09 October 2022

Can’t I bring my faith to work anymore?

On Monday, Andrew Thorburn was appointed as the new CEO of the Essendon Football Club, the team the former head of NAB had followed since he was a boy. But on Tuesday, after a sustained wave of media, club and political pressure, Thorburn was forced to resign - not because of a scandal or unethical behaviour or that he lacked the skillset, but because he is an active member and leader of a local Melbourne church. And his church (City on a Hill), which he volunteers his time and governance skills to, is a regular Anglican church with orthodox views on the gospel, the biblical vision of human sexuality, marriage and the inherent worth of all life, even unborn life. The church, whom my good mate Andy was the former Executive Pastor, was portrayed as “outrageous”, “extreme”, “radical”, “absolutely appalling” and intolerable to the values of modern Australia. 

Anyhow, this raises a much broader question for people of any faith today as they explore future careers, apply for jobs, or head off to their workplaces. Can they bring their faith, their spiritual self, their personal beliefs and values to work?

As I ponder this, I am looking at the ever-growing pile of photocopied journal articles on my desk, written over the past 20 years by organisational behaviour researchers, psychologists, human resource and management gurus. They are all studying one field, Spirituality at Work – yes that’s a field!

Interest in spirituality at work in all its forms and definitions, is not simply the domain of pastors, priests and clerics. It is now widely accepted and backed by validated data, that the healthiest, most productive workplaces are the ones where employees are encouraged to be whole people. Not simply human resources, or labour hire, but integrated whole, and often messy, human beings. We are physical, social, emotional, spiritual beings who function best when all those parts of our lives are integrated.[1] When people live dis-integrated lives - being someone with a particular set of beliefs and values in one context and someone entirely different in another - they tend to become disillusioned and frustrated. Moreover, human beings inherently seek meaning and purpose to their lives, of which work undoubtedly contributes to that pursuit.[2] After all, work (paid or unpaid) can easily consume well over 50% of our waking hours, year in year out across the span of life. So, it is not surprising that we increasingly want to spend this largest chunk of our life in an environment where we feel authentically ourselves and personally energised by what we are doing, and who we are doing it with.

As Ashmos and Duchon explain, the spirituality at work paradigm essentially recognises that people “work not only with their hands, but also their hearts or spirit.”[3] They conclude, “it is when people work with a committed spirit they can find a kind of meaning and purpose, a kind of fulfilment which means the workplace can be a place where people can express their whole selves.”[4]

And, go figure, the research repeatedly confirms they are happier, less conflicted, more creative, engaged, ethical, committed and productive people… and employees! As researchers, Regio and Cunha conclude “When people find meaning in their activities and in general feel involved in richly spiritual organisational climate, they become more healthy and happy, act in a more engaged and collaborative manner, apply their full potential to work and bring their entire selves to the organisation. They thus become more productive over the long run compared with employees in organisations where spirituality is ignored or disrespected.”[5]

Did you catch that? People who are allowed to bring their spirituality to work are better workers.

Ok, so what do we mean by ‘spirituality?’ Spirituality is, unsurprisingly, a very broad term that the experts like to disagree on. After reviewing 140 publications, Karakas identified 70 working definitions.[6] Mitroff and Denton’s definition has been popular in the literature. They defined workplace spirituality as “the effort to find one’s ultimate purpose in life, to develop a strong connection to co-workers and other people associated with work, and to have consistency (integration) between one’s core belief and the values of their organisation.”[7]While Cavanagh defined spirituality as “the desire to find ultimate purpose in life, and to live (work) accordingly.”[8]

Some definitions are primarily focused on the spiritual values and beliefs of the organisation as a whole, while others focus on the individual’s personal values and beliefs. When spirituality lives at the organisational level, it by necessity must be so generalised, nebulous and safe that it risks meaninglessness. This is exemplified in Giacalone and Jurkiewicz who define it as “a framework of organisational values that promotes employees’ experience of transcendence through work process, facilitating their sense of being connected to others in a way that provides feelings of completeness and joy.”[9] I don’t really know what that means other than good vibes at work.

Modern workplaces are increasingly realising that employees flourish (and they get the most out of them) when their quest for spirituality is acknowledged and valued as essential to their overall wellbeing. But organisations have to consider either a bottom up or top down approach to their spiritual culture (or a combination of the two). A top down approach would involve some form of corporate prescription of spirituality, as in, “here are our organisational values, manifestos and alignments with culture which we want you to champion”– e.g. "you will wear this pride Jersey in the next round of the football season."

Alternatively, a bottom up approach, would allow the individual to take the lead in their spiritual quest. But, as we have seen with the Andrew Thorburn case, it gets messy when you do. If you are going to encourage a bottom up, individual pursuit of spirituality in an organisation - what happens if a person’s spiritual quest leads them to embodied core beliefs, values and practices that are religious in nature and potentially at odds with others?

See the dilemma? You need to foster spirituality for the sake of your people and the organisation. But, there is a risk if you mandate the beliefs, values and spiritual norms, and risk if you give people freedom to work it out themselves. As water always flows toward the lowest point, I’d argue that spirituality also flows toward some form of embodied core beliefs, values and practices that are religious in nature. And should we be surprised when they do? What is spirituality after all if it never lands in real beliefs, practices and associations, which we may generally call religious in nature?

