How Business leaders can evangelize unchurched millennials in the workplace
They don’t believe in much of anything. They seem apathetic with regard to matters of faith. They might admit to atheism or agnosticism, or they might simply describe themselves in terms like “spiritual, but not religious.” They might have some vague belief in God or Jesus, but they don’t identify with any particular religion or denomination. And they’re not even “searching.” Predominantly, they are young millennials, born between 1981 and 1996; some 40 percent of millennials self-identify in this category, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
Collectively, they are the “nones.” Millennial “nones” populate all sectors of the workforce — professionals, technicians, academics, tradesmen, and service workers. And for their managers and co-workers who feel called to lead them toward faith, they present a significant challenge: Who are the “nones” among us? Can they be reached at all? And if so, can it be done within the workplace environment?
Faith at work
Traditionally, companies that don’t have an explicit religious mission have not been friendly to religious conversation or expression. Because religion is seen as a potentially divisive issue, it’s largely been a matter of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But that’s been changing in more recent years, as some business leaders are seeing a case to be made for allowing religion in the workplace. Yet these are the exception, and tensions often persist.
“I think evangelizing is more challenging today because I believe Christianity is under wraps,” said Mike McCartney, an executive coach who is director for Legatus’ Genesis Chapter in northwest Ohio as well as a member of Legatus’ National Board of Governors. “If some companies have made a move toward allowing greater religious expression, especially Judeo-Christian, I’m not seeing it as a trend.”
He sees the opposite, in fact. “Corporate America likes to tout values like ‘spirituality’ and ‘servant-leadership,’ but companies do not dare give voice to what these words truly stand for,” he said. Instead, secular business values like diversity, inclusion, and political correctness prevail, which often leaves practicing Catholics viewed suspiciously as “narrow-minded, judgmental, even bigoted.”
Publicly owned companies can present special issues. While each has a unique dynamic, the overriding corporate culture is highly secular. Companies that have proactively sought to lead and celebrate social change have grown more tolerant of traditional faith and values and are increasingly transparent as to what is celebrated and what is tolerated, said Gerald Schoenle, director of global trade services for the Ford Motor Company.
“In this environment, there are opportunities to reach out to ‘nones’ to share our faith and personal relationships with Jesus and our loving Father, but there are at least two challenges to overcome,” said Schoenle, a Legate of the Ann Arbor Chapter and a past member of Legatus’ National Board of Governors.
First, the interaction needs to be welcoming, he explained, done in private so as to avoid disruptions and “exposure of the ‘none,’” and with sufficient time to enable a quality dialogue.
Second, when the sharing is between a company executive and a lower-echelon employee, executive leaders must have full awareness of how their positional leverage impacts the dynamic with an employee, he said.
“We have to discern if someone is truly seeking and open to discussion, or is uncomfortable and simply being agreeable to avoid a negative response to a senior leader,” Schoenle said. There is often “an associated, perceived professional risk that is most always imagined but a real concern.”
Outreach from the top
There are a number of examples where business leaders of faith have created opportunities for Catholic evangelization both inside and outside the workplace.
McCartney cites the examples of two Legates from his own Genesis Chapter in Ohio: Rich Cronin, president and owner of Perrysburg Auto Mall/Cronin Buick GMC, and Brady Fineske, president of TDC Investment Advisory Services in Maumee. The two men are “bold examples to me personally of leaders who live their Catholic faith in the workplace,” he said.
“Both have hosted Catholic events inside their organizations and made them open to all employees,” said McCartney. “I’m confident their good examples are not lost on the ‘nones’ working in their organizations.”
As board chairman for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Toledo, Cronin also has spearheaded a series of Catholic Business Network events locally, featuring a monthly Mass and guest speakers. These are open to all, and network participants are encouraged to bring guests. “This puts ‘nones’ in the company of many practicing Catholic business people,” McCartney said.
Over at Ford, Schoenle said opportunities to evangelize “nones” and other co-workers have increased despite its publiccompany status. Years ago, Ford developed and launched an Interfaith Network resource program open to employees of all faiths. Its activities are largely ecumenical, such as a National Day of Prayer service, but there are also programs that are specific to particular faith groups and denominations.
