Religion Quiz: So you think you know
From entrepreneurs to the working poor, the role of faith on the job

by David Briggs

August 18, 2014

Faith matters in the lives of working Americans.

It matters in their choice of a vocation: Other than marriage, the choice of a job or career is the next major life decision most likely to be influenced by faith, a study by Brandeis University researchers found.

It matters in how they do their jobs: Nearly three-quarters of working adults who attend services weekly or more say they often or always pursue excellence in work because of their faith, according to the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey.

And it matters in the satisfaction they take from their work: An online survey of 103 workers found that those who perceived their work as having divine character and significance were more satisfied, more committed to their organizations and less likely to intend to leave.

The spiritual and religious aspects of the lives of individuals "are not likely to be 'checked at the door' each morning when employees report to work," researchers from Auburn University and East Carolina University said in reporting the study results in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

Other researchers agree.

"Religion influences the way people think about their work and the way they engage in their work," Baylor University sociologist Kevin Dougherty said in an interview. "It has a sacred nature to it."

Yet he and other analysts note that aspects of the working lives of individuals often appear to be "checked at the door" of religious sanctuaries.

"There is just very little talk about labor in their congregations," Dougherty said.

Most major religious groups have historically upheld the sacred nature of work. In 2013, on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Pope Francis declared, "Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. Work, to use an image, 'anoints' with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God who has worked and still works, who always acts."

And while the spiritual dimension of labor may not be a favorite sermon topic, a developing body of research is revealing the major role religion has in the lives of working Americans from factory floors to the corner office.

Slightly more than half of Americans who attend services weekly or more view their work as a mission from God, according to the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey.

It is not, however, a simple case of "Show me the money."

In the Baylor survey, 44 percent of individuals earning less than $35,000 a year said they often or always pursue excellence in work because of their faith; less than a third of those earning more than $100,000 expressed the same motivation. Women and blacks, two groups that experience wage gaps, were among the most likely to say their faith inspired them to be excellent workers.

The idea that a loving God accompanies them in their working life may be particularly important during this period of prolonged economic struggle where so many people remain unemployed, underemployed or fearful of losing their job, analysts note.

The growing numbers of the self-employed, who along with being drivers of growth and innovation must endure the long hours and high failure rates in starting new businesses, seem to draw particular strength from their personal relationship to the divine.

Entrepreneurs were more likely to pray more often and believe in a personal God, the Baylor survey found.

The research suggests that congregations and religious leaders have "a powerful opportunity" to support their flocks in integrating spiritual values into their working lives, according to Dougherty.

"Issues of work and unemployment should be a central part of the conversation in their congregations," Dougherty said.

Put another way, for religious groups to disrespect the role of faith in the workplace would be a case of the sacred becoming the profane.

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