This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
Rev. Dr. Fiona Stewart-Darling is an Anglican priest and lead chaplain at the Canary Wharf Multifaith Chaplaincy, which she founded in 2004. The Canary Wharf Multifaith Chaplaincy provides pastoral care and spiritual support to the business community of 105,000 people on London’s Canary Wharf, a 97-acre estate housing many of the world’s leading multinational corporations and financial institutions. As a workplace chaplain, Fiona helps bridge the gap between the public arena and the church. We spoke to Fiona in the fall of 2014, during her tenure as a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute.
How did you become a workplace chaplain?
My first career was as a chemist, but later I went to seminary and became ordained in the Church of England. For a number of years I worked as a university chaplain. I enjoyed student ministry but was ready for something new. A friend suggested I apply for the new chaplaincy position associated with Canary Wharf. Working as a chaplain for a private business park in partnership with an Anglican diocese is a unique arrangement, and at the beginning I was scared off by the complicated nature of the situation. But I have always enjoyed challenges and getting new projects off the ground, so I took the job.
What is your role at Canary Wharf?
Serving as a chaplain in a private business setting is very different from working as a parish priest. I often see myself as an ambassador in a foreign country. I’ve set up an embassy, learned the cultural codes, and taken stock of what I need to live in another land. Chaplaincy, like foreign service, is about building trust and offering hospitality. Once we earn trust, we can begin to talk about what wisdom looks like, as well as what a faith perspective might have to offer in a business setting.
I also see my role as helping to equip Christians in the workplace. I am passionate about the questions, How does faith make a difference? What does God want for us and from us? How does faith impact our daily choices and behavior? I’ve encountered Christian managers who are making important decisions with global consequences. They want to do the right thing, and they are often engaged in an internal ethical dialogue. But they can’t have that conversation with the Christian part of themselves, because the Christian part is a toddler. So I am trying to help them catch their faith up to speed through discipleship and formation.
I also try to help people live in a religiously diverse world. Our team of chaplains is multifaith. We have a Jewish, a Muslim, and a Catholic chaplain, and me. It has sometimes been challenging for us to honor both particularity and unity among ourselves, as well as the Canary Wharf community, but cultivating a multifaith environment has been rewarding.
You have a unique position as a chaplain to some of the most powerful people on the planet. What are some of the dynamics of working with this population?
Since I began working as a chaplain at Canary Wharf, I have received quite a bit of criticism from onlookers, especially in the midst of the global financial crisis. People could not understand why I was working with bankers and corporate lawyers rather than the poor and the needy. They accused me of selling out. When the credit crunch set in and the media was having a heyday demonizing bankers and business leaders, I found that nearly every time I picked up my phone a journalist was on the other end wanting me to dish the dirt.
But what I saw as an insider was a very different picture from what the media portrayed. I saw sincere Christians and other well-meaning people in senior positions working their socks off to try to mend what had been broken. I saw people getting caught up in an exceedingly complex and inconsistently regulated global financial system, taking the heat for the irresponsible actions of others. I saw managers being crushed by the responsibility of laying off hundreds of workers. I saw widespread fear among workers who were concerned about losing their jobs.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and many of the people I’ve encountered in the Canary Wharf community are deeply afraid. Within my first few week on the job I overheard two business people speculating about which building would get hit first if a plane was involved in a suicide attack on Canary Wharf. I soon learned that, for the sake of security, all of the American banks had moved their senior executives from the top to the bottom floors of their buildings. I quickly picked up on the culture of fear that developed in the business community in the wake of 9/11.
In the midst of the financial crisis, another wave of fear took over the business community. Until 2008, many financial institutions had annual culls to weed out people who weren’t making the grade. Then, as things got tougher, the banks started having culls three or four times a year. Everyone seemed to be afraid of job cuts. I remember having coffee with a man who told me that he was going to request a layoff. “I’ve been watching the guy in the cubicle next to mine. He is positioning himself by elbowing me out and taking over my team. I’m going to lose, so I might as well get the best severance package I can and leave now,” he said. I met with another executive who had sat in on hundreds of exit interviews with people who had been laid off or fired. Refusing to make human resources personnel “do his dirty work,” he had given the workers the bad news himself. He was utterly exhausted and demoralized. “Every time I told someone that we no longer had a job for her, a part of me died,” he said. Human resources personnel also bore the weight of the crisis. People stopped trusting them. Morale was terrible.
