Holy Week Audio Meditations

I am writing this post on the Monday of Holy Week.  While the post does not relate specifically to workplace faith and spirituality, you might nevertheless be interested in a series of daily Holy Week recorded meditations that a group of us have put together.

The drama of Holy Week was not just a struggle between the Jesus and the political and religious authorities of the day, but also a conflict between two very different ways to approach God. The conflict continues today, representing as it does two different religious tendencies that cut across sectarian and cultural lines.

The conflict intensified during the week until it resulted in Jesus’ death.  It is worth meditating on this conflict and what it might mean for us as we go through the week and prepare for Easter.  I recommend taking a break from work for a few minutes each day, and listening to these recorded meditations as a starting point for your own meditations.


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De Pree Center Event: Faith, Leadership, and the Global Marketplace

Recommended: The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary will host a lecture by Lord Brian Griffiths, Vice Chair of Goldman Sachs International, on the relationship between the Christian faith and the global marketplace, on April 10 (7p.m.) in Pasadena , CA.  It will be followed by a panel discussion.  More information is available at http://fuller.edu/Offices/De-Pree/Faith-and-Leadership-and-the-Global-Marketplace/

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Nancy Ammerman on Religion in Everyday Life

In her “Paul Henley Furfey” lecture at the annual Association for the Sociology of Religion meeting, Nancy Ammerman offered ideas about how sociologists might find religion in daily life, including the workplace.

Defining “Lived Religion”

Ammerman’s subject is “lived religion”, which she calls the “embodied and enacted forms of spirituality that occur in everyday life”, including the workplace.  Beliefs and religious membership are included in lived religion, but the term goes well beyond these to include everyday practice.  It can also apply to the workplace.

Lived religion can be found within a full range of predominantly secular domains, intermingled with the ordinary:

Just as our research project found that most of life is pretty ordinary, we also found that no social domain is always and utterly devoid of spiritual meaning.

Religion and spirituality helped individuals find meaning throughout their daily lives:

Looked at from one angle, what we found in stories of everyday life was that individuals were cultivating a religious consciousness and weaving a layer of spirituality into the fabric of their individual lives, a warp and woof that extend far beyond the institutional domain designated as “religious”.

Religion and the Workplace: A Social Process

This intermingling of the sacred and the profane frequently occurs during conversation; conversations in the workplace can sometimes be imbued with religious or spiritual significance.

This is especially likely for people who are already religiously committed; individuals are more likely to engage in spiritually significant workplace conversations if their religion has a high degree of salience, if they engage in spiritual practices, and if they attend a church or other religious entity.

These conversations are most likely to take place, and have a higher degree of religious significance, among people who believe they have a similar religious perspective:

People who perceive each other  as spiritually similar were more likely to report having conversations about religious and spiritual topics, and people who have such conversations were more likely to see religious and spiritual dimensions in their working lives.  That is, people find each other, they talk, and out of that conversation religious realities are created.

Churches’ Role In Daily Spirituality

Churches and other religious institutions can play an important role.  According to Ammerman, they can help us develop a language for our spirituality (including, in my view, our spiritual intuitions and experiences), bring the sacred forward in our consciousness, and start conversation threads that can carry over into our daily lives:

. . .the more deeply embedded people are in these organized sites of spiritually infused conversation, the more likely they are to carry strands of that conversation with them.  It is not that they have learned a set of doctrines or subscribed to a set of behavioral prescriptions.  It is that they have learned to “speak religion” as one of their dialects.

If people do not have a place where they can regularly engage in spiritual discourse and can learn a spiritual language, they are less likely to bring these into their understanding of their work lives.

Workplace Implications

It seems evident that Ammerman’s lecture and work have significant implications for the workplace.

One implication is that in the workplace, and elsewhere, the right conversations can help us connect our work with our faith, helping us find more meaning in both.  Our individual insights and perspectives are important; engaging in conversations gives us more opportunity to develop and apply them, potentially enriching the integration of our work and our faith.

Another implication concerns how broadly we define our shared perspective.  If  we limit our willingness to share perspectives to those who use the particular language and doctrines of our particular church, then there will probably be relatively few people with whom we can have spirituality-tinged conversation in the workplace.  On the other hand, if we acknowledge that we all stand before the great mystery of God and of our existence, and if we are open to differing attempts to deal with this mystery, we will likely find that we can expand the range of people with whom we can engage.

