Is the Workplace Spirituality Movement Christian?


An editorial by James Dennis LoRusso proclaims, “God Wants You to Work Harder, and to Stop Complaining – The goals of the “˜workplace spirituality’ movement dovetail with a conservative Christian corporate ethos.” The article focuses on the recent International Faith and Spirit at Work Conference, in which academic and leaders discussed “the challenges and opportunities with integrating faith and spirituality in the workplace.”

LoRusso makes an interesting point in his editorial about the ideological influence of the workplace spirituality movement:

Because the movement reifies entrenched neo-conservative views, workplace spirituality is actually more ideologically committed than it appears on its surface, a truth revealed plainly at the Conference.

On one hand, the attendees represented an eclectic group of religiously liberal spiritual seekers, devoted to the equality and goodness of all forms of faith. On the other hand, Christian organizations comprised the majority of conference sponsors.

LoRusso is correct in noting that all three “gold sponsors” for the conference are Christian (or at least Christian-influenced and oriented) organizations, as are John Brown University, Russell Media, and WorkMatters. At the same time, LoRusso neglects to mention that there were nineteen sponsors, meaning the distinctly Christian organizations made up less than one-third of the sponsors – this may make Christianity the most represented single religion, but it does not make Christian organizations the majority of conference sponsors (instead, the primary shared characteristic of the majority of conference sponsors is their location in the northern Arkansas / southern Missouri region).

This point is particularly important for two reasons. First, it is important to realize that the three organizations LoRusso singles out as examples of problematic corporate ethoi within Christian organizations – Tyson, Wal-mart and ServiceMaster – are all non-religious corporations, even if they have Christians in upper management. It is therefore disingenuous to ascribe to Christianity the specific positions these corporations hold and demonstrate regarding global capital and income disparity.

More significant is LoRusso’s claim that this conference demonstrates a Christian ideological undergirding of the workplace spirituality movement. We’ve just seen that, contrary to his assertion, Christian organizations were not the majority sponsors of the conference to which he responds. Is it possible that Christianity nonetheless generally infuses the workplace spirituality movement, or does the movement lean more toward the “eclectic group of religiously liberal spiritual seekers” who LoRusso claims were the attendees of the conference?

While there is extensive disagreement among experts concerning the nature of the workplace spirituality movement, one thing these experts have in common is that few claim Christianity – and particularly conservative Christianity – is the ideological foundation for the movement. Instead, for example, Robert A. Giacalone and Carole L. Jurkiewicz observe that Eastern religion forms one of the key bases for the workplace spirituality movement. Don Grant, Kathleen O’Neil and Laura Stephens argue that the workplace spirituality movement is an integral act of “creating sacred communities outside organized religion” (“Spirituality in the Workplace,” Sociology of Religion, 65.3 (2004), 281). Likewise, Sukumarakurup Krishnakumar and Christopher P. Neck, while looking at the Buddhist and Christian perspectives of work, argue that the existentialist view of spirituality “is perhaps the most connected to the concepts such as the search for meaning in what we are doing at the workplace.”

Cathy Driscoll and Elden Wiebe provide an excellent summary of the workplace spirituality movement in their paper, “Technical Spirituality at Work: Jacques Ellul on Workplace Spirituality“ (I’ve removed the parenthetical references):

Much of the ‘new’ workplace spirituality literature is secular in nature. In the 1970s, spirituality began to increasingly appear in popular literature as something that needn’t be attached to religion. For example, in much of the literature published in the 1990s, there is no reference to a particular religion or faith perspective. Marcic’s review of 100 books and 100 journals on the topic of spirituality and work found that less than 20% mentioned God or a Divine Presence. Cash & Gray noted that by broadening spirituality to a broad definition of belief, people will not connect spirituality to any one particular religion. Some liken spirituality to values or a new personality dimension. Others have described spirituality and work as combining religion, psychology, and therapy in order to market it to today’s workforce. Some have promoted the efforts by some authors such as Steven Covey to secularize spirituality so that it is more “˜corporately palatable.’ According to Mitroff & Denton, “˜spirituality is broadly inclusive and embraces everyone”…it asserts the sacredness of everything’. One definition of spirituality was found to be 116 words long. The most frequently advertised spiritualities are those that relate to “˜a metaphysic of universal energy and connection.’ This includes non-Western religion, self-help, New Age, holistic and alternative health techniques, the occult, spiritual and charismatic leaders, etc. This secular spirituality has become a multimillion-dollar market. According to Aburdene, “˜[s]eekers on the spiritual path turn to Spirit for anything and everything. Peace, compassion, love, a new car or a healthier bank account.’ In addition, most of the spirituality and work literature focuses on individual spiritual development, rather than broader social concerns.

Driscoll and Wiebe ultimately conclude, restating research by R.A. Wedemeyer and R. Jue, that the workplace spirituality movement is rooted in “pragmatic spirituality,” which is distinct from any formal belief system and instead is focused upon the “bottom line” of personal and/or organizational effectiveness and success.

You can see this pragmatic, hodge-podge nature of workplace spirituality in an article we published in the late 1990s on the extremely popular Jack Canfield’s (editor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) presentation of workplace spirituality, which fused Eastern and New Age thought with a smattering of Christian quotations to create a workplace spirituality that “makes your spirits soar and broadens your perspective of what it means to be fully human.”

There are, of course, many Christian books on being a Christian in the workplace; most Christians would readily agree that the overwhelming majority of Christians who hold positions in the secular workplace need to be equipped to live their faith at work. At the same time, however, it is also important to realize that the workplace spirituality movement generally has little to do with true Christianity – or “Christianity” of any stripe. Christians therefore need to be aware of the religious basis of much of the materials generated by the workplace spirituality movement, and to refute arguments which falsely attempt to link this spirituality – and business problems in general – to Christianity.