Many people agree with or have at least heard of the thought that certain topics are “too taboo” to talk about in mixed company. Race, religion, politics, income, sexual orientation, etc. are subjects that most people might not feel comfortable discussing with people who are not family or close friends (and for some even those groups are not an exception). Especially at work, discussing these topics is a “no, no.” We don’t want to cause tension, or make others feel uncomfortable.
However, working in Higher Education, specifically Student Affairs, some of these rules fall away. People are encouraged to discuss their identity, to be inclusive, and to talk about things that one would normally not discuss in a work setting.
Still, even in Higher Education, an exception exists when it comes to religion. This is not to say that people are “not allowed” to discuss religion, but there is a sentiment, even in our extra inclusive line of work, that talking about religion or spirituality with our colleagues might get us weird looks. I started noticing this not long after I started working in student affairs and slowly began to question why conversations about religion and spirituality are not more widespread in our field the way other aspects of identity are discussed.
In my second year as a Resident Director at the University of Maryland I joined the ACPA Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion, and Meaning (www.myacpa.org/commsfrm). I was thrilled to find a place in Higher Education where I could talk about issues relating to students, faculty, staff, and religion. But once a year at a conference is not nearly often enough to discuss these topics! While attending the 2014 ACPA convention (now in my third year as an RD, and with a little better understanding of my role and institution) I was struck with the idea to start some sort of discussion group within my department where staff could explore these ideas about spirituality and faith in their work.
After returning from convention, I sought out a couple friends and colleagues in the department and asked their thoughts on the idea, and if they would be interested in attending this type of discussion. Receiving some positive feedback, I decided to use the more laid-back summer months to “test-drive” my idea. I picked three dates in the summer and sent an e-mail to the department announcing the beginning of “Faith Talks.” These talks focus on faith, spirituality, and meaning making, and its impact on students and staff in student affairs and higher education. At least a week before every meeting I send an e-mail to the department with recent articles or other publications related to religion and spirituality on college campuses, some even related to residence life. As a not so shameless plug, I will mention that these articles and publications come from posts that peers share on the Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion, and Meaning Facebook group, or from the annotated bibliography that members of that commission worked diligently to create. The Faith Talks discussions occur during the lunch hour; staff bring their lunch and eat while discussing the articles or any other topics that come up during our conversation.
The first two discussions have been successful with 5-7 people coming together and various types of employees engaging in the conversation including resident directors, administrative professionals, and senior level staff. Several others have expressed interest but due to scheduling conflicts have not been able to attend. Through my collaboration with other offices on campus I opened up the discussion to our Multicultural Office in the hopes of engaging their Interfaith Graduate Student. While I am not sure of the religious or spiritual identities of our group, the hope is to engage people of all faith practices around this topic. So far we have discussed articles relating to Christianity, Native American Spiritual and Cultural practices, and Jewish Campus Life. I have also been given suggestions for future topics, articles, and even speakers or presentations about specific religions or faith practices that would be interesting. Having gotten positive feedback from a handful of staff I believe my “test-drive” has gone pretty well. I’m excited to continue these talks through the academic year and see how they grow and shape into something so much greater than I even imagined. So, I guess in some cases, you can talk about religion at work.
*** Photo courtesy of Alpeviolen.