The Business of Belief: Living a Spiritual Life in the Corporate World

You’ve probably noticed the S.J. that follows my name and may have already concluded that a Jesuit couldn’t possibly know anything about life in the corporate world. And in part, that’s true; most members of religious orders don’t worry much about salary increases, downsizing, employee benefit plans or climbing the corporate ladder.

But bear with me, because before entering the Jesuits, I studied business as an undergraduate and worked for six years in corporate finance and human resources with what I’ll call a Fortune 10 corporation. Like the vast majority of those in the business world, I struggled with being a good person in the office, doing the right thing on the job and wondering whether I was in the right place. Today most of my friends (those who aren’t Jesuits, that is) work in a variety of businesses, so I try to keep up with the difficulties of working in the corporate world. And if anything, it seems that despite the stunning economic prosperity that many in this country enjoy, living a spiritual life in corporate America has only grown more challenging. So after four years of business school, six years of work, 12 years of reflection and almost 20 years of hearing stories from friends, here are what appear to be the main challenges of living a spiritual life from 9 to 5.


Finding Time for God

Nine to 5? More like 24/7. Quite obviously, time is at a premium for anyone working in a corporate environment. Indeed, despite vaunted increases in prosperity and technology (remember how PC’s were going to lead to four-day workweeks?) the amount of time demanded by corporations from their employees has only increased. Round-the-clock markets, round-the-clock financial news and round-the-clock access with e-mail, cell phones and beepers, translates for many into round-the-clock work. Moreover, decreasing job security and increasing numbers of dual-career households have led to more stress and less time for married couples and parents. And yet, in the midst of these pressures, the believer desires to live a spiritual life, one that is rooted and grounded in God’s love. Hence the first challenge: How is it possible to find time for a life of prayer and worship?

A few friends with whom I spoke recently suggested that the only way to do this is by carving out time from work. "It’s a conscious choice," one remarked, noting that while he found it difficult at times, he could avoid what he called "the trap of constant work" only by sacrificing some upward mobility and choosing to spend time with his family and in pursuit of a spiritual life. Otherwise, he said, life inevitably becomes informed solely by work and, without the nourishment of either individual or communal prayer, one’s spiritual life slowly atrophies.

But while my friend is a busy man with a growing family, he is also a successful investment banker and can perhaps afford to forgo a rung on the corporate ladder. More difficult challenges attend the lives of people struggling to make ends meet: the single mother working two jobs or the underpaid father desperate to earn a better living for his family. Here the challenge of finding God at work takes on greater import and meaning.

But that challenge is, after all, a universal one. Indeed, one of the pitfalls of trying to live a spiritual life is overlooking the possibility of encountering God in the workplace. There is often a tendency to "compartmentalize" one’s spiritual life, by looking for God only on Sundays or during prayer. Find God in all things, as St. Ignatius Loyola counseled, and that includes work. For some, this means finding a job that offers not only personal satisfaction but also a chance to contribute to the common good. Or it could mean recognizing the opportunity to enjoy deep friendships with co-workers as a way of experiencing God’s love. Nevertheless, the ability to appreciate the presence of God at work comes more readily when one is willing to set aside time for prayer and worship.

Finding Time for Solitude

Whether at home or on the road, growing numbers of businessmen and women are never far from e-mail, courtesy of Palm organizers or laptops, and are never without their cell phones, beepers, voice mail or fax machines. The sight of a woman striding down a city street with a cell phone nervously pressed against her ear is a common one, as is that of a traveler desperately checking e-mail on a laptop while waiting for the next flight home. But while these high-tech gadgets are terrific for keeping us in touch with work, they also serve to pare away the few moments of solitary time we have lefttime for silence and reflection. Where is the time for even a few minutes of solitude, the opportunity for "recollection," as spiritual writers say?

The second challenge, then, can be framed as follows: How can the working man or woman balance the desire to be "connected" with the need for solitude, a requirement of the spiritual life?

Sometimes, in fact, it seems that we can no longer stand to be "out of touch," or, more to the point, to be alone. Thomas Merton wrote about this phenomenon in No Man Is An Island. "The person who fears to be alone will never be anything else but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people."

Paradoxically, as Merton noted with his usual acuity, a measure of solitude and silence is precisely what enables us to connect on a deeper level with others, for in solitude we connect with the deepest part of ourselvesGod. And in coming to know God, we are better able to find God in others and are ultimately freed of our loneliness and anomie.

Working (and Living) Ethically

When I studied business ethics as an undergraduate, most of our textbook cases were of the black-and-white variety, solved with obvious, simplistic answers. Would you give a bribe to an unscrupulous businessman who demanded one? (No.) Would you pollute the environment with nasty chemicals? (No.) When I entered the working world, however, I was surprised to learn how much subtler most ethical dilemmas are, and how rarely they are framed in black-and-white terms.

This is not to say that black-and-white dilemmas never arise. A lawyer friend, well into her career, described for me the dilemma she faced when asked to defend a doctor in a malpractice case. An obstetrician who regularly performed abortions, he had seriously injured a woman during an abortion procedure. "I didn’t want to make a big deal of it," she explained, "but I felt uncomfortable taking his case. It felt as if I would be defending the act." She quietly told her manager that she would rather not, and as a result faced persistent questioning from her boss and withering criticism from her peers.

