December 15, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Jesus on the Job 

For an increasing number of Christians, the workplace is becoming an opportunity for spiritual growth and ministry.

But it doesn't stop here. Christians are taking their faith into their offices in hopes that it might dwell, if not grow, within them during working hours. With people spending more time than ever on the job — in some cases, as much as two-thirds of their days — it's understandable that the workplace could become a kind of extension of the church, an accessible venue where the indoctrinated can seek fellowship and perhaps even opportunities for ministry. Whether discreetly embraced or overtly displayed, evangelism, its adherents say, is nearly commonplace.

A recent Gallup Poll indicates that 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as being born-again. Religious books such as Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" are making the New York Times best-seller list amid a culture that cultivates bosses and employees to — in Christian seminar-speak — "lead like Jesus." And with President George W. Bush's re-election and conspicuous faith-based initiatives, it appears there is a political green light to make the job site more accommodating to one's religious beliefs.

The question may be, to what degree? A transformational one, answer some high-profile and well-connected Richmond leaders. But skeptics argue that too much accommodation could quake an already fractured ground.

Pressing the point has outcomes for a reporter: If you inquire about Jesus and his role in a believer's life, you won't walk away untouched. In the course of query and observation, you can be prayed for, sung to, anointed with oil, embraced — and offered everything from a Bible to a CD recording of a personal testimony.

Equally varied, yet less tactile, are the stories and situations that precipitate a Christian's urge to open up in the workplace. They illustrate life's turning points and crossroads, tragedies and triumphs, that lead, ultimately, to a conversion of faith or a maturation of it. And if your common denominator is Jesus, Christians say, what may merely have been an occupation becomes an avocation. It's a spiritual surge. Those who practice it call it servant leadership. To the uninitiated, it's Jesus on the job.

"This whole issue is becoming more apparent to people," says Judson E. "Buddy" Childress Jr., executive director and founder of Needle's Eye Ministries. A pioneer in the faith-at-work movement, Needle's Eye has served as an interdenominational ministry encouraging the development of Christian lifestyle and leadership within Richmond's business community for 28 years.

"A Christian work ethic lived out Monday through Friday will make a person a much better employee and absolutely a much better boss," Childress says. "If one uses Jesus as a role model, people see a difference, not only in how well you care for others but also in how it begins to raise questions and open doors." He draws a sharp distinction — as do many of those interviewed — between sharing one's faith when asked and proselytizing. "I'd be concerned if someone were regularly doing it at two o'clock on company time," he says.

Childress is tall and trim with an athlete's build and an air of assurance. He describes the increased focus on the faith-at-work movement as an etymological evolution of what it means to be "called." It used to be that divine calling referred to those who felt led to religious professions. But in truth, he says, and especially in a modern context, a Christian is called not to a function but to a person — Christ. Therefore, he says, "If I'm a nurse, I'm his at the hospital." The concept applies to all believers and "takes the whole idea of call to a new level," Childress says. "I would argue that's where the faith plays out — living Christ's ethic in the workplace, making the best widget you can." He draws an analogy: "Jesus was a carpenter and he never made a bad table."

Tom Gallagher, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia, credits his faith as a gift — one he's always possessed but occasionally needed to polish. It was confirmed during his family's growing pains and multiple moves across the country for his career. And there was a time a few years back when, after two decades in Richmond, he realized he was where he wanted to be but had reached his professional plateau. A Catholic, he says: "Just because you have a life of faith doesn't mean you don't have problems. You don't have a solution, you have the tools." One such important tool is his network of Christian friends. On the job he oversees 23 employees, 3,700 members and an annual budget of $1.5 million. "As a CEO, my job is to empower people to be fulfilled in their jobs. My role is to try to match Jesus' [role]." He says his participation in Bible studies and prayer groups provides a "battery charger in the middle of the week."

Gallagher doesn't check his faith at the office door, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve, either. He recognizes that he has a secular organization to run. "I live by 'Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself,'" he says. "I don't put my faith over anybody else's. But if somebody comes to me and they're hurting, it's my responsibility as a servant leader to respond to the person hurting."

Mauricio Velasquez strongly disagrees. Velasquez is president and chief executive of the Reston-based consulting firm Diversity Training Group. It's his business to educate employers and employees about inclusion, tolerance and an individual's rights in the workplace. He believes that Christianity — and any other religious belief — has a delicate if not detrimental place on the job.

Velasquez says it comes down to perception and judgment. "I am a Christian and proud of it," he says, "but I dance the line every day." Issues of separation of church and state, and of religious freedom become obscured if a person's faith favors building relationships in the workplace that are based on religious freedom. "Let's say I'm a Christian and you're a Christian and I'm your manager," he says. "If I give you a raise or promotion instead of someone who's not a Christian who may have been employed longer than you, regardless of whether you deserve it, what do you think is the conclusion others will draw, and why?" He warns that it quickly becomes a red-flag matter for labor lawyers.

