Being a Restorative Presence at Work - Ben Stamper

Our workplaces are broken in all sorts of ways. By greed, by selfishness, short sightedness, lack of consideration, and lack of love for others. As followers of Jesus, how can we resist replicating the brokenness and instead act as a restorative presence in our workplaces and industries? Here to talk to us today about being a restorative presence in his industry is Ben Stamper. Ben is an award winning filmmaker. He has been commissioned to create numerous short films, video installations and projections by many cultural organizations, including the Guggenheim Museum's Works and Process art series, Metlife Art, and the Center for Faith and Work, and he has received numerous awards for his documentary work about survivors of trafficking in India and Africa as well as his films about young people on the autism spectrum.

Ben was featured in The Missional Disciple: Pursuing Mercy and Justice at Work, which is a six-week workbook and video course exploring the intersection of mercy and justice and work. The course was created by the Global Faith and Work initiative at Redeemer City to City, and is available for purchase. You can learn more at

Scripture References

  • Galatians 5:22-23
  • John 15:1-17
  • Psalm 51:12-13

Additional Resources

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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

Our workplaces are broken in all sorts of ways. By greed, by selfishness, short sightedness, lack of consideration, and lack of love for others. As followers of Jesus, how can we resist replicating the brokenness and instead act as a restorative presence in our workplaces and industries? Here to talk to us today about being a restorative presence in his industry is Ben Stamper. Ben is an award winning filmmaker. He has been commissioned to create numerous short films, video installations and projections by many cultural organizations, including the Guggenheim Museum's Works and Process art series, Metlife Art, and the Center for Faith and Work, and he has received numerous awards for his documentary work about survivors of trafficking in India and Africa as well as his films about young people on the autism spectrum.

Ben was recently featured in The Missional Disciple: Pursuing Mercy and Justice at Work, which is a six-week workbook and video course exploring the intersection of mercy and justice and work. The course was created by the Global Faith and Work initiative at Redeemer City to City, and is available for purchase. You can learn more at, and we'll talk a little bit more about that in the podcast, but Ben Stamper, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Ben Stamper: Thanks so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

LA: So before we met today, I had the privilege of watching some of this content about you in the Missional Disciple series, and something that stuck with me is you described the film industry where you work as a difficult place not to be a jerk. Can you expand on that and just tell us why it's hard not to be a jerk in the film industry?

BS: Yeah, sure. The film industry, and like so many other industries, the film industry is a place where the goal, the product, the thing that everybody is striving to achieve can often eclipse the people involved in that effort and the people that are required to achieve the goal. And then of course, things become exponential the larger the scale. It just is something that requires a great deal of effort and resource and manpower, and it's tremendously collaborative, and so what can often happen in an effort like that where the deadlines are impossible to achieve, the budgets are as tight as they can be, that there can be a tremendous amount of pressure within the production where the communities that you might be working within often can receive the short end of the stick and the community that the production is embedded within is often providing support in ways that are never accounted for, and even in terms of locations or in terms of providing non-material services.

And so there's a lot of exchange between the film community and the, let's just call it the civilian community, that there's a lot of exchange going back and forth, and a lot of times the impacted community doesn't receive any sort of remuneration for damages or for broken promises or for things that they're told that they would be given And that all can happen in a very negative way without anybody even trying. Just by nature of the work, it's just very easy to get swept up into a sort of ends-justify-the-means type of attitude whether you're the director or whether you're backing up footage in the back of a truck on a laptop. Whatever role you play, it can be very easy to fall into that mindset if you're not mindful, if you're not very purposeful about your attitude and what you bring to the production, because it's just, you're trying to do something so huge and so much bigger than one person can accomplish.

LA: Well, it's a much more multi-faceted answer, 'cause I would imagine you might say, "Oh, it's hard not to be a jerk in filmmaking because everybody has such big egos and some of these... What's the word? Some of these preconceived notions that we have about filmmaking in general," but it's not that. What you said is something much more universal, which is that when you're involved in a very big project, it's easy to put the work first and say, kinda like, "Get out of my way, I'm making a thing," and the excellence that you want to have for your work actually gets in the way of you loving the people around you or even having respectful relationships with the people who are on the periphery making this work happen.

