Church at Work interview with Jim Tolsma

I drive onto a yard strewn will all sorts of materials used for building. There is a stack of lumber over here, some left over plywood over there, and some drywall sitting on a trailer. Trucks are parked in what seems to be a haphazard way, though I am sure there is a reason for most of their locations. Close to the road is a new shop where a bunch of guys are finishing the drywall and installing the doors. A bit further from the road is the shell of a house; or at least its first floor, and it's here that I find Jim Tolsma sitting on the top, eating his lunch.

I’m here to talk to Jim about his work as a carpenter and how he sees his faith interacting with this work. As I park the car and begin walking toward the house, a delivery truck pulls in with a stack of trusses that need to be unloaded so while I am waiting for Jim, I wander around the house and am struck by how often we take the craft of building for granted. There are so many different things to do, and do well, in order to build a house.

Interestingly enough, building is something Jim sort of fell into.

I wouldn’t say I was looking to do this. I came out of school, I was interested in travelling; I really like travelling. I went to study to be a travel agent actually, and just didn’t have the computer skills that were really coming in then, and I just didn’t see myself as an office person.

So, after taking some time to travel with a friend to Brazil, another friend from high school offered him a job in construction.

One of the Noorts asked if I wanted to do some finishing carpentry and he would train me to do that. That was in 1989, and I’ve been working pretty much indirectly with them ever since. I’m self-employed, but pretty much working for the same company.

Initially he wasn’t really looking for a long-term career. Most of his work up to that point had been temporary odd jobs so he could save up to travel. Getting into this job however, seemed to strike a chord with him.

For me its always been more about who I work with, rather than the work I do. I like being part of a team, as long as the team gets good results and you feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day.

The typical day usually starts pretty early, hitting the job site at about 7:30. This allows them to get some work in before stopping for coffee at about 9:30 to connect with others.

When I first started it was more of a place everybody would go, and then we would share work. Kind of like a work share. I need a guy, you need a guy, can I borrow this, can you borrow that, do you have any of this? And then just camaraderie. But it turned more into hanging out with a separation of builders and the employees.

This is just one of the transitions that Jim has noticed within the industry that seems to take some of the fun or meaning out of the work.

I’ve seen a transition, ‘cause we’ve always worked in the North Shore which is usually higher end homes, right. You see a day when you first start and you don’t have much in a house, just the basics. Then over the years you see some crown mold, you see some baseboard, then you see higher end appliances, then you see a bathroom in every room, then you see a nanny’s quarters, and then you see… And you wonder, at what point is this going to stop? You know, this isn’t just a house anymore. And then something like going on the mission trip to Houston after the hurricane happens. You’re doing the same work, and you’re not getting paid for it, and you think to yourself, I’m more satisfied after a day at work here, when it used to be all about the money. And it makes you think, “What is this really about?”

This disparity seems to have had a significant impact on Jim, and caused a bit of soul searching recently. He seems to be wrestling a bit with wanting to make a real difference in people’s lives, and feeling like he is just serving an increasingly affluent population in the greater Vancouver area.

Often with a house people do stuff like [build a big fancy house] because its more about what your friends say. You know, “Look what so and so did.” And you get into this thing where now I gotta cut the lawn, and I gotta keep up with this guy, my whole weekends I’m weeding all the property I have, and then you’re like, “What am I doing here? Who are I trying to impress?”

Not that long ago, Jim went with a group of other builders to help in Houston after the hurricane. While working there he was able to see the tangible difference he was making in people’s lives. They weren’t simply fixing a house that had been damaged by flooding or wind, they were healing wounds and helping people start over. When I asked him what he felt the difference between the work he does here and what he did in Houston, Jim boiled it down to one thing.

I guess its how much you feel needed. In Houston the people were so appreciative and they started out skeptical but would be so thankful at the end. … But here, you work for someone and you think, “If I didn’t do it someone else would.” So then it must be more about the relationships if it’s not just about the physical work, because everyone’s replaceable.

I think this expresses how many of us feel. Sometimes we simply feel like a cog in a machine that could easily be replaced by someone else. In our modern, specialized society it is difficult for us to see the impact we make on others. We make things that others take and use however they see fit. In some ways, many of us work in areas that give witness to the providential character of God where we create space for others to do the work God is calling them to do. This is true of entrepreneurs, janitors, bankers, law makers, and others. The difficulty with this kind of work, is that we are not able to see the final product; there is a disconnect between what we do, and how it gets used. It makes us feel like anyone could do our work.

When we are embedded in a particular industry, it is easy to forget just how skilled we are in that area. While Jim may feel like he is replaceable, there are many of us who are not able to do what he does. He has been given many talents, abilities, and skills that allow him to do the things he does, and he works to use them well.

I’ve built a couple houses, and I’ve always thought that when you’re building your own house it’s almost like a canvas, where you’re an artist. So basically, everything you put into it, you give a little bit of yourself, right? For me, I thought about every little aspect of that house for a full year.

It is this pride of work that helps to keep Jim engaged in his work. While there is a disconnect between what Jim builds and how it gets used, what he builds is like a gift he offers to others to do with as they see fit.

It is kind of like the kingdom work, right. You don’t know what is going to happen after you leave. You could have someone say, “I’ve done the finishing and now the doors close properly but I’m not going to be seeing anything from that.” You know, you could think that. Or the person could be saying, “Ah wow, they did such a good job I’m going to commend them.” Just like when you’re planting the seeds, you don’t know what is going to happen. Some are going to take it. Some are going to love it. Some are going to say, “I’m going to bury my talents in the ground because I don’t really trust that other person.””

One of the hardest things to do is to create something and give it to someone else to do whatever they want with it, and this way Jim really the creative and trusting heart of God. God made this world, and put us in it to work it, and look after it. He did this even though he knew we were going to mess it up and he would have to come around and fix it for us.

As I walk away from the house and hear them laying sheets of plywood and hammering them in place, I can’t help but appreciate the way that God simply hands over control of this world to us, knowing full well we often make a mess of it.

So, the next time you drive past a job site and see some construction workers building a house, or some other structure, take a moment to think about the gift they are giving to others and say a little prayer of thanks; thanks for the way that they give us a little glimpse of the heart of God.

Categories: Church At Work