success stories

Spirituality in the Workplace: Making Sense of a Corporate Trend

By James L. Nolan

A Muslim attorney kneels on a prayer rug in his office. A company-hired chaplain counsels and prays with a Taco Bell cashier who has a husband in prison and a daughter in rehab. A team of Xerox engineers gathers for a retreat, summoning the spiritual energies to build the company’s first digital copier-fax-printer.

These are some images that have surfaced recently in a deluge of press reports about religion and corporate America. They reflect an eclectic phenomenon ranging from bibles distributed in kitchens of fast-food restaurants to New Age workshops in which self-styled shamans help executives get in touch with their "inner warriors."

What has triggered this "explosion" of spirituality in the workplace, as some describe it? In its cover story (Nov. 1, 1999), Business Week speculated that the "largest driver of this trend is the mounting evidence that spirituality minded programs in the workplace not only soothe workers’ psyches but also deliver improved productivity." The magazine quoted one business professor as saying: "Spirituality could be the ultimate competitive advantage."

There is a dose of truth in this. Employees may feel better, and companies may do better, when faith goes to work. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And besides, the "spirituality pays" argument misses the bigger point about our calling in the work world.

As one who works with people trying to bring faith into business, I have seen the tangible benefits: healthier companies that do better for their workers, customers, and communities. However, I have also seen people challenge unethical and dehumanizing practices in their workplaces, and face hostile reactions. Their acts of conscience have unleashed destructive forces against them; some have been forced to leave their firms and even their professions.

So much for sweeping generalizations about soothing psyches and bottom-line benefits such as "reduced turnover."

The truth is that in any age gilded by materialism, like ours, people have a spiritual counter-yearning. They want to become whole, and these days, many are trying to do so by connecting their faith and work. It is a natural connection. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees business as a calling and business people as stewards of God’s creation. Applying skills and managing assets for the creation and distribution of wealth, employment, products and services -- this is no less than a vocation.

Sadly, those who believe their faith should shape their work find little help from churches or congregations. This is what I hear constantly from participants in the Woodstock Business Conference, a network of business and professional people with chapters in 17 cities.

"I see little connection between the sermons I hear on Sundays and my life the rest of the week," one executive said. Another complained: "I work in a dehumanizing business where the bottom line at the end of the day is everything. There has to be more to life. Sunday does not connect to the rest of the week for me."

To be fair, clergy members say they are honestly at a loss to articulate these aspirations. "I don’t have the vocabulary to communicate with business people," one priest confessed.

People have trained themselves to compartmentalize their faith and work lives, and yet they are hungry for something else. When asked what gave meaning to their work, senior executives in a recent survey ranked "making money" below such values as the ability to realize their full potential and being associated with a good and ethical organization.

And so, the real story at the break of the third millennium is a very old one. At root, what we’re seeing is not some desire for soothed feelings or a gimmick to increase output, but a deep-seated drive within each of us to use our talents, intelligence, and imagination, for the greater good. The search for meaning in a rapidly changing, technologically charged world has occasioned these latest yearnings. The ultimate explanation is the natural desire to realize our full humanity and enable others to do so.

As Catholics, we recognize this desire as God working in us to make life more human through our ordinary, everyday lives. Whatever our job description, we carry the challenge to bring peace, justice, and joy to the world.

James L. Nolan is executive director of the Woodstock Business Conference, a program of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. For further information, call 202-687-6565.