The COVID-19 virus is going to radically change how we think about work. And it is going to radically change how we think about faith at work. For the past two years, through a grant from the Lilly Endowment, we have been immersed in collecting survey data and conducting interviews to understand how everyday people think about faith in the workplace. We have also been trying to understand how churches and pastors think about and talk about work. Our data give some initial help to pastors and other leaders in the faith at work movement as they try to adapt their faith at work ministries to this changing time.
Our survey data of over 13,000 people in the United States show that 32 percent of workers have a high school diploma or less and 21 percent have a master’s degree or higher. We anticipate that those who are at the top of their organizations are less likely to lose their jobs as a result of COVID-19; those at the top of their organizations will also undoubtedly have more responsibility for keeping their organizations afloat and people in jobs as the virus continues to wreak havoc on the economy.
A calling “For such a time as this”
In this global moment, pastors helping parishioners discern new and creative callings to respond to COVID-19 through our work seems particularly important. While we all have the same general call to turn from sin and be in relationship with God, we also have particular callings that are unique to our own circumstances, talents, interests, and opportunities. The particular call aligns our work with God’s activity in the world. A question we can ask ourselves is this: How might God want me to use my work to respond to COVID-19? Or, how might God be calling me to serve my colleagues in a time of unrest? Identifying what God is calling us to do is not just a personal task. We found through our survey that a significantly higher proportion of those who are at the top of their organizations believe their work is a spiritual calling compared to those at the bottom of their organizations. How might Christian leaders understand and communicate the value and importance of the work that others are doing? Can we help other people find an increased sense of meaning and purpose in their work? Can we help them see their work as contributing to God’s purposes in the world?
We have found through our interviews to date with people in a variety of occupations that most see the faith and work integration as happening at the individual level; examples of faith work integration that involve “being kind to others” came up often in our study. Rarely do our respondents mention bringing large scale changes to organizations, for example. In this time, it is more important than ever to bring justice and shalom to the world. What does it mean to creatively put justice ahead of other principles? What would it mean to recognize, in a profound way, our responsibilities to steward our resources in order to bring shalom to those around us — particularly to those we lead? We should give as generously as possible, and for as long as we are able. This may mean providing sick leave to hourly workers, or the flexibility for people to take care of their families. But economics may not allow us to continue operating as usual. If difficult decisions become necessary, how can we communicate with people in a way that is direct, kind, and honors their dignity?
Workplaces as holy ground
According to our data, 86 percent of Christians who attend church weekly say their faith helps them to experience meaning and purpose in their daily work tasks. We anticipate that the ways in which this occurs may need to be reimagined as COVID-19 turns our work and workplaces inside out. Seeing our particular place of work — whether it is in our home, at a medical facility, in a grocery store, or on a delivery truck — as a place where God is present and active, helps us find meaning in our work. Perhaps we should see our workplaces as holy ground as well. In these spaces we can connect with God and see what God wants to accomplish through us and our work.
Pastors have a particular role
Our data also shows 78 percent of people say they never talk with a pastor or faith leader about workplace issues. They feel that some issues are too trivial to raise with their pastors; many often discuss serious issues with a spouse or close friend or colleague. However, it may be difficult to talk with a spouse when s/he is your new “colleague.” And there may be no private time to talk with close friends about new “workplace issues” when the entire family is home. This may be the optimal time for pastors and faith leaders among us to help us reimagine what it means to integrate faith and work. In unsettled times people are often open to new ways of seeing and imagining things. People who attend church regularly but have never thought about the integration of their faith and their work will be forced through shelter in place and social distancing requirements to bring all spheres of their life together — literally under one roof. Now more than ever they may be willing to think about the intersections of their faith and their work and their family. Pastors and church leaders could provide guidance on how to do this in new ways.
Receive each day
Over and over again in Scripture we are exhorted to “fear not.” Jesus encourages us not to worry about the future, “for each day has enough trouble of its own.” In a time with so many unknowns, there are some things that the Christian does know: God is always working for our good; and nothing in this world — COVID-19 or otherwise — can separate us from the love of Christ. As we go out to work, or work from home, may we help others to be grounded in these truths.
Editor's note: This article was co-authored by three writers, as seen below.
Denise Daniels is a professor of management and executive producer of the Faith & Co film series (www.faithand.co) at Seattle Pacific University; she recently coauthored Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work (Daniels & Vandewarker).
Elaine Howard Ecklund is Herbert S. Autrey Chair of Social Sciences at Rice University, where she also directs the Religion and Public Life Program. Her forthcoming book is Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear (Brazos, May 2020).
Deidra Carroll Coleman is a DrPH candidate at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, studying health promotion and behavioral sciences. She is also a research project manager with the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.