Religious institutions  are obviously important, for the reasons Ammerman sites.  In  my view, churches could play a more valuable role if they could learn to express more appreciation for people’s work lives.  They could also use language and stories that help people see sacred connections in their work and their workplace relationships.   This would make it easier and more natural for people to extend the conversation threads and theological perspective into the workplace.

(Nancy Ammerman’s lecture material was based on her “Spiritual Narratives in Everday Life” project, which recorded and analyzed interviews with several hundred people and was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  The lecture itself was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Sociology of Religion, published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but her most recent book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life also includes material from the project.)


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Work Engagement and The Value of Workplace Spirituality

Work engagement — the degree to which we are engaged in our work — is an important issue. The level of engagement of employees and volunteers is critically important for the health of organizations. And from the perspective of the individual doing the work, whether employed or self employed, it would be difficult to find satisfaction and fulfillment in work with which we are not fully engaged.

One would think that seeing spiritual significance in our work would encourage us to be more fully engaged, but there has been relatively little actual research on this.  There has been some, however.

Spiritual Strivings and Sanctification

Psychologist Robert Emmons found in his study of personal strivings that strivings imbued with spiritual significance appear frequently in interviews and are considered especially important by those who mention them:

“Although the motivational triad of achievement, affiliation-intimacy, and power are well represented in strivings, they fail to capture what for many people are their most valued goals and concerns.  In particular, strivings pertaining to the transcendent realm of experience, most notably those making reference to God or some conception of the Divine, appeared with some degree of regularity in striving lists.”

Researchers in the psychology of religion sometimes refer to the “sanctification” of an activity or aspect of life (including strivings), meaning that the person sees it as spiritually significant.  Annette Mahoney and Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green University found that “people are likely to invest more of themselves in the pursuit and care of those things that are sanctified than in the search for other ends.”  They are also more likely to find satisfaction and a sense of well-being from activities that they consider to be sanctified or have a spiritual connection.

Sanctification of Work?

Some people have been able to see the spiritual significance of their work, whether they speak of it as sanctified or use other terminology.  Does this lead to greater engagement?  Some research (with admittedly narrow samples) suggests the answer is yes.

Most recently (2014), a team of psychological researchers (Stephen Carroll, Joseph Stewart-Sicking, and Barbara Thompson) conducted a large scale study (n=827) among Catholic school employees to determine if there is a positive link between viewing work as sanctified and having positive work attitudes.  The results suggest that there is; people who were on the high end of the Sanctification of Work Scale, which means that they were inclined to see spiritual or religious value in their work, were also more likely to have higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment with lower turnover intention.  This seems to speak to engagement. 

Similar results were found by earlier research (2008) conducted by Alan Walker, Megan Jones, Karl Wuensch, Aziz Shahnaz, and John Cope  with a smaller sample (n=103 ), using a network of volunteers (all full time employees in a variety of industries).  This study found that respondents “who sanctify their jobs are more satisfied, more committed to their organization, and at the same time less likely to leave.”

Practical Implications

The authors of both workplace studies point out that more research needs to be done with broader samples to validate the conclusions. This is true, but as a practical matter there is already good reason to expect that recognizing spiritual significance in our work is likely to increase engagement, effectiveness, and satisfaction.  This has several important implications:

1. Individuals who are able to see their work as a calling, or to at least to find spiritual significance in it, are more likely to find a deeper sense of fulfillment in their work. (Related C.F.E. page)

2. There are benefits for organizations that allow employees the freedom to bring their faith and spirituality to work; employees are more likely to be committed and engaged, and to experience greater satisfaction in their work.  This does not mean, of course, that organizations should allow unwanted proselytizing or favoritism.

3. Churches and other religious entities could play a valuable role by helping their members think about their work and how it might connect with their faith and spirituality.  Church leaders could begin by acknowledging the value and importance of the daily work of the laity. (Related post)

There are possible downsides, especially if we assign to work or career a misplaced ultimacy or become too rigid in our expectations; to find spiritual meaning in our work is much different than saying that our work or its results is our ultimate value or purpose, or that God has ordained success.

That said, most of us would do well to expand our faith and our sense of spirituality to include our work, and at the same time to deepen our understanding of our work so that we can see its spiritual connections.

For related information, see the Center for Faith and Enterprise Work as a Calling page.


Carroll, Stephen Thomas, Stewart-Sicking, Joseph A., and Thompson, Barbara, “Sanctification of Work: Assessing the Role of Spirituality in Employment Attitudes” in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17(6), July 2014, pp 545-556. (abstract)

Emmons, Robert A., The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns: Motivation and Spirituality in Personality, The Guilford Press, New York (quote from p. 89).

