Friday, January 14, 2011

Theology of Profits

Granted, it's not Harvard or the Wharton School of Business.

But Seattle Pacific University's business school features a dean who's remarkably blunt about how Christian businesspeople need to be running their companies.

His name is Jeff Van Duzer, and he's written a book entitled Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed). Christianity Today's website has a Q&A article with Van Duzer which features some frank discussions on the purpose of business and how believers can use their companies for God's glory.

Granted, it's a topic which usually flies under the radar at many evangelical churches, since many people of faith pretty much assume that whatever the Republican Party wants is good, and whatever the government wants is bad. Apparently, Van Duzer's church experience has been markedly different, but then living in the Pacific Northwest, I guess it would be. His major purpose in writing Why Business Matters to God is to validate business as a legitimate career path instead of full-time ministry. Here in Texas, at least, that's not a hard sell.

Maybe it's Seattle's post-Christian indoctrination and all that coffee which explains Van Duzer's less conventional - and, surprisingly - more Biblical approach to how commerce can play an integral role in modeling orthodox morality and supporting broad communities. As a business school dean, he's all about free markets, but his theology of profits represents a marked departure from how many Christians currently run their businesses.

Whose Business is Your Business?

For example, Van Duzer has a dim view of ROI strategies and shareholder value:

"A business should serve—internally, its employees, and externally, its customers. A business exists for certain purposes. One purpose is to provide meaningful work. Another is to provide meaningful goods and services. It does not exist to maximize return on capital investment."

That's even different than the view I've espoused in the past, in which I've personally valued a company's profitability above its status as an employer of God's people. Obviously, a business cannot hire staff at the expense of risking bankruptcy. However, is there a balance between putting people to work and the nascent greed which has been quietly tipping the scales towards its own benefit?

Van Duzer continues, "Historically, maximizing shareholder value as the purpose of business has not been the prevailing view. The notion of maximizing shareholder wealth dates back to the 1970s. Companies that existed before that had a different initial understanding of what they were about. This is a recent and fairly destructive idea..."

And even though he's a free-market champion, he thinks businesspeople have enshrined it to the exclusion of Godly principles:

"In fact [elaborating on his belief the free market is in the best position to deliver goods and services], I think the free market is one of the great idols of our age, particularly among Christians in business."

Naturally, Van Duzer had to field the question of whether these somewhat radical views have been dismissed by the business community as heretical:

"I sometimes get accused of being a socialist. But there is a fundamental difference between the view of business I argue for and a socialist economy. In a socialist system, the government is directing the economy. I'm not talking about that. What I'm saying is that individual Christians should align their vocations toward godly desires."

And he comes back to ethics when discussing how Christian absolutes can't be marginalized, even in a tough business environment:

"Christians [should not] accept a position of compromise until it is the very last option. They have to strain for that creative solution that allows them to do it all. Then, when they are absolutely forced to choose the lesser of two evils, they have to acknowledge that nonetheless, they are choosing evil."

Profit Prophet?

Hopefully, these snippets from his interview have piqued your curiosity to read the entire article. Don't worry: I'll stop my own editorializing here to give you more time.

Now, as I've said, the perspective Van Duzer brings to the topic of Christian commerce isn't what you're going to hear in most East Coast business schools.

But seeing as how much of our current economic mess has been crafted by Harvard-educated business school grads, is their opinion REALLY all that superior?

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