Missionaries in a Mercenary World: Negotiating faith-work boundaries in the workplace

In my previous posts in this series I talked about the character of the Mercenary, which reflects the new norm of apprehensive individualism in global corporate culture. In the next few posts I want to examine how Christians working in global corporations integrate (and segment) their faith in such environments. Subsequently I will return to consider the factors that generate and sustain the Mercenary, and why they pose such a formidable challenge to faith-work integration.

For the moment, I want to talk about some of the main approaches to studying such integration, and why we need a new approach that overcomes their shortcomings. Research examining how people negotiate boundaries between work and non-work identities in the workplaces can be categorized into two main approaches: typologies of persons and typologies of strategies.

Typologies of persons

 Studies on faith-work boundaries in the workplace often tend to rely on person-types. For instance, Michael Lindsay and Bradley Smith, based on a national study of elite evangelicals, propose a fourfold typology depending on whether the workplace is hostile or receptive to religion, and whether the individual’s expression is more overt or subdued:

  1. the Pragmatic type who attempts to witness to faith in incremental ways;
  2. the Circumspect type, focusing on “values” or inconspicuous practices such as silent prayer;
  3. the Heroic type, compelled by convictions to express faith in unreceptive environments, and
  4. the Brazen type that is more in-your-face and even triumphalist.

David Miller suggests another typology that many readers of this blog are likely familiar with. This typology is not restricted to evangelicals or Christians:

  1. The Ethics-focused type, concerned with matters of personal virtue, business ethics, and social and economic justice;
  2. The Evangelism type, focused on overtly expressing faith in the workplace;
  3. The Experience-focused type, who adopts a more theological understanding of work, such as vocation or search for meaning;
  4. The Enrichment type, keen on practices such as prayer, meditation, and self-transformation.

Helpful as the above typologies are, they suffer from two limitations. First is the assumption of tight coupling between expression and preference. These typologies don’t help us understand why a person’s preferences for integration or segmentation might vary from their actual practices.

The second assumption is one of consistency—that people behave consistently across different contexts and situations, especially in how they apply their religious beliefs. Sociologist Mark Chaves calls this assumption the “religious congruence fallacy.” Individuals I encountered in my research were “pragmatic” in some contexts but “heroic” in others, or focused equally on “ethics” and “evangelism” in some situations but not others—and I think many of us would behave the same. If we eliminate the assumptions of tight coupling between belief and practice, we can better understand the conditions that enable and constrain integration.

Typologies of strategies

Some of these deficiencies are overcome in a second approach that is used in studies of work-nonwork boundaries more broadly: typologies of strategies rather than of persons. Christena Nippert-Eng, in her analysis of people’s practices of boundary-making between realms of home and work, adopts a simple typology of “integration” and “segmentation.” She sees these as two end-points of a continuum representing how people “classify and juxtapose items, acts, thoughts, and aspects of self to accommodate social and personal expectations.”

Integration refers to the tendency to obliterate distinctions between the two realms of life and to use the same logics, mental frameworks, emotional approaches, motivations, and even objects in both realms, regardless of context or role. Segmentation refers to attempts to treat the two categories as distinct and non-overlapping, with distinct logics, frameworks, and modes of selfhood. She argues that people “sculpt” boundaries between work and non-work realms in different ways through these strategies of integration or segmentation.

In their comprehensive synthesis of research on work-nonwork boundaries in the Academy of Management Review, Lakshmi Ramarajan and Erin Reid identify four strategies—assent, compliance, resistance, and inversion—which derive from the alignment (or misalignment) of people’s preferences to include or exclude those identities in the workplace and the pressures they experience for such inclusion or exclusion. The resultant strategies generate five possible “identity states:”

  1. encompassed
  2. integrated
  3. revealed
  4. compartmentalized
  5. concealed.

These attempts are more adequate to the task than typologies of persons. Yet they too suffer from some shortcomings.

First, the use of metaphors such as “sculpting” and “strategies” suggest an overly deliberative cognitive account of how boundary work happens. But research on culture and cognition suggests that people’s identity management may be less “strategic” than suggested and more inadvertent, triggered by factors independent even of people’s espoused values and preferences.

Second, the various “identity states” reflecting integration or segmentation can’t be satisfactorily reduced to a function of “pressures” and “preferences.” People’s experiences of pressures may be independent of the actual work environment—they may impose pressures on themselves based on past experiences, or might be unaware of attempts in the environment to exert pressures on them. Further, the pressures that drive some actions may emanate from someone’s non-work identity—for instance, when people feel compelled not by workplace norms but by their religious beliefs to act in certain ways in the workplace, even though they would ordinarily not prefer to do so. Just as people follow workplace norms and expectations even though these may not align with their personal preferences, they similarly also follow non-work norms and expectations in the workplace when these may not align with their preferences.

Finally, we need to look beyond preferences and intentions to consider tacit dimensions of identity management, such as how situational cues in one’s context trigger or inhibit certain behavior, in order to better understand how people negotiate religious identities in the workplace.

States of overlap and separation

The alternative I want to propose, therefore, is a typology of not persons or strategies but states. I propose two such states—overlap and separation—each of which has further sub-categories that obtain under different conditions.

This approach allows us to examine when beliefs, practices, skills, and dispositions cultivated in the realm of faith overlap with the realm of work, as well as when such overlap is prevented—often in spite of our intentions and preferences. I will begin to unpack this chart by examining modes of overlap in the next post.




Brandon Vaidyanathan is Director of Research at The H. E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas and Public Policy Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.



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