ISSUE: More than half of Americans say that faith is important to them, but it’s not something that many people talk about. In this week’s Grey Matters, we look at the issue of sharing your faith at work. Specifically, should Gayle be able to invite her co-worker Amanda to a church event or does her company have the right to say this is against policy?
BACKGROUND: Gayle felt terrible for her co-worker Amanda. Three months ago, Amanda lost her husband of thirty-five years, and her work, health and looks had suffered. Amanda used to style her hair, wear an appropriate amount of make-up and dress in stylish well-fitting clothes, but now, it looked like she rolled out of bed through a hayfield and stole the clothes from a scarecrow.
Gayle had prayed for Amanda every day, even asking her church Sunday School group to do the same. Amanda never weighed that much, and Gayle had watched as Amanda lost so many pounds her clothes just hung off her. She wanted to say something. Do something. Let Amanda know that she was thinking about her. But Gayle was afraid. She knew that Amanda had grown up in a small town in South Carolina, and that as a child, her parents had taken her to church. They’d joked at one point about how their parents had picked a church based on how soon the preacher let out. You didn’t want to be the last one at Po Folks on a Sunday and wait for an hour to be seated.
Gayle usually brought her Bible and a devotional book and ate lunch at her desk and read, but one day she decided to ask Amanda to a local deli where their co-workers often went. She hoped to be able to talk to Amanda and get to know her and see if there was anything she could do.
“I may as well,” Amanda said. “I guess I need to eat.”
Gayle asked Amanda about her weekend and realized that Amanda spent much of her time in the bed or on the couch.
“My husband and I did everything together,” she said. “I really don’t know what to do without him.”
“Have you thought about trying to meet new people?”
“I’m 54 years old,” Amanda said and ate only the second bite of her sandwich. “What am I supposed to do? Go to a bar? Find friends online?”
Gayle took a sip of her iced tea and sighed. “I’d love for you to come to our church social this weekend. It’s a singles group. Everybody is over 50. Lots of fun people.”
“I haven’t been to church in a while,” Amanda replied. “Don’t you go to a really fundamentalist church? I’m not sure that I’d be comfortable.”
Gayle chuckled. “We don’t make you handle the snakes on your first visit.”
Amanda laughed for the first time in a while. “Why not? It beats sitting on the couch watching two hours of America Ninja Warrior.”
Gayle sent Amanda an email later with the details, and she noticed that Amanda seemed more upbeat the rest of the day. She was chatting more with her coworkers and even attended a birthday celebration for someone in their department, something she hadn’t done in months.
Gayle felt pretty proud of herself as she was packing up her bag at the end of the day, until Traci from HR came up and asked to speak to her.
Gayle followed Traci into her office, and Traci shut the door.
“I understand that you’ve been proselytizing at work,” Traci said.
“Talking to people about religion. Asking them to come to church with you.”
“I just spoke to Amanda at lunch about it. She’s just seemed so down.” Gayle felt uneasy. She didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. Amanda had seemed receptive to it. “Did Amanda say something?”
“No,” Traci said. “It wasn’t her, but someone who was at the deli where the two of you had lunch overheard your conversation, and said that you were telling Amanda that she should come to your church and you’d teach her how to handle snakes.”
“I was kidding about the snakes. I just invited her to a social event. She’s just seemed so depressed after her husband died. I thought it would be good for her.”
“Well, we have a very strict policy about religion and the workplace,” Traci said. “You can’t talk about your faith during office hours. Period.”
“Am I in trouble?” Gayle asked.
“Just consider this a warning,” Traci said. “Don’t let it happen again.”
COMMENTARY: Sharing your faith at work is a tricky proposition. It’s not against the law, and it’s not legally considered harassment, but you definitely have to be careful. Your employer is not paying you to proselytize, and it could make others uncomfortable.
But in my view, we need to create an environment where people are more comfortable sharing their faith with others.
Our faith is part of who we are, and for many people it’s a very important part. If someone asks me what I did this weekend, and I went to a church picnic, then I shouldn’t have to worry about telling someone that. It should be the same as telling someone I went wine tasting with friends. If someone asks me questions about my church and about my beliefs, then it’s perfectly ok for me to answer those questions. If someone is eavesdropping on a conversation and finds the conversation awkward, then that person should stop being so nosy and get on with his life.
We shouldn’t push our beliefs on people, but we should be free and should be ready to respond to any questions. In this case, it was perfectly acceptable for Gayle to ask Amanda to attend the church social.
Traci should have spoken to Amanda and asked Amanda how she felt. If Amanda felt uncomfortable, Traci could have told Amanda to let Gayle know that she wasn’t interested in learning more about her faith, and then if Gayle pushed the issue, then Traci could intervene.
Too often, however, people take a hardline and want to shut down any discussions of faith. But imagine if we promoted more dialogue about faith instead of making people who are religious feel uncomfortable. This would go a long way towards defusing the culture of political correctness that makes people in the majority feel oppressed.
Companies who champion diversity would be well-served by promoting more (not less) discussions about religion. I attended a diversity seminar at my company, and they had a speaker talk about Islam. In the half hour presentation, I learned a lot about how they practice their religion, why they pray five times a day, and how they feel in this climate of anti-Islamic sentiment. I wish that more people had this opportunity.
If faith is important to you, I encourage you to find an opportunity to talk to your co-workers about your views. Make sure that you’re not coming at them from a place where you’re trying to “fix” them or convert them. But have a discussion about what they believe. Perhaps, they might be of a very different faith, and you could learn something about a different religion. They might share your views, and it would bring you closer because you have something in common. But also be prepared if the person says, “I’d rather not talk about that.” And then respect that person’s views.
People always say you’re not supposed to talk about religion or politics. And that may be true, but what if we go into the situation with the mindset of listening to the other person. If we share out faith but only as a way to learn more about the other person and enlighten our own views, then I think we’ll all be better off.
Let me know your views on this subject by commenting on my blog or on Facebook.