The National Catholic Review
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On a cold Monday evening just before last Christmas, 22 Chicago women gathered to discuss how they live out their spirituality in the workplace. The group, responding to an invitation from the Archdiocesan Women’s Commission, included white-collar and blue-collar workers of various ages and ethnicities. The Chicago focus group was part of a project initiated by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and in the Church to explore the relationship between women’s spirituality and their employment outside the home.

 

Among the group’s participants were:

• a single mother who works as a United Airlines flight attendant and moonlights as a waitress. She finds it difficult to set aside time for prayer, but always remembers to lift up the passengers to God;

• a pharmacist who struggles in discerning whether to sell contraceptive products. She ultimately influences the store not to carry them;

• an advertising executive whose employees pray together before undertaking each new project;

• a hospital employee who, forced to return to work, finds that she enjoys it and that she brings her personal and spiritual growth back to her family.

Over the past six decades the percentage of women in the workplace has risen dramatically—from 28 percent in 1940 to about 60 percent in 1998. And the number of professional and executive positions has steadily increased. People are formed by their work, yet as Claire Wolfteich points out in her recent book, Navigating New Terrain: Work and Women’s Spiritual Lives, “Religious groups have not looked in depth at how changing work roles shape women or how women creatively respond to their new situations.”

As a first step in its study, the committee wanted to find out what women themselves say about the relationship between their work and their spiritual lives. What do women find satisfying and frustrating about their work? How do women make time for spiritual activities? Does work influence one’s spiritual life, and do one’s spiritual life and values influence one’s work? Can one find spiritual meaning in work? It was questions like these that the committee probed.

To facilitate the process of answering these questions, the committee engaged 17 dioceses from across the country. They were large, medium and small; they were urban and rural. Each conducted a focus group over a two-month period, from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2003. Most of the 292 women participants were in their 40’s or older, white and married with children. A significant number were single, divorced or widowed. A few African-Americans and Hispanics participated. Many, probably most, had some type of volunteer involvement with the church. The women came from a wide range of occupational fields: primarily education and health care, but also business, government, clerical work and others.

 

Several themes stood out as the women’s committee analyzed findings from the focus groups. First, women have found workable, often creative ways to integrate family, work and spirituality. They resist compartmentalization in their lives and see spirituality as permeating all they do. As one participant observed: “Life is messy. Spirituality is intertwined in everything.”

For most, traditional practices such as liturgy, personal prayer and spiritual reading are important, but women also identified as spiritual such activities as gardening, music or a walk on the beach. Many who emphasized the need to make spiritual activities a priority rise early in the morning to pray; they pray, too, while driving their car or during lunchtime.

A second theme concerns the strong, often intense, relationship between spirituality and work. Women bring their religious beliefs and values to the workplace and seek to live them out, sometimes at personal risk and cost. It makes a difference to them that they are not merely workers, but Catholic Christian workers.

Third, women want others to recognize their work outside the home as valuable and important. After all, they render assistance and service to others, solve problems and pass on new ideas and skills to others. Regardless of occupation, most women clearly appreciate the deeper meaning of their work and find it personally fulfilling.

Fourth, many women spontaneously raised the connection between their work in the marketplace and their role in the church. As the workplace gives women an opportunity to use and enhance a wide range of gifts and skills, the participants pointed out, why shouldn’t they bring these same gifts to the church? And why doesn’t the church more often recognize and utilize them? One executive, who noted that women have taken on roles in the business world that were previously denied them, asked how the Catholic Church can give similar recognition to women and their capabilities.

Although the focus groups yielded valuable information, they also raised issues that need further exploration. First of all, when women and men reflect on their spirituality and their work, they do so in gender-specific terms. In responding to what women find most satisfying about their work, an oft-cited response was “helping and serving others.” One might expect this answer from teachers and health care workers, but in fact women in other fields gave it high priority as well. A woman in management said that she is pleased when she helps employees to realize that they can do things they thought were beyond their capabilities.

Would men respond similarly? Perhaps not. Women are more oriented toward intimacy and connection with others, while men value independence. So men might emphasize other satisfying aspects of their work, such as the opportunity to use knowledge and skills. Men do welcome the opportunity to help others, just as women appreciate the chance to learn new information and solve problems. But the dominant motivation for women and men might differ.

The focus groups also raised issues around evangelization. Almost no one used the word evangelization, but clearly the workplace is a prime setting for such activity, although it poses certain challenges. Not wishing to offend anyone or project a sense of superiority, people may hesitate to discuss religion with co-workers who are religiously diverse. On the other hand, the religious and cultural diversity of the workplace can be a plus. It can encourage workers to learn more about the religious practices of others and to expand their own spirituality. One health care worker commented that some of the most spiritual people she works with are Muslim, Jewish, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran and Quaker. “We as Catholics,” she said, “still have much to learn from others.”

For those who are unable to share their religious beliefs at work, this is frustrating. Many regularly confront anti-Christian values in the workplace, and a few have to deal with explicitly anti-Catholic attitudes. One woman discussed the challenge of maintaining a relationship with two co-workers who constantly attack the Catholic Church.

Despite these obstacles, it is clear that evangelization can and does occur in the workplace. The focus-group women saw a process that begins with modeling Christ in the workplace. Many consciously seek to set a good example, to see Christ in others and to treat others as Christ would. When co-workers see that they “walk the talk,” they are more likely to open dialogue about sensitive issues such as religion, spirituality and ethics. An accountant, for example, had an unexpected conversation with her boss that led to prayer. She observed, “Just be a good person, and you never know how you’ll touch people.”

Some women expressed disappointment that the church offers them little guidance about sharing their faith in the workplace. That leaves them often ill prepared to defend or explain their beliefs. Dealing with difficult ethical issues or a demoralizing workplace calls for support from the faith community. Even those whose frustrations are more commonplace—office politics, gossip, cantankerous colleagues—would like the church to acknowledge the challenges of living out Christian values in the workplace. They believe that the Sunday homily provides an opportunity to address some of these issues and to offer guidance and encouragement.

These concerns are not limited to women, of course. Many men would also welcome guidance about how to evangelize in the workplace. In providing such guidance, however, church leaders need to keep in mind that the evangelization styles of women and men may be different.

It may also be time to take a new look at the relationship between work and family. Many women discussed the difficulty of balancing the two; a few hinted at deeper concerns. If work influences us spiritually and personally, then it must have some impact on family life. As the women’s committee continues to explore this topic, it hopes to look at how work improves, or diminishes, the quality of one’s marriage and family life. What do women learn in the workplace that influences their home life for better or worse?

Finally, since women themselves make the connection between their work in the marketplace and their work in the church, continued attention must be paid to how their gifts are used in the church, especially in leadership positions. When the talents that women bring to the workplace are not used in the church, women are frustrated and the church is poorer. As the 1987 Synod on the Laity said, “Without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the church, and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions.”

The bishops’ Committee on Women plans to continue studying women’s spirituality in the workplace. We are inviting dioceses to conduct focus groups that will look into some of the issues raised in the first round of groups. The committee will continue to publicize the findings on its Web site (www.usccb.org/laity/women.htm).

By listening to what women say about their lives in the marketplace, the committee hopes to affirm them in their work, encourage them to be engaged in evangelization and identify helpful ways for the church to enrich their spiritual lives.

 

Most Rev. Edward P. Cullen is the bishop of Allentown, Pa., and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and in the Church.