Jeff Haanen

Category

Economy

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CultureEconomyWork

Why “Deaths of Despair” Point to a Crisis for American Capitalism

 

There may be no issue that bothers my conscience more in American public life than this one. Watch the video below. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Two Princeton economists are sounding off on what they consider to be warning signs of a crisis of American capitalism.Prof. Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton see increases in suicides and other “deaths of despair”—particularly among middle-aged, white Americans—as a sign that “something is not right,” with society.If we can only generate good lives for an elite that’s about a third of the population, then we have a real problem.’”

 

“In the video above, they argue that it’s not simply a function of economics. It’s a ‘failure of spiritual and social life that drives people to suicide,’ Mr. Deaton says.”

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EconomyPoliticsTheology

Loving Faithful Institutions: The Building Blocks of a Just Global Society (From Comment Magazine)

 

Occasionally I’ll post on this blog an article I really like. And I really like this one by Dr. Jonathan Chaplin, who’s on the divinity faculty at Cambridge University. It’s about an unpopular topic that should be popular: the importance of institutions. One of my convictions at the founding of DIFW was that in order to change the conversation about faith and public life in Denver, we needed not just an event or a “network” – we needed an institution that can last for years, decades…generations. And that meant doing things like admin work, building a board, building long-term relationships, writing emails, and zillions of other unsexy tasks.  

Happy reading – and I hope you’ll commit yourself to building strong, healthy institutions as well. 

Postmodern Christians won’t get very far in transforming society until they learn to love institutions again.

Institutions and organizations are out; networks and relationships are in—or so goes conventional “postmodern” wisdom on how to transform society, at least among those who hold out hope that societal transformation is still possible, who resist the despair implied in a consistent logic of deconstruction.

Yet I want to propose that a credible twenty-first century Christian voice on the theme of economy and hope needs to affirm loving institutions as key building blocks in any constructive response to our current economic and political malaise. To complicate this thesis, I also propose that Christians need to reckon with the fact that all institutions are in some sense faith-based, and that Christians should be unapologetic both about working to shape existing institutions from within according to their own vision of hope or, where necessary, founding their own institutions.

The current narrative favoured by many Christian progressives isn’t very congenial toward these proposals. Institutions, so the story goes, are the classic instruments of social control generated by “modernity.” Shaped according to the imperatives of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic efficiency, they serve the interests of oppressive global capital—entrenching economic inequality, stifling human creativity, and suppressing dissent. They march toward their hegemonic goals regardless of the welfare of the people they purportedly exist to serve—those whom they promised to liberate from the supposed bondage, ignorance, and squalor of preindustrial society.

But many critics now observe that modernity and its leading institutional bridgeheads are beginning to teeter. They point to deep fault lines appearing on the smooth surface of institutional bureaucracies and to new social formations emerging in the wings. To many people, the cumulative and interconnected failures of modernity—economic, political, environmental, and spiritual—seem to herald the decline of institutions and the arrival of new models of social interaction rooted in open, dynamic relational networks. These networks, it is said, are flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing contexts, and spacious enough to allow human beings to continually redefine their identities and projects and to realize greater freedom and authenticity.

Read the rest of the article at Comment Magazine.

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EconomyWork

The Healing Power of Economics (Christianity Today Book Review)

 

The so-called “dismal science” is a powerful tool for wealth creation, but also for healing broken communities.

I open my car door, sit down, and turn the key. Carefully balancing my coffee, I put my foot on the brake, shift into reverse, and gently press the gas pedal as I pull out of my driveway on my way to work. As I head down South Broadway, I remember a quip my undergraduate economics professor once made: “The economy is like a car engine. Most of us don’t understand what’s happening under the hood. We just hit the gas and hope it works.”

We seldom pause to appreciate the vast ecosystem of buying, selling, labor, and wealth creation that makes up the modern economy. Most of us take its benefits for granted. I simply expect restaurants to have food, water to flow from my faucet, and my car engine to start when I turn the key.

Yet the reason we have everything from SUVs to grande peppermint mochas is a well-functioning economy, which is fundamentally dependent on love, says Tom Nelson, senior pastor of Christ Community Church near Kansas City and author of The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity.

