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Faith as a prerequisite: Rationalising HR requirements

As any aid/development job seeker is aware, some NGOs require their staff to be committed to a particular faith (Medair) and some don’t (Oxfam). Then, there are those organisations which are somewhere in-between (World Vision). Indeed, it is usually stated up-front as a prerequisite on job advertisements whether or not prospective candidates should be committed to one particular faith or not. We asked seven aid and development workers, religious and irreligious, to give their take on faith as a requirement for a job. Here’s what they said.

Jennifer Lentfer

Ruling out applicants on the basis of their faith may be a slippery slope

By Brendan Joyce

Brendan Joyce has worked in development since 2003. He is currently the Assistant Director of Palms Australia (@palmsaustralia), an independent development volunteer sending agency. He has previously volunteered for two years teaching ex-combatants in Bougainville and has qualifications in Science, Education and Development. Opinions are his own.

Palms Australia is a catholic organisation, but we do not demand our international volunteers, our board nor any individual staff members to be Catholic or Christian.  Such a criteria would at times be counter-productive, with many fantastic candidates coming from a variety of backgrounds who could contribute to an organisation’s mission. The diversity within each religion is so great that “ticking the faith box” may not indicate an individual is any closer to an NGO’s values than someone of another or no religion. Ruling out applicants on the basis of their faith may also be a slippery slope as individuals may also be required to be a “certain kind” of Christian or Catholic or Muslim, etc.

Though a limiting criteria may hurt an organisation, there may be certain positions where some religious background or understanding may be a significant advantage.  To the extent that individuals and partner organisations in Australia and overseas belong to a certain religious background, it may provide a shared understanding of purpose or clarification of the motives of an aid worker.  An example might be if a person needs to speak with bishops or represent the organisation at faith-based events as well as secular ones. Perhaps one could think of an understanding of religious language, culture and motivations as a competency or skill required for certain positions, though for someone with little religious background it may be more difficult than one thinks to navigate diverse religious sensitivities within a particular church context.

Probably the essential aspect for someone wishing to work for a faith-based organisation is to have some respect for its faith foundation. This may be difficult at times for non-religious as they struggle to identify what this means. To this end, NGOs have an obligation to have clear policies on key issues relevant to its work. Those NGOs existing without such clarity of vision risk becoming something else entirely when staff or board members turnover. Words like ‘mission’ and ‘evangelise’ may turn some off if seen as indicative of some sort of conversion crusade, but if understood in the more nuanced way they are often used, they can be informative of the faith-based NGO’s historical, spiritual and cultural priorities. But if individuals share the same vision, mission and values, despite their different backgrounds, they should still find ways to work together.

Despite the similarities between some faith-based and some secular NGOs in terms of program objectives and operations, it is important not to think faith could be removed from development entirely. Significant numbers of individuals are motivated by faith and will seek programs which reflect these values. If these agencies were to drop their faith in pursuit of inclusiveness (noble an aim as it is), those who identified with the organisation because of their faith may feel unsupported or misunderstood, possibly moving on to less established or ethical organisations professing these values but perhaps implementing different, even nefarious, aims.

There is also a great risk that the increasingly secular ‘developed’ world neglects the importance of the spiritual in many of the cultures in which development activities occur. Many of Palms Australia’s partners, even some non-faith-based ones, identify something in the particular values informing our work which appeals to them more than a secular alternative. Understanding someone else’s values is a vital step in building a mutual relationship of trust and respect with them. Community Development (and long before that, the “catholic social teaching” principal of Subsidiarity) tell us that the decisions should be made as much as possible at the grassroots level. If a community in Timor-Leste, Indonesia or India feels more comfortable working with a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu organisation, then that should be respected by aid workers and donors.

Respecting the local culture also mean respecting their right to define their own culture. As uncomfortable as it may be to a “lapsed” or non-religious person, this will often include aspects of Western culture passed on in “missionary” times which many Westerners feel they have outgrown. By seeking to understand local counterparts, rather than judge them, the development worker might actually learn more, better understanding the development needs of both the community and themselves.

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8 Comments to “Ruling out applicants on the basis of their faith may be a slippery slope”

  1. John Thomas says:

    [Also posted to Facebook]
    Philosophically, I’m wary of the cultural relativism that might be implicit in “respecting the local culture” meaning “respecting their right to define their own culture”. As a general rule, tolerance is an excellent guiding principle, but when “culture” includes attitudes such as superstition, sexism or racism, for example, then it’s within the rights of aid workers to work for change. That requires tact and political skill, but it’s another way of improving human well-being in a society.

    It seems to me that secularization and increased religious tolerance in much of the developed world means that, despite the religious origins of many non-government aid organisations, there’s a growing understanding that people with different religious convictions and people with no religious convictions can be equally concerned about human well-being and social justice. It seems likely that, as this realisation grows, those organisations focused chiefly on providing concrete help to those in need will become more inclusive and place less reliance on the faith of their volunteers.

