Christian business leaders often wonder how best to manage in a way that glorifies God. Those bold enough to lead businesses these days face immense challenges. Millennials make new demands compared to their parents and grandparents. Global business, artificial intelligence and robots all shift jobs away from our friends and neighbors. Data security, privacy, diversity and equality present ethical challenges for which no one really knows the answer. Senior executive salaries have grown far faster than the typical worker, creating an historic earnings gap. Each of these challenges call on Christians to lead their organizations in a way that reflects their faith. They know that the manner in which they lead affects the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of their employees, customers and competitors. Alas, both Christian and non-Christian business leaders have too often turned a blind eye to unethical behavior in order to further the financial goals of their organizations. Too many business leaders have signaled to the world that winning on the business battlefield is separate from faithful service to God.
Every Christian leader is challenged to balance faith and business. In some respects, leaders of non-profit organizations face even greater faith challenges than those in for-profit companies, as they balance the needs of many different stakeholders, such as beneficiaries, donors, funding agencies, the local community, and the environment. Christian business leaders know they need to do more than make ethical decisions or follow the law; every non-Christian business school teaches that. But not all understand that Christian business leadership requires more than making money to put in the offering plate. God does not need our money; he needs us to run our businesses as service to Him.
Marion Wade, a Christian Business Leader who Lived his Faith
Marion Wade is one example of a Christian businessman who built and ran a business to serve Jesus. Wade grew up in a broken home and after several false starts decided to launch a small business with a friend in 1929. He wrote about the experience in a book, The Lord is My Counsel. From the first day, the company was destined to offer a special example of Christian leadership. “The name we chose almost evolved by itself. As individuals and as a company, we were working for the Lord—we were servants of the Master. The word ‘ServiceMaster’ struck us all as perfect in every area.” Decades later, his little company has grown to 7,000 locations with 46,000 employees and includes several well-known brands including Terminix and Merry Maids. By any measure it is a commercial success. But that is only half the story. In his book, Wade described a tension he faced every day. “The head of any corporation big or small has the responsibility of conducting his business along lines that will keep his employees working and keep his stockholders happy. But this is not his first responsibility. His first responsibility is to conduct his business along lines that will be pleasing to the Lord. And he must do so not because of any rewards he hopes to receive but because, for a Christian, there is no other way.”
Wade’s struggle to lead his business seems to reflect Solomon’s conclusion in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26: “A person can do nothing better than … find satisfaction in their own toil … To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.” Business (and personal) success comes from working to please God. This is not the “name it and claim it” gospel. Instead, the Christian defines success as serving God. While profit might be included as part of that success, is not the definition of success. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Paul does not suggest that we fallen Christians will always “get it right”. Rather, he admonishes us to lead businesses for the purpose of glorifying God.
Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:9: “Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.” Paul worked not for personal glory (though that came), and not merely to fund his preaching (though that happened), but as a form of worship and service. His work was a method of glorifying God, just as his teaching, healing and writing.
How Executives Balance Faith and Work
Laura Nash taught business at Harvard Business School and Boston University. She researched the question of Christian leadership by interviewing sixty-five U.S. senior business executives who identified themselves and evangelical Christians. She identified three different ways they described how they balance faith and leadership:
The Generalist – Claims there is no unique difficultly in making business decisions as a Christian. Thinks “I am a Christian even if my business acts in a manner that might seem inappropriate. As a Christian, I am forgiven, not perfect.”
The Justifier – Believes his business or material success demonstrate that he must be exhibiting the right balance between faith-based and business-driven considerations. Thinks “God is blessing my ardent pursuit of business success, so God is obviously pleased with the way I conduct business.”
The Seeker – Acknowledges that business and Christian ethics do at times conflict and seeks wisdom and courage to make potentially unpopular decisions. Thinks, “I have hard choices in front of me, so I must pray and consult with other Christians so that I consistently place God’s honor first.
Nash was most impressed by Seekers. In talking with them, she found that they regularly balance seven tensions as they strive to work as Christians in business leadership:
- The love of God and the pursuit of profit
- Love and the competitive drive
- People’s needs and profit obligations
- Humility and the ego of success
- Family and work
- Charity and wealth
- Faithful witness and the secular city
In her discussions with these successful business leaders, Nash heard Seekers recognizing when a balance is called for, and seeking to serve God in the situation.
