Work, faith, world: what do I think?

I’ve been thinking about this lately. I’ve got some questions about my own career path: where next? What do I want to do between now and retirement? I enjoy the challenge – mostly – of being a professional research librarian and I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had in the various law firms and via the SLA. But is corporate law the best place for me to be?

That’s a question that’s been simmering away for a little while. And then today I saw the criticism of the speakers invited to HTB’s Leadership Conference. Folk from Goldman Sachs and Serco were invited to talk about leadership. I had a good, thorough think about this because I wanted to know what my opinion was. Do I agree on learning from leaders wherever? Or not? So here’s a bit of thinking about how following Christ might affect what choices we make.

We all have to make a living (well, everyone I know does – you might have richer friends than me). And we’re all called to different things. If we work in places that are not obviously good (nuclear arms manufacture might be an extreme example of that…) then perhaps our role is to be salt and light in a difficult, pressured workplace. Perhaps by supporting colleagues who are being stressed into a small ball, we get to show love to that person, and be Christ’s light to them.

I understand that reasoning. And indeed when I had a bit of a wobble, I rationalised that wobble using just that argument. The job I was in used my skills, knowledge, intelligence and willingness to teach, help and support others. Personal relationships, and showing people how much they matter to God, help others understand that Christianity is more than just being anti-gay or boring. So all round, that’s a good thing, right?


Ultimately: should I use my skills, knowledge, intelligence and willingness to help in the service of a company or an organisation that is inherently destructive? Or that is actively causing the increase in the gulf between rich and poor, have and have not? Am I not then directly contributing to the dark side, for want of a better shorthand?

I don’t think so. I don’t think you can separate how the profit is made to pay my salary – and the effect that profit has on my world – from my faith, because Christianity is a 168/hr week commitment. I could be the saltiest salt, and the shiniest light: but working for a company that builds arms, removes services, causes recession means that my skills and energy are making things worse. And I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And yet. The rent needs to be paid. The bills don’t go away. So how does one square the circle… maintain integrity? Answers on a postcard…


  1. Find work in a non-corporate library. But perhaps it’s more complicated than that? E.g. what if you’re the last bit of salt and light in the company? Are there really any purely ethical institutions anyway? What if your company treats its staff better (more ethically) than (e.g.) an academic library? Etc.

    Sorry. I’m good at thinking of questions. Answers, not so much.

    • Thank you! Those are all things I have asked too – it’s not necessarily about staff treatment, but perhaps the end product rather than the HR procedures. I think I am at the point now where I’d never get out of bed if I tried to stick to every ethical principle. If library jobs were two-a-penny, the game would be different.

  2. This doesn’t half ring bells with me. Wrestled with this while discerning calling, while sitting in office with Christian Aid and Oxfam demonstrating with coffins outside, while working out whether call was to full time vicaring or to ministry in secular employment. I never found “the” answer, just “my” answer, suspect the answer is different for every person in each situation. Which isn’t terribly helpful, sorry.

  3. Thank you for these thoughts. If you’re in a job market where you have to take whatever is going, then that need changes the ethical landscape. No one should be held responsible for making a decision for putting their own security and well-being and those of their family ahead of destructive employment if those are the only choices open. However, those who do have a choice often make similar arguments: as you move up the pay scale, you have to earn increasing amounts to feel ‘secure’. I’ve met lots of nice people working for organisations that do fairly destructive things. No human being, except perhaps the odd scapegoat, is responsible for what corporations do, and that’s the problem with corporations, and indeed government. Yet still, those at the top of these organisations do have a choice, even when excuses and shrugs rather than ultimate responsibility is the currency.

    HTB’s aligning itself with elite power, money and privilege is no real surprise, but the question has to be asked whether it is right for a church to do so. Perhaps one need only look at Westminster Abbey and see that this alignment is nothing new. If the church is to be prophetic and sup with power, how long do the spoons need to be?

    We are in the world, and perhaps choosing not to speak with the powerful is just as problematic as sitting too close. Yet it has to be words of truth to power. I’m not so sure that protesting the conference shows anything apart from a failure of church, society and ethics.

    That was not meant to be a lecture, but a response flowing from your thoughts. Sorry!

  4. There are 2 main ways of thinking about it, as i see it.

    On the one hand, you go for the ethical companies. This will cut you out of a lot of employment opportunities because the more you look, the more likely you are to find something that rankles.

    The other one is to try to be revolutionary from within, trying to change the nature and culture of the company.

    Walking down the first path is quite tough. After I was made redundant last year, I was sent a lot of job specs by recruitment consultants. I turned some down because there was something about what the company did or how it was run that I disagreed with. I was called an idiot by a lot of recruitment cosultants, not having come across a lot of accountants who were christian socialists.

