Missionaries in a Mercenary World: The Fusion of Faith and Work

In my previous post, I introduced a new framework for thinking about how people maintain and overcome boundaries between faith and work. I proposed we consider two simple categories: overlap and separation—states that may obtain in spite of our intentions to integrate or segment faith and work.

In this post, I consider the first category of overlap: fusion. By fusion, I mean a state of overlap in which our values, criteria of worth, self-perceptions, and dispositions become identical in religious and professional spheres. In such cases, we are unable to distinguish the personal from the professional. There are three types of fusion: fusion of identity, of ideals, and of dispositions.

Identity. This mode of fusion entails an integration of one’s personal and professional calling or sense of mission in the world. When many Christian leaders talk about the integration of faith and work, this mode of fusion is often what they have in mind: a deep connection between the work one does and and one’s purpose in the world.

In my interviews with more than 120 corporate professionals in India and the Arabian Gulf, I was surprised to find that not a single one of them spoke about their corporate jobs in this way. The idea of work as a meaningful vocation emerged only among three professionals I talked to who had started their own business. These entrepreneurs saw their business ventures as responses to divine promptings. One of them, an Indian entrepreneur in Dubai, narrated how he left a well-paying corporate job to start his own business in a completely different industry, primarily because he felt God calling him to use his talent and creativity to make a difference in the world:

Now if money was the motivating factor, I would have continued in employment, right? Employment-wise, I had a situation that I couldn’t have asked for any better. I was the number-two man in an organization in Dubai. An American company where I had an American secretary. Now how many Indians can boast of that position in Dubai, right? I had check-signing authority… Virtually I was running the whole company… And then I found this talent—this unique talent that God had given me—and I felt that I must use it, for bettering myself and for making the world a better place. Today as I look back on that, I feel that I have achieved that, and I can let it grow even more and make the world a better place by ensuring that my products…will help me make the world a better place.

This respondent attributed his motivation to leave a secure career in finance and venture out into an entirely new industry to a divine calling—a calling which he saw as identical with his personal purpose.

Aside from such entrepreneurs, none of my Christian respondents working in corporate settings spoke about their job as a vocation. In mercenary fashion, they saw their jobs as principally instrumental to other ends. Their jobs were sources of income to support their families and lifestyles; their workplaces were arenas in which to develop their career mobility; and at most these workplaces served as sites in which to test and witness their faith to others.

Yet even if these respondents did not see their professional and personal vocations as identical, there were two other modes of fusion of faith and work in which many of them engaged.

Ideals. Many people I talked to claimed that the values espoused by their companies reflected and supported their personal and moral values. For instance, a Filipina woman who was senior HR director of the Dubai office of a major global company claimed that her company espoused principles that were consonant with “not just [her] religious beliefs,” but “also [her] values.” For instance, in dealing with external vendors, her company prohibited them from accepting gifts from suppliers—a policy that resonated with her personal abhorrence of bribery. Many similarly believed that “good business” reflected moral values that people everywhere would espouse.

Others expressed the idea that values espoused at work were no different from one’s personal values. An Indian prayer group leader and senior management executive in Dubai claimed that his personal religious ideals of patience and humility were central to his day-to-day life in the workplace, and were in fact enshrined in the strategic plan he had unveiled recently. He insisted he was not trying to integrate religion into a secular realm; rather, he articulated the internal values of the workplace as being identical to those he would articulate in a religious setting.

Another example of realm-fusion comes from an engineer at an American firm in Bangalore whose employee performance evaluations included assessing character traits that he personally aspired to develop. The comments he most often received on his performance appraisals were: “your patience is very low; you should be more patient with people,” “you need to improve in your leadership qualities.” By following his company’s evaluation criteria, he claimed, “Christian discipleship also falls into place, [because] they actually grade your patience, leadership qualities, and all those things. In that way, it is actually linked, but they don’t quote it scripturally, they do it professionally.” Such policies and structures allow a fusion of personal and professional ideals.

Dispositions. A third mode of fusion has to do with we way we carry ourselves. Religion can affect work through dispositions cultivated in religious settings. For instance, the national HR director in India for an American technology giant claimed that his faith shapes his life in the workplace not through a deductive application of faith-based criteria, but by shaping his implicit dispositions and orientations:

Faith has brought you up in a particular way and shaped you in a particular way. So it has [shaped] your personality. Now personality is defined by what? Upbringing, which is decided by church, family, and how you’ve been brought up. So to say faith, it doesn’t come up in your mind to say, “I am a Christian, I need to do this.” It shapes your personality and your personality decides what to do. So if you look at my record here: I can sack so many people but I don’t do that. I tell my people, “Don’t sack people, give them a chance.”… You give them a chance so that they succeed in life. By sacking them etc. you have spoilt their career.

This manager’s example suggests that such fusion may contribute to a consistent identity in the realms of faith and work, but need not be perfectly compatible with corporate goals. It may be in the company’s best interests to fire underperformers. Yet such managers claim to have developed dispositions that favor alternative courses of action that prioritize the well-being of persons. Such managers spoke in their interviews about intentionally trying to be the same person at work and in church. They also spoke about how prayer, reflection, and the experience of mentoring and themselves being mentored in church, contributed to the cultivation of such dispositions.

Such modes of fusion can obtain without people strategically pursuing them. For instance, people may find a sense of calling in certain lines of work, or find themselves behaving with a subordinate at work as they would with someone they mentor in their church groups. Such fusion can also coexist with modes of separation of faith and work—for instance, many of the respondents I quoted above intentionally avoid talking about their faith with colleagues at work.

In my next post, I will examine a second mode of overlap between faith and work, which is more strategic and instrumental.

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