The words “love” and “economics” are used in the same sentence about as much as “toothpaste” and “opera.” But Nelson is convinced that if we genuinely want to fulfill Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the church needs a renewed focus on our economic life.

A Tool for Leaders

Just mentioning the word “economics” tends to elicit one of three responses: anxiety-inducing memories of college exams peppered with spreadsheets and charts, heated political debates about the role of the government, or glazed-over confusion at bewildering technical terms like “quantitative easing.”

But economics need not be intimidating or mysterious. Simply put, economics is the study of the economy. And the economy, as Trinity International University’s Greg Forster helpfully defines it, is “the social system through which people organize their work and dispose of its fruits.”

The English word economics comes from a Greek word, oikonomia, which means “household stewardship.” For Christians interested in wisely stewarding God’s good world, economics doesn’t have to be the “dismal science,” as critics charge. It can instead be a tool in the belt of activists, pastors, and business leaders committed to healing broken communities.

For Nelson, the study of economics became important because of the sting of growing up in rural poverty with six siblings and a deceased father. He recalls “our daily bus rides home from school, [when] our family poverty could not be masked. Schoolmates would ask, ‘When are you going to paint your house?’ Following our mother’s example, we too lied through our teeth, offering up plausible yet deceptive reasons for the glaringly neglected appearance of our home.”

Encounters with economic theorists like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Adam Smith would come later. His question as a child was more immediate, more visceral: Does my church care about my economic situation? Or just my soul?

During Nelson’s time in seminary, he discovered a pattern of segregation between the worlds of theology and work, the Bible and the economy. And so his questions deepened: Does Christianity have anything to say about the economic world in which we live, work, and play? What is the church’s responsibility to the economic well-being of our communities?

“Theologians use words like flourishing and fruitfulness to speak of adding value to the world,” writes Nelson. “Economists use words like productivityopportunity and wealth.” As an interpreter between two worlds, Nelson’s cry is for renewed partnerships between church and business leaders for the sake of healthy communities.

Biblical Foundation

The Economics of Neighborly Love provides a robust biblical foundation for just such initiatives.

Compassion and Capacity. When a legal expert challenged Jesus with the question, “And who is my neighbor?” he answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Jews looked down on Samaritans, both religiously and ethnically, yet it was the business person on a trade route to Jericho who stopped and had compassion on the man beaten by robbers. “Loving our neighbor in need involves both Christian compassion and economic capacity,” says Nelson. To care for the poor financially requires ample financial resources in the first place.

Creation, Work, and Productivity. God instructed Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The language of fruitfulness suggests not only procreation but productivity as well. We reflect God’s image through imitating his productive work in creation (Gen. 1:26–27, 2:15). The call to productivity is less about a paycheck or career success than contribution. “Through work,” Nelson writes, “we create abundance out of which we help meet the needs of others.”

Poverty and Justice. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17). Scripture calls us to care for the economically impoverished, admit our own spiritual poverty, fight economic injustice, and work toward the well-being of the vulnerable (Amos 5:22–24; Matt. 5:3; James 5:4). Nelson believes just economic systems are built on free markets, opportunity, virtue, compassion, generosity, and meaningful work inspired by neighborly love (Prov. 31; Matt. 22:39).

Wealth, Generosity, and Greed. “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” says the writer of Proverbs (30:8–9). Wealth should not be demonized, as it is a part of God’s good creation (1 Tim. 4:4). Yet neither should wealth be worshiped (Matt. 6:24; Eph. 5:5). Instead, wealth is a gift to be enjoyed and shared with others (1 Tim. 6:17–19). Consumerism is a sin, yet so is sloth. Hard work, wealth creation, and generosity belong together in a healthy economy.

Nelson is hard to pigeonhole as either a conservative or liberal because he stays so close to a biblical social ethic. This book could be embraced by conservatives advocating for free markets and minimal government intervention or by liberals calling for greater equality and economic justice. (It could also be criticized by each side on opposite grounds.)

Trying to navigate the complexity, partisanship, and practicality of economic thought is no small task. Yet The Economics of Neighborly Love succeeds because of its balance and biblical roots. Compassion for the poor is essential, yet so is wealth creation. We’re called to give generously to the vulnerable, yet we’re also created to work and be productive. Money can be either an object of idolatrous greed or a tool in the hands of the righteous.

