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Detroit ministry aims to ‘Unleash the Gospel at Work’

Catholics are called to evangelize, commissioned by Christ himself to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But the practicalities of responding to that calling can be difficult - especially in the workplace, where concerns about offending coworkers or uncertainty about violating HR policies might lead Catholics to keep quiet about their faith.

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Unleash the Gospel at Work, a ministry launched in the Archdiocese of Detroit last summer, aims to respond to these challenges by helping Catholics to see their workplaces as mission territory, where they can not only live out their faith, but evangelize by doing so.

“Here in the United States, [we] have this belief that we have to separate our faith from our work life, that there has to be a chasm between the two,” said Deacon Mike Houghton, executive director of Unleash the Gospel at Work.

“That's really not the case. And if we go back 50, 60, 70 years ago in this country, that certainly was not the case. We integrated our faith into everything that we did. Somehow or other, it has grown to the point where we say, no, no, no, that's separate and it's private.”

As vocations, donations, and Church attendance decline in much of the United States, Houghton told The Pillar, “it's certainly clear that the laity needs to really begin to step up and do more and help the Church spread the good news and to enact the great commission of Jesus Christ.”

And he believes the workplace can be a critical part of that.

UTG at Work grew out of a 2016 archdiocesan synod in Detroit. 

After that synod, Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote a pastoral letter entitled “Unleash the Gospel,” which included a series of action steps to be carried out by families, parishes, and the archdiocese as a whole, in order to become a Church with a more missionary focus.

Among the things Vigneron called for in the pastoral letter was the creation of “an institute dedicated to the Lay Witness in the World, with particular focus on fostering the dialogue between the Gospel and culture.”

At the time, Houghton said he was concluding an assignment to help reorganize parish groupings in the archdiocese.

With that assignment coming to a close, he spoke with the archbishop about heading up the creation of the lay witness organization referenced in the pastoral letter.

As the plan developed, Houghton proposed narrowing the focus of the organization to evangelizing in the workplace. He already had a passion for living the Gospel at work, fostered by his 35 years working for General Motors.

“In the early days of my time at GM, there were a lot of people of faith who spoke very openly about their faith,” he explained. “It was never really a problem, and it was sort of just the way we did business.” 

“But as time went on, that became more and more sort of restricted, until ultimately they got to the point where we were seeing HR policies that said, let's just not talk about it anymore.”

On one hand, Houghton said, he understood the policy, since GM was not a religious company.

But he said that like many other companies, GM went on to endorse lifestyle choices that went against the Catholic faith. And that, he said, was more problematic.

Houghton didn’t want to leave GM. He said it was a great company which cared for its employees and their families.

“I don’t believe in being negative,” he added.

“So instead, my brother deacon and I started a ministry about how to evangelize at work and how to sort of talk about your faith at work in a way that's very positive, in a way that brings people to the faith without working against the corporation.”

That work, which began in 2016, ultimately paved the way for Unleash the Gospel at Work.

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The UTG at Work website offers resources for living out the Catholic faith at work, including blog posts and videos.

In one blog post, a woman recounts how she had rearranged a conference schedule for an internship program she was leading, in order to accommodate participants’ Sunday worship schedules.

Videos on the site encourage the formation of habits such as gratitude and apostolic boldness.

The organization also produces two podcasts. In the first, entitled simply UTG at Work, Houghton briefly breaks down the Sunday Gospel each week, making it applicable for people who work.

There’s also the UTG at Work Innovation podcast, which interviews people about how they have been successful in living their faith in the workplace.

UTG at Work offers both free and paid memberships. Free members have access to all videos and articles, as well as the weekly podcasts and a monthly newsletter. Paid members also have access to bonus podcasts, quarterly faith formation opportunities, and events.

So far, Houghton said, the organization has focused primarily on providing resources, although they have done some one-on-one mentorship, and are discerning whether they should incorporate that into the ministry more broadly.

The group also hosts workshops and seminars, allowing participants to learn concrete ways to more effectively witness the Gospel at work, without getting in trouble with their company.

In terms of dealing with company policies, Houghton said, there are well-established limits to HR policies regarding religion, and UTG at Work can connect people with those resources.

But even more importantly, he continued, the organization helps empower Catholics to speak up and ask for their views to be recognized and heard.

