Church, Culture… And Business

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Twenty years ago Michael Novak, in his book Business as a Calling, provided this snapshot of a particularly prominent Christian business leader:

[The] chairman and chief executive of the largest natural gas company in the United States… some time ago announced publicly his company’s vision: “To become… the most innovating and reliable provider of clean energy worldwide.” His greatest inward satisfaction, however has a somewhat different focus.

“In my own case,” [he] confided, “I grew up the son of a Baptist minister. From this background, I was fully exposed to not only legal behavior but moral and ethical behavior and what that means from the standpoint of leading organizations and people. I was, and am, a strong believer that one of the most satisfying things in life is to create a highly moral and ethical environment in which every individual is allowed and encouraged to realize their God-given potential.”

The company in question was Enron, and its founder and chairman was Ken Lay, a long-standing member of First United Methodist Church in Houston. As we all know, a few years later Lay presided over what was, at the time, the largest accounting fraud and corporate failure in American history. As a direct result, more than 20,000 Enron employees lost their jobs, and in many cases their life savings, and investors lost approximately $75 billion. Lay was subsequently found guilty on 10 counts of securities fraud and related charges.

All of this came to mind as I read James R. Rogers’ recent First Things column, “The Ecclesiastical Failure of Christian America.” Starting from G.K. Chesterton’s (now-dated) quip that America is “a nation with the soul of a church,” Rogers contends that America’s “Judeo-Christian Heritage” allowed the Church to abdicate its responsibility to teach its members how to think and act biblically about (a great many aspects of) moral behavior. More specifically, he says,

American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus… Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop — because they did not need to develop — ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations… In effect, the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture.

In other words, because for so long the Church saw little difference between its own moral understandings and those of the surrounding culture, it let atrophy its crucial calling to instill a solid moral/biblical foundation in its members. Rogers’ further point is that now, when the Church finds the culture’s moral understandings at considerable variance from its own, it has largely lost the intellectual and theological muscle memory to persuasively articulate moral understanding to its own people, much less to a skeptical (hostile?) surrounding culture.

As a long-time Christian business person, I find Rogers’ observations both insightful and tragic. For much of America’s history (and its Puritan pre-history), our cultural norms for business behavior were largely synonymous with Christian norms. In fact, this was true across the entire landscape of ‘secular’ vocations, whether plumber or professor, doctor or dock worker. But as a result, the Church grew complacent and slowly abandoned its role in developing a biblical/theological understanding of vocation in its members. To a considerable degree this was an abdication of the Church’s foundational calling “to equip [God’s] people for works of service” (Eph. 4:12 NIV).

Some time back, I had a conversation about this with Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary. He observed that pastors rarely preach about how Christian faith is meant to infuse and inform the vocational lives of their people — particularly when the vocation is business. In most cases there is simply silence… little or no counsel from the Church about God’s intent for business. Mouw added, “Why is this? As someone who spent twenty years as president of a seminary, I think all of us in the seminary world must admit that we have failed to educate pastors in a way that focuses and equips them to speak beneficially into the vocational lives of their people — especially into the lives of their business people.”

As a result, a great many Christian business people imagine that the practice of business is intrinsically neutral and innocuous — an activity that exists outside the realm of faith and morality. Jeff Van Duzer describes this phenomenon in his book, Why Business Matters to God:

When I met with business leaders I would sometimes ask them how their identity as Christians changed how they did their work. In other words, what difference did it make to their work that they were Christians? Unfortunately, far too frequently, the answer that I got back was some variant of “Well, Jeff, business is business, but I try to be honest and kind.” In other words, everyone does business the same way. There is nothing any more particular about Christian business than there would be about the molecular formula (H2O) that a Christian scientist would use to make water from hydrogen and oxygen. Being a Christian meant doing the same work everyone else was doing but just trying to be nicer about it — a perspective that I have come to describe disparagingly as “Enron with a smile.”

What is implicit in Van Duzer’s encounters with Christian business people is not only that they view the practice of business as morally neutral (“business is business”), but also that they have (unconsciously) let the secular culture’s norms fill the vacuum left by the Church’s silence.

And so we get Ken Lay. And not just Lay. A few years after Lay presided over the largest fraud and failure in American corporate history, that dubious distinction was wrested away by regular Sunday school teacher, and WorldCom CEO, Bernie Ebbers. In fact, back in the early 2000s — when the SEC and Justice Department still thought CEOs should actually be prosecuted for egregious criminal wrongdoing — three of the four most prominent prosecutions for corporate malfeasance were of CEOs who publicly proclaimed their Christian faith. (The third being Richard Scrushy at HealthSouth; fortunately, there is no evidence that Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco was a Christian — otherwise proclaimed believers would have been a perfect four-for-four in responsibility for America’s worst corporate scandals… until, of course, the widespread Wall Street malfeasance that led to the failure of Lehman Brothers, et al.)

