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Theology at Work: Faithful Living in the Marketplace -- An Interview with David Miller

Your book, God at Work, was published last year. Tell us about the faith-at-work movement, and what are some of the reasons for its rise in society?

David W. Miller
David W. Miller

Broadly speaking, it’s a loosely networked collection of individuals and groups throughout the country who are all seeking to integrate faith and work. Some of the groups are comprised of people from a particular company who come together in the cafeteria or in someone’s conference room and have a half hour of prayer and Bible study. But many of the groups meet outside of work, and attendees come from a variety of companies, instead of just from, let’s say, Citibank or from J.P. Morgan.

These gatherings of people to discuss how to integrate faith and work is part of a broader societal trend where people want to live a holistic life and to be who they are. They want their work self to be aligned with their home self or their private self. They don’t want to live a bifurcated life. They want their faith to matter Monday through Friday, and not just on their Sabbath.

How has the church at large responded to faith-at-work, and what are some of your conclusions?

Now I want to be polite here. I love the Church. I’m a member of the Church. I’m now an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian denomination. We need and love the Church, and whether Catholic or Protestant, it plays a huge role, and ought to play a huge role in every Christian’s daily walk and discipleship. That said, the evidence that I found in researching my book, God at Work, is rather compelling that the Church is largely missing the boat on the issue of faith-at-work. The Church, by and large, both Catholic and Protestant, has not done a good job of being attentive to questions of faith-at-work. There are a variety of reasons for that. Many of my divinity school students (future clergy), who have not worked before seminary, go into their parish or congregation with no sense of the experience of what it means to work in the for-profit world. Moreover, at seminary they’re often exposed to a weak theology of work (if they’re exposed to any theology of work). Typically, there is an undertone of hostility toward the marketplace. So clergy preach and teach little on faith at work, and when they do, it is grounded in a pejorative or insufficient theology of work. Sadly, the church has failed people in the marketplace in this regard. But in fairness to all our clergy, I point upstream in the training process for responsibility for this problem. It’s really a little unfair to blame the clergy; they just learned what they learned in seminary. We need to go to the seminaries and say, “How are we training these people? What are we teaching them about the problems and possibilities of the workplace? What is a healthy theology of and for life at work? What understanding of creation and stewardship are we giving them?”

Why do you think so many seminary graduates and church leaders have a negative view of corporate America and the free market?

For many, it’s a theological question, as hinted at above. At seminary, based on the theological accent of the school, they might have drunk heavily from the wells of Christian socialism or early forms of liberation theology. From the latter part of the last century and still today in many schools, liberation theology, which in broad terms asks and poses many good and pointed questions that Christians need to come to terms with, often has a reductionistic approach toward the marketplace and analyzes it in materialist categories. This tends, in its more simplistic form, to view the world in a category of “oppressor and victim.” Those who have power are oppressors and those who don’t are the victims. This worldview gets overlaid onto the corporate world, and the corporate world, of course, has power and it is deemed to be the oppressor. And those who are outside of the corporate world are deemed victims. This simplistic and insufficient theological view of the marketplace has many negative ramifications for the church. There are also less theologically sophisticated ways of expressing anti-marketplace sentiments, taking selective passages from the Bible as proof texts to critique those who have power and affluence and influence. So there are some theological reasons that some clergy will either have a lack of knowledge about the marketplace or, indeed, a theology that’s rather hostile to the marketplace, offering little guidance on how to reform and redeem it.

There are also some practical and non-theological reasons for the problem you ask about. Many clergy have never worked in the world. They don’t necessarily understand the kinds of issues, challenges, and problems workers (of all levels) face daily. And the media usually provides just the negative face of business—headlines about the scandal of Enron and others, excessive pay packages for many CEOs, and corporate greed or misconduct. The business stories we see portrayed in movies like Wall Street usually are of some corporate failure. If someone’s not been in the business world, their only social exposure will be to negative caricatures. So then they go from the particular to the general and make unfair or inaccurate generalizations. Not having worked in the corporate world, they don’t know that, in fact, it could be very different.

Would you say that the faith-at-work movement has led to any specific changes in corporate policies that stress moral or ethical reforms inside businesses?

Amsterdam Marketplace
Marketplace in Amsterdam

Yes, absoultely. I’m part of a couple different faith-at-work groups for CEOs and some other groups for a variety of levels of business folks where they meet with regularity. They often function as accountability groups. They raise and discuss issues of ethics and how to apply biblical admonitions for justice and fairness in a modern context. At a more personal level, they also ask each other, “what are some of your great temptations that we can pray for you about.” So there’s this sense of being real and being honest and not putting on our plastic Sunday smile. They get down and dirty with the difficult issues of life. These faith-at-work groups help keep a lot of people anchored.

Why or how might a spiritual void or emptiness in the corporate world differ or maybe manifest itself in a different way than it would in people totally outside of this industry that are plagued with many of the same feelings of emptiness or alienation?

The marketplace is running at such an extraordinary speed and pace today, more so than many other organizations. People find they’re having to work longer hours, do more, and retool and reskill every few years just to break even, let alone to get ahead. There’s pressure to perform well 100 percent of the time. This is compounded by higher levels of international competition. It seems every time we turn around there’s another country that’s developed a product that’s faster, quicker, and cheaper than the one we make. Well, how do you respond to that? There’s pressure to perform, pressure to survive that you wouldn’t find, let’s say, in a teaching job. If you teach, you have pressures, to be sure, but it’s unlikely that your teaching job is going to be outsourced to Bangalore tomorrow.