These examples illustrate that business people and bankers need God just as much as everybody else does. Bankers may be very wealthy people, but many of them are poor in spirit. People in the Canary Wharf community know what pain feels like. And many of them are people of conscience who are seeking God and trying to act responsibly.
Did you witness self-reflection on the part of financial leaders in the midst of this crisis?
I remember a conversation I had with a senior executive at Morgan Stanley. He kept using the word “myopia” to describe bankers’ role in the crisis. “We’ve lost focus,” he said. “We see with tunnel vision. We’ve forgotten that our job is to serve people.” I think there has been a fair bit of soul searching among financial leaders. They ask, What is our purpose? What is our commitment to society? Business leaders have become increasingly aware of the global reach of responsibility; the community a financial institution serves is often worldwide. Accountability takes on a new dimension in this context.
Among people in the financial sector the credit crunch opened up all sorts of conversations about ethics and meaning. Business leaders began talking openly about how to create a culture of good behavior, how to enable people to work with integrity, and how to foster an environment of respect. Suddenly a space emerged for conversations about faith and ethics in the public arena and in the workplace.
What shape have these conversations taken in your work at Canary Wharf?
In 2010, my team and I started meeting with senior executives in the finance industry. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of no religious faith participated. Over three years, we talked about faith and integrity in the workplace. Eventually, we came up with a Common Faith Covenant for doing good business. I’m particularly proud of this work because it has allowed our chaplaincy team to help build something constructive instead of just attending to crisis situations, which is often our role. Chaplains should and do help people fight fires in their lives, but our role is also to help people develop sustaining practices of justice and integrity. We never tell them what to do, but we help them explore who they are, what they value, and how they want to live. And then we encourage them to put these insights into practice.
Twice a year, we run a training day for seminarians. Two banks host the event. We want to immerse the seminarians in the banks’ culture. We help them understand how banks operate, why they are necessary, and what contributions they make to society. We also talk about where banks have gone wrong. Shortly after getting into trouble for money laundering and illegal practices, a prominent international bank offered to host one of these training days. One of the bank’s top representatives told me, “We are going to be straight with these seminarians. We are going to tell the truth, and we’ll answer all their questions about how we screwed up.”
The seminarians were able to see that bankers are real people, many of them well intentioned even though they make mistakes. Prior to the credit crunch, many bankers didn’t realize that banking practices at the time were problematic. It was only in hindsight that they were able to see what went wrong. History has presented us with lots of other examples of things that seemed like good ideas at the time, but ended up being disastrous. Do you blame people for doing something they didn’t know was wrong at the time, or do you acknowledge that social circumstances and parameters change? As you can see, our seminarian training day raised some really difficult ethical questions.
How does your work as a workplace chaplain interface with the work of the church?
I think it is important to understand the fluid nature of the church in our time. Some of the workers in the Canary Wharf community are commuting one or two hours each way to work. When they lose their jobs, or have babies, or get sick, it is not going to be coworkers from London who bring them casseroles.
We need ministry at both ends of the commuter line. How do we think about Christian community in two places? How can the church minister to people on the work front and on the home front? We need to do a better job of holding ministry in these two domains together.
We also need to ask ourselves what we mean by “church.” Too often we think of the institutional church as the place where faith starts and stops. But people’s vocation is to live out their faith in the world. The time they spend in church is actually quite minimal. Church on Sunday should be transformative, equipping people for the rest of the week. Similarly, mission is not just about trying to convert the person who sits at the next desk; mission is about bringing our whole lives before God, and offering those lives for the sake of the world.