Editor’s Note: Dr. Chip Roper, Founder and President of the VOCA Center, was featured as a guest writer for the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work. This piece was originally published at nifw.org.
What images and feelings come to mind when you hear the word “networking?”
Images: I picture an awkward gathering of awkward people fumbling over their paper plates, plastic cups, and elevator pitches as they try desperately to make a connection that will lead to a sale.
Feelings: discomfort, frustration, and the sinking conviction that I’m wasting my time.
After 32 years, I am still not entirely comfortable when I enter a crowded room where I don’t know most of the people. A significant percentage of the time I wonder: “Is this worth my time?”
Underneath it all is a deeper question: if my work is really an expression of God’s call on my life, am I still required to engage in these anxious attempts to make new contacts? If God is guiding and blessing me, do I need to strive so intently in the land of the awkward? Won’t he just “open doors” and make it grow if I’m being faithful to him? Is all this effort the opposite of having faith?
In this piece, I will draw on the story of Abraham to highlight a Biblical approach to networking. For those of you who are allergic to the practice, we will demystify it by showing its Scriptural roots. For those of you who enjoy networking, you will discover how you can engage in it redemptively.
GENESIS 24 AS A TEMPLATE FOR MODERN NETWORKING
In Genesis 24, we read the story of Abraham securing a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham has been through all sorts of trials and kept believing in the promises of God. He proved he wouldn’t hold anything back from God (Gen. 22). God has blessed him with his promised son, peace on all sides, and material abundance. Now it’s time to set up his son for success. He needs to find Isaac a good wife.
Abraham has three challenges:
He does not want Isaac to marry a local woman - they did not share his values or faith.
He is too old to travel to the country where a suitable bride might be found.
He did not want Isaac to leave the land. God has given them this land and Abraham seemed to fear that if Isaac returned to the country of his extended family, he might not return.
PART 1: THE COMMISSION
So what does Abraham do? He commissions his head servant on perhaps the first “networking mission” in recorded history. The servant will go to the land of Abraham’s countrymen, and he will bring gifts. He will look for God to lead him to the right family and bride. He will make an offer to the bride and her family. In the end, it will be the woman’s choice - the servant’s only responsibility is to go to the right people and make a clear offer.
What do we learn about networking from the onset of this story?
First, we see that networking involves knowing who you need to know. Abraham knew where his servant needed to go to meet a suitable bride for his son. It wasn’t a random event; it wasn’t even about convenience. It may have taken his servant 30 days to arrive in the land of Abraham’s relatives. Importantly, Abraham knew who he needed to know. He knew what circle of people to pursue.
Some of us may be frustrated in our networking because we have just tried to show up at random gatherings. Early on in career transition or business building process, random events can help us get our conversational muscles in shape. But over time, we need to focus our efforts. Who do we need to meet to accomplish what it is we are called to accomplish?
The second thing we see here is that successful networking is about delivering the offer (the offer of a follow-up conversation, of a product offer, of an invitation of some sort). It is not about the response. Even in the patriarchal ancient Near East, it was the woman’s choice to come or not. We don’t want to force people into doing business with us. We are looking for the willing.
PART 2: THE PRAYER
With his commission from Abraham and an oath to make good on fulfilling all his master’s expectations, Abraham’s servant sets on his way. Finally, after weeks of travel with camels and horses and gifts, he arrives in the country to which he was directed. Upon arrival, he says the following prayer:
“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this, I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.” (Genesis 24:12-14).
What can we learn from this passage?
First, make prayer a habitual part of your networking. How often do you pray before making a new contact? Abraham’s servant prayed for three things: 1) Success, 2) God’s faithful love to be obvious, and 3) Confirmation that he has met the right person for Isaac. What might it look like for you to do that?
In order to pray this way, it requires something else, a second takeaway from this part of the story.
Be very clear on what you’re seeking. In order to pray this way, we have to know what we are seeking. This means taking the time to think through the explicit criteria we use to determine if we’ve found what we are seeking. Sometimes in a coaching session, people will say, “I just want to know that I am doing the job that God wants me to do!” I ask, “How will you know it when you find it?”
The servant’s mission was pretty clear: find a suitable bride for his master’s son. What are you looking for? A job opportunity, industry intel, a potential client? Each is defined a bit differently. Ask yourself, “What is my goal?” “How will I recognize the right fit?” And then pray for God’s hand to be over your interaction.
PART 3: THE PITCH
As soon as the servant has finished uttering his prayer, a woman named Rebecca comes to the well where he was resting. He makes his pitch and she answers as he hoped. He offers her gifts and Rebecca accepts them. She then takes him to meet the family. He offers them gifts and repeats the whole story. Afterwards, there is a grand celebration, and before long Rebecca is on her way back to Canaan to become Isaac’s bride.
From the conclusion of the story, we can draw two final networking principles.
Generosity: The servant leads with gifts and requests, rather than his needs and demands. He is generous. A danger for networkers is the scarcity mindset; we think we are asking people for a favor instead of offering a mutually beneficial relationship. We get sucked into a needy mindset (I need a sale, I need a job), instead of a value-add mindset (I have God-given talents and capacities that enrich people and organizations). Abraham’s servant shows us to lead with giving and confidence.
Tell the Story: The narrative was essential for Rebecca and her family to understand who was proposing. This was an exciting, miracle-like story, but it only made sense with the details. What’s your story? What are your skills? What have you learned? How do you aspire to have an impact? How can you quickly and positively help people understand who you are and why you are talking to them?
Finding a bride for Isaac is one of my favorite examples of networking in the Bible. But it is far from the only one. In Scripture, we see Jesus walking along the shore to call fisherman, visiting the tax collectors booth to reach Matthew, and stopping by the well in Samaria to convince a whole village that he is the Messiah.
We see Paul going to the Synagogue in Berea, to the place of prayer in Philippi, and the Areopagus in Athens. Over and over again in the Bible, we see followers of Christ going to the place where they will find the people they need to know, committing the outcome to God, and graciously and generously holding out an offer. Perhaps we can call this the Biblical framework for networking.
In their book Designing Your Life, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans put it succinctly: “Dysfunctional belief: networking is just hustling people—it’s slimy. Reframe: networking is just asking for directions.”
Instead of a slimy exercise of selfishness or transactional goals, adopting a biblical view of networking connects us to God and our neighbors in new ways of trust and service. As we exercise our own agency, we ultimately look to God to open the doors and show us His favor. We are actively dependent on Him in the process. But it’s not just the vertical that’s important.
Networking can be redeemed when we look at it as a way to meet and serve others in our sphere. Part of the adventure of networking is asking “In what ways might God want me to share wisdom, comfort, or resources with this person?” Approached biblically, networking is a divinely constructed way to discover new neighbors to love.
So the next time you’re putting on a name tag at a networking event, reciting an elevator pitch, or asking for an informational interview over Zoom, remember: God delights in blessing His people through the generosity of others.