Separating your spiritual life from your work life can leave you feeling like two different people.
It was Ash Wednesday, and I had a dilemma. I wanted to get ashes on my forehead to mark the beginning of Lent and my commitment to observing the 40 days before Easter, but I just couldn’t do it. I was too embarrassed.
The thought of showing up to work with a large, black smudge on my forehead made me break out in a cold sweat. What would coworkers think? Would they ask me about it? Would people stare at me in meetings? Would they think I was too pious?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not ashamed of my faith. But I don’t want to be the center of attention. I’m wary of offending someone, or making coworkers uncomfortable by wearing my faith on my forehead.
So I didn’t. I didn’t go to church, and I didn’t hear the priest say “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as he was pressing ashes onto my forehead. I missed out on an important ritual of my faith because I was too afraid.
I often struggle with how much I let my faith “show” at work—or if I should at all.
I’ve been dealing with different forms of this struggle since childhood—at school or in other larger social settings. I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church where I had to witness (and take part in) door-to-door visits. It felt like cold calling on neighbors to try to convert them to Christianity—an introvert’s worst nightmare. It traumatized me. In high school I thought I was a sinner if I didn’t overtly try to convince my agnostic friends to switch to Team Christian. I remember awkwardly inviting a friend to go to church with me. I could tell she didn’t want to go—but felt obligated. These experiences left me with a form of evangelism PTSD. I cringe at any notion of forcing my faith onto anyone. No wonder I’m hesitant to expose too much of my beliefs at work.
At the same time, I also don’t want to feel like I’m living two lives: my “work” life and my “other” life. I want my life to be integrated. So what’s the answer? How can I have integrity—not having to hide parts of myself—when it comes to faith and work? And what about being light and salt? Knowing that this conflicted state of being affects many people, I decided to seek answers from spiritual scholars.
A tricky balance
For me, this isn’t about trying to convert my colleagues to my faith, but feeling free to express my beliefs freely through my actions and words. But it’s a grey area at times. Most employees and bosses alike would agree that you need to tread carefully. “In fact, some of the old gospel-sharing methods are unwise, if not flat-out unethical,” says Bill Peel, Director of the Center for Faith at Work at LeTourneau University, and author of Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work. “A workable model for evangelism must respect the nonbeliever’s integrity and vulnerability while also considering the professional’s fiduciary responsibility.”
Not only that, but if an employee is too heavy-handed when trying to convert coworkers, it may be against the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, color, national origin, and religion, requires an employer (of 15 or more employees) provide reasonable religious accommodations—which may include proselytizing. However, it also requires an employer to maintain a workplace free from unlawful harassment.
So HR managers have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to dealing with evangelism at work. They have to let employees have religious freedom, but they also have to protect employees from harassment.
Courtney Leyes writes in HR Professionals Magazine that “it’s an employer’s obligation to take reasonable steps to maintain a workplace free from unlawful harassment. If the complained-of conduct is unwelcome proselytizing,” she writes, the HR professional is not required to permit proselytizing at the expense of other employees.
John Shore, in his article, 10 Reasons it’s Wrong to Evangelize in the Workplace, adds: “Unless part of your job description reads, ‘Evangelize to your co-workers,’ you are effectively stealing from your employer when you spend company time doing that. Worse, you are making your employer vulnerable to all kinds of trouble it does not want. As one Human Resources expert succinctly put it: “Religion, like politics, is a workplace topic that is guaranteed to generate an HR sh** storm.”
Attraction, not promotion
So instead of forcing my faith on my coworkers, or going to the other extreme and shutting down my faith altogether while on the job, I tend to adhere to the “attraction, not promotion” idea. I like what St. Francis said: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
Or as author Bill Peel writes, “We must first do our jobs well. We must do our work with integrity. And we must show people that we care.”
That sounds like good advice to me.
Unlike the door-to-door canvassing I was forced to do as a child, I now express my faith more quietly. I try to do my job well and care for those I work with. I wear a crucifix that reminds me I am God’s beloved child. I post things on my Facebook page about going to mass, or add a link to an article or book that has spiritual themes. I wrote a book about God’s abundance, and I invited some of my coworkers to my book release party. I’d be surprised if anyone at work didn’t know that my faith was important to me.
I try to find “God” moments throughout the day. The spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola remind me to find God in all things. Like the time a friend at work wanted to have coffee to talk about the meaning of life. Or another time a coworker sought me out to confess her depression—and asked me how my faith gave me hope. And yet another time a friend was sobbing in the bathroom because her boyfriend had just broken up with her. I hope I was able to show Christ’s love to all of these coworkers.
Let’s face it—the work place can be brutal. It’s often a dog-eat-dog world, and the values of those around you may not match your own. We are called to be the light, and to shine brightly. But there are many ways to do that. And when I don’t know how, I just rub the crucifix around my neck and pray that God will show me the way.
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