But subtler problems are far more common. Despite rosy reports of companies offering Bible study and prayer groups for employees, the corporate environment can still present formidable challenges for the believer. What do you do, for example, when you discover that you work in a corporation where religious values are not paramount? During my time working in human resources, I had to confront a manager who was planning to fire one of his employees. The employee had just received an incentive award for outstanding performance on the job. Finding it bizarre that we would suddenly fire one of our top employees, I told the manager it was a bad idea. "I don’t care," he said. "I don’t like him!" Then I reminded him that this middle-aged employee had been with the company for 20 years, had consistently done an excellent job and that not liking someone was not a valid reason for dismissal. None of that mattered, he snapped. Finally I said, "Have some compassion. The guy’s got a family." His answer was short and memorable: "To hell with compassion!" he shouted. (Only he used a one-word substitute for "to hell with.") For me the episode neatly encapsulated the ethos of the company and ultimately led to a decision to leave.

So the third challenge is: How can one stay true to one’s values on the job? For many in business, this means searching for a company whose values are congruent with their own religious values. A friend who manages investments for a multinational corporation told me he was glad that the values he prizedintegrity, honesty, rectitudewere precisely the ones valued in his world of long-term investing. "If you’re dishonest, your reputation and therefore effectiveness will suffer," he explained. So he felt at home in his company.

But what happens when you work in an environment where the value of, say, compassion is held in low regard or, worse, is ignored? One response might be to strive to change the work environment by your own actions, serving as a sort of leaven at work. Another path might be to maintain a degree of what spiritual writers call "detachment" from the prevailing ethos of the corporation. If you work for a corporation that stresses aggressive or downright mean behavior, you need not always be mean or aggressive yourself. Sometimes superior job performance can overcome the perceived need to participate in activities that go against your moral grain. That is, talent trumps aggression and meanness.

But is there ever a need to sacrifice some upward mobility in exchange for a clear conscience? One friend put it bluntly, "I don’t expect to make partner, because I don’t play the games that others play. but I don’t really want that; it’s not good for me." For if you work in a corporation that prizes offensive behavior you might find it necessary to choose between advancement in the company and your own ethical standards.

Remembering the Poor

In this era of dot-com zillionaires, 10,000 Dows, I.P.O. instant millions, day-traders and Bill Gates, it is easy to forget the poor not only in this country but around the world. As many commentators have noted, it is in times of prosperity that the poor are more easily forgotten. In lean times, when the public is more concerned with the causes of economic distress, our thoughts naturally turn to the poor; in fat times the poor somehow embarrass us.

It is also tempting to conclude that this current wave of prosperity is the best situation imaginable. Isn’t everyone getting rich? And if there are only a few people who are poorwell, it’s about the best we can hope for, right? Implicit in this line of thinking, of course, is the unwillingness to criticize any aspect of capitalism. Last year the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox wrote a trenchant article in The Atlantic Monthly slyly suggesting that "The Market" was our new God. Think about it: It has its own "priests," who alone understand its mysteries (including the high priest Alan Greenspan); it moves in mysterious, awe-inspiring and ultimately perfect ways; like the ancient gods, it must occasionally be placated with sacrifices (for example, with what economists call the "transitional unemployed"); it rewards those who follow its rules, and so on. It is supreme.

But if the market is infallible, then it is also above criticism. "Such is the grip of current orthodoxy," wrote Mr. Cox, "that to question the omniscience of The Market is to question the inscrutable wisdom of Providence." Indeed, faulting American capitalism, circa 2000, can seem heretical in the corporate world. And this, in particular, only encourages us to ignore the situation and the needs of those whom capitalism has failed: the poor.

Hence the fourth challenge: How can one remember the need to care for the poor and marginalized? One friend, a successful accountant, said that she finds three things helpful: first, being grateful for what she has; second, helping out in a church community; and third, stretching herself when she gives charitably.

I would suggest an additional help: to spend time with the poor and underprivileged, to get to know these persons as individuals, rather than simply as objects of charity. And it is not just the poor who benefit from such personal contact. The wealthy too learn one of the secrets of the kingdom of God: that the poor are uniquely able to evangelize the more affluent. As Jon Sobrino, S.J., wrote in The Church and the Poor: "The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else."

Overall, you might say that living a spiritual life in the corporate world requires, among other things: carving out some time for both prayer and solitude; being willing to search for God at work; practicing detachment from some of the values of corporate America; and remembering the need for solidarity with God’s poor, even in prosperous times.

It’s a tall order, of course, but no one, least of all Jesus, ever said the Christian life was going to be easy. Or, as my father is fond of saying, "Why do you think they call it work?"

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12 years ago
The article “The Business of Belief: Living a Spiritual Life in the Corporate World,” by James Martin, S.J., was right on point (7/1). His article brought back many interesting memories. One way to help cope is to undertake spiritual exercises. To assist with those I recommend a Jesuit web site that offers daily spiritual servings. It is available at

12 years ago
The article “The Business of Belief: Living a Spiritual Life in the Corporate World,” by James Martin, S.J., was right on point (7/1). His article brought back many interesting memories. One way to help cope is to undertake spiritual exercises. To assist with those I recommend a Jesuit web site that offers daily spiritual servings. It is available at


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