Pargament, Kenneth I., and Mahoney, Annette, “Sacred Matters: Sanctification as a Vital Matter for the Psychology of Religion” in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 15(3) 2005, pp. 179-198. (working paper)

Walker, Alan G., Jones, Shahnaz, and Cope, John G., “Sanctifying Work: Effects on Satisfaction, Commitment, and Intent to Leave”, in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 18:2008, pp.132-145. (abstract)

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Find Your Calling — Music and Acorns

MusicianFind Your Music

A few months ago I attended a retreat that focused on Celtic spirituality.  At one point, the retreat leader used a very appealing metaphor – find your own music.  He told a story of Irish musicians who, before playing, would quietly listen inwardly “to hear the music.”  He challenged us to listen for our own music, and then to play it through our lives.  I took this as a metaphor for a calling.

We think of a calling as something we are called to do, as a life mission of sorts.  Sometimes we hear people express it as something that comes from beyond ourselves, as in “I was called by God to do . . .” But people also talk of it as something that comes from from deep within us, like our own music for which we need to listen.

The Acorn Principle

AcornJames Hillman, the long time director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, used a different metaphor for a similar idea.  He spoke of the acorn principle, which is the idea that each of us is born with something inside us that we are meant to become, like an acorn that becomes a particular oak tree.  As Hillman put it in The Soul’s Code (Kindle location 143):

…each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

Perhaps we should think of a calling not only as something we are meant to do, but also as something we are meant to become.  Action and becoming are intertwined in a sense of call.

Another advantage of Hillman’s acorn is that it reminds us to be patient.  Oak trees take a long time to develop and grow.  The same is usually true of callings.  Most people develop a sense of calling not suddenly, as a flash of insight, but over a considerable period of time, with the trial and error of experience combined with much prayer and reflection.

Metaphorical Implications

These are two different metaphors with slightly different implications, but they both speak to the idea of discovering a sense of calling (or finding the deeper meaning of a life) as being mediated through something deep within us.  I believe both metaphors reflect the way most people experience their sense of calling.  And they both have the additional advantage of leaving the door open for diverse theological explanations.

(More information about your work as a calling is available here)


Hillman, James. (1996). The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York, NY: Random House (available here).


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Coping With Stress: When Religion Helps or Hurts

Coping with StressTo prepare for our recent Spirituality for Busy People class, I reread some of psychotherapist and scholar Kenneth Pargament’s classic book The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. One of his key observations is that while religion can provide relief during times of stress, the actual form of religious coping matters a great deal.  According to Pargament:

The seemingly straight forward question, ‘Does religion work,’ could not be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  Instead, the answer depends on the kind of religion one is talking about, who is doing the religious coping, and the situation the person is coping with.  Depending on the interplay among these variables, religion can be helpful, harmful, or irrelevant to the coping process. (p.312)

Religious Forms of Coping

Religious based coping can take many forms.  These can include various forms of prayer, congregational or pastoral support, reframing the threat using religious attributions, the performance of rituals, meditation, and others.

Pargament suggests three distinct approaches, or categories, relative to the individual’s role in the coping process, as quoted from page 180:

  1. The self-directing approach, wherein people rely on themselves in coping rather than on God;
  2. The deferring approach, in which responsibility for coping is passively deferred to God; and
  3. The collaborative approach, in which the individual and God are both active partners in coping.

In research conducted by Pargament and his students, the self-directing approach tended to be associated with lower scores on most measures of religiousness (though these people were nevertheless religious), greater likelihood of a “quest” approach to religion, and greater problem solving confidence.  People adopting a deferring approach tended to be more dependent on external religious authority (including doctrine) and have a lower sense of personal control.  People adopting the collaborative style had a higher frequency of prayer, a higher level of religious salience, and a “more committed, relational” form of religion (pp 181f).

Positive and Negative Effects of Religious Coping

The potentially positive benefits of religious coping are quite diverse.  They can include social support from members of the congregation and from pastors; the ability to understand negative events using religious attributions that help the person find and maintain significance and hope in the midst of stress; a sense of connection to a deeper, longer reality that can help put the current crisis into a more realistic perspective; and the psychological benefits of practices like prayer and meditation that help calm and refocus the individual.

Religious coping can also have negative effects, especially if support is not forthcoming from the congregation, the crisis leads to spiritual conflict, or the person feels like they are being punished by an angry God.

