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Worshiping work

UC Berkeley’s Dr. Carolyn Chen tells ‘A Matter of Faith’ that many workers in the knowledge economy are finding their faith community at work

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Carolyn Chen

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, said during this week’s “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” that for many workers — her recent book “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley” focuses on the highly skilled ones toiling in the knowledge economy — workplaces are “the new faith communities in the new economy.”

“Work is replacing religion in the sense that professionals are looking to the workplace to meet their needs for identity, belonging, purpose and meaning that Americans once met in their faith communities or in organizations outside of work,” Chen said in a podcast that can he heard here. “At the same time, companies have taken up spirituality as a way to make their workers more productive.”

Speaking to podcast hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe, Chen said it’s increasingly common for companies to offer the services of executive coaches to the company’s senior leadership. Coaches often introduce the company’s leaders to spiritual practices, and the managers in turn begin to “talk about work using this language of calling, journey, passion and mission — the words we used to use in the religious realm,” Chen said. Human resources professionals Chen talked to “often talk about their jobs as nurturing the souls of their workers.”

“Companies understand in the knowledge economy how to develop their human capital,” Chen said. “One way is by developing their skills. A second way is by investing in [workers’] spirituality so they align the deepest parts of themselves with the mission of the company. Managing labor at the top now is very much a spiritual task, and managing labor is really about managing meaning.”

This expansive quality of work is occurring, of course, alongside declining membership in many faith communities. Chen calls Silicon Valley a “Techtopia,” the place “where work is the highest source of fulfillment.” Social institutions — work, faith communities, neighborhood associations, sports clubs — can be seen as magnets, “attracting the time, energy and devotion of the community.”

“What you see in Silicon Valley is the workplace has become this huge powerful magnet that monopolizes all the time, energy and devotion of the community,” she said. “The workplace tends to absorb all the functions of these other social institutions so that essentially people don’t need those other institutions anymore. They’re getting their needs fulfilled through the workplace.”

What’s been the response of these other institutions?

“They need to move closer to the big magnet and they need to service the big magnet in order to draw the time, devotion and energy of the community,” Chen said, and for her book she talked to some who tried to do just that.

One, a Buddhist priest, came up with the idea of bringing meditation practices to the workplace. But the company’s human resources managers told him he’d not only have to remove “a lot of the religion from his teachings” but the “ethical practices” found in the teachings of Buddha and meditation, Chen said.

She also spoke to Christian pastors “who told me similar things. All the action is going on at work.” But for some, the choice became, “Am I going to invest in children’s ministry, or in bringing Bible study to Facebook?”

Other faith leaders came up against what they considered a justice issue. Some companies would not permit hourly employees, including cafeteria workers and janitors, to attend Bible study offered in the workplace, while allowing salaried workers to attend. “Attending a prayer meeting or Bible study becomes essentially a perk of the company,” Chen said. “What we see is our faith communities mirroring the extreme social stratification that we see in these technology companies themselves.”

“It’s almost as if the employers and corporations need a chaplain for their employees,” Doong said.

“Look, we would all be better workers if we had chaplains and spiritual directors for us at work,” Chen replied. “The issue here is not about should we be less happy at work or should we not think about our work spiritually. The question is where is that happening, and is that the appropriate place? When it takes place at work, your sense of mission, your purpose and your spirituality get defined by your work.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Doong asked what impact the pandemic had on Chen’s findings, since the research occurred before March 2020.

While it’s true that “the spiritual benefits of work,” including meaning, purpose and community “aren’t as immediate and tangible anymore when you’re working over Zoom,” Chen said for many, work remains “the institution in our society around which our lives are orbiting.”

“At the same time, because of the pandemic, we’ve lost ties with other social institutions as well,” she said. “I am skeptical whether work will change. Work wants to get the most out of you, and they’re going to do as an organization what it takes to get the most out of you. The question for me is, are we developing other institutions that are going to attract our energy, time and devotion?” Those can be faith communities, but they can also be community institutions, neighborhood associations “and all kinds of other collective enterprises that might give us that sense of purpose, belonging and identity. That’s the critical question: Will we use this moment to build other houses of worship?”

“It’s something we all wrestle with, whether we work or not, are members of a faith community or a church or a civic institution or are an employer,” Doong said. “These are important things to think about.”

A new edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drops each Thursday and can be heard here. The podcast is a production of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

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