Most of what I really needed to know about operating a business I learned working at my family's orchard and fruit stand starting around age five.
Later in life, I also earned a degree from Harvard Business School. My time at Harvard was hard and wonderful, and I'm so grateful for it. But over time I've seen that having a place like Harvard on your resume can change the way people treat you, and not always in positive ways.
In professional settings, Harvard tends to open doors. Clients and coworkers who learn about my degree offer me a little more respect; they consult me more, listen more closely when I speak, and are generally less likely to interrupt me. This may or may not be fair, but it's true.
At church on Sundays, that same degree tends to have the opposite effect. When people at church happen to hear about my connection to Harvard, they generally react pretty predictably: "Oh wow! You must be smart." Usually this is followed by something to distinguish themselves apart from that "smart" label: "Not me! I only went to a state school." And just like that, we're "us" and "them." It doesn't always happen this way of course, but it does happen quite a bit.
These disparate reactions are telling and somewhat troubling to me. On one hand, I see a work environment that worships intellect to an unhealthy degree. On the other, I see a Christian culture that is increasingly willing to create a polite distance from intellectual pursuits.
Something needs to change. It's terribly important that we bridge this gap and show the world that you can be smart, educated, reasonable, and have a vibrant Christian faith. Here are four ways you can begin.
1. Embrace your intelligence
You can start by embracing your own knowledge. We live in a world that overvalues beauty and undervalues intelligence, especially for women and girls. And the church doesn't always do a great job of countering those cultural messages. Nevertheless, as Christians, we are directed to love the Lord fully, engaging not just our hearts but our minds as well (Mark 12:30).
A strong intellect is a gift from God—it's a spiritual gift, right up there with the gifts of faith, healing, and prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:8–10). God gave you a mind, and using your mind can be a form of worship just as much as singing praises to him.
Christian working women are perfectly poised—quietly and forcefully—to take a lead in the marketplace. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that women garner the majority of professional degrees and a steadily advancing proportion of income across professional fields. Today, 50 percent of advanced degrees are going to women, while 30 years ago, only 6 percent pursued them. As the number of women in the workforce increases, we have the ability to make a greater difference in the lives of those around us.
All Christian professionals must strike a careful balance in the workplace. On the one hand, we want to honor God in all areas of our lives, but it can be hard to know what is appropriate and effective for sharing faith at work. Over decades in the professional world, I've come to depend on this principle for sharing my faith at work: Let your faith be known in non-aggressive ways, and then seek to live it out fully through your actions.
2. Respect your colleagues
Today's workplace is a diverse environment that includes a variety of religious groups as well as people who want nothing to do with religion. You need to respect that.
Don't hide the fact that you're a Christian, but you don't need to try to prove it either. Wear a cross necklace if you like, but don't also wear cross bracelets, lapel pins, and earrings. By the same token, if someone asks what you did this weekend, give an answer that includes church, but don't expound on the sermon. Is there a risk that some people might get offended or put-off? Maybe, but all you can control is your approach, not their response. And I tend to think that if your attitude is one of honesty and openness, rather than judgment or disapproval, people can tell.
3. Invest in your reputation
If you want to share Christ in the marketplace, you need to worry less about what coworkers think about your faith and more about doing the very best job possible. Dig in. Do excellent work. Be reliable. Take responsibility for mistakes. In these ways, you'll build relationships of trust with people.
If you're a lazy, unreliable worker, or if you treat people poorly, your faith will ring hollow to those around you. Great results and diligent work, on the other hand, will stand behind your name and your faith.
4. Improve the world around you
Use your position and influence, whatever they may be, to make a positive difference for the people around you at work. Even though I don't tend to talk a lot about God while I'm at work, my faith forms a basis for values I can put into action. Over the years, I've sought to make the workplace more inviting for the people around me by advocating for diversity and mentoring programs, improving training and communication standards, and simply striving to treat people with kindness and respect.
As you activate your faith in your workplace, you are building a natural platform to discuss your faith in a positive way. Over time, these are the things that will cause others to take note and to get curious about you and what "makes you tick."
When it comes to representing God at work, your brain is one of your most valuable assets. Embrace it. Then put it to work!