A quote like Palmer’s, a session like Blaine’s, and a keynote like Donald Miller’s (on identity, fear, and shame) can be tough for us, especially in a context like Echo, because we’re so prone to focus on our “work in the world.” After all, this is the work by which we’re judged and affirmed, for which we’re compensated and promoted. This is the work with which we identify and are identified.

I once heard someone point out that we even train our children to be identified by their work in the world:

Q: What are you going to be when you grow up?

A: I’m going to be a teacher!

We’re really asking about what kind of work they’re going to do in the world, but we’re conflating that work with identity. When a child tells us what she’s going to be when she grows up, we don’t expect her to say, “I hope to be mature, faithful, loving, and generous. I hope to be a devoted Christian, wife, and mother.” No, we want her to say, “I’m going to be a ballerina or a scientist. Or both.”

We put our work in the world first. As a result, the inner work suffers. Just as it does in a culture of over-work and over-commitment. In a plague of workaholism, we’re unlikely to hear someone confess that they’re an inner-workaholic. But where the inner work suffers, so does the work in the world — it’s harried or dispassionate or something worse.


Right before I came on staff here at IBC, I had lunch with the pastor to whom I was going to report. In the midst of our conversation he offered me some words that likely saved my time here before it even got started. He said that while I certainly brought a lot of assets to my new position (enumerating those here would be the height of arrogance, so just use your imagination), there was one asset that was more important than any other: myself. Beyond skills, abilities, talents, experiences, or expertise, I was bringing myself, and that meant more to the staff and people of IBC than anything else. As you might imagine, those words were liberating. At the same time, they were terrifying. I think I felt more confident in the skills and abilities than I did in the self. I had a different kind of work to do, and it wouldn’t show up on my résumé.

“Before I turn to my work in the world, I have inner work to do.” — Parker Palmer

This is the work before the work. In reality, it’s the work before, behind, inside, and underneath the work. It’s the work that endures when the hard drives crash and all our TPS reports have been tossed in the recycling bin. It’s the work that imbues all our other work with grace and passion and humanity. To neglect this inner work is to undermine our work in the world and short-change those with whom and for whom we work.

As fall ramps up, God knows we all have work to do in the world. But let us not forget the work before the work.

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