BS: Yes, yes. I think that perhaps the idea that filmmakers or any artistic industry is full of large egos and people throwing their weight around. I think that probably the majority of people entering into my industry start out as really nice people, really well-intentioned people, and for the most part are, and know how to keep their egos in check. However, it's over the course of time that we can devolve into something that's not entirely human, that is not our full selves. It's kind of like a stripping away of humanity if we give ourselves to our work in an imbalanced way, in a way that is not life-giving, in a way where work does take a higher place than it's intended to, than it should in our lives, where the project becomes more important than the person.

And that I see all the time, and that I've done that in my own life. I've experienced the effects of that on my family, on my closest relationships, and it's something that I'm always really focused on mitigating and making sure that the person right in front of me is the most important thing happening right now.

So the work itself to varying degrees, you can be working on a project that has, on paper, incredible worth, has the potential to impact people and change their lives on paper, but does it really mean anything if in the process of creating that world-changing work that the process itself robs someone of their dignity or ignores somebody in need or doesn't listen to somebody who has a serious question that needs to be answered? So for me, in my work, I'm always trying to be conscious of the fact that the work is the person in front of you always, and if it's not, then there's something out of balance.

LA: We're going deep pretty early in this conversation. Save me.

MR: We are but it...

LA: Save me, Mark. I'm already feeling like, "Oh, I thought we're gonna talk about the film industry, but Ben's talking about me. He's talking about all of us and our work."

MR: It is. I mean, that's part of what I love about Ben. Leah, you already mentioned it, that it would be... So my first pastoral call was in Hollywood actually, and so over the years, I've known a lot of people in the Hollywood film industry, and of course, I have heard or even every now and then, seen the damage created by inflated ego kind of people, and it would be easy then to sort of write it off. Whereas, what you're really calling us to, Ben, is to... It is relevant to any of us. And honestly, as you were talking, [chuckle] I was thinking about a conversation I had literally earlier this week with one of my colleagues, we are very pressed toward a deadline, and I was much more abrupt in that conversation than I wish I was. Now I don't think I was quite in the jerk category, but it would be... But I think we all know how that can happen, and the demand of getting the thing done causes us not to treat people as we should, just as we should as human beings, but especially as followers of Jesus, so I appreciate the way you've broadened it, even though you've now made it relevant to all of us, so we can't just keep pointing our fingers at the film industry.

BS: [chuckle] Yeah, easy to do. We give a lot of fodder for that kind of thing for sure.

MR: I just... I once had a friend who was working on a Brady Bunch Reunion, and he invited me to watch some filming. And one of the characters, I won't say which one, but a beloved member of the Brady Bunch was like the most obnoxious person I think I'd ever seen, and it was very disheartening. [chuckle] But... So it would be easy to say, well, they're those people. That's the problem. What you're saying is, "Not really, it's all of us and the stuff we're dealing with in our work everyday, and our relationships in our work," and I appreciate the way you're going with that.

LA: So Ben, did you come into your work in the film industry thinking, "I wanna do this a little bit differently, I'm a person of faith," or did your feeling of how you approach your work evolve over the course of your career?

BS: It was never an intentional decision of I'm going to come into this industry to change the way things are done or to make an impact on set, or the way I do films, it was never a conscious thought. Because I think the things we're talking about, they're fruit, they're the fruit of the Spirit, that's kind of the arena that these things exist in. And so you can't go into an industry armed with fruit. Once you spend that fruit, then you don't have anything to give, so you go into whatever industry you're called into with your relationship with Jesus and nothing else really.

BS: So the quality of your relationship with Jesus and your prayer life and your understanding of the scriptures, and your community life. Those are really the only things that you can be concerned with in terms of desiring to make an impact beyond the work itself.

