Businesses that build foundations on faith

American business people are getting religion. And this time, it has nothing to do with a management fad. It's the real thing.

The Bible and prayer are making a comeback in the workplace. Deeply religious executives, once quiet about their faith, are speaking up about where they stand.

"Ten years ago, if I would have brought out any of these topics, certainly in the Northeast, I would have been laughed at," says David Miller, a former investment banker and now president of the Avodah Institute, aPrinceton, N.J., organization helping people integrate faith and work. "But now it's not at all embarrassing to talk about God questions."

"No one knows whether there are more Christian executives in the late 1990s than there were 10 years ago or 20 years ago," writes Perry Pascarella, former editor in chief of Industry Week magazine, "but more and more leaders are openly expressing their beliefs and striving to follow biblical principles as they lead their companies.... I believe that the next Reformation will be led, in large part, by the business community."

The signs are telling. In the past three years, high-profile executives including Amway President Dick DeVos and ServiceMaster chairman William Pollard have published books on the subject. Mr. Pascarella's own book, "Christ Centered Leadership: Thriving in Business by Putting God in Charge," has just appeared. Groups like the Christian Businessmen's Committee and the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International report growing memberships.

These individuals and groups offer a remarkably similar message: Faith and business are not separate. They're inextricably linked.

"Christianity is not a faith where you drop out and the world looks like a Hallmark card and you can find God in the sunset," says Michael Prewitt, chairman of a marketing-communications firm in Hopewell, N.J., and a 1999 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. "There's a lot about business that's sticky and messy and not easy. And Christianity calls us to be right back in the center of all that."

The principles of Christian behavior are not sectarian, these executives argue. Employees can buy into them no matter what their religion. "It's actually quite easy to institute and promote biblical principles without having to be religious," says Mirko Vukovich, president of a Littleton, Colo., company, that owns and runs 35 mobile-home parks around the country. "We can't function as a society without some rules of cooperation."

Within the next three months, he plans to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in the offices and club houses of all his mobile-home parks.

"I go around and pray with employees," says George Seaberg, chairman and chief executive of Seaberg Industries, a metalworking company in Rock Island, Ill. "It works. It really works!"

Soon after launching his company in 1973, Mr. Seaberg was driving to Peoria when he noticed a hitchhiker by the side of the road. "He just gave me the most forlorn look. I almost pulled over at the next exit and went back for him," he recalls. Instead, he promised God he would pick up the next hitchhiker he saw. There was none during the rest of that trip. But the next day, less than two blocks from his office, he saw a young man trying to catch a ride, sporting a ponytail, dirty Levi's, a dingy T-shirt, and a cynical look on his face.

"I automatically pulled over because that's what I told the Lord I would do." The man turned out to be a college dropout but mathematical whiz, whom Seaberg soon hired. Today, he's the company's vice president.

"The key is to be willing to follow God's nudging," he explains. "And the blessings flow."

Promoting 'good'

Christian business people try to walk a careful line between being open about their faith and banging people over the head with it.

"We are not promoting religion," says Scott Morrison, president of The Power of One, an Orem, Utah, company that creates T-shirts with uplifting messages. "What we want to promote are the principles of good."

Many Christ-professing executives say that much of their ministry at work is listening, not preaching. "I don't think this movement is about running about the office place with slogans," says Mr. Miller, the former investment banker. "If anything, it's refreshingly open-minded."

On the other hand, these executives aren't wishy-washy. They set rules and hold their employees accountable. If they don't perform, they're fired. "I think that's the justice side of God's love," says Mr. Vukovich. "If anyone's surprised they're being fired, then you've failed. Usually they fire themselves."

Religious resistance

Nevertheless, using Christian language in business makes many people cringe, these executives admit. Shortly before writing his book, "The Soul of the Firm," Mr. Pollard of ServiceMaster had a shareholder publicly challenge the idea that a for-profit service should call itself a vehicle for God's work.

While respectful of that opinion, Pollard sticks to his guns.

At its headquarters in suburban Chicago, the company (owner of Terminix, TruGreen-ChemLawn, and other services) has erected a marble statue of Jesus washing a disciple's feet. But it's careful to call it a representation of an historic act rather than solely a religious symbol.

In 1992, employees of a St. Paul, Minn., manufacturing firm struggled for months to revise the company's direction statement. Eventually, the company dropped a reference to the "will of God" although it still refers to "God's purpose" and "Judeo-Christian values."

Why the sensitivity? "It's the hypocrisy," author Pascarella says. Too many people have seen Christians use such language on Sundays but do something quite different Monday through Friday, he adds. Others blame televangelists for the general skepticism.

Still others point to fundamentalists. "The Christian right has somehow made such an indelible impression on society in its bold, partisan use of Christ and the Bible that when we hear that language from another quarter we're often confused," says Mr. Prewitt, the New Jersey marketer.

In fact, the Christ-in-business movement represents a broad spectrum of Christian thought and has sprung up independently of any church. "Many of these leaders with whom I've talked lamented that they hadn't received much help from their churches," Pascarella says. "So often the word from the church is: 'It's evil out there.' "

Christ-professing executives say just the opposite. "More than 50 percent of our waking life is at work; we spend less than 2 percent in the pew," says Mr. Miller of the newly formed Avodah Institute. "My guess is that God is interested in where we're spending the majority of our time." (Avodah means both "work" and "worship" in Old Testament Hebrew.)

A prayerful turnaround

In 1992, his metal-working business foundering, Seaberg watched his net worth sag to a negative $389,000. The bank wanted him to repay his $1 million note in 30 days. Creditors called so often he found it hard to concentrate on anything else. "Lord, let me do one thing today," he recalls praying before starting work. "I was given peace of mind. I'd get some work just when I needed it."

By the end of the year, the bank had forgiven $153,000 of the loan and Seaberg was through the crisis. Today, his net worth is into seven figures.

The point isn't the money, he's quick to add. "That's the biggest myth there is." But prayer does lead to spiritual growth, which is far more important.

Prayer "is a lot bigger than 'Make this happen' or 'Please, God, make that happen,' " says Prewitt. "It's about watching God at work in much bigger ways than we imagine."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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