Are we in academe’s “faith and work moment”?


Photo by Jeremy McGilvrey on Unsplash

Further to my piece yesterday – “Readings on the vocations, and challenges, of professors today” – and building on recent experiences of reading several dozen Chronicle of Higher Education articles and convening several groups of professors, here’s a reflection on the “moment” academe seems to be experiencing right now.

Back in March, I had the honor of convening several groups of theological educators (seminary and college faculty) to explore their vocational development needs. One question I asked was about the current vocational challenges faculty are facing. After breaking into small groups, we heard reports from each. One group identified these challenges (rendered here in note format):

  • Anxiety with changes, transition to virtual work – is this real education? Am I doing it well? Not as satisfying. Missing potential for formation?
  • Sense of living and working in a time of transition – everyone knows education is ripe for disruptive innovation
  • Identity: am I simply a professor or also a mentor, coach, something else? – transitions in teaching (and student needs and preferences) lead to questions of identity
  • The need for rest, with some burnout: schools have tighter budgets, are asking people to do more

As I read these notes, I was getting a strong feeling of déjà vu – where had we seen a combination of factors similar to this before? And it dawned on me: this was reminding me of David Miller’s characterization, in his book God at Work, of the 1980s-90s in the American business world, the rise of the “third wave” of the faith and work movement, and his description of the factors and pressures that led boomers to turn to questions of spirituality (both new age and traditionally religious) related to their work, in search of a revived and restructured identity and a recovered vocational satisfaction.

I went back and re-read the main section of Miller that dealt with this and that made the link between vast changes in the business sector (in particular) and an increased focus on “spiritual” issues related to work. I’m pasting it below, then I want to draw out the parallel with today’s higher ed situation and faculty’s current vocational experience.

Miller, God at Work, excerpts from pp. 68-77: 

“The economic context of the mid-1980s, when [Miller’s] wave three [of the faith & work movement – the strongest wave, which we are still riding] began, was a time of great upheaval and change in the corporate world. . . . the Dow Jones industrial average sank to a modern low of 777 in 1982, some 20 percent lower than in 1966. Inflation and interest rates were at historic highs, the U.S. economy was in a recession, and a sense of doom and gloom pervaded U.S. business. . . .”

“. . . there emerged a heightened management accent on short-term financial gains and results. . . . the break-up of big conglomerates (e.g., Beatrice Companies, RJR Nabisco) caused huge short-term social and human costs, such as layoffs, plant closings, the elimination of middle-management management layers, the break-up of lifelong-employment concepts, and evaporating employee loyalty. . . . Looking back on this decade, the Harvard Business Review concluded that the 1980s were a curious mixture of crime, greed, value creation, new ideas, and great social dislocation.”

“The technological changes were many, including telecommunications (satellites, cable, fiber optics, and broadband), computers (mainframe processing power, silicon chip advances, and the personal computer), software (systems and applications), transportation (container ships), robotics, and offshore manufacturing. In the 1990s the Internet revolution occurred, introducing the World Wide Web, e-mail, dot.com businesses, “clicks and mortar,” business-to-business (B2B) applications, and a host of so-called new economy models. . . . Large portions of the workforce became ‘free agents,’ preferring part-time and consulting assignments over the constraints and binding nature of full-time employment.”

“. . . the lines between home and work became blurred as people began working longer hours. As a result of these profound changes in work patterns and other factors, business newspapers and journals began to feature stories of businesspeople who were no longer satisfied with their career ambitions and making money, who felt spiritually empty and unfulfilled from their work, who were tired of living compartmentalized and bifurcated lives, whose health and well-being were suffering from workplace anxiety, reengineering, downsizing, long hours, and little sense of meaning or purpose.”

“. . . some people become active in the Faith at Work movement with therapeutic goals in mind, seeking personal healing from emotional, physical, or psychological damage suffered in the workplace, incurred from events such as downsizing, poor management, prolonged stress, competitive pressures, extended time away from home, and skill obsolescence. . . . Another very important attribute of people of the enrichment type is a desire for transformation. At the personal level, some express this by involvement in the human potential movement and the reading of self-help books. For others, particularly in the Christian tradition, transformation is understood in ontological and religious terms where the self is reborn and transformed in the image of Christ. The issue of transformation can also shift its reference point from the personal arena to the corporate arena, seeking, for instance, to help one’s company change its corporate culture, or even to the arena of society at large. Thus, the enrichment type can range from the very personal to the very public with far-reaching reaching effects.”

Reading the above and reflecting on all that I learned back in March at those meetings of theological faculty, I started wondering whether now, a half-century after the time described by Miller, the higher education sector (which had hitherto been protected from many of these economic factors) is finally dealing with many of the very same kinds of issues:  sectoral pressures, the obsolescence/transformation of old models and “social contracts” around work, financial instability and institutional change, increase of [administrative] duties, loss of tenure and shared governance [autonomy], technology and financial/economic challenges [and the pandemic] changing the nature of their work, productivity pressures. And maybe, some of the same kinds of results:  identity/vocation questions, trying to recover satisfaction, asking what it all means, turning to God, seeking personal formation—all concerns that Miller describes as having created a new and strong “wave” of the longstanding, cyclical faith and work movement.

Could it be that the time is ripe for a “faith and work conversation” within academic spaces–focused on both therapeutic themes and themes of innovation? Could our [the Kern Family Foundation’s faith & work team’s] combination of faculty development and FLOW [church “For the Life Of the World”] themes help create something of a new “wave” or “wavelet” of this movement within academe – or at least the corner of academe that we’re working in?

One straw in the wind: this book by former religious studies professor Jonathan Malesic, who left his enviable tenured position – the apple of every young academic’s eye – in the wake of a devastating experience of burnout.

2 responses to “Are we in academe’s “faith and work moment”?

  1. Pingback: The Christian Story of the University | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Readings on the vocations, and challenges, of professors today | Grateful to the dead

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