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When Faith and Career Intersect | Working at a Faith-Based Organization

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A close up of tea light candles.

A common piece of career advice is to avoid sharing your faith and other deeply personal topics at work. But for some social-impact professionals, faith and work are inextricably linked.

Faith-based organizations are in almost every part of the social-impact sector, from direct service to philanthropy and issue advocacy. If you’ve built homes with Habitat for Humanity or donated food to a pantry run out of a house of worship, you’ve interacted with a faith-based social-impact organization.

But that’s not the same as working at a faith-based organization. To learn more about what that’s like, meet the social-impact professionals who shared their experiences at faith-based organizations:

  • Katie Breslin is the young adult program manager at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Breslin grew up Catholic and now describes herself as a “convinced” Quaker (the preferred term in Quakerism for someone who has chosen to follow the Quaker faith). Previously, Breslin was the domestic outreach associate at Catholics for Choice.
  • Kim Cox is president of Father McKenna Center, a Catholic social services agency that serves homeless men in Washington, DC. Cox is also Catholic.
  • Joelle Novey is director of Interfaith Power & Light (DC.MD.NoVA). At Interfaith Power & Light, Novey, who is Jewish, works with congregations of all faiths to help them learn about environmental issues and climate change, improve environmental stewardship at their congregations, and advocate for environmentally just policies.
  • Dawn Sikorski, an Anglican, is corporate counsel at Islamic Relief USA, an organization guided by Islamic values that works on poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and development projects in the U.S. and worldwide.

Answering the call

Although they come from different faiths and different organizations, many of the people we spoke with talked about feeling a deep sense of calling in their work.

For Cox, that feeling began right before her first interview. As she waited for the interview to start, she sat in the back of the room for the daily morning meeting with the homeless men who come to Father McKenna Center for food, a shower, computer access, and other services. The staff member leading the meeting shared that one of the men had recently reached 21 days of sobriety, and he encouraged everyone to congratulate that man when they saw him later.

The staff member was “soliciting humanity” from the men in the room, Cox recalls, even as the reality of homelessness was constantly threatening to rob them of it.

At that moment, she says she felt a “ministry call” unlike anything she’d ever felt before as a Catholic. “I said to myself, ‘If they make me an offer, I’ll take the job,” Cox remembers.

Similarly, Novey says she felt called to apply for the director position at Interfaith Power & Light as soon as she heard about it. She had been active in social justice movements within her Jewish community and was working at a secular environmental organization when the position opened up.

“I had a very strong sense of calling that this was a powerful way to continue this interest that I have for pushing all of us to think about the values that we profess in our congregations and ask ourselves what it would look like to live them out more fully in our lives,” Novey says.

An opportunity to deepen your own faith

Regardless of whether they share the faith that guides their organization, people interviewed spoke of how working in a faith-based environment has deepened their connection to their own faith.

Working at Islamic Relief USA as an Anglican “makes me examine my faith more deeply because as you draw distinctions, you wonder what the reasons are for those distinctions,” Sikorski says. “Or, as you see parallels, you wonder where those parallels come from.”

“It has strengthened my faith and it's been a fun chance to learn from others and see that we share a lot more things in common than things that divide us,” she adds.

Novey says her work at Interfaith Power & Light is all about appreciating the differences while finding the similarities. Her staff also comes from different faith traditions, and she says they get energy from those differences and the interfaith connections they’re able to explore together.

“It deepens my own spiritual path to be with people [on my staff and in the community] who are coming at this from so many places and a diversity of spiritual traditions,” Novey says.

A culture of reflection

One of the aspects of faith-based work that facilitates this deeper connection to faith is a culture of reflection.

Novey says she starts every staff meeting by asking her team, “How is it with your soul?” She also encourages her staff to constantly reflect on the same question that they ask the congregations they work with: “What does your faith teach you about how to care for our neighbors, and what do you think your community should be doing about climate change?”

Breslin has experienced this culture of reflection at Catholics for Choice (where she used to work) and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (where she currently works). She says the culture of reflection can slow things down, which can be frustrating for a fast-paced person like her who likes to keep things moving. But at the same time, she says, it also makes the work richer to know that everything you’re doing has been so deeply thought out.

“It’s about your faith and your convictions, and you can’t really rush that,” she says.

The challenges of working in a faith-based organization

As an employee, you are always a representative of your organization. But Breslin points out that when you work for a faith-based organization, people can also perceive you as a representative of the entire faith. That means anytime you introduce yourself or talk about your work, Breslin says, you are opening up yourself for a conversation about faith, good or bad.

It also means that if you’re struggling with your faith on a personal level, it can be hard to separate the personal struggle from your professional responsibilities. And vice versa: If things aren’t going well at work, those professional challenges could bleed into your personal life and affect your experience with your faith.

Despite these challenges, Breslin still talks about how “incredibly blessed” she feels to work in a faith-based setting.

As Cox says, “Just because you’re called doesn’t mean it’s easy.” But encountering challenges in a faith-based setting can be easier to weather because everyone believes in something bigger than themselves or the rocky situation at hand, she adds.

“It has been a real pleasure to be able to use my faith and speak in terms like that,” she says.

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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