“No man [or woman] is an island,” Thomas Merton wrote in his famous book by that name. From biological necessity to cultural conditioning to our imago dei reflecting a triune God, we’re made for community, for “life together,” as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it. Being together forms our identity. It gives us meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging. It’s how we’ve come so far as a species.
Individualism is a dead end; it goes against every aspect of our nature. But so is the kind of us-versus-them tribalism of our highly polarized culture, defining membership with litmus tests. To be truly at home on earth, we need real community: not uniformity, but unity among diverse members who share common values and common causes. Community is what Jesus formed around him in his ministry. Community is what the early Christians cultivated. Community is what we’re made for; it’s what God calls us to, in all of its different forms.
When we think of community, most of us probably think of our families, our parishes, and perhaps our neighborhoods, towns, or cities. But what about our workplaces, those organizations where we devote so much of our time and our productive energy, and which have such a massive impact on the flourishing or destruction of our planet? If “God’s plan for the world is that men [and women] should work together to renew and constantly perfect the temporal order,” as the Second Vatican Council documents put it, then shouldn’t the organizations where we work be part of that temporal order we’re called to help perfect? Can’t they become transformative arenas where we form community with others, grow in skill and wisdom together, and contribute our gifts for the world’s betterment?
Take Time for Discernment
What might such workplaces look like? A truly healthy organization, whether nonprofit or for-profit, has a clear mission to provide useful, quality goods or services and to promote the common good: a strong financial bottom line, yes, but also doing right by employees, vendors, customers, social systems, and the environment. It also has deeply conscious servant leaders and a strong organizational culture that help all workers become their best selves. It’s a place that values everyone’s sacred dignity, where it’s safe to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and even to fail—especially for the sake of creativity or ambitious goals.
Creating and sustaining flourishing workplaces begins with discernment. The kind of organization I just described is very rare; many, if not most of us, probably work for organizations whose purposes or methods may be doubtful, whose leadership and community culture are lacking, or all of the above.
But if we Christians are called to perfect the temporal order, and our professional time and talent are precious, then we’re called to discern where and how we invest them. Unless financial or other circumstances absolutely force our hand, we Christians don’t get a free pass to do work that fails to serve or even damages the common good. Insofar as we have options and choices, we’re called to seek out organizations that embody communal values.
If such workplaces aren’t available or accessible to us, we have to discern whether an organization at least has reasonable potential to become a healthy community and whether we can assist in that transformation. In some cases, we may be called to help create those organizations ourselves.
The Part We Play
Whatever organization we’re part of and whatever our role in it, how we show up at our work is crucial. One of the most empowering things I find about the good news Jesus preached is that transformation always starts small and starts from within. All of us can be leaven, in our own unique ways and professional environments.
As I think about the people with whom I’ve worked, who have really helped organizations grow into better versions of themselves, I’ve seen common themes emerge in how they show up. First, strong contributors have a high degree of personal integrity. They are honest and trustworthy, with a solid moral compass. They are also highly competent: They work hard, hold themselves to high personal standards of performance, and enjoy the process of constantly improving their craft.
Because any workplace community requires collaboration, however, self-awareness and emotional intelligence are key. Compassion, kindness, vulnerability, intuition, patience, acceptance, transparency, and tact greatly contribute to the overall well-being of the organization—whatever our level of responsibility and organizational power happens to be.
Using Our Imagination
Finally, we’re called to be curious. No organization is static; they’re always changing, and each of us can bring our imagination to the common cause of helping our workplaces grow toward the ideal. We can ask rigorous questions about our organization’s mission and values. We can dream of new ways to improve how work gets done. We can put ourselves in the shoes of others—especially the vulnerable, inside and outside our organization—to learn about and advocate for their needs.
No workplace is perfect, and no forms of workplace community can substitute for the loving connections we can make among family members and friends. There are limits to what belonging can look like in an arrangement where you’re getting paid to do a job, and where you can easily be let go if you fail to perform, if the organization’s priorities or finances shift, or simply because of personality clashes or poor management.
But like other communities, our workplaces can be beautiful, thriving opportunities to become our best selves, build relationships of care, contribute to something larger, and accomplish together what we could never do on our own. Even if healthier organizations can’t solve all the world’s problems and fully “perfect the temporal order,” they can help us be better, together.