For most of my childhood, life went hand-in-hand with beliefs based upon the Christian faith. I was raised in a small Delaware farm community by grandparents who lived and breathed Christianity. Our household, neighbors and even school system subsisted on this common ground. Working in ways that pleased God was just what we did — core values of humility, grace, servitude and respect went without saying.
But when I was a college student, I entered the workforce in New York as a bookkeeper. For the first time, I faced the tension of negotiating Christian values within a competitive secular society. I struggled with this. Desperate to belong, prove myself and succeed, I initially stepped back into the sidelines and observed.
It took quite a bit of time — and a lot of prayer — to learn how to stand for my beliefs and thrive in a workplace where I’m the only Christian. Here’s what I’ve discovered along the way.
Brace yourself for a culture shock.
My first day in the office was surprising, to say the least. I witnessed someone make a mistake, loudly curse, then angrily throw his notepad across the room. I seemed to be the only one surprised at the outburst, and soon learned it was a common occurrence. In the following months, I heard an astonishing amount of R-rated gossip, bickering, disrespect and backstabbing.
Not every office is like this, but my first office job was. And if you were like me and not used to it, then it can be a surprise. Most jobs I’ve had since then have had relatively calm environments, despite also having co-workers with different beliefs.
Drop the entitlement.
Yes, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by like-minded folks growing up. However, the realization that I’m not entitled to a Christian place of work was pivotal. Why not show my love for Christ by interacting honorably and respectfully within a multiculturally diverse setting — as Christ did?
I learned not to expect to be treated differently because of my beliefs. Your boss isn’t going to give you a raise because you’re the nicest person in the office — you have to work just as hard to earn your position (though being the nicest person might help). I also learned not to treat others differently who held different beliefs than me.
Gather your tools.
View your faith as a tool rather than a sword. While working with colleagues who hold different belief systems, I don’t want to come off as intrusive, superior or judgmental. Personal confrontations do not lend well to the community vibe. Instead, I tried to listen actively and share our common humanity. I remind myself to be authentic and keep relatable communication channels open.
I strive to give grace when receiving criticism about my faith and lifestyle choices. As a Christian, I shouldn’t judge, and I don’t need to respond to those who do. Instead, when co-workers are critical, I ask them questions, exploring why they might feel the way they do, and listen to their answers. Often, the humility involved in not taking offense opens the door to unexpected friendships.
When I’m asked to do something that goes against my Christian principles, I try to give reasonable suggestions for an alternative. For example, when I don’t want to come into the office on Sunday, I offer to work late the previous night so the job still gets done. I’ve found that if I exhibit a willingness to collaborate and get the job done, I don’t have to compromise my values and sometimes even gain more respect from my supervisors.
My work ethic is not only a reflection on myself but on Christianity in general. So I try to work hard and give my talent with a willing heart. Like Joseph in Genesis, who labored diligently for Potiphar while being clear about his faith, I strive for professional results while displaying good works as consistently as possible. I believe — as I was taught — that doing so not only reflects well on me, but also on the God I serve.
We’re the light of God to our co-workers. We don’t have the power to change their hearts, but we can show them we’re working with integrity and honesty, consistent with our beliefs.
See through His eyes.
Over the years, throughout a challenging but fulfilling career, I’ve faced my share of unrealistic expectations, hurtful comments, rude behavior and condescending attitudes. I’ve been angry, frustrated and made some choices that in hindsight were unwise.
But along the way, I’ve learned many valuable lessons, including this one: Stay true to your beliefs and values. It’s not important to try and fit in.
Perspective helps. I practice trying to recognize others’ worth — as if I were looking through God’s eyes at His image bearers. After all, John 3:16 reminds us that Jesus didn’t die to save those who are nice to us, but He died for the whole world. Including our co-workers.
Scott Huntington is a blogger from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When he’s not writing, you can find him playing drums in his praise band or watching hockey. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington.