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Affirming the Relevance of Religious Faith to Business Practice

By James L. Nolan

A talk presented to the Fourth Annual Forum of the International Association of Jesuit Business Schools, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California, July 29, 1996


It was about 2 years ago at a meeting of the Washington DC chapter of the Woodstock Business Conference that we were discussing the topic of loyalty. The meeting began as it always does with a reading of the Mission Statement, then a reading from Scripture --- the story of Judas trying to return the 30 pieces of silver he had been paid for betraying Jesus to the High Priest. We had a period of silence and then a rich discussion that included thoughts of how Judas found himself out of favor with his new team. Then we took up the topic of loyalty. The readings sent out prior to the meeting had included a Wall Street Journal article on investment advisors who were paid substantial bonuses to leave their old firms and take their customers to new firms.

The discussion turned to how they hired bright young people, trained them in the business, and just as the employees became valuable they jumped ship and went off to a competitor --- it just isn't fair. Next, some told how they had been working with the same outfit for 20 years, rising through the ranks, and then the firm gets acquired and they are looking at involuntary reemployment --- it just isn't fair. Then, we heard of a different dilemma. One man was running a company, bringing people along, getting them invested in the firm and the bright prospects for the future as a part of his team when a head hunter called and offered him an opportunity with a competing organization. He took it -- I had to consider my family.

At the conclusion of the meeting, there was no real resolution. As the meeting closed, the group decided to look at a new topic for the next month.

At the topic for the meeting the next month was wisdom. Again, there was a reading of the mission statement, a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures about young Solomon's prayer for wisdom, again a period of silence, and then discussion. The meeting then turned over to the person who was to lead the discussion of the topic but a man at the end of the table said "Wait a minute." He reported that he had just flown in from St. Louis and because of the trip had not planned to attend the meeting. Then he said that because of what had just happened, he had to come. He had just returned from visiting his facilities in St. Louis where he announced his decision to close two plants. He stressed that given all the financial information he and his top management were convinced the business decision was correct. Nevertheless he was bothered. He said the discussion about loyalty the month before told him he had to be the one to go and deliver the news. He had to look his people in the eye. He determined that he had to carry out the closing in a manner that was best for the employees, the shareholders, and others. As a consequence his company extended medical benefits, provided outplacement help, and where possible attempted to absorb the people laid off within the organization. The decision and action weighed so on his mind that he had to come back and report to the Woodstock Business Conference group what had happened.

Contrast this story with that of Robert Allen of AT&T who in January of this year announced the layoff of 40,000 over the next three years; 28,000 people are slated to lose their jobs this year.. Mr. Allen explained that these huge personnel cuts were needed so that AT&T could compete in the new unregulated telecommunications environment, maintaining its position of dominance in long distance and making inroads in local telephone service.

Business analysts agreed that AT&T had to take drastic action in order to contend in the new competitive environment. However, a firestorm of criticism descended on Mr. Allen who became, at least for a time, the very symbol of corporate greed.

The press sharply questioned the fairness of Allen's firing others. News stories recalled some of Allen's earlier business moves which were termed major blunders and miscues that had jeopardized AT&T's competitiveness in the first place. They noted that Allen and others at the upper echelons of AT&T management who made these blunders were lavishly compensated in sharp contrast to the 40,000 co-workers who will be on the street. When asked how he felt about the fairness of his generous compensation in light of all this, Allen responded:

Did I make the decision [in order] to increase my personal wealth? Hell, no. Increasing shareowner value is the right incentive for me to have at AT&T. Is it the right incentive for me to affect 40,000 people? Is it fair? Hell, I don't know if it's fair. I don't make the rules.

This account of a recent significant business decision illustrates the complex and often contradictory demands placed upon today's business executives and managers. Similar decisions of perhaps lesser magnitude but, nevertheless, identical impact on individuals, families, and communities experiencing "downsizing" or layoffs have been and are being made daily.

Mr. Allen's business decision was also a moral decision, affecting himself and his upper management, the 40,000 employees who will lose their jobs, the remaining AT&T employees who, Allen says, should have much better long-term prospects, the shareholders of the most widely held business in the world, and telephone customers. One way or another, all of us.

Today, business demands constant dedication on the part of the busy executive who must attend ceaselessly to the enterprise in order to keep it viable and growing, to meet competition, and to make a profit. The executive must account for his or her decisions to the board of directors, the shareholders, outside financial analysts, reporters, government regulators, employees, and other stakeholders.

A massive organization like AT&T exemplifies the fact that the business enterprise itself plays a fundamental role not only in the lives of its employees but also in our public life. As executives and entrepreneurs address the needs of their companies, as they evaluate, judge, and act on behalf of their businesses, they are constantly making moral decisions that affect not only themselves and their organizations but also the broader community and society at large. Corporate executives and managers face risks and problems in today's business environment that place extraordinary additional demands on them for leadership, and indeed for moral leadership.

