Is there a temple, mosque, church, sangha, regular yoga gathering, or some other spiritual community in your life that you are reluctant to talk about at work? Communities like these can help get us through the work day, but when you’re in your workplace, do you feel like you need to limit what you say about it?
A Philadelphia attorney who works in the public sector — let’s call him Joseph — does. He chose his profession precisely because it reflects the value he places on helping people, which is linked to his religious background. In fact, before going to law school, he’d gotten a master’s degree in religion and served as a full-time pastor for a Christian congregation in another part of the country.
But how does he refer to that part of his life now?
“I say I was a program manager for a faith-based not-for-profit!” he laughs. “If I were to bring it up to a colleague or in a job interview, it would be a hurdle to get past. They’d probably assume too many things about me that aren’t true, like that I was conservative or uneducated, and I’d have to navigate that.”
Which is the real obstacle: spirituality or prejudice?
Joseph remembers a job interview early on after law school where this played out. “The interviewer was scanning my resume,” he says. “When he hit my work experience and saw my time in ministry, he looked up at me. ‘We deal with harsh crimes in our office and use quite a bit of salty language. Will that offend you?’
“I was surprised by the question. Clearly, the interviewer was judging me by his previous experience with pastors — not an entirely illogical act. I tried to show him I was different and dismiss any preconceptions he had by answering, ‘Hell no. People can say what they want around me.’ But I sensed that the damage had been done. The rest of his questions seemed to paint me as naïve and sheltered, thus unable to work in a prosecutor’s office.”
Joseph did not get the job.
“I am not claiming I was in any way discriminated against because of my work history,” he says. “But I think it was an obstacle to creating a rapport with my interviewer, a crucial part of being offered a position.”
Clearly, Joseph is careful not to spring to judgment about his interviewer, even if the reverse might not have been true. But he did feel pre-judged to be too conservative.
Curiously, it’s possible he has been judged to be too liberal on the basis of his background, as well. In another interview, Joseph says, “the clerk saw my work history and asked some questions about being a pastor. Her language demonstrated that she was a conservative Christian or at least had exposure to that tradition. After these questions, she asked, ‘Why did you leave the ministry to go into law?’ It’s a question I’ve had to answer many times. The true answer is complex, long, and intimately personal. So, I gave the interviewer my short answer: ‘I felt I could help others more as a lawyer than a pastor.'”
Though Joseph observed that the interviewer seemed to show conflictual emotions about his leaving the ministry to go into law, seeing ministry as a privileged “call,” the rest of the interview went well, and he was offered the position.
Matching actions to beliefs
These days, Joseph says he feels okay publicly identifying as a churchgoer, but he still demurs when it comes to talking about his experience as a pastor. He says it would feel liberating to be able to talk freely — without being judged — about that part of his life. “Self-censorship is difficult,” he says. “If I felt I could be wholly open about my past without judgment, I would feel more free and accepted. Now, I almost think of those three years as a secret to be hid. It would be nice not to have that burden.”
That made sense to me. Talking to me, Joseph is able to speak freely about how work and spirituality came together for him — because in reality, they are not separate for him. He gives an everyday example: A judge wanted to clear the docket early, so Joseph rushed through his cases, but at the end of the day, he felt conflicted. He says he thought of the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, the belief that each individual is worthy of respect, love and help, because everyone is created in the image of the divine.
“This belief has given my life its trajectory,” he says. “It is why I chose to become an attorney, so I could come alongside those who feel they are helpless and walk them through the legal process. Unfortunately, on that day, I did not see the opposition or their clients as beings innately worthy of respect. I saw them as obstacles to be overcome, as non-human. That’s why I felt conflicted: because my actions did not match my beliefs.”
Because his actions didn’t match his beliefs: Here, Joseph identifies a powerful intersection of spirituality and work. Would it help him to be able to express those connections verbally?
“On a totally pragmatic level it would be helpful,” says Joseph, “because we often communicate through stories and metaphors.” And on a personal level? “I think being able to freely be open about yourself just feels good. When I don’t have to hide things from others, I know they accept me for who I really am — not because they enjoy the parts I let them see.
Joseph says the idea of Adam and Eve being naked but not ashamed always resonated with him. “Not because I aspire to be a nudist,” he says, “but because I think we all desire to be fully known and fully accepted. Living a compartmentalized existence is terribly difficult.”
As someone who spends a lot of professional time listening to people talk about life and faith, I often hear yearnings and needs that beg to go much farther in the conversation about spirituality and work. As Joseph says at the end of our chat, “I think people often feel frustrated at work because they don’t process their real-life work questions through their spirituality.”