As Lynn, Norton and VanderVeen point out, “spirituality is a quest or search for meaning and religion is the specific beliefs, practices and historical and institutional scaffolding which complement that quest.”[10] Their point is that as much as people want to divorce religion and spirituality they are inevitably joined. In fact, they need each other and are both better together.

Robert Orsi explains, much of what is labelled spirituality “severs religious idioms from their precise location in the past, then posits an essential identity among those deracinated (uprooted…yeah I didn’t know what that word meant either) “spiritual” forms, on the one hand, and between the present and the past, on the other, obliterating difference. “Spirituality” does so without giving an account of the reasons for its selections, moreover masking the fact that it is making any selections at all, authorising a new canon while pretending to be surveying an established tradition.”[11] In other words, we can think “spirituality” is neutral, generic and free of dogma, but it never is. Spirituality is never context free and it is never without emerging dogmas and practices that look for all intents, religious.

In The Mystical Element of Religion (1923), Baron Friedrich von Hugel proposed that spirituality ultimately cannot flourish without the historical, institutional and intellectual dimensions associated with religion.[12] He asserts that the institutionalised and intellectual dimensions of spirituality are necessary to lift spirituality beyond its otherwise highly emotive, individualistic, therapeutic and relativistic baseline.

Von Hugel's words may be 100 years old but he could easily have been commentating on the present. Our post-modern secular culture is still deeply interested in spirituality so long as it is unhinged from historic institutional and intellectual religion. While we still crave the spiritual journey, our roadmap is largely individualistic self-authored and stripped of all vestiges of mainstream religious instruction or commitment. This feels liberating, but in the end, I think all we get are those nebulous, individualistic good vibes, that are self-serving and apparently self-saving.

So Thorburn lost his job, not because he is spiritual, but because his spirituality has intersected with a (religious) world view of human flourishing derived from the bible – a document that has fundamentally shaped the very society in which we can freely ask such questions, or as Stephen McAlpine puts it, everyone wants the fruit of Christian thinking but not the root.[13] The irony is, that those who pushed him out have equally dogmatic world views on human flourishing grounded in some other authority that they don’t care to reveal – perhaps its Michel Foucault or Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Oprah or Lady Gaga or just the relentless messaging of a consumer driven, epicurean culture where if it feels good it must be good. Everyone is being spiritually formed by their favourite prophets and dogmas and I do wish we would be honest about that as a society.

I do not for one moment deny there is a lot that Christianity has needed to answer for across the world. Our words and actions have consistently betrayed the teaching of Christ and have at times been the source of great harm for already vulnerable people. There are no excuses, and at that macro level, I am not surprised that people assume the worst. But as one who repeatedly sees how their local church can be a remarkably beautiful gift for the vulnerable, hurting and isolated, day in day out for decades. I have to admit I find it hard to reconcile the reality I see (in the grace ordinary, imperfect Christians consistently show others), with the stereotypes and headlines people read. 

When Thorburn had to choose between his church and his career people were shocked – he chose his church! Go figure, his faith is worth more than the prestige of the position. 

I wonder if anyone wonders 
why that is?

Andrew, I suspect, would have been a damn fine leader of a football club that has struggled for several years. And if power brokers, premiers and members who threatened to tear up their club membership had taken the time to understand the man, his deep spirituality, grounded in the gospel and the local church, they would have also realised he would have had the character, wisdom and sensitivity to bring the best of his spirituality to the best of his exemplary leadership in the club he so loves. Their loss.

So, can you bring your faith to work? I don't know. But for everyone’s sake, I hope you do.

[1] Jurkiewicz, C.L and Giacalone R.A, eds., Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Performance (New York: Armonk, n.d.).
[2] Viktor E. Frankl and Harold S. Kushner, Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust, trans. Ilse Lasch (London: Rider, 2008).
[3] Ashmos, D.P and Duchon, D, “Spirituality at Work: A Conceptualisation and Measure,” Journal of Management Inquiry 9, no. (2) (2000): 134–144.
[4] Petchsawanga, P and Duchon D, “Workplace Spirituality, Meditation and Work Performance,” Management Department Faculty Publications University of Nebraska, 92 (2012).
[5] Rego,A and Cunha, M, “Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Commitment: An Empirical Study,” Journal of Organisational Change Management 22, no. 1 (2008): 53–75.
[6] Kotze, M., Neil,P., & Smit, P., “Psychometric Properties of a Workplace Spirituality Measure,” Journal of Industrial Psychology 48 (2022), https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v48i0.1923.
[7] Mitroff, I.I., & Denton, E.A, “A Study of Spirituality in the Workplace,” MIT Sloan Management Review 40, no. 4 (n.d.): 83.
[8] Cavanagh, G.F, “Spirituality for Managers: Context and Critique,” Journal of Organisational Change Management 12, no. 3 (1999): 186–199.
[9] Jurkiewicz, C.L and Giacalone R.A, eds., Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organisational Performance.
[10] Lynn,M.L, Naughton, M.J, VanderVeen, S, “Faith at Work Scale: Justification, Development and Validaation of a MEasure of Judaeo-Christian Religion in the Workplace,” Journal of Business Ethics 85 (2009): 227–243.
[11] Orsi,Robert A., “2 + 2 = Five, Or the Quest for an Abundant Empiricism.",” Spiritus 6, no. 1 (2006): 113,121,146,.
[12] Lynn , Naughton, VanderVeen, 229
[13] Stephen McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t (Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2021) 00:16:20.

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