Many moral issues confront business leaders. Some involve questions of compensation equity, conflicts of interest, diversity, sexual harassment, discrimination. Others involve financial reporting, tax cheating, insider trading, industrial espionage, bribe-giving or bribe-taking, embezzlement or other white-collar crime. Moreover managers, and their companies, may be held accountable for all manner of injuries to individuals or to the environment resulting from malfeasance or negligence by employees.

As educators of management professionals, you know better that others that managers and business leaders must concern themselves with increasingly changing, ever more complex issues as they mediate conflicting claims to financial and social prosperity. In doing so they draw upon their own personal convictions, beliefs, and experience about what is the right thing to do. Whether or not an individual is able to articulate the particular ethical or moral values involved, these values, like gyroscopes, provide the guides which ground an executive's decision. For better or worse, these values also shape the corporate culture itself, the structures and systems which support the enterprise.

When questioned about a particular business decision, most executives are unable to articulate fully the moral and ethical values grounding his or her decisions. Remember Mr. Allen who said, "Is it fair? Hell, I don't know if its fair. I don't make the rules." Some business executives would deny that moral and ethical values have anything to do with business decisions and actions. As we know many deny that religious faith has anything to do with business. They maintain that the world of business and commerce must be divorced from the life of faith. A business executive confirmed this at a recent meeting I attended of business leaders and local pastors from several churches. He said: "A person I employ told me Christianity has no place in business. I could not accept that but I lacked the words to refute his claim."

The sad fact is that those who believe that their faith should impact their lives as business persons find little help from their churches or congregations. "I see little connection between the sermons I hear on Sunday and my life the rest of the week," another executive complained. A third said: "I work in a dehumanizing business where the bottom line at the end of the day is everything. There has to be more to life. Sunday does not connect to the rest of the week for me."

The professional church people at this meeting acknowledged that they do not understand and cannot speak to the aspirations and yearnings of people in business. "I don't have the vocabulary to communicate with business people," one minister confessed. "I need to rely on metaphors," she said.

Anecdotal accounts such as these are reinforced by the research of sociologists investigating ethics in business. [See for example, Robert Wuthnow's God and Mammon in America and Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.] People are hungry to figure out how to relate faith and work but have trained themselves to bracket or compartmentalize the two. The research also suggests, however, that easy acceptance of a world where faith and work are sealed off from each other actually runs counter to the yearnings of today's business men and women.

The problem resulting from this bracketing is particularly acute today. The traditional institutional carriers of values and morals in our country - - the churches, educational institutions, and government - - have faltered as prime agencies for moral formation and reinforcement. So, business and the individuals who influence the corporate culture now assume central importance as the bearers of moral values and mediators of moral behavior, whether they want to or not. By default then, the schools that educate our professional managers now may have to shoulder additional responsibilities to aid business leaders to recognize and address ethical and moral issues.

Given the ethical conflicts in contemporary American business and the apparently limited impact of the institutional church, how is it possible for a business person to move beyond bracketing and denial, hunger and restlessness? Paradoxically, spiritual yearning and materialism simultaneously mark our society. Can the Judeo-Christian tradition, address the apparent gap between one's faith and one's experience in the marketplace?

It can and does. The Judeo-Christian tradition sees business as a calling, a vocation. This tradition highlights the fact that business persons are stewards, entrusted with of God's creation, when they employ their talents and skills and manage the assets at their disposal for the creation and distribution of wealth, employment, products, and services. To answer the call, the manager needs to be able to perform with skill and competence. Hopefully, he or she can do so with peace of mind. But too often, sleepless nights follow the pressure filled days of business judgements, decisions, and actions. In their personal and business lives, many people hunger for a wholeness that unites religious, ethical, and business values in an authentic way. How can people be helped to recognize and address the desire for unity and integration?

The Woodstock Business Conference is a national movement of spiritual and social renewal for the business community. Its aim is to help business leaders focus on their work as a call from God and move toward greater human authenticity. Its mission is to establish and lead a national organization of business executives to explore the Judeo-Christian tradition in order:

  • to assist the individual executive to integrate faith, family and professional life;
  • to help the leadership of the firm to develop a corporate culture consistent with Judeo-Christian values; and,
  • to aid business leaders and corporations to exercise a beneficial influence upon society at large.

In the course of a two-year pilot period of testing various methods and approaches, an effective process emerged which is now in use in chapters in Washington, Detroit, Long Island, Boston, and Omaha. This process is being currently offered to groups in other cities.

