By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

When the Best Christian Workplaces Institute (BCWI) released its list of the 78 best Christian places to work in January, there was one Catholic entity on the list.

I don’t know if that’s a first, but I think it is. So congratulations are in order for the honoree, Catholic Christian Outreach in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Beyond that, I confess the news brought a flood of thoughts – many of them conflicting -- to my mind.

Search for meaning

The fact that only one Catholic employer among countless thousands in the U.S. and Canada was on the list does not mean that Catholic workplaces – either operated by a church agency or by a member of the church -- are generally bad places to work.

In fact, it’s almost a certainty that most of these employers have never heard of the BCWI, much less signed up for its certification process. Since no employer gets on the list unless BCWI certifies it, ignorance is a huge excuse in this case.

It’s also possible that many of the explicitly Christian organizations that are included on the list are ecumenical ones in which Catholics and/or Catholic agencies play prominent roles.

Thus, for at least two important reasons, we should not make too much of the dearth of explicitly Catholic entities on the BCWI list.

Noting a pattern

And yet, we shouldn’t let the moment pass without noting a pattern.

The BCWI list is not the only one where Catholic entities are largely overlooked. My research is not formal, but I read a lot and see a lot of these lists in magazines and on the web. Almost never do I see an explicitly Catholic entity on any of these lists.

Consider Fortune magazine’s latest list of “100 Best Companies to Work For,” published in 2016.

Although Fortune sticks to the term “companies,” the list includes some nonprofits – including more than a half dozen health care organizations, led by the Mayo Clinic and including one explicitly faith-based entity, Baptist Health in South Florida.

But you won’t find any Catholic entities on the list – not a diocese, a parish, a school, a health care institution or a social service agency.

It should be noted that St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, is on the list, and it was founded by a devout Catholic, comedian Danny Thomas. But it has no formal affiliation with any Catholic entity.

Cautionary note

As someone with more than a few decades’ experience in media, I’m eager to share my skepticism about media-generated lists -- especially ones that rank the performance of various entities. So it would make no sense to draw any sweeping conclusions about the absence of Catholic employers on “best workplace” lists.

As a matter of fact, I worked for a Catholic diocese for 30 years and found it overall to be a pretty good employer. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have stayed there very long -- much less as long as I did. I look back on my experience there filled with gratitude for the people I met and the work I was able to do.

At the same time, I have to confess I often read with envy about the benefits and considerations offered by some private employers – most especially when those things dealt with family issues like childcare, flexible work hours, work-at-home provisions and the like.

When I took the family to Disneyworld, I used a special benefits card that my dad got as a Chrysler employee. He said it was a free Disney perk for employers to give their employees. Chrysler participated in the program, my employer didn’t.

Many of my colleagues argued that an organization like a diocese, which relies on contributions for the bulk of its revenues, just can’t compete with companies when it comes to compensation and other employee benefits.

No doubt, in many instances, that’s true. But it’s a gross oversimplification on all sides of the issue.

A lot of companies don’t have healthy margins with which to indulge their workers. Many are making no profits and worry how long they can keep cutting any payroll checks at all. Meanwhile, you will always find some very profitable companies laying off people so that they can be even more profitable.

When it comes to how companies treat their people, the range is staggering – even scandalizing on one end of the spectrum. As a consultant and instructor Cardinal Stritch University’s College of Business and Management, I’ve heard countless stories about how businesses exploited and otherwise mistreated their people that made my skin crawl.

On the basis of my limited experience, it’s easy to offer at least faint praise: As a rule I’ve found that Catholic entities treat their employees much better than the worst business employers do.

But is that good enough for organizations that a grappling with declining membership and participation, on the one hand, and Jesus’ own Great Commission on the other?

Evangelization implications

Some congregations – Catholic and otherwise – are discovering connections between how their leaders treat their staffs, how well their ministries seem to function, and how well they do in attracting people to participation in the life of the congregation.

That shouldn’t be any surprise. An old adage of organizational performance is: “Your staff will treat others only as good as you treat them.”

One well-known pastor of an evangelical megachurch, Bill Hybels at Willow Creek in suburban Chicago, has confessed that despite its renown, his congregation’s culture deteriorated to the point where its mission was seriously undermined. He turned to BCWI for help and eventually Willow Creek made BCWI’s list of best Christian workplaces.

That’s not to recommend that Catholic entities flock to BCWI. But it is to note that where leaders focus on what kind of employers they are and what kind of cultures they are building, performance and outcomes improve – often drastically.

At this point in the conversation three questions persist:

  • If the church is committed to the values of human dignity and social justice in word and deed, how important is it to strive to model those values with respect to their own employees?
  • If the church was known far and wide for being an excellent employer, how would that affect its credibility and teaching authority about issues in the workplace and in the home?
  • What merit would there be to the church, its employees, members and society at large if church authorities committed themselves to be model employers and to create model workplaces throughout the world?

To learn more about BCWI’s Best Christian Workplaces program, click here.