In the beginning there was Covid-19, and the tribe of the white collars rent their garments, for their workdays were a formless void, and all their rituals were gone. New routines came to replace the old, but the routines were scattered, and there was chaos around how best to exit a Zoom, onboard an intern, end a workweek.
The adrift may yet find purpose, for a new corporate clergy has arisen to formalize the remote work life. They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers. They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.
In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.
Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith.
“We’ve seen brands enter the political space,” said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: “The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.”
Before the pandemic, these agencies got their footing helping companies with design — refining their products, physical spaces and branding. They also consulted on strategy, workflow and staff management. With digital workers stuck at home since March, a new opportunity has emerged. Employers are finding their workers atomized and agitated, and are looking for guidance to bring them back together. Now the sacred consultants are helping to usher in new rituals for shapeless workdays, and trying to give employees routines that are imbued with meaning.
Ezra Bookman founded Ritualist, which describes itself as “a boutique consultancy transforming companies and communities through the art of ritual,” last year in Brooklyn. He has come up with rituals for small firms for events like the successful completion of a project — or, if one fails, a funeral.
“How do we help people process the grief when a project fails and help them to move on from it?” Mr. Bookman said.
Messages on the start-up’s Instagram feed read like a kind of menu for companies who want to buy operational rites a la carte: “A ritual for purchasing your domain name (aka your little plot of virtual land up in the clouds).” “A ritual for when you get the email from LegalZoom that you’ve been officially registered as an LLC.”
‘People would cite SoulCycle’
The sacred consultant trend might be led by the co-founders of Sacred Design Lab — Mr. ter Kuile, Angie Thurston and Sue Phillips. They met at Harvard Divinity School, where they remain affiliated as inaugural Ministry Innovation Fellows, and founded their organization as a nonprofit in 2019.
Their backgrounds vary. Mr. ter Kuile, who lives in Brooklyn and co-hosts a popular Harry Potter podcast, wrote a book on how to “transform common, everyday practices — yoga, reading, walking the dog — into sacred rituals.” Ms. Thurston, who lives in Alexandria, Va., had worked at finding spiritual connection between people from different faiths. Ms. Phillips, of Tacoma, Wash., is an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.
What they have in common is an agreement that traditional religious institutions are not working and that corporate culture is largely soulless.
At Harvard Divinity School, scholars have been studying the trend away from organized religion for decades. Their consensus is that while attendance at formal services is at a historic low, people are still looking for meaning and spirituality. Dudley Rose, the associate dean for ministry studies, noted that secular spaces were doing a surprisingly good job of fulfilling this desire.
“People were meeting what they identified as spiritual needs, but doing them in organizations that had no apparent spiritual connection,” Mr. Rose said in an interview. “Like SoulCycle. People would cite SoulCycle.”
Mr. ter Kuile, Ms. Thurston and Ms. Phillips saw it like this: If part of religious work is finding people in need wherever they are, then spiritual innovators should go toward the workplace.
“Regardless of what you and I might think about it, the fact is that people are showing up in the workplace with these big deficits in themselves when it comes to belonging and connection to the beyond,” Ms. Thurston said.
The Sacred Design Lab trio use the language of faith and church to talk about their efforts. They talk about organized religion as a technology for delivering meaning.
“The question we ask is: ‘How do you translate the ancient traditions that have given people access to meaning-making practices, but in a context that is not centered around the congregation?’” Mr. ter Kuile said.
The nonprofit says it has been thinking of sacred designs for companies like Pinterest, IDEO and the Obama Foundation.
Ms. Phillips doesn’t see corporations replacing organized religion — but, she said, she does see an opportunity for companies to bring people some of the meaning that they used to derive from churches, temples, mosques and the like.
She talks about her work like a pastor would. “We spend a lot of time doing witness and accompaniment of our clients,” she said. “We listen to their stories. We want to understand their lives. We want to understand their passion and their longing.”
Evan Sharp, the co-founder of Pinterest, hired Sacred Design Lab to categorize all major religious practices and think of ways to apply them to the office. They made him a spreadsheet.
“We pulled together hundreds of practices from all these different religions and cultural practices and put them in a spreadsheet and just tried to categorize them by emotional state: which ones are relevant when you’re happy, which are relevant when you’re angry, and a couple other pieces of metadata,” Mr. Sharp said.
When he had the data, he said, he took a few days and read it all. “This sounds embarrassingly basic,” he said, “but it really reframed parts of religion for me.”
It made him realize how many useful tools existed inside something as old-fashioned as his childhood church. “Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility,” he said. And Mr. Sharp saw that it was good.
‘It’s still an office’
There are perils, of course, with bringing elements of spirituality into the office.
The mixture of corporate and religious language can be odd. For example, here is how Mr. ter Kuile described his work for a tech company he declined to name: “We researched and authored a concept paper on The Soul of Work to stimulate bold ideas about how soul-centeredness will continue to grow as a core element of the future of work.”
Another challenge is that many workers are already devout on their own terms, on their own time, and are not at all hungry for soul-based activities between 9 and 5.
