Religion & Liberty Online

Work as religion: the rise of ‘divinity consultants’

Traditional religion is increasingly being replaced by a series of “new atheisms,” leading many to search for spiritual meaning elsewhere, particularly in the workplace.

As a result, modern workers are more likely to view their economic activity through spiritual vocabulary, using terms like “calling” and “vocation.” Yet without the right transcendent source and ethical arc, such a development can simply lead us to new fads of self-actualization and faux self-empowerment.

As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently argued, “everybody worships something,” and “workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.” Work has evolved from “a means of material production to a means of identity production … promising identity, transcendence, and community.”

Unfortunately, Thompson concludes, despite its grand goals, “workism is making Americans miserable,” leading to “collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” Recognizing these risks, churches have long sought to fill the void by connecting work to love of God and neighbor – manifest more recently in a rapidly growing faith-and-work movement.

Now, however, thanks to a new crop of work/life gurus and missionaries, there is another belief system on the market. In an extensive profile for the New York Times, Nellie Bowles highlights an emerging industry of “divinity consultants” and “corporate clergy” who seek to reinvigorate “spiritual well being” in the workplace through a mix of counseling, liturgy, and “ancient wisdom.”

“They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers,” Bowles explains. “They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.” Such consultants are unaffiliated with any formal religion and seem to shy away from any particular notions about God, aiming instead to mix syncretistic spirituality with their romantic ideas about the workplace.

As Bowles explains:

Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies – some for-profit, some not – with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.

Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith.

Depending on the business need, a consultant’s work can vary widely, from space design and branding to staff management and organizational rituals. The goals, too, are diverse, whether focused on community building, “self-care,” or “meaning-making.” In each case, consultants take their cues from traditional religious beliefs and practices, which inform their themes and shape the proposed rituals and structures.

For the founders of Sacred Design Lab, for example, organized religion is viewed simply as a “technology for delivering meaning” – something that can be applied to help workers find connection in their jobs and satisfy inner longings. According to Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest, Sacred Design Lab’s consultants used these insights to help him apply “major religious practices” in the office. “Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility,” Sharp said.

There is plenty to admire in such efforts, to be sure. As already noted, our society is facing a crisis of meaning, and the allure of success-seeking has turned work into a friendly idol. These consultants seem to recognize at least part of this problem, just as they seem to have hit on part of the solution. “Regardless of what you and I might think about it, the fact is that people are showing up in the workplace with these big deficits in themselves when it comes to belonging and connection to the beyond,” said Angie Thurston, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab.

Such consultants seem to recognize, for example, that work is not ultimately about us, pointing instead to themes like “collective liberation” and committing to love of neighbor above and beyond narrow self-interest – even while pursuing a profit. Likewise, they preach the glories of workplace as real, relational community where we create, cooperate, and collaborate with others. As the Sacred Design Lab website puts it: “We envision a world in which every person is connected to their inherent goodness, known and loved in communities of care, and bountifully giving their gifts toward beauty, justice, and wholeness.” From high up in the clouds, these sentiments ring true.

At the same time, much of the common vocabulary seems to neglect the reality that these same features are inherent to work, business, and trade – regardless of whatever innovative rituals and liturgies the consultants have been keen enough construct. At times, capitalism can surely feel “cruel” and “soulless,” but at its core, human exchange is human exchange, whether it takes place in a Walmart checkout aisle, the assembly line at a widget factory, or the consultant-constructed board rooms of Fortune 50 companies. When we understand this, it seems far more likely that our deficit of meaning has more do with our spiritual allegiances and economic imaginations than the “grind” of the modern workplace or the inadequacies of corporate bureaucracies.

In perusing their proposed solutions, one gets the sense that such consultants don’t really understand their secularized spiritualism is not at war with the cold-hearted viciousness of capitalism rather than the secular spirituality often found therein. While the common advice of “divinity consultants” may not directly contradict formal religious beliefs, adherents should be careful they do not find themselves slowly adrift in yet another religion that idolizes work itself. In some sense, we seem to be witnessing one version of “workism” rising up against another – cleverly making our own golden calves as we try desperately to smile our way to retirement.

In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life, theologian Lester DeKoster explains the futility of such efforts. Instead of trying to infuse meaning into work “from the outside,” DeKoster encourages us to simply locate the meaning that’s already there, and orient our hearts and hands accordingly:

All of our efforts to endow our lives with meaning are apt to come up short and disappointing. Why? Because all our passion to fill the meaning-vacuum through multiplied activity in the home, the church, the community, or whatever stumbles over that big block of every week’s time we have to spend on the seeming meaninglessness of the job. The spare-time charities cannot tip the scales. Redoubling our efforts only obscures the goal.

We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation. What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself. And so it is!

We need not stay torn between competing idols of meaning — workism, woke capitalism, corporation-centered religion, or otherwise. Instead, we can shift our allegiances and imaginations toward a deeper and fuller vision of economic life, one based in a true vision of loving our neighbor and human destiny. More importantly, can recognize the One True Source from Whom these blessings flow.

(Photo credit: Michelle Koebke from Pixabay. Public domain.)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.