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Toward Integrating Work and Faith

R&L: You have written many books and articles on the subject of “living out faith at work.” What do you conclude to be the largest impediment to practicing a life of faith in the workplace?

Nash: If I had to pick one thing, the biggest impediment seems to be a lack of spiritual imagination. There has been so little explicit role modeling on how to do this that the world of work can seem far removed from all of the problems and settings in which we normally learn to practice faith and in which the church reinforces the practice of faith. In other words, we learn to imagine the profile of a person offaith at church, with our families, in prayers for peace, in social action to alleviate the plight of the poor. But none of those things occur within a business setting. This results in a kind of cramped imagination about faith at work.

R&L: You mentioned a lack of proper role modeling. Who should be the role models? Business people who exhibit this spiritual imagination or are you thinking of someone else?

Nash: The real issue here is that the role modeling has to come more strongly from within the business setting itself, which means business leaders. That does not mean the “in your face” role modeling of somebody always wearing religion on his or her sleeve. Role modeling is more about engaging in behavior that is compassionate, consistent with conscience, and has some sense of purpose beyond greed or material gain. When people exhibit these behaviors in a tough business environment, others resonate with their values and leadership. But this is not necessarily a totally secular activity just because no one mentioned religion. These are qualities consistent with people of faith who have spiritual strength and a religious worldview that is relevant to their work.

R&L: In your most recent book, Church on Sunday, Work on Monday, you indicate that many business people professing religious faith experience a “radical disconnection between Sunday services and Monday morning activities, describing a sense of living in two worlds that never touch each other.” What are the causes and effects of this “radical disconnection?”

Nash: We interviewed both the clergy and business people about the sense of connection in the interchange they were having with each other over questions of business activity and its religious content. We found that these two groups were talking past each other, and we discovered an intriguing set of basic causes for this disconnect. The first was a seismic difference in their worldview about the meaning of capitalism and profit. For the clergy, profit was a clear sign of “me-first” self-interest, materialistic and therefore not Christian. To the businessperson, profit was a result of actions that were partially other-oriented combined with legitimate pursuit of self-interest, like serving a customer, or creating jobs, or donating part of the proceeds to charity.The second major difference was present in their language. The clergy’s language reflects what I would call a subtractive approach. They would solve problems by emphasizing taking away things, such as money, from the “haves” as a means of providing benefit to the disadvantaged. The business people used an additive language. They would speak of providing jobs and creating valued services and products to increase standard of living. There were also turf battles about who had the ultimate authority over moral economic interpretations. Finally, there were deep differences in their role modeling. Clergy identified with suffering and outward weakness, business people with leading and strength. We urgently need to understand these differences and address them. The business people tended to stereotype clergy as failing to understand business, and church professionals tended to stereotype business people as failing to care. Right from the start, they have no common ground from which to address important religious concerns about business.

R&L: Based on your research, what do you consider to be the prevailing opinion of the clergy regarding business and of business people regarding the church?

Nash: While I stress that not everyone characterized it this severely, many of the business people we interviewed considered the clergy to be fuzzy-minded, impractical, using big words that do not really apply to anything, and thinking they have solutions based on theories lacking feasibility that they see in the media. The clergy had a real concern that business represented the promotion of materialism through things like advertising and that business people were really rewarded for being out for themselves. Each of those worldviews contains an element of truth. Unfortunately, plenty of confirmation for these stereotypes exists. But still these are only partial pictures that have not been well thought through on either side. Business people and the clergy really need to listen to each other, so that their actual voices can begin to fill in that picture with the depth of their faith and experience. It is important that churches and congregations begin to develop the expertise and the resources for looking at economic issues— not so that the clergy may become economic experts, but so that they can understand how they can support their congregation in these matters.

R&L: On what do the clergy and business people base their opinions?

Nash: The clergy tend to form their opinions on a couple sources of knowledge. One is advertising and media portrayals of business people. These portrayals are usually romanticized caricatures (as villains or heroes) that are not encountered quite the same way in the business world. Real people have more nuances than that. The second way is through economic positional statements from the denomination, seminaries, or theologians in which business is treated at a macro level in absolute terms. These positional statements tend to be rather anti-business. The whole issue revolves around an impression that a person who is for capitalism is against the worker. It can become a crypto-communism of sorts. For the business people, the source of in formation is very different. They do not read denominational statements, but are encountering pastors who either show no interest in their business life or preach sermons that continually blame business for promoting a cultural materialism that has harmful effects on children and family dynamics. Business peoples’ other key source of religious points of view on the economy has been through investor groups that represent various religious communities. For a long time, most of these investor groups honed in on a single issue that they opposed and recommended subtracting this activity from a company’s strategy. Not surprisingly, they were perceived as anti-business. Church management practices reinforced this perception. Some business people climbed on their high horses, citing the many examples of financial mismanagement and poor bookkeeping in churches, bad benefits policies, sexual and gender discriminations, and racial segregation as reasons to disregard the clergy’s views on business. Why listen to an incompetent practitioner? Even the social services provided by a corporation appeared more competent than poorly executed church programs.

R&L: At the end of the book, you propose a new integration model in which the church and business can work together. How does this integration model work and what is it meant to achieve?

