“Are you allowed to mention the name of Jesus in your company?” a friend of mine asked an entrepreneur from China awhile back, as I sat listening.
“Yes, we have a church that meets in our company,” he replied.
The irony was striking: A group of American business leaders in the “land of the free” who nevertheless had to walk carefully through the minefield of corporate religion had just discovered that a business owner from a nation governed by a regime professing official state atheism perhaps had more freedom than they regarding spiritual expression in the workplace.
In May 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the eyes of many, brought judicial balance in the debate about corporate and institutional religion. In the words of a Wall Street Journal report, “it rejected arguments that the overwhelmingly Christian prayers” offered before town council meetings in Greece, New York, “gave preference to one faith and violated the First Amendment.”
The Court stressed inclusion, allowing “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including the atheist,” to give the invocation. That would include, noted the Journal, ministers of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” to some, a caustic lampooning of religion. Members of the FSM call themselves “pastafarians.”
It’s not just local governing bodies who face what one commentator on the Court decision called opening the door “for a bit of free-for-all,” but businesses as well. While it may be possible to allow religious groups to have some form of presence and engagement within their companies, many executives believe the risks are too high, and try to avoid the issue altogether. The “free-for-all” that could follow one sectarian faction being perceived as having advantage over another in a corporate environment could become a “free-for-all” of litigation, they fear.
Thus the Supreme Court’s decision might not be such a boon for believers after all. That prompts an important question: What should a corporation do about accommodating its employees’ desire to express their faith at work?
The answer I propose is this: Where there is a highly diverse workforce it is important to see the workplace as a relational environment, not a religious arena.
I learned this principle personally while serving in such a corporate entity. I once worked as a consultant primarily to government agencies. My largest client was the Harris County (Texas) Tax Office, with $2 billion in annual revenues, and 600 employees scattered across the Houston metropolitan area in more than a dozen branch offices.
Paul Bettencourt, who described himself gleefully as a “Catholic-Aggie,” had received a detailed analysis and recommendations from a national audit firm. In addition to updating technology, the company recommended management and organizational changes. Bettencourt asked me to take oversight of that process as a consultant. What I thought would be a dull assignment turned out to be one of the most instructional of my career.
“I want a faith-based tax office operated on business principles,” Bettencourt told me. He was utilizing the “faith-based” terminology coined by then-President George W. Bush. As a former pastor, the term resonated deeply within me. But how could that environment be created in a secular public institution?
Having spent many years in the “religious sector” I knew it would be inappropriate for me to view the Tax Office as a spiritual target. Yet I could not quell the pastoral heart developed in me over more than 30 years, and as I met employees I became sensitive to their personal pains and struggles.
Eventually, as relationships developed, I came to know other committed Christians working in the agency also concerned for their workmates and their needs. Eventually my other Christian colleagues and I began gathering as “The Fellowship of Levi” (Get it? Levi was a tax collector among Jesus’ followers!), an informal group that met one day a week during lunch-break to pray for Bettencourt, the Tax Office corporately, and for individuals with needs.
We never advertised, but over time people began to sense they could share their problems with us. Occasionally, some would even join us as we prayed at a back table in the cafeteria.
The Fellowship of Levi was conceptualized around the New Testament theme of koinonia, which stresses the relational life of a Christian community and any others who desire its friendships and ministry. Such an entity becomes a living organism within a corporate structure, not there to take over, or to exert its “rights,” but simply to touch human need with the love and power of Jesus Christ, through the natural relationships that emerge in the workplace.
There are companies unhesitant to be visible regarding their Christian worldview—Chick-fil-a, Christian Brothers Automotive, and Interstate Battery, to name a few. The position, as Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A discovered, can prove costly. And in the increasing secularization of Western culture one never knows when the freedom of open identification with a politically incorrect faith will be battered even more intensely by litigation.
One hopes such enterprises will be able to continue to be open about their spiritual foundations. But no matter what, living fruit comes from ministering relationships in our daily lives, including work. “Corporate koinonia” is an effective tool in cultivating such ministry. Corporate religion may be a hard, complex act to pull off, but relationships within a corporation just “happen.”
And they don’t have to be authorized by the United States Supreme Court.
Wallace Henley is Senior Associate Pastor of Houston’s Second Baptist Church, and a longtime member of the Advisory Board of HBU’s Center for Christianity in Business. A former journalist, White House, and Congressional aide, Henley is author of ‘Globequake,’ published by Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. He is founder of Headwaters Leadership Institute, which seeks to bring the flow of biblical principles into leadership and management.