    But as I went on, I loosened by criteria and was willing to look at more and more. Eventually I got 2 offers, one in the publishing industry, one in mining. I had reservations about the mining one, but every other factor (what the job spec actually included, hours, salary, commute,etc) was in favour of the mining company. Instead of letting my ethial concerns act as a veto, I let the other stuff outweigh my concerns. I opted to go down the 2nd route.

    Being careful about what I say, I raised some concerns fairly soon. Instead of being able to change the company ethos I was shown the door and was unemployed again, with a very awkward time period to explain on my CV. This wasn’t helped when some of the nature of the concerns have come out in the press after an anonymous whilstleblower (not me, but I think I know who it was) went public. As a result of this, the CEO and CFO have resigned, the shares suspended and the companyis subject to an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

    I now think going down the 2nd route was the wrong option. After this, I was much more stringent about who I was willing to apply for, but the recent past did prevent me from getting some jobs. The election of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury was even used against me by one agent, trying to persuade me to apply for a job at a big oil company; his reason being that if I was a christian I couldn’t possibly object to taking on a similar role to that formerly undertaken by the head of one of the largest denominations in the world. I was not impressed.

    Having spent >6 months of last year unemployed, but now having been in my current job for a little over 4 months, I have no doubt that my ethics cost me financially. But then, what price may we put on our conscience? It was certainly testing when such dilemmas are happening to you and you face the prospect of being made homeless; more so than idle speculation you might engage with in slighty less than casual conversation with friends.

    I’ve come out of this pretty lucky. I never lost my home and am now in a position where I can help those who are going through similar experiences that I went through, but who do not have the safety nets that I had. I view this not as a nicety, but as a necessity. If I sat on my laurels and enjoyed a steady, well-paid job, then I would be betraying the principles I had wished others had shown me when I was in need.

    When your own well-being on the line, my judgement was clouded and I made the wrong decision. For others with stronger personalities, being that light in the darkness might be the right thing to do.

  5. I’m not religious but from an environmentally friendly and ethical viewpoint I find same of the work I am asked to difficult eg researching fracking, I’m coming to the conclusion I need to move sector. And that is one of the great things about librarianship, you can move.

  6. I was thinking similar to Lilian I think, can things be changed from inside, but e.g. I wouldn’t take a job in (can’t think of anything else right now) in a heroin factory – so at what point do we decide there are graduations? And yes, if poke into it all too far, would end up like Brethren that I grew up in that they only trade with each other, which I don’t think is healthy either…

  7. This is an interesting one Sara. People have said some wise things here so I won’t repeat them!

    It might be worth pondering Jesus’ words in Luke 20:22 (and elsewhere): “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Now, did Jesus advocate paying taxes there? And was the Roman state doing some pretty awful things? It’s an interesting question.

    No one company is going to be completely ethical or perfect. You’re never going to find a company which you think is 100% ethical. The question is, at what point do you walk away? Do you think there’s anything you can change about the company? Would the company be better if everyone who held an ethical position walked away from it?

    It’s a very difficult issue. I enjoyed reading “Every Good Endeavour” by Tim Keller – you might find that helpful with some of these issues.

    • Thanks for the book idea – will add it to the list. I think that the rendering to Caesar argument is part of the same set of interconnectedness – but it’s not quite what I am driving at here. I’m pretty certain that there are a few things I can change – or at least challenge – in the people around me (attitudes, default working practice, etc) but overall, that won’t change how we make our money.

  8. I’m not religious, but I can empathise with you here – this is exactly why I left the legal sector to work for a charity. For me, it was prompted by a vague sense that I wanted to do more good in the world, but the organisation I worked for was (through its clients, at least) actively causing harm. Leaving for a charity meant a pay cut, as well as a radical change in the actual work I was doing and my future career path, but I feel better for it.

    Not that the charity is perfect – we do have some corporate partners and donors who could be considered ethically dubious, so I agree with the various commenters above who’ve pointed out that going 100% ethical isn’t really possible! I rationalise this because the organisations we work with are at least trying to do the right thing by working with us, even if that’s (probably) motivated by PR concerns!

    • Late to this one. Hope this still relevant.

      I took a similar decision to move sectors back in 2000 (does anyone remember “The Millennium Bug” (Ahem) and have spent 12 (generally) pleasant years channeling my skills and knowledge helping this sector that I now know well. But occasionally I get pangs of guilt when asked to work on some projects (particularly Lottery funded) as I think through the provenance of that money.

      I think it’s right to stay in the work that fits your skills, we have all been given them for a reason. But it’s also right that we flavor conversations with salt and illuminate what others are doing.Running away from the Nasty Big World isn’t a solution, all shouting out to make (tiny) changes to it possibly is.

      If Big Oil or Huge Bank pays you, it’s then part of the deal for us to use that money wisely, to think about making it work for good … but that opens up another debate about Far Eastern smart phones and Supermarket clothing…

      Rising up through the ranks in your organisation is fine too (yep that one @sara). If done without trampling on people to get there it gives you more opportunity to change things when you arrive.

      You’re doing al’reet 🙂

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