It’s often assumed that faith is a private matter. Fine for your personal life, but less appropriate in the workplace or public life. Yet time and time again, I’ve seen that when faith becomes a public matter – and is expressed as working for the good of one’s neighbor – there are transformative results for the entire community.
Take for Karla Nugent, chief business development officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting. Two year ago, my friend Bryan Chrisman at National Christian Foundation in Colorado connected us. “You gotta meet Karla,” he said. “She’s doing just what you’re talking about at Denver Institute for Faith & Work.” So we met for coffee, and after 45 minutes, I was speechless.
Her company was blossoming and now had 350 employees. She had a deep, intrinsic belief in the dignity of the work of electricians that she employs, and had innovated an apprenticeship program that was employing men with barriers to employment – and turning them into certified journeymen in four years. The stories of life change were astounding.
Soon after I penned an article on her story for Christianity Today. After the article was published, through one of our board members, Chris Horst, the American Enterprise Institute heard about her story. They decided to feature her in a new documentary entitled “To Whom is Given: Business for the Common Good.”
We decided to take a clip of that documentary and tell her story (see clip above). Take a moment to watch her story.
When I watch Karla’s story, for me typical categories begin to break down. She is generous with her money, but she is also generous with her hiring practices. She runs a profitable, high performing business, but is also humble. Her company provides the electrical work to skyscrapers across Denver, yet it also provides dignity to her employees and, for many, a way out of addiction or cyclical poverty. That is, her faith is a public good.
Take another example: Wes Gardner, CEO of Prime Trailer Leasing.
Wes had a simple, yet profound, revelation: “I realized that business can be a platform for serving your neighbor.” He shares the story of the Good Samaritan. Two men passed by the one who had been robbed on the side of the road, but one saw him. The Good Samaritan too had something to do, but instead he stopped and helped.
“I began to see that the best thing we could do to help our neighbor was to create jobs,” Gardner says. “Not just jobs, but good jobs.” And so Wes began to hire people who were undergoing transition or challenges. For example, Benjamin Goff went from working at the state capitol to struggling with alcoholism. A good job in a healthy environment was a key to finding a new way forward. Lauren Vasquez was a teen mom. She needed stable, good paying employment to support her daughter. Struggling to make it, she found the healthy environment she needed at Prime Trailer Leasing. The connection Gardner made with Hope House, a local nonprofit, changed her life.
One last example: James Ruder at L&R Pallet.
James inherited a pallet company from his father. He thought his business had plateaued after not being able to hire a workforce to make pallets. His turnover had reached 300% a year.
“God decided,” remembers Ruder, “to make my business a place of refuge.” Encouraged by his peers in a local group of Christian CEOs, Ruder decided to “give his business over to God” and allow God to work through him to serve the community.
Today, Ruder employees over 80 refugees from Burma – and his turnover has dropped to 5% a year, an unparalleled accomplishment in his industry. Ruder provides English classes to employees, connects his employees to community services, like how to navigate public transportation or finding an apartment, and treats many of them like family.
“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m in the people business. Pallets is the widget we make, but we changed our entire focus to our employees. And that has resulted in a completely different business model and profitability,” Ruder says.
Nugent, Gardner, and Ruder all are defying those who say compassion and profitability are a contradiction. Each business is profitable, and each does so by a unique investment in people.
The point here is simple: faith applied to work can have a transformative impact on entire communities.
For me, this means three things:
For many, faith is a public, social and economic good. And often the most vulnerable in our communities are often the beneficiaries of sacrificial love expressed through work.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.