And: It’s hard to exhort workers to give their professional activities transcendental meaning when, at the same time, those workers can be terminated. “It can be done badly, and when done badly it can cause harm,” Ms. Thurston said. “For example, ‘How can we be in deep community if I can fire you?’”
Ms. Thurston cited a host of possible problems to grapple with: creating a workplace religion, mixing management and soulfulness, getting paid for spirituality. “Even if this is all done well and a workplace becomes really soul-centered, it’s still an office,” Ms. Thurston said. “These are the challenges.”
Companies hiring ritual consultants may think they are bringing workers a small perk. But those behind the movement are hoping for a bigger revolution.
Workers have achieved measured success recently in pressuring employers to address systemic racism — some companies are making Juneteenth a paid holiday, for example, and investing in Black- and minority-owned ventures — and the sacred design consultants are wondering if employees might also begin to demand spiritual goodness.
This possibility is what drew Bob Boisture to the divinity consultants. He is the chief executive of the Fetzer Institute, a Michigan nonprofit foundation that says its mission is “helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world,” and which helps fund Sacred Design Lab. Mr. Boisture said he hopes the group’s work could eventually allow corporate employees to articulate complaints and stop projects or practices that they see as lucrative but immoral.
“We today pay attention to a business’s profits; the deeper question is whether the business ennobles or debases human existence,” Mr. Boisture said. “We encourage employees to bring moral concerns into the business conversation.”
And so the consultants find rituals and religious language and pull them out from their religious context, the better — in theory — to keep workers from feeling alienated. But rituals without religion can go haywire.
Tara Isabella Burton, the author of “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” calls it the bespoke-ification of religion, or the unbundling of rituals — a reference to how cable TV packages split apart after the advent of streaming services. In the unbundled world, people pick what they want from different faiths and incorporate it into their lives — a little Buddhism here, a little kabbalah there. It is consumer-driven religiosity.
“The idea is that what we want, what feels good to us, what we desire, that all of this is constitutive of who we are, rather than community,” Ms. Burton said. “We risk seeing spirituality as something we can consume, something for us, something for our brand.”
Deepening one’s Zoom practice
In a workday spent at home, standing in front of a computer while meetings come and go, projects are received and filed, there is no differentiation. Every activity is, physically, the same.
I’m hungry for ritual. Every day, I get dressed, put on shoes, make coffee, pour it in a mug and tell my two housemates that I’m heading to work and will see ’em later. Then I walk in a few circles and settle in at a desk in the corner of our living room, just a couple feet away. This is my deranged coronavirus commute and it’s how I help my bleary mind realize that the workday has begun.
If my boss said we would be instituting a one-minute group breathing exercise in the evenings to mark the closing of our laptops, or beginning each meeting by all smelling a clove together, would I like it? I would.
It’s easy to blur the line between routine and ritual. Which category is it, for example, to have a habit of taking a shower and staring at the ceiling for five minutes after accomplishing my day’s main task? Does the label matter, if the action feels essential?
To be technical, though, Kathleen McTigue, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a mentor to Mr. ter Kuile, offers a definition. She describes rituals as elevated routines, with set intention, attention and repetition.
Kursat Ozenc has been in the corporate ritual game for a while, as a product designer at the software giant SAP. He wrote “Rituals for Work” last year, and in January will publish a follow-up of sorts, “Rituals for Virtual Meetings.” I called him for recommendations on how to deepen my Zoom practice.
Mr. Ozenc advised incorporating thoughtful interruptions. He suggested beginning conference calls with a moment of silence. He recently heard about a smelling ritual, where everyone in a meeting retrieves a common kitchen spice, maybe cinnamon, and smells it at the same time to get a co-sensory experience. He is hoping to incorporate this into his guidance, as a way to bind people together.
“In the physical world, we experience the same senses together, the same temperature, the same smell of food heating up,” Mr. Ozenc said.
Ms. Phillips, the minister, had a few other ideas. She suggested using a repetitive meeting structure, which can be calming for participants. This might take the form of starting each team meeting with the same words, a sort of corporate incantation.
Others suggested workers each light a candle at the start of a meeting, or pick up a common object that everyone is likely to have in their homes.
Glenn Fajardo, a teaching fellow and lecturer at Stanford’s design school who is researching rituals for virtual work, said to think of the workday like a movie, with structure and cuts and suspense, based on predictable arcs.
“Say to the group, ‘During this part of the conversation, everybody’s going to turn off our video,’” Mr. Fajardo said. “Or, ‘While we’re doing this activity, I want you to look at your notebook.’”
“Part of what you’re doing with ritual is creating these chunks people can remember, creating this element of something familiar and something new.”
Jeffrey D. Lee, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, helped organize a three day retreat last year with Mr. ter Kuile and others. The purpose of the retreat was to allow spiritual entrepreneurs to brainstorm with traditional religious leaders. He described one participant as “an experience designer creating potent rituals for executives.”
Bishop Lee said he was happy to find the religious impulse at play, even if it was in places where the ultimate calling was profit. “We’re really aware of being on the shadow side of religious observance, a truly historic decline,” he said, “so there’s some good news in here for how people are hungry for ritual.”