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Thursday, 11 February 2016

Orthodox Christians in the Workplace

By Priest David Moser

Some of the practical conflicts have to do with the daily cycles of Church life: such things as fasting, prayer, and holy days. When we strive to keep the fast, it suddenly seems as though there is a cascade of temptations to break the fast. Office lunches, snacks and munchies, even the rushed lunch necessitating "fast food," all seem to have some element of meat or dairy products.

As Orthodox Christians we are called to be constantly aware of God’s presence and to be constantly striving to work out our salvation. The most visible implementation of that striving is the monastic life, where worldly cares and concerns are abandoned or at least completely submitted to the activities of the spiritual life. But not all of us are called to monastic life. Most of us are called to marriage and family life, and others to a life of celibacy in the world. Those of us who live in the world, with rare exceptions, find ourselves with the necessity to work in some occupation or profession so that we can make a living. Most employers are not concerned with their employee’s spiritual lives and the workplace environment is not a necessarily spiritual one. The focus is not on spiritual tasks but on production and efficiency. Our co-workers are seldom Orthodox Christians, and in many cases they are not Christians of any confession. The conversations tend to be filled with the concerns of the workplace and of the world. How then do we Orthodox Christians fulfill our calling to work out our salvation on one hand and to function as a part of the work force?

The obvious answer to this question is to be constantly mindful and aware of our Orthodox Christian calling in all circumstances. There are some techniques to facilitate this in the workplace. One is to carry a small icon, just as you would carry a photo of your children, and look at it frequently to recall your mind to the heavenly kingdom. A small icon can be made into a medal worn around the neck much as one wears a baptismal cross. Another technique is to create a routine of regular, short, frequent prayers; for example, set a watch beeper to signal the hour, and at each hour pause a few seconds to recite a particular prayer. The Jesus Prayer is good for this. Likewise, one can memorize a short psalm or a prayer from the prayer book. One suggestion from the prayer book is to use the prayer of St John Chrysostom for the twenty-four hours of the day, which can be found in the evening prayers of the Jordanville Prayer Book. Regular morning and evening prayers, as well as daily reading from the Gospel and from spiritual writings, also serve to center the mind and heart on the Kingdom of God. Taking a portion, or even all, of the lunch hour to feed the soul as well as the body by prayer or spiritual reading provides a regular break in the middle of the day to draw the mind back to its true place. And there are many other things we can do to create a constant reminder of our Christian calling.

Despite our best efforts, however, we often face conflicts and situations where we find that the life of the Church is not compatible with the life of the workplace. There are practical conflicts; there are temptations and the necessity of moral behavior; and there are ethical conflicts. Each can occur on its own or in concert with other related difficulties.

Some of the practical conflicts have to do with the daily cycles of Church life: such things as fasting, prayer, and holy days. When we strive to keep the fast, it suddenly seems as though there is a cascade of temptations to break the fast. Office lunches, snacks and munchies, even the rushed lunch necessitating “fast food,” all seem to have some element of meat or dairy products. When we don’t partake of the non-fasting foods, we invite questioning looks and there is the need to explain. It seems nearly impossible to make one’s co-workers understand without somehow giving the impression of judging or condemning. So the initial conflict is to resist temptation, however, the underlying conflict is how to explain our behavior.

Those who work at desks, in offices or at a fixed workstation, often have the opportunity to decorate their workspace with some personal items. Pictures of family, pets, or friends are common as are calendars, posters or other decorative pictures. It seems only natural that we as Orthodox Christians place icons, in prominent places. However, there is the question of what others will think, or whether we might inadvertently offend someone else’s beliefs. We can easily explain pictures of friends and family, but it is always the icon that attracts attention and questions.

Most employers allow a certain number of holidays on which the business will be closed, such as Labor Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, (Western) Christmas, etc. Rarely do these work holidays coincide with Orthodox holy days such as Holy Week and Pascha, Nativity (on the Church calendar), Theophany, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc. So we are faced with the conflict of whether to attend the Divine services or go to work. If we attend the Divine services, we have to forfeit some pay, arrive late, use vacation, or pay some other price. In some jobs it is increasingly common for there to be the expectation to work “non traditional” schedules, which frequently include weekends. This can be quite a conflict for the pious Orthodox Christian who makes a priority of attendance at Divine Services.

A final practical concern is simply that of conversation and interaction with our coworkers, clients and customers. An obvious temptation here is to gossip. The “grapevine” in any office is the unofficial carrier of information. If we don’t listen in on the grapevine, we may miss important information. And yet, the vast majority of the information on the grapevine is gossip, personal information, speculation, and criticism of others. Where do we draw the line? We also often find ourselves involved in discussions of current events, television programs, sports, plays, movies and other entertainments. While these discussions are often innocuous, they sometimes involve topics which are opposed to our Faith. Overall one should keep in mind the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things(Phil. 4:8).

