Is this what I should be doing with my time and talents?
It’s the question I hear most often when I’m coaching people. It’s the outcome of wrestling with our relationship with work. (I’m in my mid 40s, so most of my friends are joining me in questioning our mere existence).
Typically the wrestling comes from something deep inside that is trying to find its lane in a winding series of on and off-ramps. Having been raised in the Christian church, I’ve done my fair share of wrestling with my own faith and beliefs. While my religious affiliations have shifted over the years, I’m pretty fueled by the desire to leave the world a better place. (Or largely by spite, if you ask my therapist.)
I spoke with Carey McDonald, EVP of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious group, about faith and its unique point of intersection between life and work. “Being open about your faith can be a way of sharing appropriate parts of yourself,” he said. It isn’t, he added, “isn’t something to hide at work.” But with faith being a bit of taboo in the workplace, I wanted to know if it should even play a role in our work.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Should faith be fueling our work?
Unless you’re working for a religious organization, that’s a personal decision. Faith helps shape who we are in the world and the values that we bring, and having a sense of values is important. Whether they’re explicit or implicit, they do shape who we are and how we show up. I think our values should fuel our work and for many people, it’s faith that fuels our values.
What should we be cautious about?
If you expect your job to meet all your emotional needs, like you may expect of a relationship, that’s a setup. You need to have appropriate boundaries in work and life. They’re important in a diverse workplace and you want to be able to allow [other] employees to bring their whole selves to work as well.
Do you see faith playing more of a role in work now than before?
We can’t overestimate the impact that the pandemic has had in creating trauma in people’s lives and how many things were disrupted. In the early phases of the pandemic, we were all running on adrenaline and maybe we could let more things go. But now we’re at a point when all those expectations have come flooding back and the emergency supports are gone.
Is it too tall an order to suggest that we align our individual values, including those fueled by faith, with the values of the company we work for?
We must define the culture we want to have, not just the one that shows up by default, or by accident, or by virtue of whoever has been here the longest. Unless companies are explicit about their values, and consciously shape them, you can default to marginalization and exploitation. Part of this is: Who gets to decide what the company values are? Is it averaging for the people who are here? What about the people who will be here in the future?
Is it realistic to think that a company can have defined values they truly live out in their behaviors—and that employees could align their own values with them?
We use the phrase, “be more committed to the mission than the outcome” so that our values are front and center. It doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to where we’re headed. Outcomes matter. It’s intent versus impact: when you’re attached to a specific outcome, it can create conflict with your values. There is a quote made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. that says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He was actually riffing from a 19th century abolitionist Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. It says that our work does matter and it’s the bending we need to be accountable for—for continuing to revisit our approach to learn and to grow, to allow ourselves to be shaped by those we’re working with and the values we’re committed to, and to be open to the transformation that allows us to bend.
What role do boundaries play in this?
In a diverse work environment, we need boundaries about the ways we show up and to be clear about what’s expected of us. For example, we’re a flexible organization with employees in four time zones. We need clear expectations about time and when we are expected to check email, but our employees choose when they work best. To balance that flexibility, we want to make sure work does not take over an employee’s life, so we’re working on how to be even more clear on the balance of this flexibility.
What advice do you have for the individual who wants their faith to fuel their work more?
It’s good to be clear about what you want out of your job. It’s okay for a job to be a job; it doesn’t have to be a calling. In faith or religious practice, you may attend something once a week, but your faith is all the time. We can show our faith and choose to be more compassionate and pay attention to who is being marginalized in our work environments. The injustice of this world is not just about personal failings—it’s about systems. Working to end racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, and ableism are things you can work on wherever you are. You don’t have to be the one that takes these on at work. But if you do decide to let faith fuel your values and values fuel your work, find others who are working on similar things in your community, your work, or even both.
To take faith further, perhaps your organization is interested in a corporate chaplain. There are a few different services out there, but we spoke with Jeff Brown, the SVP of learning at Corporate Chaplains of America. Similar to onsite coaches, these chaplains provide an outlet outside of leadership to talk about work and life, he says, with some even offering 24/7 access to support. Moving past prayer and meditation rooms, this benefit bring faith to the frontlines.
Taking faith further
🛐 How to talk about God in Silicon Valley
🙏 Can you be fired for talking about religion at work?
⛪ The 70-hour and four-day work weeks are both rooted in Christian philosophy
📲 Technology-oriented religions are coming
☸️ Before Americans turned to Buddhism for life hacks, they treated it like a dangerous cult
📿 Why you should hire a moral philosopher
You got The Memo
Send questions, comments, and your faith-filled ideas to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Anna Oakes and edited by Heather Landy. And a shout-out to this month’s artist-in-residence, Meredith Miotke.