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Workplace Witnesses

My wife didn’t want a new cell phone. But hers was old, and the battery wouldn’t hold a charge. So Kathi and I found ourselves trudging into the wireless store at the end of a long day, instructed in detail by our savvy daughter about an incentive offer from our carrier, which model of phone to buy, and how much it would all cost.

“What brings you in tonight?” the friendly young salesman asked. We told him and described the phone and promotion our daughter had recommended.

“I haven’t heard of that,” he said. “Let me talk to my manager.” He headed off into a back room, reappearing several minutes later.

“My manager says we don’t have that promotion,” he said, “but we have something better.” He described a complicated plan featuring payment terms for a phone and an increased data allowance. “But there’s a credit toward the phone, so you basically get it for free.”

Kathi and I glanced at one another. At this point in the day, my brain was pretty close to mush. I asked him to explain it again, more slowly.

This time a red flag went up.

“So we get the phone at a net cost of zero, but then we’re paying extra for data every month?” I asked.

We didn’t need extra data. We needed a new phone.

We thanked him and left. That night, I ordered the phone online and got the promotional deal our daughter had recommended. It had turned into more of an ordeal than we expected, but at least now I’m able to reach my wife on the go.

Workplace witnesses

Have you ever experienced a situation like that, when you’re being sold something you’re not even shopping for? That’s how many people feel about being evangelized in the workplace. When it happens, like our experience at the wireless store, there’s a strong tendency to head for the exit.

Look around and you’ll see an almost palpable fear of being proselytized (defined by dictionary.com as “to convert or attempt to convert”). I’ve been on the receiving end from people of several different faiths and ideologies. After all, there is no shortage of people in our workplaces who are certain about the validity of their beliefs and opinions. So how should Christian evangelization (“to preach the gospel to”) be different?  

The situation is even more complex when we take into account the state of our culture and the forces of secularization that seek to silence religion. In many ways, the secular workplace represents the front lines of the culture wars.

However, with challenge comes opportunity. The secular workplace also represents the front lines for the New Evangelization.

Reframing the opportunity

By setting a bold example of leading with mercy rather than judgment, Pope Francis has done a marvelous job showing us how the gospel penetrates human hearts even in hostile environments. Could it be that part of the visceral distaste people often have for mixing work and religion is due to a flawed approach on our part? Too often we act like it’s up to us to convert people.

It’s not. That’s above our pay grade. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We just plant the seeds—and this is accomplished most convincingly through our actions.

In addition, if we’re too quick to judge others based on our beliefs, might that not alienate us from others and preclude us from having an opportunity to evangelize in a manner worthy of our baptism?

Think of the life of Jesus. The gospels provide us with numerous accounts of Jesus interacting—even hanging out with—prostitutes, tax collectors, and other assorted sinners. He did this in a most radical way for his time, incurring wonder and even wrath from onlookers. Yet the essence of his invitation to each individual is the same as to all of us today: Follow me.

One thing to keep in mind as we interact with others at work is that they don’t necessarily share our frame of reference. If they’re adverse to the idea of religion, perhaps there’s a reason for that. Have they been hurt by religion? Perhaps they experience shame or guilt stemming from events or circumstances in their lives. Might there be structural impediments, such as multiple marriages? Perhaps they’re cohabiting, or have experienced the pain of an abortion, or can’t imagine what their spouse might say about their interest in the Church.

If we follow the pope’s lead, we are more apt to listen than speak. We are less prone to render judgment as to have hearts of mercy. We are more likely to recognize life—and conversion—as a process rather than an event. Even if a coworker was enthralled by our breathtakingly cogent arguments for the existence of God and wanted to enroll in RCIA immediately, don’t you think it might take time for his life to comport more closely with the Faith?

Strategic planning

Part of the challenge of the New Evangelization is to present the gospel message with renewed clarity in a way that resonates in today’s environment. Beating people over the head with a copy of the Catechism won’t do it—and could very well get us fired. There are better ways . . . but beware. They demand that we be more faithful Christians.

Here are a few specific ideas to consider of the type that shouldn’t get us sideways with the human resources department even in the most secular environments. Of course, I hope and pray we never get to the point where free speech is curtailed to the point of not being able to discuss religion in public, including the workplace. But our actions are the key to our words having credibility.  