    When I was a child I believed that someone described as a “good Catholic” was morally superior to someone described as a “non-Catholic” (I don’t remember anyone being described as a “good non-Catholic”.). Being a “good Catholic” meant being both religiously observant and morally upright – an ideal volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society. That kind of usage has faded in our increasingly secular Australia, but in Malaysia I still hear the “good Muslim” descriptor used in much the same way “good Catholic” was used when I was a child. My hope is that, as the world shrinks and inter-cultural understanding grows, people will focus on commitment to human well-being and social justice rather than commitment to a particular religious belief system.

    • Good points John.

      On the first, I certainly think all aid workers must work for change – otherwise what are they doing? And you are right that it takes tact, patience and I would add realism. My point about respecting the faith choices of local cultures, is less about tolerating something like FGM or gay-shaming and more about being careful not to make the mistakes of missionaries past.

      Secular aid workers may not like the comparison with missionaries of 100 years ago, but each is convinced their world view (human rights/democracy, belief in a particular God/following church teachings) would improve the places to which they travel. Even though one might still defend one’s current ideas wholeheartedly and reject others, people who head in with too much gusto (whether for advancing a religious system or repealing it) risk destroying underlying cultural structures which have existed for eons without allowing for their societal reasons. An example might be the clash between individualism and the old social contract (wantok system) in Papua New Guinea. (Another example might be the complete recklessness some of my mates engaged in immediately after rejecting their parents’ faith –

      I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head.

      The question for “agents of change” is one of sustainability of the changes. Change will always be more sustainable when driven from within. Outsiders can help those voices for change within a culture, but should avoid preaching from a pulpit behind barbed wire with a helicopter waiting to bring them home just in case ( Instead of resulting from such lecturing, the most effective change occurs from those inter-cultural interactions which casually challenge cultural assumptions. The great thing about this is it eschews the arrogance of thinking all the change must occur in a single direction.

  2. “an understanding of religious language, culture and motivations as a competency or skill required for certain positions” Well said, Brendan! Being able to move comfortably in religious situations on the job may be a very important skill in some organizations! I know it’s key in mine.

    • Thanks Tanya. I am a little conflicted on this because discrimination provisions can truly be dangerous, but viewed as a competency doesn’t necessarily rule out capable non-believers.

      • My problem with this, and perhaps others, is that it is discrimination – full stop. Part of development practice is to challenge discrimination, and often people are discriminated against everyday because of their religious beliefs. Yet, these same organisations that are fighting against discrimination are practising their own form of discrimination. Incompatible.

        • Brendan and Brendan – The Two Brendans (Fox’s newest sitcom?) – make some valid points. It is discrimination, whether considered positive or not. It’s still there in the name. But as Brendan (Buck) points out non-believers are not necessarily ruled out. The majority of non-believers, not all of course, that I’ve met have often been raised in a faith and so have an intricate understanding of the beliefs. Their choice to leave has, often, come after intense study, leaving them well versed in the requirements of that particular religion.

          However, with faith as a requirement, beyond making a declaration or requiring a pastoral reference (which I saw World Vision US had years ago – I don’t know if they still do), how does an organization verify it? In job interviews skills are often tested, references are checked for experience, but with faith being such a personal thing how does one check?

          • Good points Gregory, though the next generation are probably less likely to have had the religious formation than their parents who rejected it. I do know many ex-believers who still hold onto the language – perhaps having “faith” in some of the ideas they learned, if not “faith” in the deity – and would be fantastic employees in any faith-based NGO. I think Jennifer’s post on this forum touches on this (

            It will be interesting to see how such criteria evolve in the currently exclusive agencies – it may mirror the religious schools who, when unable to find a priest, Sister or Brother, would turn to an ex-religious. Only now are many under their first “lay” principal. The world hasn’t ended.

            Another good question. How indeed, if one wanted to, could one check the personal faith practice of an employee without massive invasions of privacy? I do know some agencies (though I wouldn’t call them “development”) which require a letter from a parish priest in the application process.

        • I agree to some extent Brendan Rigby. Personally I am against the religious exceptions in anti-discrimination legislation. While my employer hasn’t officially commented on the legal issue debated in Aussie courts, we don’t seek any religious exemption and try to live up to best practice in all these matters.

          I also don’t see how enforcing a particular faith background across the board would do an organisation any favours (the first point of my post), but I’m not sure that outlining clearly articulated competencies is necessarily discrimination in any meaningful sense (obviously employment is a discriminatory process – every selection criterion discriminates in some way). Some positions require people to speak Bahasa, some require people to speak bureaucratese, some require people to speak “Catholic Social Teaching”. Such a requirement could only apply to certain positions and would not necessarily require a particular faith. In most roles in development agencies though I would consider these to be an exceptional requirement. It seems absurd to require an organisational accountant, physio, graphic designer, etc. to profess a particular faith and even moreso to dictate any particular behaviour outside work hours.

          I agree though that the “exclusiveness” of groups with a faith requirement across the board works directly counter to any ability to be a force for good. M. Scott Peck’s “The Different Drum” has some excellent discussion of this.