Frontlines / Christians at Work: “The Mechanical Engineer”

Paul Jeffers spoke to Solas about his faith and the world of mechanical engineering.

Solas: Tell us a little about your job? What are your roles and responsibilities?

PJ: I am a mechanical engineer, and I’m professionally licensed in the USA & the UK, and my current title is “Integration execution manager” for the “Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope”. In practice that means that I coordinate the day-to-day activities of integration and commissioning for the solar telescope on the summit of Mt. Haleakala on the island of Maui. I began with the design, contracting and fabrication of the telescope, then managed the delivery, installation and testing of the telescope-mount, and now have moved over to running the telescope operations.

Solas: And your telescope is (I think I’m right in saying!), the world’s leading telescope for looking at The Sun, Sun-activity, solar-flares – and how that affects the earth..

PJ: Exactly! Our work informs the theories that are being developed and used to predict space-weather (which affects us) and the engine that drives that is The Sun. So it’s the prediction and forecasting of that which we are really trying to understand.

Solas: What’s the best part of your job? What gives you real satisfaction?

PJ: When we integrate a new piece of technology, at the end of a long process of complex teamwork – and it works! So, for instance there was a huge sense of euphoria throughout the project when we captured our first light-images, because the amount of effort that had gone into that and number of people that had devoted a decade to this activity all came together and we were able to produce something that’s never been done before. That sense of group achievement was great, because no one person could make something this complex happen. It could only happen from a group working together with a single aim.

Solas: What challenges do you face in this environment and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those challenges?

PJ: So in the early days of the project I worked on a single contract and didn’t have anybody working directly for me. Now though I have had managerial roles added to my technical work. What takes most of my emotional energy is actually dealing with the interpersonal stuff – dealing with people. So, up at the observatory on the summit, I am managing technical matters, and directing staff in that. I’m also dealing with any number of conflicts that arise within a diverse team. These can be anything from professional disagreements about procedures, to personality clashes amongst individuals.

The other real challenge is making decisions that really affect people’s lives and careers. Questions such as “are we going to extend this person’s contract – or not”, issues such as who to promote or having to enact workplace discipline procedures occasionally.

It’s those issues that take a lot more emotional energy than working on technical issues. As a Christian I find that I don’t tend to pray much about technical issues, but I pray a lot more about personnel issues! When I have to deal with conflict or confrontation then I suppose I dwell on the fact that the people I am dealing with are all made in God’s image and that God loves them (even though they are being a complete schmuck) and that changes my attitude from being one of wanting to angrily tell people how bad their performance or decision-making has been, or what difficult people they are; to wanting to work through some of these issues with them.

Solas: So does being a Christian make a difference to the way you go about your own work? Ethic? Ethos motivation etc?

PJ: I’d hope so!! Take integrity for example. If you are in a position of responsibility and you gossip about people – you have the ability to poison someone’s career. So you have to learn to be really careful about what you say and who you say it to. I feel that integrity in the workplace is sometimes a real struggle – it might be easier to say nothing in the workplace when something is not right, than to raise an issue. But integrity sometimes requires those issues to be raised. It might be tempting to change the rules to accommodate someone I like, but being even-handed across the workforce is very important, regardless of whether the person is fun to work with or a pain in the butt!

As a Christian, I am also aware of the time that I am paid for. So I do my best to be conscientious about not stealing time. The other thing is that I have made a point of being willing to pause what I am doing in order to listen to people. So often we are driven by lists, rotas and tasks but it is really important to have time for people. It’s important to remember things about them and to ask how their kids are and what is going on in life; not just about the task at hand. Those are small things, maybe – but they are important and things which are definitely informed by my Christian faith. And of all those things, integrity really is one of the big ones.

Solas: So, do the people at your work know that you are a Christian? How do people react when they find out?