Another difference about the work world is that there is a clear emphasis on materiality; on the products, goods, and services produced, and on money as the measuring stick of how well you perform. It’s very easy to get caught up in the temptations of having exceptional amounts of money and power. Let’s say, using the teaching world as the example again, usually money is not as big a factor. While teachers tend to be underpaid, they can still have ambitions for power. You can have power even in modest economic circumstances. The temptation in the corporate world to love money and the exceptional power it can bring is, for many Christians, a challenge. How do you responsibly deal with money as opposed to becoming beholden to money and power and having it change your character? Many in the faith-at-work movement wrestle with this challenge.

Many have noticed a surge in faith in the workplace, in the Armed Forces, and maybe even, government agencies as well. There’s certainly been a rise in media coverage. Is the faith-at-work movement as strong in the public sector as the private sector? Are there different rules in regards to diversity?

Yes, I think there is an increase of faith at work in the public sector. That government workers have come to realize they actually have more latitude to, in appropriate and legal ways, live out their faith at work or somehow address topics of integrating faith and work. They have more legal rights than they realized.

David W. Miller Book

That doesn’t mean people of faith working for the government or public sector can swing the pendulum the other way. Some try to do that, and they rightly get their wrists slapped and lawsuits sometime occur. But done rightly, folks are starting to come to the recognition and wanting to find appropriate ways, even in the government sector, to be able to express their faith at work.

What would characterize some examples of an unhealthy model or counterproductive examples in the faith-at-work movement?

That’s a good and really important question. As much as I’m a scholar of this movement and I’m persuaded by its many benefits, like any good idea, there are formulations of it that are unhealthy or problematic or that can cause more injury than good. I’d say there are three main areas of caution for the faith-at-work movement.

The first is a general one. If a company says, “We want you to bring your faith to work. We think that’s great. Go ahead and do it, as long as you’re respectful of everybody else.” Some people will think, “Well that means the company has become a church.” No! It’s still a business. It’s a place of business with business goals and objectives, and that’s the primary reason you go. So someone shouldn’t try [to] turn the corporation or the workplace into a house of worship. That’s a conceptual misuse of the faith-at-work movement.

Another, and perhaps the most obvious area of concern, has to do with the overzealous proselytizer, who obnoxiously and relentlessly is trying to convert people. This is disruptive to the work environment, and in some cases can even be considered harassment. So the overzealous proselytizer needs to be reigned in and prevented from inappropriate behavior.

The third area has to do with the question of Christian communities’ attitudes toward the gay community. As we know, there are a variety of Christian responses, ranging from finding gay lifestyles sinful, to others who think it’s perfectly fine, and others who really couldn't care less, they just don’t want to be bothered by it. Within this context, regardless of where one stands on the issue of homosexuality, it is inappropriate for a faith-at-work group to be hostile to or discriminate against gay coworkers on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Do you think many people in business view industry as a service to other humans, and do you do think the faith-at-work movement has contributed to a more pronounced theology of work or servant-type leadership?

I wish more people did think that way. And the faith-at-work movement is certainly helping this view become more common. But sadly, I think most people still don’t think of their work that way. They think that callings belong to those in the priesthood, and that daily work is simply a necessary part of life with little redeeming or theological value.

In your book you talk about how businesses and corporations are becoming friendlier to their workers who want to express or implement their faith. What do you see as obstacles that are still out there?

There are still many parts of the country or career paths or industry sectors where someone might be a little bit afraid to let it be known that they’re a person of faith. Or they’re afraid that someone might mock them or tease them or laugh about it or think, “How can you be expected to run this multi million-dollar division if you’re a Christian? That means you’re going to be a wimp. You’re not going to be able to make hard decisions.” Sadly, there are some negative stereotypes of Christians in the marketplace.

Another may be more of a structural thing. Many general counsel offices give the CEO this guidance, “You don’t want to get involved in this religion thing. That is just a mess. All we’re going to get is lawsuits. The last thing you want is a bunch of people coming and using the conference room for prayer groups. Heaven forbid, let’s not do it.” However, I argue, and the evidence seems to bear it out, that just trying to squelch the movement is a sign of poor leadership. Ducking a thorny issue is not a sign of great leadership. Moreover, the evidence seems to show that there are not a flood of lawsuits due to overzealous proselytizers or people shoving the Bible down somebody’s throat. Rather, the lawsuits are coming because companies are not accommodating the sincerely held beliefs and legitimate requests of their employees. There are often sensible, reasonable accommodations that could [be], and by law often should be, provided.

I conclude by offering this advice to corporate leaders. In the same way that companies developed family-friendly policies, recognizing the importance of family life in an employee’s well-being at work, and recognizing the variety of kinds and configurations of families, so too should companies recognize the importance of and variety of kinds of faith. I’ve coined the phrase “faith-friendly” as a way to capture this vision. Companies should strive to be faith-friendly (not faith-based), which means being respectful and welcoming of all religious traditions at work. A faith-friendly company is a natural extension of treating employees holistically, with dignity and respect, and acknowledging that an employee’s spiritual identity is a central part of what makes them tick.

David W. Miller can be reached at davidmiller@AvodahInstitute.com.