Conversations with coworkers also may involve religion. Heterodox Christians may well assume that they share with us a belief system with only minor differences. We are faced with having to decide whether to let the false assumption rest, or whether to confront the issue, possibly having the differences in belief become an impediment to your working relationship. If you are able to freely discuss differences in beliefs, just how far is it appropriate to go on “work time.” As we know, religious discussions can become quite involved, taking up a lot of time and energy and distracting us from the task at hand.

In order to address these practical concerns, we have to look at our priorities. Is the keeping of the fast important enough to go without a meal (if there is nothing appropriate to eat)? It is increasingly common for even worldly people to adopt a vegetarian – even vegan – diet for any number of reasons. They have no trouble acting according to their beliefs. How is it that we Orthodox Christians, who fast for our spiritual health, have such difficulty with our dietary restrictions? Some of us actually welcome such conflicts as giving us an excuse to “cheat” on the fast in order not to “offend” someone else or “make a show” of our fasting. It has been my experience that once you begin keeping the fast among your co-workers, there is really very little fuss that occurs. Some of my co-workers actually go out of their way to make sure that at company lunches there is some kind of fasting food that I can eat when it is, as I say, a “vegan day.” (While most people go along with such idiosyncrasies, most do not understand, nor do they really care to, why we fast. However, I have found that the ones who best understand are not Christians but those who are involved in religions that actively address the link between body and soul, i.e., “new age” pagans.)

On feast days, it is not always possible to attend Divine services due to work. However, with a little planning and attention to the calendar, often a vacation day or some “flex time” can be used to celebrate the feast. Many parishes are open to early morning services so that parishioners can attend the liturgy, receive the Mysteries, and still make it to the office on time. (If it seems daunting to get up an hour or so earlier in order to get to Liturgy, just remember that the priest has to get there even earlier, to prepare the temple and to begin the Proskomedia!) Sometimes, though, it is just not possible to get to the Divine Liturgy on the day of a feast. It is important to recall that the Vigil of the feast, served the evening before, is also part of the celebration. In fact, many of the special events of a feast take place at the vigil; for example, the veneration of the cross on the Feast of the Elevation and on the Sunday of the Cross in Great Lent. On a feast day at work, be sure to celebrate the feast as best you can. Have a festive lunch or bring a special snack or treat to share with co-workers. If you can play tapes or CD’s, find the music for the feast and put it on. Make the feast a special day for yourself and those around you.

The issue of working on Saturdays and Sundays is more complex. One solution is just to refuse any position which requires Sunday hours. This is not always realistic; an alternative might be to limit weekend hours to once a month or some other schedule that permits frequent attendance at Divine Services. Another alternative is to schedule hours on weekends around the times when there are services, e.g., work days on Saturday and evenings on Sunday. Admittedly, none of these solutions is optimal and they involve some measure of compromise; ultimately, each person, in conjunction with his spiritual father, must make the decision of what is acceptable in his situation. Work is important as the source of our support, but far more important are meaning and identity for Orthodox Christians come from God.

The second major area of conflict for Orthodox Christians in the workplace involves moral and ethical issues. These are issues of behavior and attitude and are much more difficult to deal with because they involve our more deeply seated passions. In the workplace we are often confronted with "normal" behavior that is in fact immoral. I am not referring here to sexual improprieties. Actually, the truly tempting and sometimes almost unnoticed immoral behavior seems much more innocent. One of the most prevalent of these "normal" temptations is lying. In the workplace we frequently find ourselves in positions where it is expected to tell less than the truth, or to embellish the truth. Our statements may still be rooted in the truth, but they are "edited" for the situation. There are times, for example, when an office worker is asked to cover up the mistakes of a superior or to present a false front to a customer. Sometimes this involves an outright fabrication; at other times it is simply distortion, hiding flaws or fallacies. An even more "innocent" situation is the manipulation of numbers and statistics. Many companies rely on productivity statistics to market themselves, and they use the numbers to present a certain picture. The numbers may be real, and the facts may be there, but their presentation is arranged to produce a certain conclusion, whether or not that conclusion is valid. An employee may be asked to present this data as truth, knowing full well that the presentation implies conclusions that cannot be supported by the real situation. Is this lying? Is this a sin? Another place where lying is "expected" is in self-reporting of work. In a situation where a worker is expected to track his activity, it is easy to inflate numbers. Padding one's report, one's time card, the billing sheet, is a common, accepted, and even expected practice. Some people routinely bill for "thinking time" or for "research" that was only an excuse to nap. This kind of sanctioned dishonesty is so rampant that, in many cases, the honest employee appears to be less productive than his less honest coworkers. Some billing formulae even build in the cheating factor. If you bill by the "task" and the minimum billable time segment is 15 minutes then if you do three five-minute tasks, the only way to track them is to bill for forty-five minutes, when in fact you have worked all of fifteen minutes. Is this lying? Is this a sin?