Preaching the Principle of Vocation

As I write, the Dow Jones is well over 20,000, and economic growth is strong. But there are signs that the American economy is resting on a shaky foundation.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work shows that from 1948–2015 the portion of prime-age men in the workforce dropped from 85.8 to 68.2 percent, a lower rate than in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Today there are 10 million men ages 25–54 who are either unemployed or have stopped looking for work altogether.

Why should the church care?

In John Stott’s 1970s classic Christian Mission in the Modern World, he states, “If we are to love our neighbor as God made him, we must inevitably be concerned for his total welfare, the good of his soul, his body and his community. When any community deteriorates, the blame should be attached where it belongs: not to the community which is going bad but to the church which is failing in its responsibility as salt to stop it from going bad.”

As Christmas nears, we must ask ourselves hard questions. Are we content to drop off Christmas gifts for poor children, while ignoring the economic forces that prevent parents from buying their kids Christmas presents in the first place?

Many church leaders might dismiss economics as esoteric or not central to the gospel. But Nelson is right: Our economy needs men and women driven by neighborly love in every sector of society. And if this is God’s world, we have a responsibility to care for all of his children’s needs—spiritual, social, cultural, and economic.

The book is not perfect. While Nelson does the hard work of wading through the output of famous economists like John Maynard Keynes and Hernando de Soto, he could have included more stories and practical examples to help pastors engaged in this area. (This is one purpose of the Made to Flourish pastors’ network that Nelson founded in 2014.)

But The Economics of Neighborly Love will surely encourage more pastors to “take seriously the profound stewardship of nurturing both Christian compassion and economic capacity.” This is indeed a part of a gospel that proclaims “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,” including our work, our cities, and even our economy (2 Cor. 5:19).

Just after World War II, theologian Elton True-blood said, “A Church which seeks to lift our sagging civilization will preach the principle of vocation in season and out of season. The message is that the world is one, secular and sacred, and the chief way to serve the Lord is in our daily work.”

Vocation is a summons to service—of both God and neighbor. In stark contrast to a view of work centered on individual choice and personal fulfillment, the church’s view of work is unique. Some believe it’s also the elixir for our economic woes.

“To live well is to work well,” Thomas Aquinas said. The economy—and your neighbor—is depending on you.

This book review first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Christianity Today.

 

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BusinessEconomyWork

The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business

 

“And who is my neighbor?”

This question is just as pressing to us in 21st century America as it was 2,000 years ago. A legal expert, “who wanted to justify himself,” posed this question to Jesus. In response, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Like that expert, we look around the world today and see pressing needs at every turn: self-centered leadership, ignorance, poverty, political instability, disease, and spiritual darkness. Overwhelmed at the needs pouring into our digital devices, we ask “What can I really do?” Our temptation, like that of the Levite and the priest in the parable, is to walk past the needs of others and go about our day.

Yet two surprising twists in Jesus’ parable can give us hope. First, the hero of the story is a Samaritan, a member of a mixed ethnic group despised by the Jews. Though the religious insiders – a Levite and a priest – pass by, it’s the heretic, the outsider, who stops to help. The Samaritan didn’t find a solution to a global crisis. Instead, his single act of mercy for a stranger is the model here. This we can do.

Second, which is perhaps the biggest shock for us today, the hero of this story isn’t a pastor, religious leader, or a nonprofit volunteer. He’s a business person.

There’s a bit of guesswork here, but the Samaritan had the time and excess wealth to serve a need. And in so doing, he fulfilled Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor.” As Margaret Thatcher once said, “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” Might engaging in business be a primary way God intends for us to love our neighbors?

“Business is God’s intended partner in his great work as Provider for all of humankind,” says Tim Weinhold, an entrepreneur I quoted in a recent article for Christianity Today1.  His point is that business is a way God has chosen to both provide the goods and services we all depend on each day and create the wealth we need to be able to afford those goods and services. As a CFO friend of mine says2, “Business is the only institution that creates wealth. Every other institution distributes it.”3 The purpose of business, like the purpose of the church in the world, is to serve (Mark 10:45, John 20:21). Business people are called to use their talents to bless others.