So obviously, you want your excellence and the excellence of your work to be part of your witness, that's a given. And I think for me, that's been the source of the most anxiety for me, is making sure that my work rises to some standard of excellence, because I have this, I think sometimes, over-blown anxiety about if it isn't as excellent as I want it to be then my witness is somehow tainted. And I think that often my desire for that is good, but I know that for myself that can... It comes from a place of, I think, putting a little too much stock in what I can bring to the table. So it can get a little imbalanced, because God can use whatever He wants to reveal Himself to the world, and certainly he can use my mistakes and... When I feel like I'm producing sub-par work, surely He can use that too. [chuckle]

LA: I'm struck by this idea, when you say you don't come into a workplace situation bringing the fruit. When we talk about the fruits of the Spirit, such as love and joy and peace and patience, you can find it in the Bible, Galatians 5, verses 22-23, but it's not that we say, "Okay, I'm going into my work place today and I'm packing my backpack full of love," but that it comes from a relationship with this Holy Spirit, out of that relationship naturally evolves this fruit that will be useful to the situation. I think it's... I don't know, I could maybe forget that like, oh, it actually comes from this relationship, not from something that I'm trying to bring to my workplace because I'm so good.

BS: Yeah, and it's not something that... It's not a tidy equation either, it's not something that you can quantify of, "I'm gonna spend 15 minutes reading my devotional and then that's gonna give me what I need to go out into the world and make a difference." It's relational. And if you treated your spouse or your loved one like that then the relationship wouldn't be in a good place.

MR: You know, I really am struck. And again, Leah, you've said it, so I'm just gonna underline what you've just said. At how much this conversation is about relationships, Before we got into the podcast, we were talking about this film that you have done, and you immediately didn't talk about the film, you talked about the relationships with the people in the film, and then we're talking about film-making and you're talking about the relationships with the people, and then we're talking about spirituality, and you're talking about relationship with Jesus. And it's just striking to me that this is a conversation about work in filmmaking, and really then you're shaping it to be a conversation about the quality of relationships with your colleagues, with the people you work with, you mentioned family, and you've mentioned the Lord. And that's a pretty... To me, that's a very striking piece of this conversation.

BS: Yeah, I suppose that the first time I really was slapped in the face with this was when I was working in Brazil, and I was with a community that did a tremendous amount of work with abandoned children and worked in the favelas down there serving. And I remember riding in this van that had probably double of the capacity it was supposed to, down this mountain pass, and we had a really long day in a very, very difficult place, and I just looked around the van and everyone's packed in like sardines.

We have like an 11-hour drive ahead of us to go into the interior of Brazil, and I looked around at everybody and I just had this clear as day... This realization, "Oh, down here, People are what matter. People are what matter. Nothing else. People are what matter." And in terms of the work and the group I was with, that that was everything to them. And if you didn't have full-fledged relationships that were... That had the time to germinate and... The organic nature of spontaneity and the unprogrammed... The ability to have unprogrammed time together, then, what were you doing? What did it amount to? And so that was over 20 years ago when I just had that little thought in that van and it stuck with me ever since, and so I think that that's probably something that is always a governor on my activity, on the way that I try and conduct myself.

LA: Part of the power of films is that they give us an experience of taking us out of our normal day-to-day situations in the same way that you had that experience making a film. You know, you're down in Brazil and you're in this cramped lorry with a bunch of other people, that took you out of your day-to-day experience so you could have this realization about the importance of our relationships. And I think that's also what the arts does for us. And I think the ability to tell stories is very important there, and I also relate it to the story telling that's present in our scriptures, the parables and the scripture itself gives us a window into another way to think about our normal life in which we can pin point actually what is important.

BS: Yeah, absolutely. When you stand in front of a painting or when you sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people staring at a screen or you are in the quiet of your morning reading the scriptures, that art has to... For art to be good... If art is good, then it will change the way that you see the world and you will never see the world the same again, and art really, in my mind, is not about about self-expression, it's about collective understanding, and it's about giving us new eyes and giving us new ears, and regenerating our senses so that we can see the world really for what it is, in all its beauty, and ugliness, and wonder, and depravity. Yeah, that's the power of art.

It's incredible to think that Jesus... That His most common storytelling mode was the parable. He was always reducing the message, making it simpler and more cloaked in metaphor so that half of His audience went over their head because they were too smart, because they were looking for something more seemingly intelligent on the surface, and He was looking for a deeper wisdom that is usually found in like a reduction. That's incredible to me, that parable, the parable, the thing that is lost on the smart and intelligent, and gained by the simple and the unlearned, that should be our goal as artists, [chuckle] that should be the North Star.