“We have to recognize that in our country, somewhere between 50 and 60% of the people profess to be Christians. So those very people that are making those HR policies often can be talked to offline to say, ‘Let's talk a little bit…why are we doing what we're doing as a company? Can I take this in a little different direction?’”

He reiterated that the goal is not to take down the HR department, but to challenge the company culture to be more accepting of a Christian viewpoint.

“What we like to say is the DEI initiatives and things that are going on today, they're a part of our life. We're not going to change that. But what we can do is say, ‘As Christians, can you give us a seat at the table? Can you allow us to be part of that group as well?’”

He gave the example of one woman who works for a large hospital in the Detroit area. She asked to use some of her required DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training hours to attend a UTG at Work event.

Initially, her employer declined, saying UTG at Work didn’t meet their criteria for DEI.

But eventually, the organization reversed its decision.

“They came back and said, in all honesty, if we want our people to bring their full selves to work, there's nothing wrong with bringing your faith to work. So go ahead and attend that workshop and count those hours,” Houghton said.

“That led to further discussion between their HR department and our organization to say, again, we're not trying to stir things up. We're not trying to cause a problem. Just give us a seat at the table: 50 to 60% of your people in that organization most likely profess to be Christian. Why wouldn't you recognize that and allow us to have our opportunities to bring our full selves to work as well?”

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Corey Richards is a federal government employee who follows the UTG at Work newsletters and podcasts.

She told The Pillar that she tries to immerse herself in the organization’s content in order to gain confidence to share her faith more in the workplace.

She and Houghton attend the same parish, and she was introduced to the ministry through him.

Richards said it is not common to hear people openly talk about their faith in her workplace.

But, she said, she often starts to suspect that a person may be Christian based on the way they use certain words, such as “mercy” and “grace.”

“To me, those are faith-based words. I'm not sure that they're necessarily intending for them to come across that way, but that's how I receive them,” she said. “And so I immediately think to myself, oh, they must be a believer.”

Richards also tries to incorporate small vocal clues about her faith into her vocabulary at work.

She said she’s noticed that people in the office generally wait for someone else to identify as a Christian before they are comfortable acknowledging their own Christianity.

So when someone else might tell a sick co-worker, “I hope you’re feeling better,” she will tell them, “I pray you’re feeling better.”

Just that subtle hint of faith in her speech is often enough for other people of faith to latch onto, she said.

“It'll either end the conversation there, or somebody will pick up and expand on it, and then you can talk about church or wherever it goes from there,” she said. “I think the Lord can lead, but at least it provides that entry point.”

For example, Richards said, when she does find out one of her co-workers is Christian, she can invite him or her to a lunchtime prayer group to which she also belongs.

The multi-denominational Christian group of government employees – spread only through words of mouth – holds weekly lunchtime phone calls, in which participants pray together and share reflections, reasons for gratitude, and prayer requests.  

Richards said she has benefitted from UTG at Work’s concrete examples of how to respectfully incorporate faith into work conversations – for example, by using the greeting Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays around Christmastime.

She also said the ministry has given her encouragement to be bold and unashamed in her faith.

And she hopes that she, in turn, can “provide that continued encouragement to other people.”

“It's okay to be true to yourself. I don't need to hide my identity and my belief system just because I'm at work,” she said. “I just hope that by me being more forthright in sharing things, it will help inspire other people that, yeah, there doesn't need to be an awkwardness about it, and I don't have to change my character or who I am just because I'm at work.”

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UTG at Work divides its content into three tiers.

First is the business associate – the majority of the employees at any company. For these employees, UTG at Work focuses on the six qualities Vigneron highlights in his pastoral letter as necessary to foster cultural change in the Church: docility to the Spirit, apostolic boldness, a spirit of innovation, a spirit of cooperation, confidence in God, and an attitude of gratitude.

“We believe that by embracing those and working on those six good habits as an individual in your life in general, but most specifically at work, you can find ways to express your faith more fully to your coworkers,” Houghton explained.

Second is the leadership level, where individuals wield more influence over others.

Houghton said people in leadership positions may find that employees come to them not only about workplace concerns, but about broader personal problems as well, because they respect them and consider them to be an authority figure – someone who may be able to offer advice and help.

The six good habits are important for leaders just as they are for associates. But to prepare for this additional responsibility, UTG at Work also introduces what it calls “Christian leadership attributes.”

