e-mail us

Cover story

Finding God on the job

Special Report Writer

For most of his adult life, Greg Pierce has been wrestling with the issue of a spirituality of work. But the 53-year-old co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago is something of a contrarian in his approach to matters spiritual.

“The traditional approach is based on plucking yourself out of the world, at least for a time,” he said, “developing an inner world of contemplation, gaining insights through retreats, engaging in pious practices like the labyrinth. I have nothing against all this, but it doesn’t work for me and I don’t think it works for most people. Like a lot of folks I know, I am piety-impaired.”

Pierce wants a spirituality that can flourish within the nitty-gritty of the workplace, one that recognizes “the intrinsically spiritual nature of work,” and sees God’s presence in life, “whether bidden or unbidden.”

Appropriately, he has not been conducting his research in solitude. For many years Pierce, along with his friend Bill Droel, has been the power behind the National Center of the Laity, a loosely structured, Chicago-based organization that publishes a newsletter and sponsors occasional conferences on probing the spiritual dimensions of the secular work world. For the past three years, he has conducted a dialogue on the Internet titled “Faith and Work in Cyberspace.” Every few weeks he throws out one of his insights to an ever-growing, free e-mail list (more than 400 at present), invites provocative responses and keeps the dialogue going at gfapierce@aol.com.

The effort has convinced him that piety-impairment is a fairly common condition among Catholics.

“There’s no question Catholics are interested like everyone else in spirituality today,” he said, “but what we’re being offered are all these books and speakers and retreat centers that help you get away from the world. It’s practically an industry. They try to provide extra things you can do to give value to the rest of your day or opportunities to recharge your batteries. But they somehow communicate that work itself is at best a burden to be borne.” Some of this is a response to modern culture’s insistence on the demeaning nature of work. “Take a look at ‘Dilbert,’ ” Pierce said. “Here’s a very negative view of the workplace. The characters have no centeredness, no soul. They spend all their time reacting, never acting.”

Pierce said those in his cyberspace dialogue want practical disciplines to somehow access a sense of the transcendent in the very jobs they are doing. “We’re seeking practices that free you from having to remember to be spiritual,” he said. In February, Loyola Press will publish Spirituality @ Work: Ten Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job. In the book, Pierce, aided by his cyberspace dialogue partners, attempts to present some of the practical recommendations they have developed.

Greg Pierce’s disillusionment with the traditional approach to spirituality goes back a long time. As a former seminarian, he was well acquainted with recognized spiritual masters like Thomas à Kempis, St. Ignatius and Thérèse of Lisieux. And while some of these spoke of holiness as a possibility in the midst of the world, he found most of the Catholic tradition (à Kempis, in particular) suspicious, even hostile to everyday life.

In reading a popular reference work on the “most influential writings of the Christian tradition,” Pierce was unable to find in the index any reference to work, job, community, politics, social justice or family. He did find one reference to marriage, but it was cited as “marriage, renunciation of.” The one reference to children was listed as “children as evil.”

All this did not jibe with Pierce’s gospel image of Jesus, who lived in the thick of the world, eating and drinking with sinners, preaching to crowds and healing the sick. “It’s true Jesus tried to get away occasionally to pray,” noted Pierce, “but he didn’t insist everyone join him, and he seems to have interrupted these interludes of solitude whenever the people came looking for him.”

His opportunity to muse freely on spiritual matters became more limited after Pierce married his wife, Kathy, 15 years ago. In short order they had three children, and he found himself taking over the helm at ACTA. The company had been a significant publisher of religious education and Bible study materials in the 1960s featuring the works of progressive Chicago priests like James Kilgallon and Gerald Weber. But ACTA, housed in a nondescript former warehouse on the city’s north side, had fallen on hard times. Pierce hurled himself into resuscitating the operation. (He kept the acronym title but altered the meaning from “Adult Catechetical Teaching Aids” to “Assisting Christians to Act.”)

With a lot of work and a small staff, ACTA began publishing a wide range of materials on popular spirituality, most notably the storybooks, audios and videos of John Shea. And they still sell some 30,000 copies a year of the venerable old adult catechism, Life in Christ. Currently, they publish about 12 new titles a year.

Meanwhile, Pierce’s family responsibilities were growing along with his children. He was chauffeuring them to activities, attending their school plays and plunging into a career as a volunteer kids’ baseball coach. Opportunities to explore spiritual realms were fewer than ever. He sought the advice of a priest spiritual director, who suggested he find something in his life to give up. “I thought about that,” said Pierce. “I couldn’t give up my family, my work, my coaching. All of these things were terribly important to me. So I gave up the spiritual director.”

He decided he would have to find a spirituality that could work inside the myriad entanglements of his life, one that did not require a lot of time. “I wanted practices that could be done by anyone from a CEO to the person in the tollbooth on the expressway. They had to be things you could do regularly, that would not disrupt the flow of the workplace and would not offend or annoy other people.” With the aid of his e-mail colleagues, he believes he has made a start.

Here then is a sampling of the practices that have emerged. Some are mind-boggling in their simplicity, but none works without a hefty dose of self-discipline. Anyone who practices them regularly, Pierce said confidently, “will become holy.”