With respect to Christianity in the workplace, Velasquez says he has received more questions from businesses than he ever has. "Workplace religion can be a tinderbox," he says. "It's volatile. During work hours or during a staff meeting, it is blasphemy — not part of a job description or what a person's paid to do." He adds, "I'm a much bigger fan of speaking about spirituality."

Spirituality and the challenge to demonstrate it as Jesus did are what keep Tom Chewning's faith in check. As vice president and chief financial officer for Dominion Resources, Chewning, soft-spoken with an easy smile, likens his role as a servant leader to that of a coach.

"It's an attitude you come with — you either control or you influence. Jesus would ask, but never demand," he says, raising his own question: "Is it today my privilege to help people feel good about themselves and to teach them something they use?"

According to Chewning's interpretation of his faith, if you're not a servant leader, you confine people to what you think, without allowing for growth. Chewning's office at Dominion's Tredegar site overlooks Belle Isle and the undulating rapids of the James. With silver geese flickering against the sky outside his windows, it's easy to see how a heavenly kingdom could seem near. Yet at times, he says, he's forgotten to notice his faith. He struggled after 9/11, he recalls, and Dominion did likewise, suffering losses of $91 million. But faith makes one strive to see those losses regained and — what's more, he says — to see a design that's divine. He was encouraged by a friend to join a businessmen's prayer group at First Baptist Church. The fellowship he found there provided much-needed spiritual strength. "This isn't just coincidence," he says. "I really think circumstance is God's way to remain anonymous. And when some unusual emotional event takes you — that's when your true journey begins."

Just as Buddy Childress' successful business career suddenly left him listless, Bo Middleton's career spun him into a midlife journey of renewed faith. "You have to meet people where they are," says Middleton, president and chief executive of Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation, a faith-based nonprofit that works to restore and build up disadvantaged neighborhoods. "Just as there is a spirit to prosperity, there is a spirit to poverty," he says of how he educates people. For Middleton, faith at work means differentiating between "sense knowledge" and "revelational knowledge." The former is of the world, the latter is divine.

"The greatest enemy of faith is sense knowledge," he says. "The devil doesn't want us to believe in the integrity of his word," he says. The shift he's witnessed in workplace ministry is the result of Christians becoming more confident in their calling — and more practical. As a Christian, Middleton views his role as leader to motivate believers and nonbelievers to envision a better life. "In the community we've failed on the human level," he says. "We're in the last days and times. We have to be ... bolder if we're going to win the world for Christ."

Nevertheless, he's keenly aware that Christianity has the potential to alienate. His ample yet modest offices and fledgling business incubator off Hull Street remind him daily whom he's here to serve: Jesus first, his community second. The two complement each other, he says. It's with this sense of purpose that he appeals to potential benefactors. "I don't go to the Bill Goodwins or Randy Reynolds talking about Christ," he says of the local businessmen and philanthropists. "They'll see through, by example, what I do. I cover the community by prayer and I get busy doing my job. And I want to be as successful as Bill Gates in what I do for the Lord."

Yet despite his bold approach, Middleton and many other Christians appear to talk carefully, as if to diminish any perception of them as zealots or fanatics. However popular culture embraces spirituality, evangelical Christianity and its often caricatured legends still straddle a line of popular practice and public ridicule. After all, there are the Jerry Falwells and Al Sharptons who have become notorious as ideologues for evangelism. They cast a shadow on charismatic Christians many of whom speak in tongues through the Holy Spirit. For them this charismatic speech seems to be a matter relevant to their personal relationship with Jesus, not something for public discourse

But what of negative perceptions an evangelical can connote?

"I refuse to believe in the victimized Christian," says Dominion's Chewning. "The hardest thing isn't social pressure or the price you pay for being labeled a Christian," he says. "The problem is when I don't live up to what Christ would have me do."

Pat Clark, vice president and managing broker with Long & Foster Realtors, says if she hadn't followed Jesus' plan for her career, she wouldn't have pulled through the devastation she felt when her 33-year marriage fell apart.

God's grace, she says, healed and changed her. "It's like a 9/11 in your life," she recalls of the Friday morning nine years ago, when her former husband told her he didn't want to be married anymore. With her kids grown and living out of state, Scripture became her sustenance — especially, she says, "That powerful psalm 'Be still and know that I am God!' — that quiet little verse. It's a hard thing to be still in a busy life."

