Spirituality in the Workplace: Accommodated or Embraced?

I've spent the last few months working with a team that was planning a partnership between a school of theology and a school of business.

The subject?

Spirituality and the workplace.

What became apparent is that we (meaning all of us, you, me, everyone still working) have yet to integrate spiritual concerns with the work that we do. Oddly—or perhaps not so oddly—secular and religious institutions have very different struggles with the issue of spirituality.

Secular leaders find it difficult to introduce spiritual concerns and prefer to talk about values. Broadly speaking, for them, the spiritual dimension of life is a highly volatile and controversial dimension of life. It is a personal matter, hedged in by laws that (rightly) protect against proselytizing.

Religious leaders, on the other hand, have every reason to talk about the spiritual dimension of the workplace, but they often rush to demonstrate that they possess good business sense and run roughshod over the spiritual dimensions of the workplace.

The net result is that those who work in both kinds of organizations struggle to integrate their spiritual lives and the work that they do. In the one venue, the spiritual is sublimated, unwelcome, or taboo. In the other it is difficult to trust that the language of spirituality has much real value beyond the bottom line.

As a result, it is not surprising that conversations about the workplace become discussions about how to accommodate the spiritual and if it can be accommodated at all.

If we did not spend as much time as we do at work, or if the spiritual dimensions of our lives were purely recreational, this state of affairs might not be so bad, but we do spend a lot of time at work and, although we are at a loss as to how to talk about it, spirituality is profoundly, if privately, important to all of us.

The concept of "values" as a surrogate for spiritual commitments barely scratches the surface. Serving up a thin, civic philosophy that has little or no bearing on what really drives and motivates people, most conversations about values end up feeling like an extended conversation about corporate policy rather than anything deeply formative.

Where we go from here in the effort to integrate our work with our spiritual lives is hard to say and it is the subject matter of a larger effort that currently engages some of my time, but one thing is clear to me already: The language of accommodation does not begin to address the real issue.

Spirituality is not something to accommodate.

If what some of us mean about the spiritual life is true, then we are spiritual and the organizations, businesses, and institutions that we lead have a spiritual dimension as well. Whether we, or the organizations that we lead acknowledge it or not, our understandings of God, one another, and the world around us shape the decisions that we make, and reify themselves in the organizations that we build—one decision at a time.

In John's Apocalypse, that is the assumption that shapes the so-called ''seven letters to the seven churches." Each letter is addressed to "the spirit" of the church in question. Each is represented by a lampstand and each admonition reminds the community that collectively, they are shaping a reality with spiritual dimensions.

Think of the dynamics at work when organizations make decisions lacking in spiritual accountability, whether they are explicitly recognized as spiritual institutions or not: the arrogance of Enron's leaders, the culture of deception in Bernie Madoff's investment firm, or the secrecy and pride that prompted Catholic bishops to move and hide pedophiles.

Conduct of this kind is possible where leaders assume that organizations are soulless machines, devoted to the accomplishment of certain tasks—and where decisions are considered purely tactical, with little or no consequences beyond the immediate moment. Each case illustrates that far more is at stake: the soul of the organization itself, not the least among them.

Until we move beyond framing the question of spirituality in the workplace as an effort to accommodate something alien and irrelevant, we are unlikely to get useful solutions. We need to begin by recognizing that the work worlds in which we spend so much time are spiritual.

11/12/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • The Spiritual Landscape
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/