Spirituality – a workplace taboo?

Before I joined Woodbrooke’s learning and research team last December, I worked for a polytechnic in New Zealand. My colleagues were a lovely, caring, open-minded bunch, with whom I often chatted over lunch and tea breaks. One evening we were having a team social at a restaurant and one of my co-workers threw out a good conversation starter to the group: “What was your wedding like?”. When it came my turn to answer, I described the beautiful witnessing of our marriage that my husband and I had enjoyed in the local Meeting House a few years earlier – and gave the context that it was a Quaker wedding. “How on earth have I never known that you’re a Quaker?!” exclaimed my colleague.

Spirituality – a workplace taboo? Woodbrooke Quaker learning and research

Her surprise shocked me – I was saddened and somewhat ashamed by the realisation that I had not been as ‘whole’ with her as she had expected. She was someone I counted as a friend and respected hugely; we had often talked about quite deep and personal things over the three or four years we’d worked together. How could it be that she and most of my colleagues didn’t know that many of my activities and friendships outside of work revolved round the local Quaker meeting?

I had to admit to myself that I often deliberately avoided mentioning my Quaker activities at work, either by not referring to them at all or just saying that it was something I was doing ‘with friends’. Why was this?

As I reflected, I recognised some of the thoughts that had gone through my head:

If I sound too ‘Christian’, will that put some people off me?

On the other hand, if I distance myself from mainstream Christianity, will people think I belong to some weird cult?

Will colleagues think I’m evangelising? On the other hand, if I keep saying that Quakers do not evangelise, does that make us sound inward-looking and exclusive?

If I emphasise the peace testimony, will that alienate anyone who has connections with the armed forces?  And how will I answer those difficult questions about justifiable wars?

If I talk about our social testimonies, will we be dismissed as naïve lefties and do-gooders?

So, I usually chose the safety of silence.

I also reflected on the couple of times when circumstances had forced me into talking about my faith in a previous job. One was a few years earlier, when I was telling colleagues there about my forthcoming wedding plans – again, the ceremony just couldn’t be described without explaining the Quaker context. Contrary to my fears, everyone was simply mildly interested – and those who attended seemed to enjoy it. The most memorable reaction I got was from a Christian colleague who said “Quakers? Are they still around? I thought they went out with the Druids!”

A couple of years later in that same job, a much-loved colleague, who also happened to be a Quaker, died. With my ‘foot in both camps’, I was asked to help organise the memorial service. Friends, family, Quakers and workmates from her long and successful career came together in the beautiful, airy atrium of our workplace to remember her in a Meeting for Worship. Initially, I was somewhat nervous about this ultimate act of exposure of my spiritual self among colleagues, but afterwards I received several comments from non-Quakers about how much they appreciated the service. A few asked for a little more information about Quakerism and it sparked some interesting conversations about spirituality and rites of passage more generally. I should have learnt from those experiences that there are non-threatening ways of being open about your faith, but I’m afraid that I retained my lack of confidence for many years.

What a change now! Working for Woodbrooke, my whole working day is spent talking and thinking about Quakerism. So, no more dilemmas in talking about my faith at work!  Interestingly, though, it presents a new challenge outside of work – how to answer the popular social ice-breaker, “What do you do?”. As I strive now towards greater integrity and ‘an undivided self’, I am increasingly finding the confidence to answer “I work for a Quaker education charity – I’m a Quaker.”

If you’d like to think through challenges like these with other working Quakers, join Simonne’s online session, Being a Quaker at Work: dilemmas and opportunities, on Sunday 18th June 7pm – 9pm.

Book onto Being a Quaker at Work: dilemmas and opportunities

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