Faith First

Employee networks appeal to religion's higher calling - public service.

Most people today can tell you what constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination," says Angie Tracey, founder of the Christian Fellowship Group at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But try to talk to them about how you manage a person of faith, and they are out to lunch, they have no clue."

In the last 10 years, the federal government has experienced a growing movement to bring faith into the workplace, fueled by the desire of many employees to integrate their religious practices and their jobs. That movement takes many forms, from flexible schedules for employees who need time off to celebrate religious holidays, to the formation of faith-based federal employee associations that run their own training conferences. President Clinton's 1997 executive order defining permissible expressions of faith in the workplace helped spur these groups and flexibilities. But the public sector still lacks management strategies to help employees channel their religious motivations into advancing their agencies' missions and their careers. And religious employees still fight battles over what they can and can't do during the workday.

"Religion as a concept and particularly as a practice is [treated as] anathema to the realization of public service and public sector work," says Stephen M. King, an associate professor of government at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., which has a Christian focus. King says that antipathy reveals misunderstandings about the separation of church and state.

"To a large extent, that phrase has been overpoliticized rather than understood from a more strictly constitutional or constructionist standpoint," King says.

As a result, managers might not be willing to take the initiative to manage religion as another form of diversity or another kind of motivation, says Os Hillman, founder and executive director of Marketplace Leaders in Cumming, Ga., which provides devotionals, speakers and publications designed to help Christians live their faith at work. "I think that largely is the nature of how strong the manager is and whether they're a risk-taker," he says.

Some concerns about how federal employees express their faith while on the job are legitimate, says Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington. "Where government employees deal with people who are low-income and require social services . . . these are populations that are particularly vulnerable to proselytizing," he says. Luchenitser believes that because the Bush administration has provided both financial and verbal support to faith-based nonprofits that perform governmental functions, "it's particularly important that public employees don't impose their religious beliefs directly or subtly on members of the public."

Most cases of impropriety stem from misunderstanding, not malice, according to Americans United. "What we learn is that often the people committing the violations don't know what they're doing is unconstitutional and improper," Luchenitser says.

Clinton's 1997 guidelines addressed issues that are important to the Jewish community, such as religious days off, says Nathan J. Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. "The guidelines have been implemented very well," he says. "Jewish employees have been able to get allowances for holidays as they need them."

Religious observance at work has been a different story. In 1996, Lexie White, a senior policy analyst with the Internal Revenue Service, founded Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees, or CFIRE, which now has dozens of chapters. But White says the guidelines haven't prevented continuing clashes between the employee group and regional offices over which expressions of faith are permissible during the workday.

"Our people wanted to put up a little advertisement about a Bible study, and they wanted to put it on a form where other groups had advertisements, which we're supposed to be able to do," White says. "But they get all freaked out because our announcements mention Jesus, or the Bible. . . . Every time we have those issues in one of our places, we have to end up referring it to the national equal employment opportunity office because they know what the legalities are. We're never free of those battles."

Those clashes create a significant hurdle and sap energy for employees who find inspiration through their religion. But despite these obstacles, workers who seek an outlet for their faith at work might find a natural place in the public sector, according to David W. Miller, executive director of Yale University's Center for Faith and Culture. "It's a logical fit for the government because so many healthy expressions of religion talk about serving the greater good," Miller says.

Government employees make up one of the most spiritual sectors of the American workforce. In the January 2007 issue of Public Administration Review, David J. Houston and Katherine E. Cartwright noted a 1998 survey that found government workers were 54 percent more likely to demonstrate a higher level of spirituality than members of the private sector workforce. Houston is an associate political science professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Cartwright is a Nashville lawyer with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.

Houston and Cartwright also found that government employees polled by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago were 49 percent less likely to doubt the existence of God. They were more likely to say they felt God's love directly or through others and worked in partnership with God to solve problems or get through hardships.

Mark R. Warnick, assistant regional counsel at the General Services Administration in Kansas City, Mo., says his work allows him to live out a Christian ideal of humility, which eluded him as a lawyer in private practice. "When I was in private practice, the bigger the ego one had, the bigger the pride, the more successful one became," he says. "Today, I practice humility. . . . That's what we are in the public sector, we're public servants. . . . We're not doing it to accept accolades, we're here to serve."

Warnick is working to establish the Government Roundtable of Active Christian Employees, which he hopes will connect organizations such as IRS' CFIRE and CDC's Christian Fellowship Group and provide a mutual aid network for workers.

An explicitly faith-based approach could alleviate some of the problems that play out not just in employees' personal lives but in the workplace, Warnick says. "As an attorney, I'm always dealing with other people's conflicts and disappointments, and I see people march off and file a grievance, a dispute, a lawsuit," he says. "It would be nice if there was an informal forum that they could come to and say, 'I need a hand, will you pray for me.' "

Of course, tension stirred up by religious observances in the workplace can produce the kinds of conflicts Warnick says he would like to alleviate. The IRS' White recalls that a group of Jewish federal employees once approached the American Civil Liberties Union about filing suit against a CFIRE chapter on the grounds that it excluded non-Christians. White says she hopes that as long as she and other CFIRE members are respectful of their fellow employees, everyone can learn to co-exist.

"Obviously, I can't go around forcing people to listen to me to say here's what's wrong with your life," White says. "There are limits, and so as long as I understand those limits and am not trying to force people to my view, why am I bothering them?"

White also says her faith motivates her to set high standards of performance for herself and helps her to be a good co-worker. "When I am at work, I want people to perceive that the reason I give 110 percent is because I'm a Christian," she says. "I consider my integrity one of my most prized possessions. . . . We tell our people you should be the most honorable employee that the IRS has . . . that is part of your Christian witness."

Christian Fundamentalist Internal Revenue Employees gives its members opportunities to improve their professional skills at an annual training conference and to do volunteer work throughout the year. "We got some executive advisers, and got them to talk to other executives to come and teach seminars," White says, adding that the conference helps senior executives understand what CFIRE does. "We don't just want to stay in our cubicles and read our Bibles all day."

As one form of outreach, CFIRE helps low-income people file their tax returns. "In Austin, we ran the biggest filing site," White says, "And, in fact, we filed the largest volume of returns for the whole nation this year. "

A manager's recognition that faith shapes an employee's life and ethics can be incredibly meaningful, says GSA's Warnick. "The nicest compliment I've received here at GSA came from our regional administrator," he says. "We were trying to come to a policy decision on a matter where the law was pretty clear but pretty draconian in its administration. He looked at me and said, 'Mark, I know you're a man of faith, I know you're a man of prayer. What do you think?' That puts a guy on the spot. But to be recognized by the administrator, publicly, for your faith, it's humbling."

Such acknowledgement could be a first step toward a broader vision of how to manage religious federal employees. "Good is woven into all those things in the Christian scriptures, the Torah or the Koran," says King of Patrick Henry College. "You're living those things out, whether it's the golden rule or whatever it might be. You've got better workers, they're more productive, they're more respectful. I don't know why we would say that's not good."

King does not dismiss the more secular view on how to improve the workforce, noting decades of literature from management theorists such as W. Edwards Deming. But, he warns, motivating government workers is about more than benchmarks and outcomes. "We can't lose perspective of what those who perform the public service are all about," he says. "That has spiritual implications. You're pursuing it for something greater than who you are."

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