Maybe this was just bad luck — and very bad PR — for Christian business people… but I don’t think so. Just like with the culture generally, over the last few decades American business has diverged dramatically from God’s intent. As a particularly important case in point, once one accepts the business culture’s belief that a CEO’s first priority is to protect and boost stock price (i.e., maximize shareholder return), then all sorts of biblically-bad behavior suddenly becomes acceptable. Including, for some, the financial chicanery (fraud) by which Lay and Ebbers and Scrushy inflated their stock prices.

Unfortunately, Lay, Ebbers, and Scrushy weren’t just a few bad apples. The problem is far more systemic. In the absence of teaching from the Church, the behavior of all three flowed from a belief that business lies outside the province of faith and Scripture. Which means that being a believer provides little reason to understand and practice business any differently from the secular culture. As Van Duzer’s experience attests, this is the orientation of a great many Christian business people.

Fortunately, the tide is turning… as the Church begins to re-engage with business and economics and ‘secular’ work generally. One of the most promising developments is the Oikonomia Network — 18 prominent seminaries committed to “equipping pastors to connect biblical wisdom and sound theology to work and the economy.” Among its member seminaries are Asbury, Azusa-Pacific, Bethel, Biola, Dallas Theological, Gordon-Conwell, Indiana Wesleyan, Moody, and Seattle Pacific. One of Oikonomia’s key initiatives is the Economic Wisdom Project — an effort to provide seminarians with a theologically solid foundation for thinking about business and economics.

Another promising development is Made to Flourish — a peer network of pastors sharing best practices on how to equip their people to serve God and people in their workplaces. Already nearly 750 churches are part of Made to Flourish. Its president is Tom Nelson, long-time senior pastor of Christ Community Church outside Kansas City, and author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work.

Interestingly, the catalyst for both these initiatives was a business person. Toward the end of a long and successful career in business, Robert Kern, with his wife Patricia, founded the Kern Family Foundation. Over the last several years, one of the foundation’s primary efforts has been its Faith, Work, and Economics Program. The program’s key thrust is to help pastors and seminarians better understand how God means ‘secular’ vocations, particularly in the realm of business and economics, to serve his purposes. Development of both the Oikonomia Network and Made to Flourish was made possible by funding from Kern.

There are other important initiatives as well. Centers for ‘faith and work,’ or in a few cases, for ‘faith and business,’ have been launched at several Christian schools, at some prominent churches, and in various communities. Academic examples include the Mockler Center at Gordon Conwell, the Center for Christianity in Business at Houston Baptist University, the Marketplace Institute at Regent College, and the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University. Redeemer Presbyterian’s Center for Faith & Work is probably the most prominent church example. And there are community-based centers for ‘faith and work’ in Denver [Denver Institute for Faith & Work], Nashville, and (just launching) in Charlotte. There are, of course, other encouraging initiatives as well.

Closing vignette #1 (where we’ve been): A few years back I asked a friend and accomplished business executive what he would say if his pastor called him and said, ‘Bob, would you join me in attending a workshop on God’s intent for business?’ Bob immediately replied, ‘Nothing.’ I was taken aback, so I said, ‘Really? Nothing? Why is that?’ ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I would have dropped dead from shock!’

Closing vignette #2 (where we may be heading): Paul Graves, another business person friend of mine, recently accepted a (part-time) role as Workplace Ministry Pastor at Cedar Park Church, one of the larger churches in suburban Seattle. As the senior pastor introduced Paul and his new role to the congregation, he said “50 years ago, virtually no church in America had a ‘youth pastor.’ Today every (multi-pastor) church has one. Today, virtually no church in America has a ‘workplace pastor.’ But in another 50 years, every church will have one.”

As the Church and its pastors learn to re-engage with business and economics, hopefully ‘total disbelief’ reactions like that of my friend in the first vignette will give way and more and more Christians in business will get the pastoral support and guidance they need to serve God wisely and well in the marketplace.


Unless otherwise noted, Eventide is not an investor in companies discussed in this or other of our ‘faith and business’ columns, nor is there meant to be an endorsement, explicit or implied, of the entirety of any company’s business model, much less of all of a company’s business practices. Rather, aspects of the business model or practices of particular companies are discussed only to help illustrate contemporary examples of larger ‘faith and business’ topics.

The material provided herein has been provided by Eventide Asset Management, LLC and is for informational purposes only. Eventide Asset Management, LLC serves as investment adviser to one or more mutual funds distributed by Northern Lights Distributors, LLC, member FINRA. Northern Lights Distributors, LLC and Eventide Asset Management are not affiliated entities.

 

This post first appeared on the blog at EventideFunds.com. It was republished here with permission from the author.

 

Featured photo by Jeff Wright on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.