Surrounding yourself with “sacred” objects: Pierce recommends carving out a place in your workplace for pictures and other items that recall your roots and connections to family and community. They can be explicitly religious but they don’t have to be. One memento in his office at ACTA is a tin box with a picture of old-time baseball players. It was given to him by a woman whose 17-year-old son had committed suicide. “Every time I look at it,” he said, “I face the ultimate meaning of life, the sorrow of the family and the despair of the boy.” It moves him to a quick moment of prayer.

People such as police officers or store clerks who lack an office are not barred from using small “sacred” objects like a medal, pin, belt buckle or key chain that connects with the larger realities. One of the e-mailers in the dialogue identified her constantly ringing phone at work as the reminder that God is getting in touch with her through the needs of others. The trick in this technique, said Pierce, is to refocus the objects from time to time or exchange them for something else when they become so familiar they cease serving their purpose.

Living with imperfection: The ability to accept and even celebrate failures and shortcomings as well as successes relieves you of the heresy that you can do God’s work on your own, said Pierce. “The cost of trying to be perfect is too great,” he said. “You can expect to find at least two typographical errors in any book I publish because I do imperfect books. The amount of work it would take to get rid of those last two typos isn’t worth the effort.”

But aren’t we supposed to strive for perfection in all things? Up to a point, said Pierce, noting that even creation has a lot of typos. He is fond of Woody Allen’s saying, “If God is all-powerful, he certainly is an underachiever.” Living with imperfection should be one of the easier spiritual practices, Pierce believes, since bosses, coworkers, spouses and children are often eager to call your attention to them.

Giving thanks and congratulations: Pierce connects the ordinary thank yous that sprinkle an ordinary work day with the Eucharist, the ultimate thank you spoken to God by humans in the name of all creation. But he thinks that extraordinary thank yous to coworkers and employers are especially useful in developing a persistently thankful, spiritual attitude. Whenever the first shipment of one of his newly published books arrives from the printer, Pierce drops what he’s doing, reflects on all the work involved, even relishes the fresh smell of the product, then writes a note to the author expressing his personal thanks. This is just good business practice, but Pierce said it is for him a spiritual discipline, a way to reflect on what he’s doing with his life and why.

He goes so far as to suggest that businesspersons learn to congratulate their competitors, even (or especially) when the competitor wins out on an important project. The sad fact, of course, is that thanks and congratulations are exceedingly rare in environments where workers feel overworked or exploited. But if a single employee takes it upon herself to break the gridlock of silence, said Pierce, she is already moving the company “in the direction of just compensation.”

Assuring quality: Dilbert notwithstanding, many people do feel a deep satisfaction in the work they do. Pierce simply wants people to be more prayerfully conscious that in their achievements they are furthering the Reign of God on earth, and the satisfaction they feel is a sign of God’s pleasure and approval. If the work is difficult and the pay low, bellboys, schoolteachers and street sweepers can still be aware that their work serves a greater good and they can take pride in it.

Dealing with others as you would have them deal with you: Honesty in the workplace is a commodity in short supply, said Pierce. We have come to expect advertising to grossly misrepresent products, customer service workers to be rudely defensive, lawyers to twist the truth beyond recognition. The practice of the Golden Rule in this era requires an ascetic kind of countercultural discipline, in Pierce’s view, but one that is at the heart of Christian integrity.

Observed an accountant on the Internet group, “There is a price to being a Christian, and part of that price is that you will not be as successful in the ways of the world as those who appear to be moral but who are in fact uninhibited by any scruples. … As Christians I hope we do not behave well because we expect material reward. … Christ behaved well, and look what he got.”

Building support and community: Still to be found in some workplaces are those extraordinary people who go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome, who extend an arm of compassion to a suffering coworker, who do not participate in the routine bad-mouthing and rumor-spreading around the water cooler. This is community building. Wonders can be achieved, noted a member of Pierce’s e-mail group, by taking an extra 15 seconds to inquire how the receptionist is doing (and actually listening to the reply) instead of breezing by with a muffled “hi” in the morning. Is this a spiritual practice? It is “evangelization” in the best sense of the word, argues Pierce, who strenuously objects to preaching and proselytizing in the workplace. Creators of community will get noticed, he said, and this may lead to conversations about what prompts this unusual attitude, but converting others cannot be the starting point. The starting point must be “to convert ourselves to a better work life.”

Other practices on Pierce’s top 10 list include:

Deciding what is enough and sticking to it;

Balancing work, personal, family, church and community responsibilities;

Engaging in ongoing personal and professional development; and

Working to make “the system” work.

This last discipline Pierce regards as “the toughest, the most controversial, the most frustrating and the least successful, yet perhaps the most necessary” because it involves a conscious striving (yes, even organizing) for social justice in your own industry, profession or work situation.

Pierce does not present himself as a spiritual master. He wonders if his disciplines are too secular or mundane. “All I can say is they work for me now,” he said, adding that they seem to work also for others he is in contact with -- even “the busiest and least pious.” For him and his cyberspace collaborators, creating a workable spirituality of work remains a work in progress.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001