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Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace

Lake Lambert III
Published by NYU Press in 2009

The old adage states that you should not judge a book by its cover. In this case, it would be applicable to amend this saying slightly to state that you should not judge a book by its title. The title does the book a disservice in that it implies a superficial treatment of the highly nuanced area of workplace spirituality. Lake Lambert III, a Professor of Religion and Board of Regents Chair of Ethics at Wartburg College, actually provides a broad, well-documented, and well-researched scholarly work that informs and enlightens readers who are more than casual participants in the intersection between work and religion.

The purpose of the book is to examine “contemporary practices of workplace spirituality” (18) and to demonstrate that they “constitute an important religious movement, shapingand being shaped by American business culture” (18). The book goes on to show that therecent trends in these practices have “historical, sociological, and theological contexts thatreveal how workplace spirituality frequently serves diverse and sometimes competing functions” (18). The term “workplace spirituality” is used to summarize the new opportunities provided by new forms of both economic life and religion. Lambert claims that workplace spirituality is a term that “captures and consolidates a variety of new affinities into a single yet diverse social movement” (18). One of the problems in trying to understand workplacespirituality is in trying to define the term. Lambert spends several pages trying to do so, but inthe end we are still left with a very broad definition that seems to include anything in theworkplace that refers to an individual’s attempt to live his or her values more fully in theworkplace, or to the ways in which organizations structure themselves to support the spiritual growth of their employees. Consequently, we are left with a potpourri of chapter headings—The Making of a “Christian Company;” Jesus as a Management Guru; The Spiritual Education of a Manager; and Team Chaplains, Life Coaches, and Whistling Referees—that seem disconnected in many ways except under this broad umbrella definition. This is not acriticism of the author, but simply the reality of tackling a subject with such a broad anddiverse nature.

Chapter 2, entitled “The Genealogy of Corporate Spirituality,” traces the roots of workplace spirituality through the major religious and business movements that have shaped itover time. This is the strength of Lambert’s analysis as he does a wonderful job of weavingthese two strains throughout history and clearly shows the resultant impact upon the workplace. Lambert takes us through the Middle Ages and the development of the guild system,through the early and later Industrial Revolution with the onset of machines and division oflabor, and into the Information Age with its emphasis on computer technology and workerflexibility. The author uses two lenses, or perspectives, or perhaps trends, in which to view and understand the changing landscape of workplace spirituality. The first of these is ïéêïò,the Greek word for “household.” Lambert uses this term to describe the “center of economic production, faith, and family life.” He suggests that the workplace has recently taken on therole of the traditional household, or that of the religious center, and thus has become the modern day ïéêïò. This goes a long way toward explaining the emphasis placed on and the need for“wholeness” in the workplace by both the employee and the company. It also helps in understanding the growing tendency for people to find meaning and purpose for their lives primarily through the activities done in and around the workplace. This leads to the second trend,similar yet distinct from the first—the increased yearning toward holism and balance in allareas of life. Lambert states that “many workers want to be recognized as holistic beings, andcompanies believe that the full potential and creativity of an employee requires holistic happiness as well as holistic dedication to corporate work” (39). Thus, the current practices ofcompanies toward more family-friendly policies and environmentally conscious approachesto growth, and those of employees seeking companies that allow for flexible hours and timeoff for charitable activities, can be understood in light of this growing trend. The author pointsout that it is very difficult to ascertain the motives behind this corporate push toward holism,and suggests that much of what we see today may be driven by the desire for higher productivity, not the well-being of the person.

The next chapter focuses on the notion of a “Christian Company” and the practices andpolicies that have characterized companies that have gained such labels. Lambert appears abit cynical toward business in general, and much like his questioning of holistic approachessimply being a means to higher productivity, he implies that much of what is done in thename of Christian business practices may simply be a means to gain market share and garnercustomer loyalty. The content of this book is at its best and most informative when the authoris writing in an objective and descriptive mode, as opposed to an opinionated and prescriptive mode. Lambert remains descriptive throughout much of the book, but does tip his handat times, most notably when he is discussing aspects of evangelicalism and Christian businesses. In a rare but revealing section on Chick-fil-A and its CEO S. Truett Cathy, Lambert states:

For some Christians, however, demanding that a supplier treat employees fairly and with the utmostconcern for safety would seem to exhibit the love of Jesus much more than a Bible verse on a purchaseorder. Using the same form of social ethics, Cathy might demonstrate Christian love in his business bysetting rigorous policies for his suppliers, perhaps even requiring them to adhere to the same high standards that he demands in his restaurants; … but [these Christians] depend upon a moral perspective thatthinks these are important issues and sees them as the moral responsibility of businesses and their owners.(76-77)

Instead of highlighting the perceived weaknesses in the Chick-fil-A approach, I believe it would have been more instructive if Lambert had begun this chapter describing the theoretical framework used by David Miller when trying to represent the four primary manifestations (ethics, evangelism, experience, and enrichment) of the Faith at Work movement.1 Hethen could position each of the companies and practices that he profiles into one or more of the four quadrants described in Miller’s framework, and thus place his “descriptives” and“prescriptives” into the larger context of this research.

Lambert maintains his descriptive mode in the chapter on Jesus as a management guru.He describes several books, consultancy practices, and business fads that could broadly bedefined as adhering to the axiom “What would Jesus do?” and applies these to business andwork situations. However, Lambert’s tendency to call into question the motives behind the practices and behaviors associated with the entirety of the spirituality at work phenomena plays a more predominant role in this area. His apprehension centers on the notion of “success” and in this case, he uses writings and teachings from the historic Christian church to support his concerns. When speaking of the contemporary publication genre centered around the faith and work movement, he writes:

The result is that these books are full of techniques, quick fixes, communication strategies, new attitudes,and paths to undiscovered strengths. What is lost is any moral concern about success itself. From its rootsdeep in Puritanism and Calvinism before that, a focus on character was not about material or financialsuccess as much as “true success” that was tied to the fulfillment of one’s calling. (98)

As a professor of management students at a college that is rooted in the Reformed tradition, I found this discussion to be quite timely and opportune in addressing the question most perplexing for my senior students—how will they ultimately define success for themselves?

The author does provide a useful typology of his own when trying to classify the religious and spiritual developments within the curriculum and offerings of traditional and non-traditional higher education. He identifies four individual types: (1) institutions that seek tomaintain a unique Christian identity in their curriculum, (2) institutions that have embraceda broad conception of Christian vocation, (3) colleges that have adopted a “spiritual but notreligious” perspective, and (4) other institutions that are creating connections between business and other religious traditions beyond Christianity. My sense is that colleges in whichspiritual matters are part of their mission may continually find themselves grappling withseveral of these approaches in an attempt to agree upon, and then implement, one of thesetactics as the predominant one.

All in all, Lake Lambert III provides an informative exposé on the status of spirituality inthe workplace. His approach is a decidedly historical one, and he does a fine job of tracing the major sociological, economic, and religious trends in order to understand the current and future directions in the area of spirituality and work. His work will appeal especially to thoseof us in the liberal arts tradition as it provides a fine example of how this interdisciplinaryapproach can provide good insight and understanding into a very complex, hard to define,and ambiguous field of study.

Cite this article
Thomas M. Smith, “Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 323-326


  1. See David W. Miller, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2007).

Thomas M. Smith

Thomas M. Smith, Economics, Management, and Accounting, Hope College