Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Work-Faith Thing

My friend Bradley Moore over at Shrinking the Camel blew my socks off this morning with his post, “Lord, Wilt Thou Not Leadest My Blog to Reach 1,000 Page Views per Day?” (Great title, by the way.) He’s asking a question, though it’s not stated that way, and it’s a question that has dogged me my entire professional life: How does this thing called faith work its way into and out of this thing called work?

At least a few of us struggle with this. I’ve been in a workplace of one sort or another since 1973, and if I count all those summers in high school I worked at my father’s printing and mailing business and the two years I worked at the college newspaper, it goes back even longer. But since 1973, at every place I worked, I’ve had to wrestle with the very questions Brad raises in his post.

What’s the spiritual purpose of my career and work? What about the inevitable conflicts with ambition and drive? How do I live my faith in an environment when the pressure to conform is almost unbearable, and I see older, wiser and more mature believers than me buckle under that, and leave their faith at the office door? And what about the office politics – how do I live my faith but not be consumed by what goes on all around me, but still somehow survive it? How do I deal with stress and burnout (and I’ve had to deal with both over the years)?

There aren’t many how-to books on this. For a long time, I thought I was living a kind of monkish, solitary life in the workplace. It was lonely, and I struggled with that loneliness. I worked at a newspaper for a short time, then a Fortune 100 oil company, and then a Fortune 100 chemical company. Except for a short, three-year stint as an independent consultant and almost a year working for an urban school district (one in total, chaotic crisis), my work has been defined by what we know, or believe we know, as corporate America.

About 10 years ago, I worked with a career coach for a few months. And she was good; she knew her stuff. I went through a number of exercises, long talks, assignments, more talks. Somewhere in the middle of process, she expressed amazement. “How have you managed to work in corporate America for as long as you have? They usually force people like you out early on – the antibodies go to work and attack the mutant.” She had a point.

I came to where I work today as an “independent contributor” – hired to do a very specific set of things and manage a very specific set of issues. It was generally stuff completely different from what everyone else in the department did. After about a year, I was pulled into fixing a problem with a speech, right at the last minute (“I fix problems” should probably be the at the top of my CV). That led to doing some speeches for the next year-and-a-half, while still doing my original job. Then I was asked to sub as corporate web site editor while the department searched for a new one. That was a blast, but I was still doing my original job and the speeches, too. A few months later, I was given two people to lead, from a completely different area. That year, the two became five, became 8, became 10. I hired a consultant to help us figure out how to be a team. Things began to hum and then soar. The whole department was then expanded, and my 10 became 24. And, oh, what work we have done, and what results we have achieved!

It’s worked the other way, too. Sometimes being too successful isn’t the best course. Sometimes responsibilities are taken away or redefined. Sometimes you go back to where you started.

Through all of this, I’ve wrestled with issues of faith. How do I respond? What do I do, or not do?

I don’t have definite answers. If I did, I’d write a best-seller and be paid astronomical fees to give speeches full of profound thoughts. But instead of answers, I keep finding myself with more questions. And it doesn't get easier with age and experience.

But I know this: I can’t be who I’m not. I have to be who I am, warts and all. Like my friend Brad, my calling isn’t to distribute tracts to my co-workers or pitch Bible verses across cubicles. Nor is it to give in to the sweet siren song of "leave your faith outside the workplace."

I’ve learned this: to take a genuine interest in people; to live your faith regardless of how you struggle with that and how much you mess up; to treat people with the dignity and grace they deserve because, like me, they’re made in God’s image and are valuable simply because of that – these are a little of what faith in the workplace may be about. But just a little.

Brad’s going to be posting additional thoughts on all of this, and I suspect it’s going to be a fine series of reads.

1 comment:

Carole Spiers said...

Agree there are few books about burnout. The Truth about Burnout By Maslach and Leiter is one of the best.

To recover from stress burnout it really is necessary to do a life style audit and only dramatic change in attitude will bring about recovery.

Recovery from stress burnout is a long journey and depends on the support of loyal friends and family.Emerging from the black hole of burnout is a sobering and wonderful experience but care has to taken not to fall back into a burnout routine.