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7 Steps to Having Respectful Faith Discussions at Work

Christians know that our core mission is to "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19). Yet many companies have a "no proselytizing" policy. So how do we reconcile that apparent conflict? How does one "make disciples" without "proselytizing"? Find out in these seven steps.

Krispy Kreme, Trader Joes, Lululemon, and Costco all have something in common. They have almost zero advertising budget. Why? Simply put: they don't need it. People come to them. These companies are following a "pull" vs. "push" marketing model. Something about them pulls customers in, so they don't have to push advertising out. And that's my strategy when it comes to sharing my faith at work. Rather than pushing my views, I hope my behavior pulls people in who are interested in talking about faith, without annoying those who aren't. Here's that model, which I touch on in a new podcast with Hunter Muse at the BYU School of Business: "Sue Warnke on Faith at Work.”

Step 1: Out yourself

The first step in a "pull" model is actually a "mini push." As soon I can, I have to "out myself" as a person of faith. Why? Because In order for people to want to have a faith chat with me, they first have to know that I am someone who has faith chats. Put another way, a store needs to at least put up a sign if it expects to get any customers. People need to know that you're a Christian and that you're open for business—the business of faith conversations.

People need to know that you're a Christian and that you're open for business—the business of faith conversations.

We make other fundamental facts known about ourselves when we meet people, like if we're married, are allergic to peanuts, or have two-year-old twins. It may seem self-serving, but it's a compassionate way to help the other person identify common ground ("Oh, I have twins, too!"). Work your Christianity in naturally like you work in other big facts when you meet someone new. You can do this by simply mentioning church, wearing a cross, or talking about a faith-based volunteer event. Then pivot.

Step 2: Ask "you" questions:

As soon as you can, pivot the conversation to the other person. In hundreds of these faith chats over the past couple of years, I've found that the vast majority of people really do want to talk about faith. They've been mulling over the topic for years in some way or another, and they're relieved to finally find a safe landing place for their thoughts. Provide that opportunity by simply and directly asking them about their faith.

This is my all-time favorite opener:

"What's your faith background? How did you grow up?"

I ask these back-to-back, as if they're a single question. The person pauses, perks up, and then begins. It may be the first time anyone has asked them this, and certainly the first time at work. Here's what's happening. Since I'm asking about their "background" instead of their current beliefs, the topic is unthreatening. And the words "grow up" trigger specific childhood memories, which gives them instant content to share. And share they do, regardless of whether the memory is good or bad. Think about it: We enjoy gushing about good memories, but we also enjoy venting about bad ones. If I ask you, "What was your best restaurant experience?" you'll eagerly to relive this happy time. But you'll light up just as much if I ask, "What was your worst restaurant experience?" Venting is cathartic, especially when we find a sympathetic ear. Either way, these questions get to the heart of where they're at on their faith journey in a matter of minutes.

But here's the thing.

When asking these questions, you must, with everything in you, mean it. Ask with absolute sincerity or don't ask at all. Asking simply to pivot the conversation to your position is manipulative. This dialog is now entirely, wholeheartedly, and profoundly about them. You are a servant, not a teacher, and this is holy ground. Treat the next few minutes with tremendous care. You are now on the clock for God.

Step 3: Be fascinated.

The best business advice I've ever received was from a sales mentor a few years ago. She was a tiny spit-fire of a woman, older, about 5 feet tall. She sold circles around everyone else in the office, bringing in the bulk of our revenue. Clients loved her, sent her birthday cards, invited her to family dinners. One morning she and I were driving together to a big sales meeting at a gaming company in Silicon Valley. I was terrified that I didn't know the business well enough, wringing my hands as she drove. At a red light, she turned to me and said: "Sue: Never forget this. Your job is to be fascinated. Not fascinating. It's not about you." The light turned green, and she stepped on the gas.

"Be fascinated. Not fascinating."

These conversations are never about us. Not one iota. It doesn't matter how intelligent we think we are, how cleverly we turn a phrase, or how much scripture we know. This dialog, this precious conversation, is 100% about the other person. Be fascinated in whatever they tell you. If they say they hate Christianity? Be fascinated. If they say they've never thought much about faith? Be fascinated. If they say they are devoted followers of a different faith? Be fascinated.

Whatever they tell you, remember that they are sharing their heart when they don't have to. That makes this moment a gift. They've handed you a seedling, a piece of themselves, and they're watching like a hawk to see what you'll do with it. One wrong move (like bragging, defending your position, or pushing your opinion), and you'll stomp on that seedling, possibly for good.

Shepherd it. Care about it. Protect it. And then move with absolute reverence to the next step: Watering.