MR: Well, you know, in preparation for this time, that I looked at some of your work, and one of them is a film called the Deep Place, a short film documentary. And I knew all the facts around that situation, it has to do with the enslavement and trafficking of young children, especially boys in a certain place of Africa where very young they have to work in very, very harsh and horrible conditions. And I knew about... I've known about that, and I've always thought that is a horrible thing, but I'd never... I knew it in my head, but my heart was only slightly stirred by that, and then I watched your film, and all of a sudden this thing I know becomes very real to me. It's your thing about the experience.

So I didn't go there and meet the people, but the way you filmed that and portrayed it, I was invited into this experience that took something from my head down into my heart in a way that was... It's very powerful. And I... I mean, what we're talking about here is something I literally experienced yesterday in getting ready to have this conversation with you, but I was struck at that very thing, that this thing I know, I know up here but now it's worked its way down into my heart and it's more about people. I don't know if you wanna say anything about that particular film. How does a film like that... How for you is that an expression and an experience of your faith and living out your faith in the world?

BS: Yeah, well, I'm really glad that it... Some of what we're talking about translated into and made itself... Made its way into the work, and that's always the desire, and... Yeah, I just wanna say that that film, which was very much the collective effort of this wonderful filmmaker, Lindsay Branham, and my close collaborator, Andrew Michael Ellis, and I. Lindsay and Andrew, they really taught me a lot about how to walk into a room and engage with a subject in a way that not only makes someone feel heard and respected, but when you leave, that that person...

Their dignity is intact. When somebody shares their story with you, they're sharing the most precious thing that they could ever share with you, no matter what their life circumstance is, and so that's a holy moment. And so for this particular film, The Deep Place, Lindsey, Andrew, and I, we didn't do any filming until we sat down with the subject and just sat and interviewed him for, I think it was a four-hour conversation. We had no light in the room and it just got darker and darker and darker, and none of us realized it, and when the interview was over, it was... We were just in the pitch black, but it was just... We were just so struck by how generous this person, this boy was in sharing his story, his deepest pain, and just the greatest revelations of his life...

And so I think just in that sense, a lot of what's important in this type of film-making is to allow and build in this time that is necessary to listen. It's the listening time, not just rushing ahead into something thinking, you know, how something's gonna be done, or what the story is you wanna tell. You have to allow the buffer, the buffering time, for the unexpected, to be surprised, to have your plan obliterated and a new plan start to emerge.

MR: Well, thank you for giving the time to that, and again, folks who are listening, they're probably wondering where they can see this thing, so I found it really easily. If you Google on The Deep Place, and it's on Vimeo. It's also on YouTube.

LA: When I think about people who are not filmmakers, but who are still interested in, how do I be a restorative presence in my particular industry or in my particular workplace, one of the takeaways I have from this conversation is being a listening presence and allowing more space to explore who is the person that you're sitting across the table from. I think that's actually something that's very hard to do in day-to-day work, but for that reason, is all the more restorative to workplace relationships because it is so rare perhaps.

BS: Yeah, yeah, and I think in the past, say two years, perhaps, we've been hearing a lot about this idea of listening and giving voice to people who are marginalized and people who are not able to perhaps gain an audience as readily for a variety of reasons. And I think that that's good, but I also think that sometimes when something as fundamental as listening to somebody is corporatized, like it's programmatic, then it can quickly evolve into sort of like a project that, "Okay, now I'm going to be mindful. Now I'm going to listen to the person that seems the most marginalized." And it just is like, "Come on, what are we doing?" Because that's never gonna... That's never going to give dignity to somebody. Because it's not coming from a place of genuine relationship.—When Jesus gave the Great Commission and he said, "Go and make disciples and baptize them, of all nations," he gave the directive, but we have to understand that he gave the directive after two plus years of working most intimately with a group of 12. —I don't believe that humans evolve, and what I mean by that is that I don't think that we're now at a place in society where just because listening and compassion and giving voice is now fashionable, that we're any better at doing it. I think that as Christians, each one of us needs to be in a place in our life where we are abiding in Christ, otherwise we don't have the capacity to do these things effectively. We don't have the capacity to listen to our co-worker go on and on about this or that, and try and gain a compassionate ear from us. We don't have the capacity to be truly empathic if we aren't abiding in Christ, if we're not tapped into the divine.

