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What Does Church Have to Do With Work? Some Recent Research Results

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
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Work and faith are significant life commitments for many people. But until now there has been little empirical research about how people relate their faith and their work. A new study from researchers at Rice University and Wheaton College goes a long way toward filling this gap, and it can be accessed free online at From Secular to Sacred: Bringing Work to Church.

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Denise Daniels and Rachel C. Schneider conducted a large survey of the US general population (13,270 completed responses), plus numerous in-depth interviews (194 to date) and compiled data from a Christian sub-sample to learn:

  1. How do Christians draw on their faith community in relation to work?
  2. In what ways does talk about work come up in churches?
  3. How do Christians want their churches and pastors to address the work-related challenges they are experiencing?

This brief summary of their 24 page paper will introduce you to some key observations, try to whet your appetite to read it for yourself, and suggest a few resources that might help to address further some of the questions raised.

From Secular to Sacred begins with a concise but useful introduction to previous US research and literature on the subject and then makes the following observations:

1. How do they draw on their faith community in relation to work?

  • 58% of practicing Christians somewhat or strongly agree that the skills and habits that they have learned from their faith community help them succeed at work (77% of Evangelicals, 56% of Mainline Protestants, 44% of Catholics). More regular attenders agree more strongly. (Please note: both the differences in denominational support and the stronger agreement of regular attenders apply to almost all the categories described below – see full report for details).
  • 41% of practicing Christians agree that their faith community supports them in their work or career. This is especially true during challenging situations—as 71% agree that faith guides them through stressful times in their working lives. Faith is especially helpful in guiding particular groups of respondents through stressful times in their working lives. For example, 82% of Black respondents and 85% of Asians strongly agreed, but only 72% of Hispanics and 68% of non-Hispanic whites strongly agreed.

2. In what ways does talk about work come up in churches?

  • Survey respondents seldom reported direct or explicit conversations around workplace issues within their faith community. For example, 49% of Evangelicals, 70% of Mainline Protestants, and 79% of Catholics do not participate in discussion groups about faith and work at all. And those who do, do so infrequently—less than once per month.
  • Hearing faith leaders talk directly about workplace issues is relatively rare. Only 16% of practicing Christians said that their faith leader often/very often discusses how congregants should behave at work (28% Evangelicals, 12% Mainline Protestants, 7% Catholics), with younger Chrisitans having a slightly higher percentage than older.
  • It is also uncommon for faith leaders to talk about the meaning of work (only 14% said “often”or “very often.”) Hearing about the meaning of work from a faith leader was most common among Black (21%) respondents as compared to Hispanics (17%), non-Hispanic whites (12%), and Asians (11%).
  • Few Christians engage in or seek out explicit discussions of faith and work in their faith communities, and they rarely speak to a faith leader directly about issues of work.

3. How do Christians want their churches and pastors to address the work-related challenges they are experiencing?

73 out of 88 regular church attenders interviewed had specific suggestions for their faith leaders about how to better support people in their work. These recommendations generally fell into three categories:

3.1 Encourage and Support Workers

  • Affirm the Spiritual Value, Meaning and Purpose of Work: Pastors can do more to signal to church members that, regardless of one’s occupation, work itself has spiritual value. This was expressed in comments like, “Regardless of what job you’re doing, you can seek and serve Christ in every person, and you can uphold the dignity of every human being.” Others wanted pastors to place more emphasis on individuals seeing the “purpose of God” in work, or having a sense of “mission” at work.
  • Another plain message was: “tell faith leaders to discuss faith in the workplace, openly and intentionally, and not just when it simply comes up in the conversation or when it connects to a specific point you’re trying to make.”