Step 4: Water the conversation

Watering feeds a plant and helps it grow. Yes, you can and should be sharing about yourself throughout this conversation; it's not an interview. But the goal of that sharing is not for you to consume their empathy or attention. The goal is still completely to nourish them. They're looking for evidence that you've seen their seedling and that you're going to protect it rather than ignore it, as others have done. You may be the first person in their life to ever sincerely ask about their faith and likely the first to treat their answer with reverence. Water it. Be fascinated. Mean what you say. This is your chance to demonstrate what "Jesus-love" feels, looks, and sounds like.

And it sounds like this:

  1. Mirror what they've told you: "So it sounds like you were under a lot of pressure."

  2. Ask a follow up question: "How did that impact you?"

  3. Name the emotion you're sensing: "Wow, that must have felt isolating," or "Wow, your parents sound amazing. You must miss that."

Now they're really feeling loved. A perfect time to pivot to Jesus, right? Nope.

Step 5: Pivot to Jesus?

Not in the workplace. That is, I don't drive that pivot. If and only if the other person leads the conversation in that direction do I go there. They drive that critical step, not me. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. If they don't ask or show interest in your faith, then keep the conversation on them. Ask questions. Be fascinated. Love them. You'll get farther by reflecting Jesus and thereby pulling people to Him than by attempting to push Him on them. We don't want others pushing their faith on us when we haven't asked for it. Neither do they. They know you're a Christian from Step 1. Give them love, and they'll feel HIm. Ask questions, and they'll hear Him. Honor them, and they'll see Him. Then they'll want to come back to you: to feel, hear, and see more.

Give them love, and they'll feel Him. Ask questions, and they'll hear Him. Honor them, and they'll see Him.

And if they do ask about your faith, by all means "give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). Be prepared with a specific, relatable story, like a time you felt overwhelmed and how prayer changed something. Then explain how the story relates to something Jesus did or said. Speak scripture out loud, but don't overwhelm them with it. God will multiply even the little nuggets. Give them a bite and let them ask for more.

Step 6: Pray?

Sometimes. If they're struggling, and they're not in my reporting chain, I might say something like: "This might sound strange, but I pray when I'm stressed. Would you like a 30-second prayer?" Why do I not say this to people in my reporting chain? Because a reporting chain represents a power dynamic. Asking faith questions puts people who are in that chain into a compromising position. They may feel pressured to say yes to your question, regardless of how they really feel. Compromising the psychological safety of a direct report violates our fundamental purpose as managers. Tread carefully with anyone in your direct chain. Pray if they ask for it. Follow their lead.

For everyone else, make a call in the moment, trusting God's leading. Always ask for permission. Most people eagerly accept and gratefully receive a short prayer. I offered to pray recently for a top executive in the midst of a crisis. "Lord, thank you for my brother. Such a burden he carries. Remind him how absolutely loved he is. This very day, I ask you to lift the weight of this from his shoulders and replace it with peace. Clarify the path and help him move forward. In Jesus's name. Amen." He lifted his head slowly and said that that was exactly what he needed to hear.

Step 7: Make yourself available

Let folks know that you're open to chatting about faith at any time. Actually say that: "If you ever want to talk about faith or religion or anything, just reach out." People who've connected with something I've written about or spoken on often contact me to chat, so I've started blocking time in the early mornings for "faith office hours." I prioritize these meetings above nearly anything else. Want to book one? Just ping me on LinkedIn. So far, God fills them at just the right pace. But you don't have to set up office hours to let people know they can "talk faith" with you. Just remind them in subtle ways whenever it seems appropriate. Remember that you're in the business of "faith chats." Remind people as needed, and they'll think of you when they're ready.


Bonus Step: Say "I love you."

I was a guest speaker last year in an MBA class at Stanford, asked to speak about religious diversity in the workplace. As I was speaking, it became clear to me that the main thing I was supposed to tell these ambitious, intelligent, tenacious future CEOs at the top business program in the world was this: "This may sound crazy, but I actually love you. Each of you. That is what faith means for me. It changes the way I see everything and everyone." I was the tenth and final speaker that semester. They had heard from CEOs, top community leaders, best-selling authors, and business experts. Weeks later, as the professor sorted through student feedback about the class, he emailed me, floored: "The thing they kept mentioning," he said, "was when you said you loved them. They believed you." Several students pinged me on LinkedIn after that class and set up faith chats with me.

Final thoughts

We don't need to push our faith on others. But we can ask, and listen, and offer our time. We can stand unashamedly in who we are and offer a kind of love that kneels in absolute reverence for who they are. How would Jesus talk about faith at work? One word, I think: Respectfully.


What do you think?

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