Be a friend

Years ago I worked with a guy named Stan who had grown up Christian but abandoned his faith in favor of Buddhism. It was an odd relationship. Stan delighted in giving me a hard time about being Catholic, and we had many spirited conversations. Here’s the thing, though—Stan was a great guy, and I instinctively liked him. Despite our religious differences, we had much in common.

No matter what the background or disposition of a coworker, an “apostolate of friendship” is always possible. Despite Stan’s intransigence with regard to the Faith, we shared a genuine friendship. This can be true even in cases where the relationships are more challenging and less instinctive.

Once again, in considering the gospels, Jesus befriended (much to the discomfort of his disciples and others) all kinds of people, including those of lower societal strata. Children. A Samaritan woman. Tax collectors. Pharisees. Prostitutes. He took an interest in them and desired what was best for them, regardless of whether they followed him or not.

Pope Francis made waves in the press when he insisted that all people are redeemed. He didn’t mean all are saved, of course, but it’s important to realize that this attitude reflects our Lord’s actions and his desire to offer the gift of eternal life to all.

There is no “us versus them”—we’re all sinners deeply in need of mercy. The radically unique Christian message includes the fact that every soul is of equal and immeasurable value in the eyes of God. So if our Lord was a friend to all, shouldn’t we be also?  

Be humble

Speaking of Pope Francis, one of his most endearing traits is his humility. In fact, humility is a foundational virtue, one that allows us to focus on others rather than ourselves and, even more important, to facilitate proper worship of God.

Think about the countless scriptural references to humility. James 4:6 tells us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” This isn’t hard to square with our own experiences. Have you ever been turned off by the arrogant attitude of someone you’ve just met? But encountering humble people has the opposite impact—we are attracted to them, in the best sense.

I have been privileged to know leaders of organizations with a global scope whom you could imagine might have an arrogant streak. Yet one such woman (let’s call her Nancy), who is perhaps among the smartest people I know, is also among the most gracious. Despite Nancy’s prodigious intelligence, she displays a remarkable attribute: rather than pontificating, she asks questions. In the process, she demonstrates great kindness and takes a sincere interest in everyone she meets. 

These habits have an astonishing impact on others. When you’re engaged in a conversation with Nancy, you feel honored and have a sense that your opinion truly matters to her. You feel esteemed to have such a formidable intellect asking what you think. I wonder if that’s how some people felt when they spoke to Jesus.

In the workplace, humility is also helpful when we consider how often we find ourselves working in teams. By their very nature, teams consist of people, all equipped with various strengths and weaknesses. You’ve heard of (or experienced) political environments, right? That’s where teams play off of one another’s weaknesses for personal gain.

Thankfully, the opposite is also true: In good teams, we play off one another’s strengths. That requires recognizing one another’s strengths. That requires humility.

In the end, humility is a kind of secret weapon of the Christian faith. It’s good for us. It’s good for our human relationships. It’s good for our divine relationship. It’s good, by extension, for our workplaces.

Be hopeful

Scripture is chock-full of exhortations to hope, such as Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” It’s a fundamental part of the gospel message, not to mention one of the three theological virtues.

Hope is attractive, particularly as so many people around us struggle in this area. Who doesn’t, right? So what does hope look like when it’s applied to our work lives?

First, doing our best at work, striving for excellence, is a manifestation of hope. If we do even the smallest things out of love for God, placing our hope in him, we know it’s pleasing to him. It can also be a practical stress reducer, since we have given our best but recognize that we’re not in control of all the outcomes in our lives. God is.

Recognizing that grace builds on nature, we do our best, offer up our work to the Lord, asking for his blessing on our humble efforts, and give thanks for the results. Even when the results aren’t what we hoped for. When that’s the case, we keep giving our best. Even in failure, we can place our hope in him and even maintain a spirit of joy. 

How do we do this? Well, think about the crucifixion for a second. At the time, this appeared to be the extinguishment of all hope, at least from the perspective of Christ’s disciples. Yet with the Resurrection, that perspective changed. That’s the beauty of embracing a spirit of Christian hope. Even when things seem to be at their worst, we can have faith that the Lord still holds us in his hands.

