There is hope for Christian employers
Are Christian organizations great employers? A Christian just hired to work for a church, Christian school or Christian social agency might expect to enter the ideal workplace: what could be better than working for an agency and employer who share your basic faith and deepest convictions?
An article in this issue of Christian Courier, submitted by a reader who understandably asked to remain anonymous, gives a first-person account of a Christian agency workplace that fell far short of a Psalm 133 experience. The writer contrasts her work time spent at a Christian agency with her much more fulfilling and positive experience working with a public service employer organized by a labour union.
We might be tempted to dismiss this story as “just one person’s subjective account of her particular situation.” However, my two decades of past experience as a representative of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) give me certainty that this account is far more than an isolated experience. During my years at CLAC, my colleagues and I met with, and organized, many employees of Christian agencies and even churches who experienced workplace bully tactics and workplace injustice. Lacking satisfactory structures to sort through workplace friction, small problems grew to large issues, and employees often felt they had no option but to quit their jobs. Naturally we encouraged the much more positive option of seeking the help and expertise of the CLAC.
The ‘worst’ in Canada?
I can ruefully admit to being on the other side of this equation as well. Through the years I have served on and chaired the Boards of Christian organizations, and had opportunity to deal with employees of the organizations in that capacity. Most recently, as chair of the administration ministry in a local church, I attended a seminar sponsored by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. The seminar opened with the startling statement that Christian organizations are the very worst of Canadian employers! The presenter went on to explain why this is so. The people in charge of our organizations are usually volunteers, often lacking the expertise to manage a workplace. Too often we fail to clearly define what we expect of employees. We fail to establish clear lines of accountability. We take dedicated work for granted, often failing to recognize even exceptional contributions. When conflict occurs, employees usually have no recourse to an impartial grievance procedure. The seminar offered excellent material to deal with these matters and improve the quality and character of our workplaces.
In my case, I took home the seminar materials and diligently tried to apply them. I worked on our church’s hiring process, and set up a detailed contract for the church secretary. We devised a process for regular work reviews and feedback. All seemed to be going well until an unusual illness kept an employee from keeping regular hours. We arranged for a temporary replacement, and duly reported the situation in detail at our regular meetings. When the secretary called me to protest what our committee was doing with her information, I defended what we were doing and asked her to reconsider her protest. Instead, she contacted the chair of our church council – who happened to be a woman with considerable employee management expertise – and asked for a meeting to resolve her issue. The three of us quickly met together, and I was soon persuaded that, however honourable my intentions, I had violated our employee’s right to privacy by discussing details of her health situation with our committee. What could I do but sincerely apologize for my ignorance and arrogance, then pull back our committee minutes, and revise them appropriately. I also thanked God that we could restore our relationship and work through a serious workplace conflict.
The Word in the workplace
Call the Midwife, a popular BBC television series currently showing in its sixth season on many PBS stations, offers an excellent example of what a Christian employer can be – a true work community. The show is fiction but based on the true to life memoirs of a nurse who worked as a midwife in poverty-stricken east end London in the 1950s and early 60s. An order of Anglican nuns working from and living in the Nonnatus House convent provides midwifery and other nursing care to the teeming population of city folk. Too few novices are entering the nursing order of nuns, so they are joined by several young nurses who work under the direction of the nuns. We get to know both the convent community and the newly recruited nurses as they coach and assist new mothers through the final stages of pregnancy and birth. We see the nurses and nuns share stories they eat and work together, and we even witness the nuns as they sing psalms and scripture together in their communal devotions. Leading the convent and the nursing team is the abbess, Sister Julienne. Unassuming, wise, perceptive, empathetic, encouraging, skillfully directive – this senior nurse demonstrates what it means to be a Christian leader in the workplace.
My work life experience also includes the privilege of working with this kind of servant-leader. It is a gift that transforms a workplace touched by applied love. It is Jesus washing the feet of his followers, and Psalm 133. Let us all be both hearers and doers of the Word in the workplace.