Achieving the threefold goals of the Woodstock Business Conference requires continuing, cumulative effort. Progress does not happen automatically; we have to be giving thought and paying attention to what we are doing. The Woodstock Business Conference process has a design, concrete steps or stages, which are the practical means to the desired goals.

Woodstock Business Conference participants address the practical day-today issues confronting busy business executives in monthly chapter meetings within a framework which facilitates focus, engagement, and informed action. They take care to identify values consistent with their religious commitments, to the end that decisions and actions will be based upon ethical principles informed by and growing out of their religious faith. The format is a helpful process, not only for the meetings themselves, but also for use between meetings by individuals reflecting on their daily work and making practical decisions about work, particularly where there are ethical implications. The approach and the program of monthly meetings are deceptively simple but each step is vital to support an atmosphere of faith inspired reflection.

  1. Prayer.
  2. Reading of the Mission Statement. The Mission Statement states the three goals listed earlier.
  3. Scripture: A passage from Scripture related to the topic under consideration is read aloud, followed by a period of silent reflection of about five minutes, and then sharing of insights on the Scripture.
  4. Topic: Material on the topic of the day had been mailed with the meeting notice and minutes of the last meeting's discussion. The discussion on the topic is generally facilitated by one of the participants.
  5. About ten minutes before the end there is a pause for reflection and evaluation on the meeting and the process.
  6. Closing prayer.

The meeting begins on time and ends on time. It takes place at the same time, on the same day of the month, at the same place. A sample of topics which have been addressed during chapter meetings includes: Business as a Vocation, Trust and Loyalty, Compensation, Leadership, Managing in the Grey Areas, Greed, the Use of Time, and A Moral Vision: Creating a Corporate Culture Consistent with Judeo-Christian Values.

Does the process work? I know it does. Our Detroit group began in the Fall of 1994. It was sponsored by Greg Ulferts who offered it to his Board of Advisors. Fr. Gerry Cavanaugh S.J. acts as its chaplain. In March, Joe Scallen the coordinator for the Detroit group helped arrange for me to speak with a number of the participants after the regular monthly meeting. One told me:

The group has helped me develop an ability to listen. I value my time with the group because I have found insight through listening. The insights might not exactly come at the time of the meeting, but they come unexpectedly, that day, a week, or even a month later.

Business problems do not go away. The issues do not get any easier. But from sharing, praying, and discussing together, new insights arise for the participating managers and executives, perceptions are sharpened, fresh frameworks for understanding emerge bringing about growth and change for the better. Participation yields results.

The program is exciting, educational, affirming, and often challenging. Another Detroit executive told me:

I have seen people get more open, and I have learned to challenge my own assumptions. It has been very positive. I have learned from listening to others dealing with challenging moral situations such as firing, or going after the money and forgetting family, or the need to take care of the organization as a whole rather than simply individual or selfish pursuits.

Participants find that communities are formed, changes occur, and they do improve their business climate. People report a sense of peace instead of sleepless nights, steady discernment instead of chaos. One called it his "monthly moral checkup."

A Chief Financial Officer of a healthcare organization told me: "A challenge in any large organization is how to lead in a consistent manner. How do I provide necessary guidance and example for others? In meeting with this group I learned to be more open, to challenge assumptions, to ask whether this is the morally right thing to do?"

The Woodstock Business Conference provides a process and the opportunity to help business leaders. It is an example of collaborative peer ministry based upon the actual experience of participants reflected upon theologically. This is promoted in no small part by the initial prayerful reading and reflection upon Scripture.

These business leaders not only make ethical decisions but grow as ethical people. In doing so they are fulfilling their vocation, responding positively to God's call. Notions fundamental to the Judeo-Christian tradition such as vocation, stewardship, human authenticity, solidarity, and the common good all support this quest and offer the means to affirm the relevance of religious faith to business practice. Yes, it is both possible and fitting to be a good business leader and a person of faith.

Greg Ulferts offered the Woodstock Business Conference as an opportunity for growth for those from the Detroit business community who supported his school. In the process he graced their lives. We, at the national office of the Woodstock Business Conference, provide the necessary resources to help others offer similar experiences. In this regard, we supply a step-by-step blueprint for organizing and facilitating a WBC chapter. Our Process Book explains and illustrates the method. It provides Scripture readings, focus questions, and background readings from the business press for 16 topics, and explains the theory behind the method. We continue to support our chapters by providing resources for additional topics and issues which arise out of the interesting and challenging monthly discussions. We also publish a newsletter, the Woodstock Business Conference Report, to help WBC members and friends connect and keep up to date.

I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today. I would be pleased to share some of the stories we have heard from WBC members which better illustrate the growth they experienced by their participation in the groups. Obviously, if there is interest on your part, I would be happy to show you how easy for your school to sponsor your own Business Conference chapter.