Joy in tribulation

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is in Acts 5. The apostles are hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, accused of preaching the gospel. For their troubles they were flogged. Flogged! Then Scripture tells us the most astonishing thing.

They left rejoicing.

Rejoicing! Can you imagine? “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worth to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). It’s incredible. The way the apostles accepted hardship offers a huge challenge—and opportunity—for us today.

It’s not likely that we’ll be flogged in our workplace anytime soon (although I’ve certainly witnessed verbal floggings here and there). At the same time, there are lots of opportunities for us to accept the smaller hardships with grace and good humor. Coffee spill on our white shirt? Friction with a coworker? Problem on a big project? Our handling of difficulties speaks to others without us speaking about faith at all.

There’s an even bigger opportunity. When it comes to fertile ground for the gospel, there is perhaps no greater example than that of an individual going through serious problems in his life. This is where we are able to be Christ in the life of someone who needs it. Not for manipulative purposes, of course, but out of sincere respect, compassion, and love.

Honor freewill

As the parents of eight children, my wife and I once had four teenagers at home simultaneously. Along with keeping up with a gigantic food bill every month, I really struggled with the concept of freewill. Couldn’t God have provided an exemption for teens?

Of course, this was an opportunity for my sanctification, even though it sure was tough at the time. Despite challenges to parental authority, lack of respect, and various other obstacles, I began to see how freewill is a necessary component of conversion. This culminated in a re-reading of John chapter 6, where Jesus allowed people to walk away when he began speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He didn’t chase after them. He honored their freewill. Perhaps some of them reconsidered later; we don’t know.    

The scriptural admonishment not to judge makes all the sense in the world when we apply it to the judgment that is uniquely God’s job: that of judging hearts. Of course, we are able to see actions and see that they can be good or evil. That’s why we have laws against ax murderers but think it’s good to help the poor.

Our coworkers also have the benefit of freewill. This is why we should never seek to manipulate. Rather, we should have a radical respect for the conscience and freedom of others, even when their consciences aren’t properly formed. They’re not stupid; they have unique personal experiences, and the path to challenge them positively is through what my friend Dan Burke calls the “apologetics of extraordinary love.” In other words, to reach them we must love them, and then “love becomes the bridge over which truth can pass.” Love first, then truth. 

The model Christ left for us was one of service. We are meant, like him, “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). When we have a heart for service, we recognize the importance of loving others in practical, everyday terms. This is how positive relationships are built and provide us with credibility that our own freewill is being used in an efficacious manner.

Plant seeds

We plant seeds in hearts first by who we are, then by what we’re fired up about, by what we don’t care about, by what we do, and by what we don’t do. Remember, planting seeds is our job. We can challenge people here and there when necessary, but this shouldn’t be our lead strategy.

Instead, one of the best things we can do, once we’ve done everything we can to act in accordance with the gospel message, is to embrace that “gift of self” so often cited by St. John Paul II. We give ourselves to others through the sacrifice of time, talents, and treasure. In the workplace, so often the right gift is that of time.

Tell your story

If the Faith changes us, we have a story to tell. Among the privileges of my professional life is hearing the stories of the many converts and “reverts” to the faith on The Journey Home TV program each week at the Coming Home Network. These stories are potent; they resonate in ways only the Holy Spirit can provoke.

Our stories are important. We can share mistakes we’ve made, triumphs, perspectives on how to handle situations, encouragement . . . the possibilities are endless. Of course, this involves words. Thankfully, even if our lives and actions haven’t been perfect, we can still build others up with words—even sharing our mistakes when necessary.

Head for the entrance

It’s important to remember that most of us probably won’t undergo a martyr’s death. The way we’ll exercise the above virtues will be most notable, and perhaps most powerful, in the little everyday things that aren’t noteworthy or powerful. We will always be reliant on the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, and that’s the bottom line. We can encourage others to head for the entrance rather than the exit.

A friend of mine once said that his goal was to be successful and to never know it. By trusting in the Lord and leaving the heavy lifting of evangelization to the Holy Spirit, we’ll learn to be better workers—and better Catholics. 

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