Related to lying is the necessity of "blowing your own horn" in order to advance your career and get ahead. No one else will "market" you to the powers that be, and so you have to do it yourself. You are expected to boast of your accomplishments. The entire atmosphere of the workplace in which this is an expectation can become one of pride and self-aggrandizement. The worker who boasts the loudest gets promoted, gets the raise, or, in a poorer economy, gets retained. And yet as Christians we are expected to be humble, to count ourselves as nothing, to boast not in our own accomplishments and qualifications, but in Christ. Where is the middle ground? How can a Christian survive and prosper in the working world and yet avoid this atmosphere of pride?

Another moral conflict that many of us face in the workplace is theft - not blatant embezzlement or stealing "big ticket" items but the taking of small things: office supplies, copying, phone use, etc. We spend so much time at the workplace that often the borders between that which belongs to me and that which belongs to the company, or between my personal business and company business, can become blurred. Often the items involved are very small and inexpensive - almost worthless - and it is easy to rationalize that what we are doing is not really theft. Pens, pencils, paper clips, paper, etc., are all common items that seem to find their way out of the office - almost without noticing. Sometimes even more permanent items - staplers, hole punches, tape dispensers and other small tools - migrate home for some project and never seem to find their way back to the office.

In addition to the theft of "things," there is also the matter of how we use the resources to which the workplace may provide access: the phone system, computer/internet access, copy and fax machines, and so on. These resources are often misused for personal gain. These "invisible" thefts are perhaps even more prevalent and more tolerated than the theft of supplies.

In addition to the resources themselves, there is the issue of time, for which the employer is paying, being used to take care of such personal business. The theft of time accompanies the theft of supplies and the theft of resources, all of which are means by which we cheat our employer. The Christian response to all these moral conflicts involves self-denial and adherence to moral standards not of the world. We must measure our behavior by the commandments, and, in the cases noted above, that means specifically the 8th and 9th commandments. Honesty - even when dishonesty is encouraged - is necessary for the Christian, while dishonesty - including "little white lies" or "mostly true" reports, which may appear necessary for advancement in the workplace and material gain - is forbidden. In order to maintain this level of honesty, it is imperative that one's own goals be placed within the eternal rather than the worldly kingdom. In this world, we are all familiar with the concepts of delayed gratification and of accepting some momentary difficulty or struggle for the attainment of a greater gain in the long run. The same applies to eternity. We must be willing to accept the loss of worldly gain, of worldly reputation, etc, in order to obtain the riches of the kingdom of heaven. What is a transitory loss in this world next to the loss in eternity of one's soul?

The same principle applies to the "necessity" of "blowing your own horn." In order to keep things in perspective, one must keep in mind the ultimate necessity of saving one's soul. Therefore, when applying for a new position or competing for a promotion or raise, one must be honesty about oneself. List your real accomplishments and qualifications for the position at hand, but do not exaggerate or over-emphasize your capabilities. As you do these things, take care to avoid the seed of pride taking root as you look at all you have done. Make this a matter of prayer, recognizing that the talents, skills, and opportunities that you have had in order to achieve what you have done come not from you but from God, and that were it not for His mercy and His grace, you would have none of these things. Offer praise and thanksgiving to God constantly as you list your accomplishments, in your heart at least, turning all of your praise to Him and keeping none for yourself. This is a difficult exercise; however, it is necessary if one wishes to effectively combat pride.

As for access to resources in the workplace, keep close track of what is yours and what is not and do not allow even a small breach of that boundary. Often employers will have some type of allowance or policy, permitting the use of office resources for personal business. Whatever these policies are, adhere to them strictly. If there is a charge for photocopying, keep track of what you copy and make sure that the charge is paid. If there are guidelines or limits on personal phone calls, be certain that you abide by them. If you are allowed to use resources for personal business, make sure it is on your own time rather than that of the company. If you have questions about the propriety of any action, ask for clearance from the supervisor or whoever is in authority in that particular area.

One guideline is your own conscience - and if you feel as though you must "hide" an action or worry about being "found out," if there is secrecy involved, then it is something which should be avoided. This may sound "picky," but by maintaining this boundary strictly and not allowing yourself to cross it even to a small degree, you will protect yourself from greater temptations and falls.

