A Spirituality of Work?

By Dion Forster

I need to begin with a confession of sin.

In the late 1990’s I was serving as the minister of a vibrant faith community in Cape Town. Our church, like many others, had a ministry for children and teenagers, which gave young people the opportunity to wrestle with some of the big questions of life in “age appropriate” ways. We had a group of carefully selected, well-trained adults who served as their companions on the journey of faith. They were called “Sunday School teachers.” That name is a sin all its own! Which child wants to go to school all week and then go to “Sunday School”?

Anyway, we would recognize the “Sunday School teachers” at the start of the year in a special church service called a “Sunday School teachers dedication service.” As they stood in front of the congregation and I was leading the dedication, I realized that one of the teachers being dedicated for the ministry she would perform for one hour a week on Sunday was my daughter’s regular schoolteacher! Somehow, I was telling her and our congregation that what she did for that one hour was more important than what she did for the children of our city for eight hours a day, five days a week.

In the years that followed I engaged in research on faith and work that showed that I was not alone. Faith leaders and faith communities throughout the world failed to recognize and support the daily work of the members. The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf notes in his book Work in the Spirit that, “amazingly little theological reflection has taken place about an activity which takes up so much of our time. The number of pages theologians have devoted to transubstantiation—which does or does not happen on Sunday—for instance, would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages devoted to the work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday.”

As we celebrate “International Worker’s Day” on 1 May, I sense that most people’s daily work will go largely unnoticed in churches, mosques, and temples around the world.

Yet there is a significant body of research to show that a great deal of suffering in contemporary society is related to what we encounter at work. Not to mention the moral and ethical challenges (such as economic inequality, climate change, and migration) that arise from a lack of deep and critical reflection on the nature, purpose, and meaning of work. Work must surely be one of the most important topics of our age since a large proportion of the world’s population is engaged in some kind of daily work, while others are preparing for a lifetime of work through study or some form of training.

If work forms such an important part of contemporary individual and social life, why is it receiving so little attention from our spiritual and religious institutions? I would like to highlight three reasons that have emerged in my research.

First, there is a misrecognition by some theologians and faith leaders of what “liturgy” is. The philosopher James KA Smith rightly recognizes that many contemporary theologians have forgotten that the word λειτουργία [leitourgia], from which “liturgy” is derived, means the “work of the people.” Matthew Kaemingk writes that “Monday after Monday, people engage in workplace rituals: driving to work, walking across the factory floor, quickly scanning [an] email, checking equipment, meeting with staff. . . .”

Sadly, liturgy has become narrowly associated with a particular time and place and so it has been separated from “the work of the people,” alienating liturgy from labor. One consequence of this is an increasing sense of separation between faith and life.

Second, there is a tendency towards “compensation bias” among some theologians and faith leaders. Volf’s earlier quotation and my own experience highlight the tendency among faith leaders to highlight what is most important and time consuming in their lives. When teaching the theology of work, I ask my students: What percentage of the 52 sermons preached in your church last year focused on the gathered church, its ministries, and priorities? And, what percentage focused on the scattered church, the members, and what they faced for most of their waking hours every day other than Sunday?

I argue that the professionalization of “ministry” in many religious movements and the separation between ordained clergy and the laity has contributed towards this compensation bias and the accompanying misunderstanding of ministry. Pastors, priests, imams, and rabbis are seen to be the ones who “do ministry.” What they do, where they do it, and how they do it is uncritically presented as a representation of God’s work and will in the world. Archbishop Oscar Romero (who was recently canonized) said: “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand their work, their job, is a priestly work . . . [that] each metal worker, each professional, each doctor with a scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office.”

Third, we face the unwitting and uncritical submission of much faith-based ministry to the forces of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Many contemporary faith communities are focused on economic and numerical survival. One consequence is that the preaching, teaching, and moral guidance offered in faith communities focus on how persons can be responsible and faithful members of the church, mosque, or temple community. Persons are encouraged to participate in the ministries of the faith community (studying the scriptures, helping with charitable causes, etc.), and are expected to contribute time and money to keep the community functioning.

Members’ working lives are subtly “othered” from the identity and functions of the faith community. This community is viewed as something that members support through giving, service, and participation. It is not primarily something that supports them and their needs. Assuring church survival focuses attention on the faith community rather than focusing theological and spiritual resources from the faith community on the lives and needs of the members.

As we have emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, I have observed and listened to many workers struggling to cope with the demands of work, and the meaning of their working lives in a changing work environment. As part of this change, I would like to invite all of us—including theologians and faith leaders—to reflect critically and constructively on building workplaces and ways of working in which justice and flourishing for human and nonhuman creation may become the norm. Let’s not continue failing to connect our spirituality and our labor.


Dion Forster is Professor of Ethics and Public Theology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is the author of numerous books and articles in theology and ethics. His research focuses on social ethics, economic ethics, and political ethics. Dion is the director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology. See: http://www.twitter.com/digitaldion.

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