“We ask that they embrace a strong prayer life and get to know the faith…well enough to speak to it and understand at least a little bit about Catholic social teaching and what it teaches us about the workplace, embrace a model of servant leadership. And then consider being a part of a Christian group, a small Christian group that shares similar concerns, a group of other leaders who are in the same boat,” Houghton said.

At the senior level – for owners or CEOs – the principles from the previous levels still apply, but there is an additional level of authority and decision making, he continued.

“That's a point where you can begin to put supporting policies and structures in place that will help the organization be a place where faith can be embraced. So for example, you can have prayer rooms and workplace chaplains and allow time for religious holidays, tuition reimbursement for faith-based training, faith-based philosophy, that sort of thing.”

What, concretely, does evangelization look like in the workplace?

Houghton stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all formula or script for sharing one’s faith. Rather, it is highly dependent on the particular situation at hand.

But the key, he said, is knowing your faith well enough that you can respond to situations that may arise – and building relationships with coworkers where they feel comfortable sharing and asking advice.

He gave the example of one UTG at Work member who was running an automotive repair shop and was approached by an employee about an unintended pregnancy. Without being preachy or critical, the individual was able to share about the joys of parenthood and reassure the frightened employee that children are a blessing.

“The best way to get started is to get to know people and to have one-on-one relationships where you can share your faith at appropriate times - when they're struggling, when they're hurting, when they've lost a loved one, that sort of thing. That's how you can get things started.”

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Stephen Pangori is the president and CEO of an engineering, architecture and surveying firm in Michigan. The firm employs about 170 people.

While Pangori is Catholic, he said he’s never been particularly comfortable integrating his faith into his work life.

“I would typically say the rosary on the way into work, that's kind of my normal routine,” he told The Pillar. “But when I got to work, it was like I shut that part of me off. It's kind of like the switch at the front door of my office.”

As the president and CEO of his firm, Pangori is not worried that he might get in trouble with HR if he were to be open about his faith.  

Rather, he said, he is unsure how people of different religions might respond.

“I was always concerned that if I displayed a cross in my office, for example, that somebody may take offense to that,” he said.

“I really didn't want to be in a situation where I offended somebody based on my position in the office.”

A few weeks ago, Pangori attended his first workshop with UTG at Work, after hearing about the ministry through another Catholic group he was involved with. He was inspired by the examples that were shared about integrating faith into the workplace.

After attending the workshop, he resolved to be more courageous in bringing his faith into the office.

Rather than check his faith life at the door, he said he has started to intentionally pray before entering meetings or making big decisions. 

He’s also in the process of finding a crucifix to display in his office.

One of the things that struck Pangori most about the workshop he attended was the realization that by opening up about his own faith, he would be helping to create a company culture in which his employees also felt comfortable sharing their own religious beliefs.

For example, he said, the company typically holds a contest around Christmastime for groups of employees to decorate their shared workspace area. One year, a Muslim employee objected to Christmas lights being hung in his group area. He said his faith would not permit him to decorate for a holiday from a different religion.

“That was something that quite honestly, none of us knew,” Pangori said.

“What I learned from the UGT at Work program was if I am more forthright in displaying my religious beliefs, it would, based on my position here in this company…give others the comfort of doing the same,” he explained.

“And we would learn more about each other and ultimately appreciate and understand each other to a much deeper degree.”

Since attending his first UTG at Work event earlier this month, Pangori has subscribed to the group’s emails and podcasts, and he is hoping to attend future events as well.

He is particularly interested in events geared specifically towards business executives like himself, to hear their perspective on living the faith at work and creating faith-friendly business environments.

As he moves forward with the UTG at Work program, Pangori hopes to better equip himself to share his faith in appropriate contexts in the workplace.

“I've always struggled with the evangelization aspect of being a Catholic…Even with raising my children, it was more of setting the example by what I do and not necessarily being preachy,” he acknowledged.

“And it's a little tricky to do that in a work environment. I don't feel like I have all of the ammunition necessary to respond to anything that I might face,” he said.

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Although Unleash the Gospel at Work began as an initiative of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Houghton said they quickly saw interest from around the country, and they welcome members from outside the Detroit area.

Since the initiative began last July, it has attracted a total of 550 members.

Archbishop Vigneron encouraged them to be open to the possibility of expanding, and today, the organization is in discussion with a handful of other dioceses as well.

“We have this idea that somewhere down the road we may want to have sort of branches of UTG at Work, if you will, in other areas of the country,” Houghton said. “We think it'd be a very easy model to implement with everything we've already done.”

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