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National Perspective / WORK

Exploring Spiritual Approach to Business-World Challenges

December 17, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The little pamphlet came with the intriguing title: "The Spirituality of Work."

This being a topic seldom mentioned on employee bulletin boards or in those periodic flyers distributed by management, an interview seemed in order. Particularly when its author identifies himself not as a New Age guru but, to the contrary, an everyman sort of Catholic with some age-old ideas and the ear of more than a few of Chicago's business executives.

"Our premise," says William L. Droel, "is that like-minded people must get together and make connections between their faith and their workaday life. And these connections will translate into better institutions and policies. It's not something you do just on weekends."

Catholics like Droel call this idea social justice. Lutherans evoke something of the same with their concept of faith and work. Calvinists . . . well, Calvinists are downright stern about the subject. All suggest that people can realize spirituality through their vocation.

Droel, a 16-year board member of the National Center for the Laity in Chicago, advances the argument that these old-fashioned beliefs are quietly gaining favor again--even if New Age spiritualism and politically minded fundamentalism get most of the headlines.

"Corporate downsizing and the long run of materialism we've had for the last 40 years [are] leading people to ask the question: What is the meaning of all our labors?" Droel says.

With a mailing list of 5,000 and connections to 80 other church organizations in urban areas, the National Center for the Laity is a think tank of sorts that surveys America for evidence of the trend.

One example is in Chicago, where Droel and the center organized a group called Business Executives for Economic Justice, which now has a membership of 50 and has brought spiritual thinking to the challenges of layoffs, family life and corporate stewardship.

"These are CEOs, not shop stewards, having these conversations. And they're having them in light of their faith," Droel says.

Among members of the group is the chairman of the Midwest Stock Exchange, a managing partner of the advertising firm Ernst & Young, a senior vice president at Citibank and the president of Blistex Inc.

"Executives and managers should remind ourselves that we don't invest people with human dignity. Employees have it before, during and after employment with us. We managers can, however, provide an environment that enhances their dignity," says Joseph P. Sullivan, chairman and CEO of Vigoro Corp., an agricultural chemical company.

Maybe because their deeds are incremental, maybe because these adherents are not overburdened with a national political agenda, and perhaps also because many mainstream churches face internal divisions, activities of their members on the job do not always make news.

But the executives report some concrete gains, like the company that wanted to relocate to a "better area" in the suburbs but then stayed put out of responsibility to the city. In another case, a bank initiated redevelopment loans for a community to prevent the flight of businesses.

*

Also telling are the kinds of questions these executives say must be answered from the heart: Like judgments in which increments of profit weigh against social considerations.

The common theme for Droel and these business leaders is that spiritual considerations cannot be left at home or separated from work.

"The pop spirituality of today is inward looking . . . monastic: You discover who you are as a whole person, as if to say that if everyone just got it together, the world would be a better place. Perhaps so. It's a very American idea," Droel says.

"We're interested, on the other hand, in the journey outward. Us together, not us as individuals. Immersion in, rather than withdrawal from, the world. That's the spirituality of work."

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