“Our Catholic group has conducted Life in the Spirit Seminars and an Oremus Prayer study in order to be a witness for Christ and a visible example of Catholic Christianity in our company,” he said.
From ‘none’ to truth
When it comes to reaching out to “nones” in the workplace one-on-one, McCartney and Schoenle agreed on the basic principles: it involves being present, building trust, and taking the time.
“In my experience, an extended process with God’s grace bears the best results,” Schoenle advised.
“Be visible with your faith, so others clearly identify you as a Catholic Christian,” Schoenle said. For him, this means displaying in his office a small cross, prayer books, and a copy of the Universal Prayer attributed to Pope Clement XI.
He also witnesses subtly in casual encounters. “In general conversation about family, I’ll talk about an experience one of the children had in their Catholic school, or something about my oldest son’s work in Catholic radio,” he said. “An easy, regular opportunity is how you respond to the question every Monday, ‘How was your weekend, and what did you do?’ This is an excellent chance to briefly share about an important feast day, a presentation you heard, a conference or retreat you attended.”
Overt discussions of faith come later, he said, once a level of friendship has been established.
“Build relationship and trust, then evangelize,” said Schoenle. “We know that others don’t care about what we say or recommend until they know we care and can be trusted. This requires time and effort to build a friendship and demonstrate love for them.”
Abetted by prayer, this process should open up a communication path that facilitates a more positive reception to our encouragement toward embracing faith, he added.
McCartney resonated with that, emphasizing that living our Catholic faith by word and example must happen in the workplace as well as outside it.
“Opportunities to lead souls to Christ by example at work are unlimited,” he said. “In fact, if we are not leading by example, we are not leading—period.”
That begins with integrity — integrating our faith within our lives and aligning our actions with our words, he said. Integrity is foundational to credibility, and credibility, which builds trust, is essential to leadership. But evangelizing by word “requires more discretion,” he noted, meaning we must consider whether the time and place are appropriate.
Still, “Good leaders look for situations to share their convictions, like faithbased beliefs, in a way that communicate trust of those listening,” McCartney said. “And if the leader is credible, his or her words carry weight.”
Begin with questions
When a specific opportunity to reach out to a “none” arises, McCartney said he would begin by learning where the individual is on his faith journey by asking “a few simple, non-threatening questions” that will encourage him to share his story. That helps cultivate the kind of trust and relationship needed to accompany the “none” on a journey toward faith.
And that’s not a one-off endeavor, but a long-term commitment.
“Religious beliefs are usually a result of a longer process than one conversation,” he said. “I’m in it for the long haul. The more I earn someone’s trust, especially someone who has no faith, the more influence I have to encourage the person to learn about the one true Faith.”
“Nones” are not always easy to relate to, whether due to generational gaps, diverse backgrounds, or cultural differences, but the example of Christ tells us we must seek out the lost sheep in order to lead them home.
“The old saying ‘Meet them where they are’ has merit,” McCartney said. “Just don’t stop where they are. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me lead them to the truth.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine editorial consultant.
Four steps to workplace evangelism
Writing in Catholic Answers magazine, staff apologist Michelle Arnold recently offered a four-step technique for sparking a faith discussion with a co-worker:
- Ask sincere questions that show genuine interest in the other person. That means questions the person will enjoy answering — that gets the ball rolling. But watch for any hints that the question is unwelcome.
- Find common ground. Don’t water down what you believe, but seek interests or past experiences that you share. Those help advance the conversation.
- Share personal experiences. You’ve got stories; they’ve got stories. When you share them comfortably, mutual trust grows.
- Offer resources — when the time is right. Whether it’s a book, a website, a parish group, pass something along where they might explore faith on their own. “Your enthusiasm may inspire people to want to learn more,” Arnold said.
On-the-job evangelism isn’t easy, but you don’t have to be an apologist to do it well: “You just have to genuinely care about other people and Be able to project that love for them into your conversations about the Faith,” Arnold concluded.