Pargament notes that the factors surrounding religious coping are complex and diverse and that much research needs to be done to clarify the distinctions between helpful and harmful forms of religious coping. Nevertheless, it seems clear (in my opinion, at least) that there are at least two points in particular we can take from Pargament’s work in this regard:

  1. Our image of God is critically important.  When God is understood as benevolent, religious coping methods are more likely to be helpful in terms of both reducing stress and constructively engaging the problem.  When we see God as primarily either judgmental or aloof, the effect is more likely to be negative (p. 284ff).
  2. If the nature of the stressor calls for some level of problem solving, constructively engaging the issue is more likely (depending on the people and the circumstances) to result in a positive outcome and overall lower distress; coping methods that consist of avoidance and passivity are more likely to have negative results on both counts.  There are, of course, exceptions — especially circumstances in which we are faced with a threat about which we can do nothing  (such as waiting for medical test results or the actions of others).

Pargament has much more to say; I recommend the book (Kenneth I. Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, and Coping, The Guilford Press (New York: 1997).

There is also more information available on the Center for Faith and Enterprise stress page.

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Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer Without a Church

Bonhoeffer StatueOne striking aspect of Charles Marsh’s new biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the degree to which Bonhoeffer’s church seemed to disappear.  For someone as committed to, and embedded within, the church as Bonhoeffer, this must have been a highly distressing experience.  How the experience seemed to affect him can have important lessons for us.

Change within the Church

In the mid-thirties, the majority of Germany’s Protestant churches joined the so-called German Church movement (the Reich Church) that pledged its loyalty to Hitler as the head of the church and that willingly accepted a degree of Nazification into its theology.  The remnant that strived to keep the faith (refusing Nazification and continuing to proclaim Christ as the head of the Confessing Church) was gone by the end of the decade; its members either accepted Nazification, or they were incarcerated, conscripted, or killed (usually in the war).

Bonhoeffer had hoped to keep the Confessing Church alive by connecting it to the international Christian community; however, even the Ecumenical Movement, which became the World Council of Churches, refused to recognize the Confessing Church in deference to the Nazified and much better established Reich Church movement.

Thus, Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian without a church and without a connection to institutional Christianity (except for a handful of foreign church friends).

How Did He React?

Paradoxically, the experience appears to have resulted in deep spiritual growth resulting from extensive contemplation.   Marsh (2014) paraphrases a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend Eberhard Bethge in June1942, nine months before his arrest:

He wanted Bethge to know that the arc connecting the disciple to the physical world extended farther than he had ever imagined. He felt singularly open to “the worldly [werealm”— intrigued and “amazed” by life. “I am living, and can live, for days without the Bible,” he said. But when he opened his Bible again after an absence, he could hear and experience the “new and delightful … as never before.” “Authenticity, life, freedom, and mercy” had acquired a new significance for him. A worldliness heretofore unknown was unexpectedly refreshing his spiritual being, and with it he felt a growing aversion to all things “religious.” What a glorious discovery, the vast new spiritual energies he was feeling! It was an impulse to let things take their own course and try his best not to resist. It was his first intimation of spirituality outside the church (p. 333).

A Broader Interpretation

Undoubtedly, Bonhoeffer would have preferred a church to which he could belong, and he certainly missed preaching and the other forms of participation; this explains why he gave much thought to the church’s re-establishment in the postwar future.

Nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on whether or not there was something spiritually liberating about being released from ecclesiastical tradition, as it seemingly enabled Bonhoeffer to shift his focus and to find God’s presence in the entire world — not just in the explicitly religious realms. Through Bonhoeffer’s evolution of faith, we see an increased appreciation for life in the world apart from religious formalities.

This is certainly not an argument against the church or Christianity or even formal religion, as it is unlikely that Bonhoeffer would want his words to be taken as such; however, it is a suggestion that sometimes it is good to broaden our religious or spiritual orientation to enable ourselves to become aware of or to find God in all settings (not just the overtly religious) such as in our daily work.

(Ref: Marsh, C (2014). Strange glory: A life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York, NY: KnopfDoubleday Publishing Group.)


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Christian Mantras and Stress

Mantra PhotoA spiritual practice that can be very helpful during times of workplace stress and uncertainty is that of repeating a personal mantra.  Mantras can reduce stress whether the issue is a minor hassle or a crisis large enough to generate outright fear.  There is something about the right mantra that:

  • Puts a crisis into proper perspective
  • Connects us to a deeper reality
  • Helps us to refocus and act with greater effectiveness

What is a Mantra?

