2 March 2024

‘I have a responsibility to use my God-given gifts’

Michael Clarke

9 April 2023

“Integrating science and faith in the workplace” was the theme of a panel discussion at a recent conference run by ISCAST–Christians in Science and Technology. A panel of established scientists, who are also practising Christians, shared their experience. ISCAST fellow Dr Ian Harper, dean of the Melbourne Business School, facilitated the panel and Q&A.  

This month we hear from ISCAST fellow Michael Clarke. Michael is Emeritus Professor of Zoology and was head of Life Sciences at La Trobe University; he’s an expert on the effects of bushfire on fauna. 

Ian: Michael, how do you, as a practising scientist, integrate your faith into your work?  

Michael: I’ve had the privilege of being a scientist and academic for 40 years. In my wife’s family, “useless academic” was a common phrase! I’ve tried to be useful in the last 40 years, and I think my father-in-law, were he still alive, would affirm that now. 

To give some background, I’m a fire ecologist and I’ve studied animals and plants in the wild. My work’s involved a lifetime of applying for money, publishing my research findings in international journals, and supervising lots of students. 

I’ve been serving in leadership roles as head of Department in Zoology and then head of the School of Life Science. This means managing up to 200 people, very big budgets, and undergraduate courses. I’ve also had the privilege of being involved with government agencies on policy in conservation and being a witness in a Royal Commission. I’m currently supposedly retired, but I’m not very good at that! I’m a member of the Parks Victoria Board of Directors.  

My faith has always been part of my ecological life, and that faith provides two big motivations for why I do what I do. The first one is I believe all Christians – whatever their role – have a responsibility to care for this incredible planet God’s given to us, its landscapes, ecosystems, and wildlife. And so, my aim is to make my science improve how we care for the planet.  

My second motivation is from a belief that I have a responsibility to use my God-given gifts. I happen to have inherited a very curious mind. Scientists are curious people; they want to find a truer understanding of how things work. My faith teaches me that God is a God of truth, and as Augustine said, “All truth is God’s truth.” So, I’ve never had any fear or apprehension that any discovery I make would lead me away from God. In fact, if I believe in the God of truth, the closer I attempt to get to the truth, the less worried I should be.  

Read more: Why following God’s call might mean care for … insects

So, I take great delight and pride in doing science. I reckon it’s a ripper job to find out how the world works; my hope is that our insights will make us more faithful stewards.  

The second side I’d like to talk about is how my faith has infused my professional life as an academic leader. It informs my morals and my values. I’ve always tried to lead with honesty, integrity, and humility. But I’m really conscious of how fallible and how “on show” I am. Though I try to show the fruits of the Spirit, I don’t always show them. None of the biggest challenges I’ve faced professionally have had anything to do with my science. All of my biggest challenges professionally have been to do with human interactions: conflicts, broken relationships, unjust systems, inequality.  

One of the most confronting aspects of my role as Head of School was dealing with underperformance, to the point of terminating employment. Very little in my scientific training had prepared me for that, but my faith was crucial. I was always conscious of trying to balance Christian values of forgiveness, compassion and mercy with obligations to staff who might be carrying an unfair workload because of another’s underperformance. And everyone’s watching! “What’s he going to do about Fred who’s a bludger?”  

Read more: A passion for Jesus and for science drive Karen Hale’s work

Because of privacy rules, one appears to be doing nothing. And other’s opinions mount: to one person you appear too soft, to another too hard. That part of leadership has been challenging – the thorny issues, hard conversations, even sleepless nights. Lots of prayer for guidance.  

One thing I’d say to our younger people: if you have colleagues of faith around you, hang on to them tightly and meet with them. I value my colleagues of faith greatly, they hold me to account, and we share ideas. They will help you through some very rugged times. I got into this field because I was trying to work out animal behaviour. But by far the greatest mystery is understanding why humans behave the way they do! I’m convinced it will be the quality and integrity of my interactions with humans that will ultimately determine my professional legacy. 

Ian: Great insights, Michael. Thanks. Now from the audience: In your work environment, have you been able to effectively share the gospel with colleagues?  

Michael: I can’t think of an occasion where I’ve verbalised the gospel. I hope I’ve lived it. One day I helped a drunken colleague to bed, a chap who’d opposed my appointment on the grounds that I’d put “lay preacher” in my CV. But now, as I helped him to bed, he was surprised that I was quite a reasonable fellow, and he jokingly said, “Oh, I never knew you cared.” I think I was living out the gospel then. Later on, he asked me to work as his advocate in a hearing about an industrial dispute he had with management. 

Ian: To another question now: “Should Christians proactively disclose at work what some see as controversial beliefs?” How open are we about our beliefs on euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etcetera? 

Michael: Someone gave me a great analogy once. Communication is like a bridge. Building that bridge depends on the size of the truck you want to send over. Will the bridge carry the weight? So, whether I engage in controversial topics will depend on the strength of the bridge between me and the person. How well I’ve understood that topic is of secondary importance to the quality of the bridge, and how whatever I say is going to be heard. 

Ian: To a final question, Michael. What advice would you give to Christian leaders facing a situation where all options available are bad or very disappointing at best?  

Michael: I had to shut down a research centre and tell eight people they’d lost their jobs. Once that decision had been made and there was no good part about it, I would ask questions like “What’s the Christian response for me in care?” and “What does this do to the community that will exist after this decision is made?”  

Also, I’ve learnt the value of Paul’s analogy of the “body” in the secular world. As a scientist, areas like human resources, legal, finance, etcetera, were new territory for me and I wasn’t good at those aspects. But there was joy in taking advice from professionals around me, who had tremendous depth of experience. That’s the analogy of the body: this is a team event; this isn’t a one-person show. 

Ian: Your reflections will encourage our own work journeys, I’m sure. Thank you, Michael. 

This is the third and final in a series with established Christian scientists and science educators. Further conversations, some with younger Christian scientists, can be found at ISCAST: bit.ly/ISCAST-TMA. 

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