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Competing values

Faith-based groups move to help professionals close the gap between personal beliefs and corporate behavior

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2002

With his Silicon Valley firm in a deep financial hole, "Tom" faced a quandary. His partner in a joint venture was pressing him to close a deal with their top customer by promising results that couldn't be assured. Tom didn't feel right about it, but closing the deal would put his company – and his family – back on firm footing.

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In distress, he brought the situation to a monthly gathering of top executives who discuss problems within a spiritual context. A vigorous discussion on management and on what the Bible had to offer gave him what he needed – the clarity not to shade the truth. "I'll be able to live with myself," he told the group. His company lost the deal.

As the country reels under the impact of unethical behavior in corporate suites, it's the kind of connection between personal faith and corporate action that many Americans wish more business leaders would make. Yet people at all levels in the workplace see a disconnect between their religious teachings and the business world, where a different set of rules often operates.

In a recent national poll of 500 business leaders, sponsored by Lutheran Institutions in Minnesota, 70 percent said their colleagues try to obey the laws rather than skirt them; but 55 percent had seen unethical actions in their own company, and 60 percent said their competitors had done something unethical to gain an advantage.

Some faith-based groups are now trying to close that gap and help individuals lead more integrated lives as well as foster greater integrity in the workplace. And according to one study, a majority of Americans see religion as central to recovering the country's moral compass.

"Our culture has fallen into a kind of moral vertigo – we value tolerance so much that we don't know how to talk to each other about what is right and good," says the Rev. Kevin Phillips, director of the Business Leadership and Spirituality Network (BLSN), in Mountain View, Calif.

"Our business leaders exist in this vacuum, and don't have the opportunity to explore what is driving them, the limits of their ambition," he adds. "It's difficult to discern what is right because they are out of practice."

In a recent focus group of business leaders gathered for a study on faith in the workplace, for example, a leader acquainted with Enron executives remarked that they didn't consider that they were making a right-or-wrong decision. "It was a financial, tax-angle decision," he said.

Sometimes, people just do what they know is wrong, says William Messenger, who heads BLSN's Boston division. "But compartmentalization is also a problem. You may be a very religious and moral person at church and with your family ... but at work you don't even recognize that what you're facing is an ethical decision."

After 15 years in business, including a period as a chief operating officer, Mr. Messenger was ordained in the Episcopal church, and is focusing his ministry on connecting the two worlds. As director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., he sponsors classes for businesspeople and pastors.

Churches, synagogues need to do more

One serious problem, he says, is that churches and synagogues aren't helping their members apply the ethical principles of their faith to their work. In one survey, 90 percent of churchgoers couldn't remember a single sermon having to do with the workplace over the past year.

Unless churches recognize they are not meeting this need and accept this challenge, he adds, they will not grow. Many people are instead looking to the spirituality movement that has gathered momentum in the corporate world. In the recent poll of executives, 54 percent said they were religious and 36 percent said they were "spiritual but not religious," a much higher proportion than in the general population.

"A lot of the spirituality movement's basic message is, 'You're a good person, just love yourself more.' I don't think that is going to challenge insider trading or cooking the books," Messenger says.