Clark put herself on what she calls the "manna plan" of day-to-day goals and career objectives. She helped grow her firm's Midlothian office from a few dozen agents to more than 80. Her professional and her personal life began to soar. As a Christian, "You set the stage for how the office environment is going to be. God is love," she says, exuberant. "What better example is that?"

Clark, too, recognizes that proselytizing turns many off. It's why she refuses to do it — on or off the clock. "I'm not a preacher or a minister; I'm just a believer," she stresses. "If they can't see it in me, they don't need to hear it from me."

So are Christians diluting their faith at work if they subscribe to "spirituality" and "moral values" rather than evangelism and Jesus? It seems that many believers and nonbelievers consider the question of how much Jesus is healthy in a work environment a difficult one to answer.

Not so for Christopher K. Peace, 28. A lobbyist with McGuireWoods Consulting, Peace acknowledges his faith is full of paradoxes, even mystery. It challenges him to move deeper in it, he says, delving into its theology.

Peace is the son of Nina Peace, former attorney and judge for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Hanover and Caroline counties. An only child, Chris Peace was raised by his single mom, his closest friend. Widely loved and respected, she died of a heart attack in February 2004, just months before Peace was to be married. Now a husband rooted in Christ, he recalls the last day he and his wife spent with his mother. He sees its providence. Peace shares this and other aspects of his faith walk readily at work. He's the first to admit that it makes some co-workers uneasy. When someone asked him to take over leading a Wednesday lunchtime Bible study at the firm, he agreed. "Ministry in the marketplace is not a new concept at all," he says. "Rather, it is just now being tried."

How do his religious beliefs play out at work? Peace says he's accustomed to people deriding him for them. A former Hampden-Sydney frat boy, as a transfer student to the University of Richmond School of Law, Peace carried a Bible with him around campus. Other students called him "Bible Boy" and "Little Falwell," he recalls. The names don't bother him. Peace is at peace with who he is, he says, and that's a spirit-filled, born-again, glad-you-asked Christian. He believes that others like him who work in the marketplace are really just reclaiming a part of themselves that has been lost in society's hustle. Jesus ministered in the market, he points out, and brought peace to a chaotic environment.

"What would Jesus do if he were made man today?" Peace asks. "He'd lead a businessmen's study. He would host weekly fellowship lunch hours at a law firm. He would love people where they are."

The men gathered at St. Giles on this recent foggy morning seem sure that Jesus has joined them where they are. A few regulars weren't able to make it on this particular Tuesday, but at least one visitor is present, bringing the total to 10. The group includes, among others, Robert S. Ukrop, president and CEO of Ukrop's Super Markets Inc., retired consultant Collie Burton and family physician Dr. James Anderson. They meet once a month for about an hour at different local churches.

There are hundreds of such small groups of men and women who meet together throughout the week. They do so before work, during, and after, either on the job site or off, and talk about how their faith affects everything from workplace issues to relationships to the community.

While the group doesn't have an official name, the nine well-dressed men in this Sunday-school room share a citywide agenda: racial harmony and social progress. The instrument to make it sound, they say, is prayer.

Looking more awake by the minute, they sit close to one another, around a table topped with green-bound hymnals and bookmarked Bibles. At one's suggestion, they turn to hymn No. 323 and begin singing all four verses to "Holy, Holy, Holy." It's followed by "Joy to the World."

Anderson, the physician, leads today's discussion, pointing out an observation he has written on the blackboard. He reads it aloud: "A full expression of God's grace has never been experienced in Richmond due to the breakdown of relationships among Christian leaders."

Each man, in clockwise fashion, responds.

"There is a stain on the city. When will we turn the corner?" one asks.

Not much has changed in terms of racial harmony in 30 years, they all agree.

Burton, the eldest member of the group, assures them: "Unless you change the heart of man, you're not going to change the head of man."

The men brainstorm a strategy to facilitate "trust and respect" among black and white pastors. Next the intercessions begin. Christians widely believe that prayer in numbers has the power to move mountains. A person's willingness to bear witness to Jesus does, too. The men gathered here claim both.

"Lord, as we look at the task at hand, it seems overwhelming, an impossible prayer, and as it should be,"Anderson prays. "We can't do it on our own."

Each man then offers a personal prayer, a Scripture reading or a song. The men wear pressed shirts and ties and dress shoes. In the work world, it's easy to see they'd blend in. To an outsider, it's a stark contrast to see powerful-looking men in a submissive, reverent state. They bow their heads. Some bury them in their hands. Others lift them toward heaven. All of the men keep their eyes closed. Twenty minutes of prayer passes. A timed beeper announces the hour. For most here, the workday begins in seconds.

Anderson concludes the prayer. "We don't want to control anything as Christians, but if you put leaders together in an environment of trust," he offers, "there will be an explosion of leadership." S



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