Not long ago, Karuna Rajanayakam felt trapped in the corporate world.
She knew the way to her office in a glitzy Houston high-rise, but she felt more and more lost every day. She found it difficult to muster passion for the MBA-powered career, which she was utilizing in compensation and finance.
Surely God had a better purpose for her life.
Fulfillment, she believed, would come if she escaped the office to enter vocational ministry. She began weekend classes at Dallas Theological Seminary to learn to help people grow spiritually.
Then her friend Liz Tennen found out about Priority Associates, the marketplace ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Liz became a staff member with PA and helped Karuna discover a new mission field -- her colleagues.
How Jesus Became Important to Karuna
Karuna was 2 when her father brought their Christian family to Houston from Chennai, India, to work as an engineer at Amoco Oil Corp. Settling in a suburb that was home to NASA's scientists and astronauts, the family's conservative values clashed with the secular American culture.
Karuna grew bored with her family's faith.
Rebellion hit full scale for Karuna at the University of Houston, where she passed only 4 classes in 5 academic years. One semester, she never attended class. Expelled by the university, Karuna covered by claiming to her parents that she was switching majors and could only study nursing at community college.
She studied Buddhism, but was reminded of Jesus' uniqueness when a high-school friend, excited about his faith, expressed concern about Karuna's lifestyle. That meeting prompted her to confess years of deceit to her parents.
Their gracious, forgiving response led Karuna to kneel on the living room floor with her father, pray and surrender her life to Christ.
Finding a Place for Faith at Work
With new priorities, she finished her bachelor's degree and MBA in just over 3 years, but soon got consumed by her career.
"Work became my life," Karuna, now 34, says. "I wanted to go as fast as I could up the corporate ladder. My focus was on my promotion, to be acknowledged. The root of the issue was money and power."
Still, Karuna led Bible studies and talked openly about Jesus, easily melding into a city bursting with mega-churches. But she was fearful to broach faith at the office, where she had been thoroughly trained as a human-resource specialist to eschew language that might offend co-workers.
Talking religion at work might mean the loss of a promotion.
"My spiritual life was very private from my work life," she says.
Then Karuna's friend Liz introduced her to Priority Associates' daunting vision of fostering a sensitive Christian witness on every floor of every office complex in Houston. America's fourth-largest city, Houston has 12 major business districts spread over 600 square miles. Only New York City is headquarters to more Fortune 500 companies than Houston, nicknamed the world's energy capital.
Priority Associates hosts monthly lunches designed to help professionals like Karuna see the office as a place where they can have a ministry. Karuna hesitated to invite co-workers until, convicted about her love affair with success, she released her career to God's control.
"I began to see that any provision I have is from God alone," she says, "whether I'm in the corporate world or not."
Seeing God Move in the Life of a Co-Worker
Positive feedback about the lunches, coupled with Karuna's Texan-like ability to strike up conversations with strangers, gave her confidence to initiate spiritual conversations at the office. She felt particularly pressed to talk about her faith in Jesus with a woman who was soon moving to Pakistan with her husband.
The woman grew up religious, but said she and her husband doubted God's existence. Karuna took her to an evening church service to hear a man tell about his conversion to Christianity.
"I've only heard of someone converting from Christianity," she told Karuna. "That was amazing."
Gently weeping, the co-worker hugged Karuna after opening a going-away gift: a Bible and a CD copy of the man's entire story.
"People shy away from discussing religion at work because it is such a personal subject," Karuna says. "But people are generally touched when you start a conversation about faith in a loving, non-threatening or non-preachy way."
Deciding to Leave or Stay
Because of this thriving ministry, Karuna lost the desire to climb the corporate ladder, but developed a negative attitude about work, certain she should go into full-time ministry.
Then God encouraged her at a conference where a man revealed a struggle that mirrored her own. The man's boss had asked him to tone down the "Jesus stuff," but he replied, "That's why I'm here."
Immediately, Karuna thought, Yes, that's why I'm in the corporate world. It's my ministry. My mission field.
It wasn't long until Karuna's commitment was tested. She changed jobs and remembers telling Liz it would be at least a year before she could think of starting a Bible study. But she still brought 5 co-workers to a lunch that featured professional baseball players talking about life after the majors and explaining how they became followers of Jesus.
Afterward, Karuna left a message on Liz's cell phone.
"Oh my gosh, praise God!" Karuna whispered into Liz's voice mail. "That luncheon was awesome and my co-workers loved it. I've got some exciting news. I think that starting a Bible study here will happen sooner than what I was expecting."
It's a message Liz played 5 times that day, beaming ear to ear.
"I've seen such a change in Karuna," says Liz. "She sounded like a secret agent because she was at work, whispering and trying to contain her excitement."
In the car returning to the office, one woman answered Karuna's prayer when she asked, "Why don't we start a Bible study at work?"
"These are the people I want to nurture," says Karuna, who has a renewed passion to do well in the workplace -- only now it is for the glory of God.
"The potential was always there," she says. "Now I see it. The Lord helped me see what work is for and why I'm here."