But what about corporate greed? What about scandals like the price fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland4, famously portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie The Informant5?  Or the levels of corruption and collusion in the housing market collapse of the mid 2000s (again, portrayed dramatically by Hollywood in “The Big Short?”6) This looks more like plundering your neighbor rather than loving your neighbor.

Business can either plunder our neighbors through low wages, oppressive practices (like the payday loan industry), environmental degradation, and hoarding wealth – or it can be the single greatest instrument for the alleviation of poverty the world has ever seen. (Films such as Poverty, Inc.7 and the article “Towards the End of Poverty”8 in The Economist make compelling cases for the later.) Our work can either destroy or design, plunder or provide, sack or serve.

Yet what would it actually look like to love your neighbor through your own business or work life?

I agree with Robin John, CEO of Eventide Funds9, who recently suggested we need to start with the question of the legal expert: who is my neighbor? Business, he believes, has six neighbors: customers, employees, supply chains, communities, the environment, and society. The best performing businesses over the long haul, he believes, create products and services that serve society and authentic human flourishing, focus on stakeholder value creation, build human-centered operations strategies and create a rich organizational culture. That is, they look carefully at all the “neighbors” a business has and ask how to serve those neighbors well.

Using that framework, here are 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business:

1. Love Your Customers

Dan Dye is the CEO of Ardent Mills, America’s largest flour producer 10. Each day, 100 million people eat an Ardent Mills product. It’s likely that the bread products you ate for breakfast this morning came from the flour produced at one of their 42 mills. Dan describes his work as “nourishing the world,” which his company does on a global scale. They continuously innovate the best processes of turning wheat into flour, which is eventually sold to companies like Bimbo bread that are found in America’s grocery stores. And at the end of their global operations and billion dollar balance sheets is a simple commitment to serve the needs of their customers.

When companies prioritize the needs of the customer and create genuine value for them, businesses flourish. For example, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, leaves a chair empty at corporate meetings to remind them they’re there serve their customers. Creating value for others, in Charles Koch’s language 11, or endeavoring to love your customers as yourselves, is the first pillar of loving your neighbor through business.

Dealing with cranky, irrational, or flippant customers is no fun. But C.S. Lewis reminds us that loving your neighbor has little to do with your feelings.

“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him… There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed.”

Even if customers don’t show appreciation, business is still filled with opportunities to “love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you.”12  The way we love our neighbors, says Lewis, is by working for their good. Like providing sewage systems, software, lighting, legislation, lesson plans, and, of course, loaves of bread.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is not just good advice … it’s good business strategy.

Verse to post on your desk: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” -1 John 4:16-18

2. Love Your Employees

Men and women are created to work, and are meant to express the dignity of being God’s image bearers through their creative activity.

This fact is not lost on Wes Gardner, CEO of Prime Trailer Leasing 13. Years ago, Wes had an “aha moment,” where he saw that his business was not just a way to fund ministry, but to do ministry, specifically by caring for his employees. He began hiring women from Hope House, a nonprofit that works with teenage mothers, and providing them a good salary and opportunities for growth – opportunities that would likely not come their way unless Wes was committed to loving his neighbors through his business.

He’s part of a larger movement in Denver to provide good jobs to people with barriers to employment 14. New efforts are afoot to create good jobs for at-risk communities. (A “good job” is loosely defined as a job that provides increasing wages, some flexibility of schedule, benefits, a healthy workplace culture, opportunities for advancement and education, and a sense of pride in the work.)

Yet people from every socioeconomic class long to know their work has deeper value than a paycheck. Dave Kiersznowski, founder of DEMDACO, a business that makes gifts that “lift the spirit,” wants his employees – of all faith backgrounds, races, and ethnicities – to broaden their vision of how their work is contributing to the common good 15. For example, in their headquarters he named meeting spaces after “heroes of the common good,” such as Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, and Mother Theresa. This reminds employees that their labor matters not just to the company, but to human history. Good thinkers, like Barry Schwartz, professor at Swarthmore College, see that emphasizing the ways our work makes other people’s lives better is key to loving your employees. 16