3.2 Pay Attention to Those Who Struggle: Challenging Professions, Women, and Job Seekers

  • Requests were made for church leaders to become more accessible and to intentionally get to know church members and their work-related struggles better. Thus congregants facing challenges, ethical dilemmas, or struggling to persevere under pressure could be better supported through prayer and counseling, or through very practical assistance like help with resume writing.
  • Respondents expressed a desire for clergy to exhibit more empathy for working people wishing that they understood better the struggles that many working people face, such as inflexible schedules, balancing family and work demands, and financial challenges.
  • Greater understanding and empathy for working people could be expressed by providing more targeted support for specific professions or groups.
  • Clergy visiting church members in their workplaces would help them to better understand particular professional worlds.
  • A number of respondents wanted increased support by churches and pastors for working women in their congregations, especially those with families, by offering more affirmative Biblical messages about women who work. They felt that this would give rise to more confidence in the workplace as well as better acceptance within congregations.
  • Several people mentioned the need for churches to do more to support people in the emotional and practical challenges of job-seeking. This could include encouraging people in the job application process, serving as a liaison to outside networks and resources, helping with financial planning, or offering workshops and job fairs at church.
  • The researchers conclude: “It is clear that Christians place a high value on clergy affirming the value of work—regardless of occupation—and they want clergy to demonstrate a more nuanced (and non-judgmental) awareness of the needs of working people. They also want faith leaders to find creative practical solutions to addressing the unique work challenges that different groups face within church structures and pastoral ministry.”

3.3 Provide Guidance for Engaging Faith at Work

Many Christians interviewed expressed a desire for more explicit guidance from clergy and churches on how to effectively navigate the topic of faith itself at work. Overall, these respondents wanted more concrete teaching and training on how to expresses their faith appropriately or engage with different religious or political views in the workplace.

  • Help with Navigating a Diverse Work Environment. Younger respondents in particular felt it is important that faith leaders stress workplace values of equality and respect for difference and religious diversity rather than seeking to convert others. They see leaders playing an important role in promoting values of compassion and understanding of others.
  • Expressing Their Own Faith. By contrast, some older respondents wanted more concrete guidance from pastors and churches about how to “live out your faith in the workplace and not get fired or offend everyone around you”, as one participant put it. This group tended to identify almost exclusively with Evangelical Christian traditions. Many were also women and people of color. A desire was expressed for churches to “train people in the way to present the Gospel in a manner of an invitation instead of like a coercion.”

3.4 Minister to Working People at Church

  • Flexible Events. A significant number of participants described difficulty attending Sunday morning church services regularly due to work schedules, and they wanted their churches to be more accommodating to working people and families by offering alternative service times or mid-week Bible Studies.
  • Hospitable Church Environment. Clergy can demonstrate respect for working people by being more sensitive to issues of stigma, welcoming people to contribute their professional expertise to the life of the church, modeling respect for all forms of work, and also tailoring sermons and ministries to include working class concerns.

Conclusions

In general, Christians from different traditions and social locations do draw on their faith and faith community in relation to work, but faith leaders and churches could do a lot more to explicitly connect faith and work. The majority of survey respondents see skills and habits they learn from their churches as helping them to be more successful at work. This is stronger for those who attend church more regularly. In addition, faith is seen as a source of support in times of stress or difficulty at work, particularly among Evangelicals and Black and Asian Americans when compared to white or Hispanic individuals

At the same time, explicit discussion about work does not come up very often in churches, and church members rarely discuss work challenges with faith leaders. Also, few participate in discussion groups about faith and work, and few have heard faith leaders teach about the meaning of work or how to behave at work. Black congregants were almost twice as likely as white congregants to hear discussions at church about the meaning of work and how to behave at work.

This research project is continuing and we will try to keep you posted……….

Where to now?

If you are looking for practical help to follow up some of the issues touched on in this article or the paper that it summarizes, take look at the following free online resources:

The Equipping Church What can we learn from churches that are resourcing Christians for their daily work? A rich compilation of ideas and practical resources for pastors and churches https://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/the-equipping-church

Resources for Pastors and Churches https://www.theologyofwork.org/pastors Preaching, Small Group Studies, Videos, Worship Songs Prayers Interviews Readings and Liturgy, plus much more…..

Calling and Vocation (An Overview) https://www.theologyofwork.org/key-topics/vocation-overview-article Our most popular article.

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