Closely related to moral issues are ethical conflicts that arise in the workplace. These have to do with our attitudes and beliefs and how we either remain faithful to them or compromise them. One conflict which often appears is the conflict between Christian morals, values and standards and a less than upstanding business practice. Sometimes there are practices in a business which are contrary to Christian behavior, and the conflict arises as to whether to comply with the common practice or whether to stand upon principle and confront those who are backing the questionable practice. For those in a professional practice or in management positions there is another conflict of "dual relationships." Do we use our professional or supervisory relationships and influence with clients to subtly "coerce" them to be interested in Orthodoxy? In any work environment, there is informal interaction with coworkers in which almost every topic is discussed. Is it appropriate to "push" your own religion in these discussions, and how do you differentiate between "coercion" and a simple expression of your beliefs? In the course of such innocuous discussions, assumptions will be made that "we all believe in the same God" and that "we are all Christians, right?" The quandary is whether or not to let such an assumption remain, especially if it is unspoken. These are all questions of attitudes and principles which can lead to conflict.

In addition to the above mentioned conflicts there is another which arises in a work environment where there is a strong heterodox religious presence - for example, in a business which is Christian in some fashioned makes a point of employing only Christians or those who comply with certain Christian beliefs or standards of behavior. Or perhaps within a purely secular business there is a group of strongly committed Christians of mixed backgrounds, who find some sort of camaraderie in their shared basis of belief and who then gather either formally or informally for some kind of religious meeting. How do Orthodox Christians relate to such a group. Is it possible to be a part of such a group without participating in common prayer? How should our personal prayer life relate to our workplace, our customers, our coworkers, our boss? Can we ignore the differences in belief in order to be a part of such a group of people with whom we, without question, share so much?

In these conflicts, many of the principles already discussed about moral behavior apply. It is important to retain an eternal perspective. We must recall that we are not competing here for earthly rewards and earthly consolations, but for those of the Kingdom of Heaven. All that we have comes not from ourselves but from God, and therefore His standards and actions must always be a part of our reactions. The principle which applies to witnessing and dual relationships is that of being who we are, Orthodox Christians. We do not need to persuade anyone to follow Christ or to enter the Church. Our task is to present the option of the Church and to open the door for others. Let God do the persuasion. Therefore, do not be shy about your beliefs, "Let your light so shine among men..." Your entire life should be a sufficient witness. Answer questions and provide information and explanations when asked. The Holy Spirit is the One to affect the soul, the One who persuades and draws the soul to Himself. We do not need to "drive" others before us into the Church; we need only to hold open the gate and allow the Holy Spirit to draw people in. Now this puts the burden on each of us to be a good source of light by our behavior and our consistent Orthodox Christian life, presenting a clear and open path to the Church, and not, by our behavior and our lives, closing the gate and driving people away. This is a reflection on the oft quoted saying of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: "Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved." (Actually, "save yourself" is more accurately rendered "acquire the Spirit of Peace.")

As for prayer, we should make a practice of praying for our customers, our co-workers, our bosses. This is one area where we can most intimately and effectively affect others. We don't always know what the needs of others are, but we can simply pray, "Lord have mercy on N.(name)," and let God act upon them according to His mercy and His awareness of the particular needs of each soul for its salvation. It is, however, best to refrain from participating in heterodox prayer meetings or Bible studies. Our faith is both expressed and shaped by our prayers. By joining in the prayers of heterodox Christians we unwittingly incorporate their false beliefs into our own prayer and life. Because this action is on the non-verbal level of direct action on the soul, only one who is well versed in the spiritual life such that he can clearly discern, at the very least, the depths and condition of his own heart has a chance of catching this undue influence on the soul. Bible studies are the same, for they presume that we all have the same basic belief and the right to interpret the Sacred Scripture as we personally wish. For those who have not had the experience, it is important to know that when one begins to talk about Holy Tradition, the lives of saints, the writings of the fathers, liturgical practice, etc., in relation to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, most heterodox will either ignore it or actively resist it. The better course is to live your life according to the teaching of the Church as best you can and let them "read" the true interpretation of Scripture in the living book of your life.

Living a Christian life in the workplace is simply a microcosm of living a Christian life in the world at large. The temptations and conflicts are the same. Our faith contains everything we need to live as Christians in the workplace and in the world. We must center our minds and hearts on the things of Heaven and let our actions be governed, not by the considerations of the world but by the desire to gain that which is eternal. If we concentrate on working out our own salvation, on acquiring the Holy Spirit, then we will become lights shining in the darkness, through whom the Holy Spirit will draw all men to Himself.

Fr. David is rector of St Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Mission in Boise, Idaho, in addition to working full-time as a mental health counsellor for a local agency.

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