So, that's a long way around that question, but I do think that any attempt at being a restorative presence at work is going to be foiled or unsustainable unless we have the ability to stand before God, both alone and with community, and have a real relationship that is honest and that goes deep, that isn't... It's not just transactional, it's not like... It's not just about, "I need this, so I'm gonna put in my quiet time so that I can just check that box."

MR: You know what that reminds me of? In John 15 is one of the places where Jesus says we're to love one another. And that's really clear. And we could say, "Well, that includes listening and the things you're talking about," but that outcomes right after the clearest passage, scripture where Jesus says, "Abide in me, as I abide in you." So the capacity to love in an authentic way is an outgrowth of the abiding Jesus, which is what you just said, I just sort of pointed to the Bible passage that I think is probably one of the strongest to say, "Yeah, that's exactly what Jesus says we ought to be doing."

BS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the... In Psalm 51, the Psalmist says, "Restore to me the joy of my salvation, and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me." And then right after that, the very next line is, "Then I will teach transgressors your ways." So it's... But first we have to be restored with... Our joy has to be restored. We have to get to a point where we are meditating upon our salvation, what has been required for our salvation, the joy that comes out of that, the joy of the cross, that we would have a willing spirit, that our sustenance comes from the Lord, not from our striving, not from our ambition, but from the Lord's strength. And then, only then can we teach transgressors his ways and call sinners back to repentance. So it's really... Again, I think it does come down to this idea of fruit, and that that's fruit-bearing and that's, in my opinion, where this idea of restorative presence at work comes from.

LA: What I love about this...wrapping up our conversation about how to be a restorative presence in our work, what I'm getting is that it's not a project for me to do. Like I'm going into my workplace and thank God Leah's here being the restorative presence. That's not actually... That's a pretty self-centered way to think about a project of doing restorative presence where... What you're telling us, Ben, is how to be really more affective in our faith and restoring goodness in the places where we work, is for me to be a presence restored in my own relationship with Jesus, that in so much that I am restored through a relationship with Jesus that I get from reading scripture and meditating on what I have seen through my faith, then I'm able to carry into my workplace the same kind of presence that Jesus offers for me. And that's the restoration that's promised to those that I work with.

BS: Yeah, absolutely. I think that two things, one is that I don't think it's appropriate to go into our workplace with the idea that we're gonna change the world. It's something that we hear all the time because it can pump you up, it's like a pep talk, and it can get you through mundane tasks and situations that you would rather not be in, of like, "I'm gonna change the world through my work." It can get you to apply for that degree that you always wanted to get, and it can get you over the threshold of many things in life, but ultimately it's not really accurate. We don't go out... We don't change the world. Christ changes the world, and he may or may not use us. And he may use us in ways that we would prefer he not use us. And the ways that we often want him to use us, He seems to be using everybody but us, and that can be extremely, extremely frustrating. But when we get to the point where we realize we don't have any business announcing to the Lord, "This is the plan. I'm gonna change the world."

We've kinda got it backwards. The Lord is... He will use us at his will, and he's no respecter of persons. And that's so freeing and it's so liberating, because the pressure is not on us, the striving does not have to exist. Our ambitions should only be to... They should only drive us to the foot of the cross. And I guess lastly, along those lines, at the end of the day, this is something that probably seems very simplistic, but what do you want written on your tombstone? Do I want on my tombstone that I made some films and they were pretty okay? That's not very satisfying to think about. It doesn't really seem like in the light of eternity, very valuable. If on my tombstone, it's written that I was a disciple of Jesus, now that's something that I'm excited about and that's something that actually has worth and weight. So if I'm known as a disciple and forgotten as a filmmaker, praise Jesus, because that's the mindset I want to walk on to a movie set with.

LA: This has been a really powerful conversation. Ben Stamper, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

MR: Yes, thank you.

BS: It's my pleasure, absolutely.

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