What has been the experience of Christians in the Workplace?
Clive Morton, CWC Vice-Chair for Peterborough, has been working with Paul Ballard (former trustee) and Rev John Rackley, past president of the Baptist Union, on a project to discover the faith experience of Christians in the workplace, and offers this summary of methodology and findings of the project for the interest of readers of the CWC newsletter.
Paul Ballard’s article with much fuller detail can be found at www.umbrianretreats.com
Abstract: A group of sixteen people from a wide range of professions responded to the invitation to reflect, in writing or by interview, on their faith journey, with stress on how their faith was related to and shaped by their work life.
This article by Paul Ballard attempts to draw out, under a number of headings, ‘Roots and Shoots’, ‘the Cantus Firmus’, ‘Spirituality’, features of their experience. Some attention is given to how their faith/work self-understanding relates to their experience of ‘church’. The final paragraphs suggest that this is a small but key contribution to the contemporary interest in ‘ordinary theology’ and workplace chaplaincy.
This small and loosely structured project stemmed from a conversation between two of the authors, longstanding friends, on the terrace of an Italian holiday apartment. Thinking back over the years, the question arose as to how one, an engineer and manager and academic, with experience in industry and public service, had sustained his Christian faith. This led them to wondering, especially in a strongly secular society, where religion is marginalised, what it means to be a person of faith as a professional (taking that in the widest sense) today. On returning home, these thoughts were shared with the third author. It was agreed to see whether there was any mileage in enquiring more closely into the question. Initial conversations with a number of acquaintances found an enthusiastic response, suggesting that this was indeed a matter both of personal interest to those contacted and of possible theological and pastoral importance.
Rather than setting up a formal structured project, it was decided, within the resources available, to follow a more informal approach. Individuals with the relevant kinds of experience were asked to reflect on their experience in writing.
A short introduction to the project was prepared, the key sentences of which were:
“The place of religion in western society has been highly contested. …. Yet many, not least in professional circles, have a strong Christian faith which must have, in some way, have been integrated into their engagement in the public sphere through work and wider social activities. However, this has been a neglected theme ….. and little is known about how faith has been worked out in this context. Yet surely it is of interest, not only for a greater understanding of how religion works out in the contemporary context, but also pastorally and practically in the community of faith. We are asking you to describe your faith journey in relation to your life story and how your religious life has enhanced and/or been challenged by experience.”
The respondent was asked to react to the following questions:
- Who and what shaped your values and faith?
- What have been the significant episodes in your work life?
- What differences have your faith/values/spirituality made to you and how, in the public sphere, you have approached the work roles you have undertaken?
- What difference has the workplace etc. made to your faith/values/spirituality and any religious allegiance you may have?
A list of possible contacts across a range of professional groups and similar activities was drawn up. While there was an attempt to have as representative spread as possible, the approach was through personal contact, whether direct or indirectly, and therefore reflects the immediate circle of the authors, despite efforts to counteract that. It was clear that this was never going to be a calibrated sample, only a ‘straw vote’; but one that might be expanded on in the future. Some two dozen persons were approached. Thirteen responded positively, which with the three authors, made sixteen in all, covering a surprisingly wide spectrum of professional interest, even if there are some obvious omissions.
This small exercise has produced a wealth of personal story. Setting then side by side, it has been possible to see how they relate to the experience of the wider faith community. Each, too, makes their own peculiar contribution as to how the faith is worked out in both the contemporary Church and the economic and professional spheres.
The first thing, therefore, to say is that it has been a privilege to be able to hear these particular voices. Each such story is of importance, though too often they are lost in the corporate reality of being church, except, possibly, when the subject of personal pastoral concern. But the corporate life of the Body of Christ does not simply stand over/against the individuals involved but is made up and made real in the lives of countless individuals. This has been the concern of the so-called ordinary theology; to articulate and recognise the reality and importance of the everyday beliefs and experience of ‘ordinary’ Christians. Ordinary theology has been defined as ‘the theological beliefs and processes of believing that finds expression in the God-talk of those believers who have received no scholarly theological education’. (Ref. Astley and Francis) That is, it attempts to articulate the active faith and practices of the believer (and this surely includes the theologically articulate) as they respond to the reality of the revelation and presence of God in and through life’s journey in the fellowship of the Church. There is a dialectic here; the faith of the Church as received, usually through the official media, and the affirmed faith reality of the believer. There is a constant dialogue, at every level, shaping and exploring what the faith means and where the Spirit is taking us today, both at the Church’s structural level and for each individual or group. The consensus fidelium is very much part of the theological arena. The gospel has to be articulated afresh in every time and place.
The primary concern of the project was to look at the relation between faith and one’s profession. It would seem, however, that this concern is on the margins of the Church’s perspective, though it has been very much at the heart of post-war Industrial Mission (now referred to as Workplace Chaplaincy), especially in the era of rapid de-industrialisation in the eighties. (see: Brown and Ballard; Ballard; Torrey) Interestingly only two of the respondents referred to chaplaincy work as influential in their experience and there were hints that church life and daily work are too often separated experientially.
If, however, work can be defined as our formal contribution to and support by society then it is at the heart of our self-understanding. Indeed, we are often defined by ‘what we do’! It is, therefore, an essential dimension of the Church’s ministry, to be aware of and supportive of those embedded in the pressures and opportunities of work, not least professional work, and to listen in order to discern the Spirit’s working in society.
In fact there is an upsurge of interest in chaplaincy work, mainly as a means of extending the pastoral ministry, which should be taken seriously by the wider Church; and for those so engaged to be able to articulate something of the riches and challenges of serving Christ in the economic structures of society.
So, what we have here is the contribution of a small group of professional people, the majority of whom have for the first time been asked to tell of their journey of faith. They deserve to be heard and to be drawn into the wider theological debate.
Paul Ballard, Clive Morton and John Rackley.