PJ: The majority of people I work with know that I am a Christian and that I go to church – and that’s usually through the “how was your weekend?” type of conversations. I tell people that we were at church, but I don’t push the conversation. So a lot of people realise that I’m a Christian, as well as times when I’ve been able to mention my faith in conversation. I also don’t swear –which is really unusual in my workplace! In fact the only two people on site who don’t swear are me and our Muslim colleague!

People react in different ways – the predominant attitude is apathy, coupled with the view that ‘I’m happy it works for you, but it’s nothing to do with me’. Hawaii has a heavily Christian background, so most of the local guys have had some kind of church background, perhaps Sunday School or a Christian Grandmother. In fact I was speaking to someone yesterday who said that her Grandmother was both Hawaiian and “deeply religious” ie. Christian. She couldn’t understand how that worked as she saw those things as being in conflict. There’s not much overt hostility to my faith as “spirituality” is really significant here. There is Hawaiian spirituality, there is the church (Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Liberal-progressives) as well as all the Hindus, hippies and Buddhists – many of whom came with the Japanese plantations. So apathy is the most common response, followed by the ‘I’m glad it works for you, but it has nothing to do with me’ view.

Solas: Have you ever had any opportunities to take things any further in terms of what you believe with any colleagues?

PJ: Yeah, some. I don’t really have many peers at work, my boss and I are in management over the whole site. I feel unsure as to the appropriateness of saying to people who report to me and who are responsible to me for their salaries and whether they get promoted or not “I am a Christian and you should be too” – that sounds in danger of becoming “rice-Christianity”!

So where I have felt more able to talk about my faith has been with colleagues who are my friends. Usually the subject has come up when there has been some issue in their lives, or they are questioning something and the conversation will naturally occur. So one colleague had a bad experience of evangelicalism in California, and so we had a number of conversations about what it means to be a Christian. My boss on the other hand was brought up with church going as a thing the family did, which involved a lot of dressing up and formality – but it made no difference to anything they did the rest of the week. And that was her perception of Christianity. A lot of the conversations I have seem to be around trying to understand what people think Christianity is and then trying to direct the conversation back to Christ. The culture here is so riddled with ‘religion’ that has browbeaten folks.

And then as we come out of the election cycle… trying to explain to people that being a Christian does not mean you are a right-wing nut! That you can be a Christian and not necessarily agree with everything the Republican Party or Donald Trump says! The failures of the church, bad experiences of Christianity and the assumed tie-up of Christianity and right-wing politics really cloud the issue here.

Solas: I was struck by the comments you made around wanting people not to see religion but to see Christ. So why do you want them to see him?

PJ: Because religion cannot save us. I can’t buy my way, or act my way, or think my way into salvation. So all this other stuff is just a distraction. We are surrounded by people both socially and at work, who have been broken by the church. And that is really sad. So if you can get past stuff that they were broken by, such as “you must speak in tongues to be a Christian”, or “you must do this, or that” and a whole bunch of other issues where the church has tried to tell people to ‘man-up and behave in a Christian way’, rather than focussing on Christ who died for us, who is our route to salvation. It is not about being a member of a particular church, or having the ‘right’ view of the endtimes, or belonging to this particular political party – but it is about the centrality of the gospel of Christ! Everything else is just noise.

Unfortunately, getting to that point of actually talking about Jesus is slow, and round-about. It can take a long time.

Solas: What advice would you give to a young Christian entering your field of work who wants to be faithful to Christ there?

PJ: I would say – don’t compromise either in your personal or professional integrity. If someone asks you to do something inappropriate or tell a ‘white lie’ – don’t compromise. Because if you start doing that early and it becomes a practice then it’s a slope – and recovering from that slope takes a lot more time than it does to slide down it. Your reputation is something that you need to protect. Now, you may be slandered, unfairly attacked because of who you are, and in a sense that’s unavoidable. But never let your reputation get dragged down by doing dumb-stuff, because that then defeats your ability to speak to people about the most important things in life.

Then, always be open to people. Make sure people know that you are open, approachable and will listen to them.

Solas: Thanks for talking to us!

Pj: No problem!


In this video, Paul explains more about his groundbreaking work in telescope engineering