For our purposes, a mantra is defined as a short phrase or series of words used in prayer or meditation or in other spiritual practices.  Sometimes we hear the term used more generally as a phrase that reminds one of an oft-repeated principle or goal (e.g., “our mantra is that the customer always comes first “), but in this discussion, we restrict its use to its originally and more spiritual meaning.

Spiritual Mantras

People sometimes think of mantras as Hindu or Vedic, and in fact the word itself originates in Sanskrit; nevertheless, all of the major religious traditions –including Christianity– have their own variations of mantras.

The Psychology of the Mantra

In some cultures the sound of an adopted mantra is highly important.  Rhythm, alliteration, and rhyme can all contribute to the effect.  For some, it is exclusively the sound that is important, not the meaning of the words.  This sound can have a magical connotation in the mind of some people with the sound itself believed to affect the spiritual world (and hence pseudo-magical incantations such as hocus-pocus or abracadabra), but in other cases, the sound is seen not so much as magical but as having a psychological effect on the hearer. 

There are eastern spiritual teachers who even recommend mantras in a foreign language that the meditator does not understand so that the meditator does not become distracted by the meaning of the words.  In the West, and within Christianity, the meaning and devotional aspect of the words usually take precedence.  The sound can make a contribution, but the meaning of the words is primary. 

Most mantras have three to eight syllables, though they can be longer.  As an example of a longer version, some people use the words of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) as a mantra.

Selecting a Mantra & Reducing Stress

A short, memorized passage of scripture can also be used, as can any other phrase that has meaning to the individual (e.g., “praise God,” “thank you Jesus”).  It helps to have a mantra that has been used frequently and has become a habit, but as a practical matter the first use of the mantra will often be during the crisis itself.

Within the Christian tradition, mantras are usually directed toward God as a form of prayer.  Consequently, one’s concept of and attitude towards God plays a key role; maintaining a benevolent God image is important for the psychological effectiveness of tools such as mantras.

One example is, “Thy will be done.”  Its power arises from the way it addresses and turns one’s attention towards God and then reminds us of eternity and of a greater, more powerful reality.  The rhythm or cadence of the syllables also seems to contribute to its calming and refocusing effect.

Whether or not you are going through a time of stress at this moment, I recommend that you take a few minutes and select a mantra for your own use as a way to relieve stress.  Considering a favorite passage or expression might lead to some possibilities.

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Vocational Ministry — Interview with Lou Huesmann

Recommended: The current issue (October, 2014) of Leadership Journal (subscription required) has an interview with Lou Huesmann, senior pastor at Grace Brethren Long Beach.  In it he talks about how his view of pastoral ministry has changed over the years, and especially about the importance of vocational ministry.  A key quote, from near the end:

We cheer what a person is called to do outside the church.  When someone starts a new business, or takes a risk, or tries something new, we’re going to be interested in what they are doing, and we’re going to celebrate it.  I think this is why people are thriving here.  They realize we love what they are doing.”

We need more of this.

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The Role of Congregations in Faith/Work Integration

Baylor University sociologists Jerry Park, Jenna Rogers, Mitchell Neubert, and Kevin Dougherty released a new study looking at the role of congregations in encouraging healthy work attitudes.  Their study uses data collected from 1022 respondents in Baylor’s National Survey of Work, Entrepreneurship, and Religion conducted in 2010.

Park and his team looked at affective organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and entrepreneurial behavior, as measured by Monty Lynn, et al.’s, Faith at Work Scale.  The scores on these values were compared to the ratings on a Congregational Faith at Work Scale that measures the value the respondents believe their place of worship places on their daily work, and to measures of church attendance.

The study found that for affective organizational commitment and job satisfaction, there tended to be higher ratings if the respondent’s congregation places a higher value on work and the respondent has higher involvement with the congregation (as measured by attendance).  If either element is missing (less importance placed on work or lower attendance) then there appears to be no positive benefit.

The results concerning entrepreneurial behavior were more difficult to read.  Entrepreneurs on average tend to be more religious but attend worship services less frequently (possibly due to time pressure), making it harder to draw the same types of comparisons.

The conclusion seems to be that churches can help people have a healthier relationship to their work if the church places a high value on the members’ daily work and if the members attend frequently.

The study (“Workplace-Bridging Religious Capital: Connecting Congregations to Work Outcomes”) was published in the Summer issue of the Sociology of Religion (Oxford University Press), pp. 309-331.  Unfortunately, it is behind an expensive paywall.

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