How Exceptional Business Leaders Can Lead as a Way of Glorifying God
Reflecting on the example of Marion Wade and Nash’s research, it seems great Christian business leaders manage to glorify God through the decisions they make. Christian leaders develop for themselves guiding principles that help them face the challenges posed by business. They:
- Acknowledge God. The people around a Christian business leader know that she does her daily work to glorify God. She works as if her real customer (or employee) were Jesus—just as Marion Wade served God by cleaning floors in the best way he could. The Christian leader does not merely earn profits to later put in the offering plate—she understands that here work is an offering, and so relates to others in the course of her work as if she is relating to God.
- Pray for competitors. Jesus told us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). We can apply this command to the competitive business world, as well: Jesus would have us pray for those who seek to destroy our business. A Christian leader wants to succeed in her endeavors, but also prays that God would bless her “enemies” as well. She prays that God be glorified, not merely that she adds to the bottom line.
- Watch for opportunities to seek God’s guidance. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is always looking for ways to trip up the business leader. A Christian leader learns to watch for decisions that reflect one of Nash’s seven tensions, and she learns to pray and seek biblical guidance in those cases.
- Serve. Great business leaders serve rather than lord their authority over others, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt 20, 28). Jack Welsh is one of the most celebrated business leaders of our time. Though not a Christian, he famously drew his organization chart with the customer at the top, then front-line employees…and finally the CEO at the bottom. Even a non-Christian understands that great leaders serve, not dictate to their people. While “servant leader” is not unique to being a Christian, it is way of thinking that will help a Christian businessperson make the right decision that serves the kingdom of God.
Jesus Wants Christians to Revolutionize Business
Take some liberty with me, expanding on what we know of Paul to imagine the sort of business he might have run. Can you imagine Paul making sloppy tents? We know he was a man who introduced himself as the best of the best—“a pharisee among pharisees”. He delivered some of the most eloquent and effective sermons of all time and wrote some of the most widely-read literature ever published. It is unfathomable Paul would make tents that were anything less than great. He was likely a great personnel manager, too, caring for his tentmaking co-workers, just as he did for Timothy in his church work. For Paul, making tents was more than providing for his physical needs. For Paul, tentmaking was an aspect of his ministry, a testimony of his dedication to Jesus.
Jesus wants every Christian business leader to serve like Paul, Solomon or Marion Wade. He wants leaders who make business decisions, interact with competitors, follow government regulations and lead their employees as a method of glorifying Him. He will give commercial success to some and not to others. Whatever commercial success He allows, Jesus wants leaders to work as if He were their Chairman of the Board. He wants them to serve customers and manage employees as if serving the Lord Himself. Jesus lays out a principle in the story in Matthew 24, when the King explained to those who received an inheritance, “for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”. For, the king said, “‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” When great Christian managers treat their employees with respect, Jesus counts it as serving Him.
Coming back to the opening question, why is Christian leadership important to business? The answer is straightforward. Imagine a business community in which Christian executives, middle managers and front-line workers strive to worship God through their daily work. Businesses run for God’s glory would not always make the right decisions, but God would be glorified when leaders who face challenges acknowledge Him, pray and seek His guidance, and turn the situation into a service opportunity. Business is where Christian ministry happens best. Christians spend a few hours a week in church (and non-Christians maybe an hour at Easter.) If Christians want to be part of Jesus’ revolution, then they need to implement that revolution where people spend their waking hours—at work. Christian business leaders could be more influential in the world than ministers…when they learn to lead as if every decision is a chance to glorify God. Ministry at church is like salt in the shaker. Salt needs to be on the food; ministry needs to happen in the business world. How can that vision become reality? By developing a business major, Sattler College has taken up the opportunity and responsibility to help—by raising up a revolutionary force of leaders-in-training who practice serving God through their decisions.
Dr. Oliver holds a master’s from MIT and a Doctor of Management from Case Western. He taught in the undergraduate and master’s programs at Brandeis, UMass Amherst, Tufts, Gordon College, and UC Irvine. Dr. Oliver has founded four companies and invested as a partner in a venture capital firm. He has consulted to senior leadership of big business, working with Bain & Company and KPMG. In addition, he has consulted to government agencies, bringing the benefit of commercial-sector experience in outsourcing, business process improvement and using data to improve management decision making. He has served as CFO of three companies and on the boards of three commercial companies and four non-profits.