Nash: We have tried to suggest strategies that are sensitive to the very important problem of not appearing to undermine diversity in the corporation, a requirement by law and supported by all whom we interviewed who said, “I’m spiritual but religious at work.” The first step is to avoid espoused presentations of religion in the workplace—claims of membership, religious labels, sectarian symbols and practices only set up fences between believers and nonbelievers. Rather the model calls for the church to promote a personalized, catalytic level of religion, offering lessons and support for business people’s experience of God and personal tests of faith in the workplace. This means dignifying rather than denying their identity as business people. Under this model the church should be close, but not too close to business. As history has proven time and time again, the church tends to become corrupted when it is too directly involved in a business’ economic interests. Every pastor should not start weighing in on every economic decision at his or her congregants’ businesses. The church should also be a foundational resource in helping business people and the community in general understand the life and practical methods of daily prayer before, during, and after work. The business community have great interest in foundational religious matters, such as the concept of calling or the nature of grace, but less interest in having the clergy tell them specifically what their policy should be on a particular issue, such as labor relations in Asia.

R&L: Is there anything that the clergy and business people can offer each other in terms of their respective work responsibilities?

Nash: We found that many clergy consider management tasks their least favored part of their responsibilities. They find themselves responsible for managing human resources, budgets, planning, and buildings and facilities, but they dislike it immensely. We asked how often their faith perspective helped shape that management process. They looked at us like we were out of our minds. They had never before articulated the issue that way. We asked if they ever saw management as an occasion of service to others. Walking into most church buildings as a stranger, it is challenging to try to find a particular room, a receptionist, or even the church’s office door. The stranger feels confirmed as an outsider until some initiate shows him or her around. A simple act of greeting strangers can seem to be a trivialized dramatization of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but it is actually a very important indicator of a general attitude. At a business institution people tend to go out of their way to receive strangers well, posting clear signs and encouraging employees to greet, help, and direct strangers. Obviously, the business setting displays the attitude of service. The clergy tended to interpret this by pointing out that the only reason businesses display such a stranger-friendly environment is because they are after the strangers’ money. Rather than dismissing the service techniques of good businesses, most churches could learn a lot from human resource and facilities management practices in business.

Another area business people can offer a lot to churches is in conflict resolution. The clergy generally dislike and avoid conflict inside a congregation, ending up with horrible staff problems or an atmosphere of hostility between differing factions in the church. Business people have often developed techniques for resolving those kinds of internal conflicts early. Business people tend to be good peacekeepers, voicing opposing views and coming to practical solutions.

Conversely, clergy can help business people in many ways. They can provide an opportunity for the exploration of faith by expressing interest, encouragement, and asking well-informed questions.They can share a sense of concern over common management issues or community problems without going straight for the other person’s pocketbook. They can show up at meetings of lay groups in which they discuss their faith and work, bless the high schoolers entering their first job and help them understand the role that hope and love must play for work to be creative. Over time it is easy for business people to round every edge just for the sake of peace in the corporation, even though the corporate health suffers when wrong-doing is present. Clergy can help reawaken the voice of conscience in the hardened corporate survivor, but rarely through scolding.

We see a business community seeking to find the sacred self at work, support community, operate in harmony with the patterns signifying a world that is working rightly from areligious point of view. For churches to support this search, they must conduct a radical revisiting of the practices that are silencing dialogue about faith and work.

R&L: In Believers in Business, one of your former books, you interviewed many evangelical Christians who were chief executive officers of large companies. How did their worldview help or hinder their ability to manage a profitable enterprise?

Nash: It both helped and hindered in a good way. Faith really made a positive difference in these executives’ business relationships. It helped them treat people at all levels of an organization equally and, thereby, avoid perpetuating the aristocratic or plutocratic hierarchy that pervades so many business cultures. For a number of these executives, the whole purpose of business was filtered through the screen of “am I working out the purposes of the Lord?” They had the idea that their purpose as business executives was not only to turn a profit, but to do something that actually created value in society for other people. This realization helped them significantly in making difficult choices about what business to go into, how much debt to incur, what employee policies to institute. It gave them the strength to take the heat and not blame others when things turned sour. Many proved to be ahead of their time, because they were able to anticipate a market need and were not afraid to try to address this need. I happen to believe capitalism—when it is played fairly by the law—rewards value creation. Over and over again I saw this principle as manifest in these executives’ lives. Their faith also made a difference because of its orientation, tending toward seeing God even in the small details. So these people were extraordinarily thorough and accurate in what they did. They saw this as part of the discipline of their faith and that, of course, was a performance advantage for them. I should also emphasize that not every practice traceable to some people’s religious worldview is good business practice. There are plenty of examples of marketplace lying and cheating in the name of the Lord. Those we interviewed were particularly critical of such “believers” in business. Just because a person is holding himself or herself accountable to God does not mean he or she is not accountable for the book-keeping too.

R&L: You suggest that these executives face creative tensions involving their faith and their business practices. What was considered to be the most significant tension in terms of its potential to cause a businessperson to compromise his or her faith?

Nash: The one they felt most strongly was the obligation to bear witness. They defined witnessing as a literal professing of their faith—explicitly attributing responsibility for every decision to Jesus and implying that anyone who disagreed was wrong. Their common sense would caution them that these explicit statements were probably going to be counter-productive and they searched for other witnessing strategies. But that was a great tension for them. Some tried to resolve this tension by concluding that witnessing does not have to be in explicitly talking about Jesus, but it can also be in living out faith in Jesus. Then if somebody asks them who they are and where they come from, they use that occasion as the opportunity to talk about their faith. Another huge tension they felt was the business emphasis on short-term thinking. A religious worldview stretches to infinity. They felt that to be pressured so sharply within an economic system for quarterly results was really working against the cosmic harmony that they were seeking in their business lives.