Dear Avodah Blog Friends,
I hope you enjoy this guest blog post from my friend and research collaborator, Dr. Tim Ewest, professor of business at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
“The Spring Crop”
When I say “Iowa” your mind may drift to images of, well, pork; of which Iowa leads the nation with 26.7% of all pork produced[i]. Or, maybe you think of education; Iowa ranks 4th in most private colleges and 5th highest undergraduate enrollment, per capita.[ii] Maybe you know an Iowan and can say “generally” we are hardworking, friendly people. But, one thought probably dominates your picture of Iowa – CORN. Although my friend David Miller enthuses about New Jersey sweet corn, I’ll back our “Field of Dreams” corn state any day! Indeed, Iowa produces more corn than any other state and up to three times more than Mexico.[iii] That’s a lot of corn.
But farmers and agrarian communities live in a constant state uncertainty about whether the seeds they plant will survive the ever-uncertain weather, pests, global commodity price swings, and changing tax codes. Yet these farmers retain hope, and year after year, plant, and pray, for a bountiful harvest. As an undergraduate business professor, I understand the farmer’s hope, mixed with worry. I am always wondering if my students will not only emerge, but also fully mature. And, if I’m to be accurate with using this metaphor, I get these students for only a few short years and realize the “harvest” from my labor with them will not be seen for many years. So, for the most part, my role is foundational, my role is to focus on getting the soil prepared and the crop started.
Wartburg visits Princeton
As part of this, in May, Dr. Miller and the Faith & Work Initiative hosted eight Wartburg College business and economics students on the Princeton University Campus. They partook in a week-long seminar entitled, “Trends in Management: Integrating Faith into The Workplace.” These juniors and seniors, many heading to graduate school or corporate training programs are savvy. But, I was a little worried that the topic of integrating faith into the workplace may not take root, after all, it is not a run of the mill business topic.
The discussions were lively, and at times heated. Right away, students noted from the readings the changing nature of the religious/spiritual landscape in America. While the percentage of people who believe there is a God, in the United States, remains consistent (92%)[iv], but the amount of people who do not identify with a specific religious tradition is growing (currently at 16%).[v] Scholars generally believe this is due in part to a post-modern value which disavows belief in absolutes, creating an undertow within society. But one of the students, Meredith, who is going to be entering a PhD program at Marquette University, wondered if this phenomenon was also due to “the influence of Fordism, the demand by employers for only the workers’ practical talents minus interpersonal aspects such as feelings.” She imagined “how the present landscape of spirituality and faith would look if early on aspects of feelings, emotions or even faith were included in the workplace.” Meredith envisioned a workforce where the whole person would be engaged, and how this new environment would be mutually beneficial for both the employee and the employer. Meredith shares a vision with another woman, management theorist Mary Parker Follett. Follett noted the division created in the modern worker (Fordism), she called this division a “fatal dualism” and she too envisioned a unity between the material and the spiritual thinking that it “will create a new man and new environment.” [vi]
“All fine and well,” said David, a fourth year student who is going to be working for his family business after graduating, “But how would you implement this?” David continued, “I realize that this is a timely and important topic. I’m for both protecting religious freedom, and also for creating an energetic workplace that Meredith is talking about, but come ‘on, think about this practically – would it work?” He continued, “Imagine being a manager of a large company and having to accommodate for every religions tradition and belief, it’s simply not possible”. “Is it?”
Tyson Foods case study
Later in the week the class began engaging various case studies that addressed integrating faith and work. One of the cases we considered featured Tyson Foods, who is one of the first to develop innovative ways to integrate faith into the workplace by striving to be faith-friendly. This specific case involved unions, management, employees, and the media, as Tyson sought to respond to certain requests by a group of Muslim employees who were seeking time off to participate in a sacred religious holiday. The case featured Tyson’s director of Media Relations Director, Gary Mickelson. But, after discussing the details of the case, the students were conflicted as to what they would do if they were Tyson management. Some felt that a manager may be able to accommodate for faith differences, while others still were uncertain. As the discussion in the case subsided, Philip, a junior studying economics said, “I wonder what drives Tyson, and more importantly, how they make these decisions?”
Talk with Tyson
Moments later the students were moved into an adjoining room where they gathered around a speaker phone. The voice over the phone said, “Good afternoon, my name is Gary Mickelson. I am a friend of David Miller and he asked me to join you today. I am the director of Media Relations at Tyson Foods, Inc.“ The students sat stunned, realizing not only that this was Gary from the case study, but the reality that companies do, in fact, actively facilitate the integration of faith in the workplace, and that they were, in fact, making it work. “We are a faith-friendly company, not a faith-based company,” Gary said. He went on to explain the difference. “A faith-based company operates and endorses one faith tradition, while a faith-friendly company strives to honor all faith traditions and worldviews, and seeks where possible to find ways to accommodate an individual’s religious practice. Tyson knows that when people have an opportunity to bring their faith to work, they are happier and more committed because they are respected.”
Over the next hour Gary went on to explain how Tyson, through careful and thoughtful policies, strives to create and maintain its faith-friendly practices. Indeed, striving to be faith-friendly is one of Tyson Foods’ Core Values. Gary shared several examples of what it means like to be a faith-friendly company, including its workplace chaplaincy program. Although participation is optional, dozens of Tyson facilities are choosing to use it because they see the benefits for their employees.
Connecting the dots
Holly, a Senior next year, currently doing an HR internship with a consulting firm in Connecticut this summer , felt that, “This isn’t much different that the conversations many organizations were having 20 plus years ago concerning race and gender. Back then, many thought it wouldn’t work to have women in the workplace, it simply is too complicated to think of women working alongside men – the woman’s place is in the home. But today, women outnumber men in the workplace.[vii] Moving forward, there is no reason we can’t apply some of the same rationale and systems to integrate a person’s faith into their work.” Dr. Miller smiled, pleased with her appreciation for history, and replied, “Many are already doing just that.”
My Wartburg students looked at each other and there was a collective “ah ha” moment. They realized that the purpose, programs, and research of the Princeton Faith & Work Initiative were a possible glimpse of the future… their future. Not too far into the distant future, they may be working in organizations that intentionally help employees integrate their faith into work, and maybe some of them will be able to say they were part of the movement that made this vision a reality.
So, needless to say, I’m feeling pretty good about the future of this crop.
Thanks for listening,
[iv] Pew forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008.
[v] Roof, W. (1999) Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton University Press.
[vi] Johnson, A. (2007). Mary Parker Follett: Laying the foundations for spirituality in the workplace. Int Journal of Public Administration, 30(1) 425-439.