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You CAN Take it with You ... to Work

As in other parts of life, the nature of people’s faith at work varies widely and appears in various guises. Given the breadth of expression, only a few key elements are highlighted––integration and authenticity, visibility, challenges and ethics.

For the 25% of the project participants working in religious organizations, religious values are fundamental. In one not-for-profit organization, employees are held accountable for their spiritual growth as well as their job performance, since Christian values undergird the humanitarian mission. A Sunni Muslim was inspired to study other Abrahamic sacred texts and reinvigorate his flagging observance. His expanded knowledge and renewed sense of purpose sharpened his sense of self within the context of the ‘other’. Meanwhile, employees at an Evangelical school in Seattle sign a ‘statement of faith’ and the family of students must agree to the strict religious education. An environment of like-minded people is the result, creating ready opportunities for mutual support.

Nancy, a German Protestant at a Waldorf school, likes the emphasis on authenticity. “With this education, you can’t be just a teacher. If you start having different values outside than inside the classroom, you’re not authentic.” Inclusive activities like celebrating holidays with disabled children, proves rewarding socially and spiritually, as they find things in nature to create decorations. They all enjoy making things together. In reconnecting with nature and the holiday’s essence, this more engaged approach has spilled over into her family life. She and the boys, also students at Waldorf, have found a gentle rhythm and balance.

Outside an explicit company emphasis, people have mixed feelings about their religion being known at work. One benefit is feeling at ease in a group, yet as a minority, bringing your whole self carries risk, including becoming a curiosity or a token. Beth Ann, a retired office worker, was comfortably open about being Jewish with her church-going colleagues. “I felt welcomed and didn’t feel any hesitation about discussing anything with them.” In another situation, it might have been otherwise. Jeanelle, a Muslim convert, gets tired of being reduced to her faith: “I’m working at a non-profit organization that specializes in human rights, so my faith is a non-issue, but when they want to get an Islamic perspective, they’ll ask me. There’s more to me than this headscarf and my religion.”

Although employees in secular organizations are generally private about their religion, seeing it as irrelevant to the job, visible markers of faith like Jeannelle’s headscarf alter the dynamic. Being Black, she already knew the experience of being visibly part of a group, and with the choice to wear a veil, that experience of being easily distinguished doubled. Despite her racial and religious pride, the burden of visibility weighs on her.

Even without fear of reprisal, integrating one’s faith is not simple. Jessie, a young American physician, has not yet found connectedness: “I go to work and then I have this separate life. I want all of the parts of myself to be more connected. Maybe approach medicine through a Jewish lens a little bit. I feel like my life is very disjointed and I would rather have it feel more connected.” There are also practical challenges such as getting time off and dietary restrictions. An observant Jew finds mitzvot (commandments) sometimes conflict––when dining out, does she respect the host or observe Kashrut (dietary laws)? Living authentically yet in harmony with others is complex and personal.

Another challenging yet quiet complexity is ethics––notably integrity, honesty and responsibility. For Dana “the biggest way my faith informs my work is having integrity, because I am not watched. I’m a school librarian, so it mostly has to do with use of my time.” Her active faith provides a restraining influence on temptation, though she admits it is a work in process. As Dana’s experience reflects, ethics are not pure in religious organizations––just ask children abused by Catholic priests––nor exclusive to it. Daniel began valuing honesty prior to working in the Lutheran Church: “By virtue of both journalism training and my Christian faith, truthfulness is extremely important to me. If I screw up, I admit it. If somebody asks me a question, I can either not answer it or answer it truthfully, but I can’t answer it deceptively.”

Unsurprisingly, ethics also comes into play around money. When Daniel used to monitor expense accounts, his goal was to ensure responsible outlay: “there could be a good reason for having a deluxe meal, but I used to say: ‘Grandma Schmidt didn’t give her mission money for you to go out and have an expensive steak’.” Appropriateness of expense to the evangelizing mission was the key. Honesty in relationships is another aspect. Anne, a German lab technician, avoids dishonesty in small talk: “When I’m not interested in knowing what they did last weekend, I don’t ask.” While perhaps excessive, it is another intriguing conflict of mitzvot––caring for others versus integrity. Living one’s values is an ongoing process of inhabiting the commandments.

Whether long considered or not, how religion infuses one’s work is a rich topic for reflection. Appearing in a broad range of areas from behavior to ethics, religion forms an undercurrent across the board. You can take it with you if you want. For an American Muslim:

It’s a foundation of the work I choose to do and how I work. I could be very selfish at my job. I could focus on my scholarship––go teach my class and call it a day. But I know that as a Muslim, I owe more to my students, I owe more to the institution, which means less for myself, but welcome to life.


This post was originally posted on the State of Formation website on 29 March 2019, and is still available on that platform. It was written as part of their Blogging Fellowship. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, and all quotes are given with permission.

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