Integrating Spirituality Into Work

Professionals find ways to incorporate private belief into workplace roles and decisions by Seth Wax

School leaders do work that is both demanding and draining. Amid the day-to-day pressures of managing their school districts, manyare seeking inspiration and deeper meaning. As a result, some are increasingly looking to integrate their spirituality and their work.

At first glance, this may seem like a difficult, if not impossible, task. Working in the public domain where church and state are necessarily separated, it would seem unlikely that spirituality could have any role in the workplace. However, it is possible to distinguish between religion, which can include official institutions and doctrines, and spirituality, which consists of an individual’s private beliefs and practices.

Spirituality can be about connecting with what is beyond us, whether that be described as a higher power, God or one’s basic goodness. While it often emerges from a religious context, spirituality can be thought of more as a personal meaning system.

Spirituality also encompasses how a person puts his or her beliefs into practice. It can provide a framework of ethics, involve prayer and meditation, or be a source of strength in difficult times. Most importantly for school leaders, spirituality also may deepen one’s commitment to work and transform how it is done.

School leaders already have become cognizant of the benefits of spirituality, as the September 2002 issue of The School Administrator on spirituality and leadership demonstrates. But it may be difficult to know how exactly to do it.

In what follows, we’ll meet three professionals interviewed as part of the GoodWork Project (whose names have been changed) who successfully integrate their spirituality into their work. While their specific beliefs and religious affiliations differ, each demonstrates distinct strategies for incorporating their spiritual beliefs and practices into their work. Steve, the director of an after-school program, is motivated by a spiritual goal; Louise, a public school teacher, has a strong sense of divine calling; and Peter, a counselor for patients with chronic illnesses, brings his meditation practice into his work.

Spiritual Goal
Steve is the leader of a multisite, after-school and summer enrichment program for low-income, inner-city youth. Having experienced the effects of racism as a child, he sees his goal as helping marginalized individuals gain entrance into society, achieve their version of the American dream and transform our culture. This objective is directly informed by his personal spiritual beliefs.

Influenced by the Catholic teachings of his family and the Baptist church at which he worships, he firmly believes all human beings have been created in God’s image. As a result, they deserve humane treatment. Because he has been given talents to help these children, he believes he must serve them to the best of his ability.

Although spirituality is a strong influence on his personal direction and where he wishes the organization to go, he does not proselytize. Rather, it motivates him to do his best work. When he is not serving the participants in his program and, by extension, God, he does not feel as though he is living up to his potential. As a result, his spiritual beliefs frame his work, instilling his tasks with ultimate importance. Further, his work becomes a vehicle for achieving his spiritual goals.

The key point is that Steve feels a responsibility to do his best work because it is a sacred task. His beliefs deeply influence how he thinks about his work and the larger purpose. In this way, spirituality may help Steve — and others like him — commit himself to his work.

Duty Calls
As a teacher in a public school, Louise must balance many competing demands in the course of a day. Yet rather than allow this to burn her out, she draws on her spiritual conviction that she has been called to her work.

The idea of being “called” to one’s work has been an important part of Western Christianity since the Reformation, when religious leaders argued that labor was what Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow calls “a divinely appointed duty.” Today, many religious Christians have a sense of calling. While it is similar to those who have a spiritual goal, it is much more specific: They believe God wants them to do a certain kind of work. And while it may seem somewhat more religious, it is an eminently personal and spiritual attitude.

Louise’s sense of calling is profound. Not only does she feel God wants her to be a teacher, she also believes she must live up to a high standard of conduct, commitment to her students and to the profession of teaching because God desires it. She conceives of her career not only as a means of helping her family but also as an act of deep service to others and to God.

The meaning system that Louise employs not only enhances her commitment to her work, but it also transforms each interaction with a student, each conversation with a fellow teacher or administrator and each moment devoted to lesson planning into a holy act. She does not need to convince others that God called on her to be a teacher, but this belief deeply influences how she thinks about her work.

Meditation and Work
With the increasing popularity of yoga and Buddhist spirituality, it has become easier to learn about meditation today. But few resources discuss how to bring the calm awareness and concentration borne of these practices into work.

Peter works as a counselor for patients with chronic illnesses, and in that capacity, he must manage complex interactions with health-care providers, insurance companies and families. He also practices mindfulness meditation, a technique derived from Buddhism that has become increasingly popular with many non-religious people. It involves placing one’s attention on what is happening in the present moment, trying not to get caught up in egocentric thoughts or judgments that distort what is actually happening.

Additional Resources

Seth Wax suggests the following books as resource materials relating to the subject of his article.

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Prior to practicing meditation, Peter would typically make snap decisions about clients, react to complaints in a self-protective manner or obsess over positive results in an attempt to validate himself. But in integrating his meditation practice at work, he strives to observe his own thoughts and actions as he interacts with clients. By becoming more aware of how he thinks and feels, he tries to be more skillful at work.

In addition, by carrying out a practice aimed at developing calm, he tries to let go of his desire for specific results while remaining committed to positive outcomes. Through practicing meditation and cultivating positive qualities, he works to connect with his altruistic intentions.

It is best to receive meditation instruction from a qualified instructor, but once learned, it can transform how school leaders and teachers engage in their work. As an ongoing discipline, meditation can help one remain focused and can play a key role in stress management. Meditation is a practice that can help invigorate and sustain working professionals in their lives and assist them in committing their lives to their important work.

Guiding Light
Whether we consider ourselves to be spiritual or religious people, many resources exist for supporting integration of spirituality into our work. These include local religious leaders, meditation teachers and many excellent published materials. The key point to keep in mind is that while spirituality consists of an individual’s beliefs, it can be a powerful tool in helping one to connect with the deeper intentions of one’s work and to serve as a motivation for doing that work well.

Spirituality should not be completely divorced from work, but rather public school leaders should feel open to encourage teachers and administrators — and themselves — to explore how spirituality can enrich the working life.

Seth Wax, a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School, formerly worked as a researcher on the GoodWork Project at Harvard’s Project Zero. E-mail: sethwax@gmail.com