Caring for your employees begins the virtuous cycle of profitable long term business. “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders” says Cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher. By providing good jobs, laced with dignity, fair wages, and intrinsic meaning, some are even calling the “good jobs strategy” a game-changer among business leadership in the US. 17

A question to ask to your employees or co-workers: do you have a job or a craft? A job, says Hugh Heclo, is merely a “ miscellaneous piece of work undertaken on order at a stated rate.” 18 However, mechanic and author Michael Crawford defines craftsmanship as “the desire to do something well, for its own sake.” 19 How can business leaders provide not just jobs, but a craft, to their employees? Are there ways all jobs can provide the opportunity for men and women to experience mastery, autonomy and purpose, as Daniel Pink suggests? 20

Work, says playwright and theologian Dorothy Sayers, “should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” What will it look like to create more jobs like this?

Verse to post on your desk: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” –Genesis 1:27, 2:15

This is an excerpt from the e-book, “The Call to Commerce: 6 Ways to Love Your Neighbor Through Business.” Want more today? Download your copy of the full e-book. Or subscribe to this blog. 

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EconomyTheologyVocation

The Miracle of the Reformers: Why Teaching Your Kids Hymns is Good for the Economy

 

Perhaps the songs we teach our children is one the most important legacies we can leave for posterity.

This morning I sat down to breakfast with my wife and four daughters. After eggs and sausage, we listened to the classic hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” My wife educates our kids (and really our whole family), and this year we’re memorizing classic hymns, with the hunch that our ancestors have new light to shed on our 21st century lives.

Amongst the sound of chattering kids and clanking forks and knives, my wife turned on the iPad at the breakfast table and flipped on the speaker.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

Written in 1680 by Joachim Neader, a German Reformed Calvinist, I couldn’t help but notice that this song begins not only with worship, but by affirming that God is the King of all creation. He is provider for both our bodies (our health and material needs) and our souls (salvation).

It’s kinda funny to listen to my four-year-old Alice pronounce the Victorian English of the translation, so I kept listening while sipping my coffee.

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Our desires have all been granted by “what He ordaineth?” Could anything be more different from the version of capitalism we see today, so well summed up by Andrew Carnegie: “The art of capitalism is turning luxuries into necessities.” Wouldn’t this Puritan view of God’s provision – even for our desires – lead to radical contentment? And even thrift, since we have all we really need and even desire in what God has given us?

Now Cora is rocking back and forth to the tune, Sierra has paused from eating her hard-boiled egg (she won’t touch those blasted scrambled eggs), and we sing the third verse:

Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

“Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee.” And here’s the miracle of the Puritans: the doctrine of vocation. All of life is to be lived for God, even our “secular work.” And when our work leads to prosperity, and even wealth, it’s a gift from God. It’s evidence of his daily “goodness and mercy.”

This is truly an incredible view of creation, money, work and contentment.

Some have argued that Reformed theology led to a magical combination: hard work, wealth creation, thrift, honesty created the explosion of wealth from 1500 to today. It was Christian theology that led to excess wealth (who needs to spend more if you’re content with what you have?), which led to capital investments, and, eventually, capital markets that built the modern economy.  Not all agree with that view. But some do.

Listen to this perspective from a Chinese scholar.  Dr. Peter Zhao Xiao is a high ranking economist in the Chinese Communist party. In 2002, he was sent by his superiors to the United States to research why the American economy had been so prosperous. After visiting the USA for months, he concluded that the secret to the American economy was their churches.

He penned an essay entitled “Churches in the Market Economy”, which would subsequently be read by over 100 million people.

“Americans are not idiots,” he wrote to his Chinese countrymen.

“Their need for churches is overwhelming, and churches provide something in answer to their call — there is definitely some principle at work. During my time in America, the relationship of churches with America’s economy, society, and politics became the issue that most often occupied my mind…At its heart the problem could be stated as a comparison between market economies with churches and market economies without churches.”

So what was his conclusion? Christians who attend church drive the market economy because their faith encourages them to spurn idleness, be honest, and discourage “injury” (cheating, lying, stealing). Here’s the logic of his argument:

  • A market economy alone may encourage industriousness, but it also might encourage industrious lying, cheating, and stealing.
  • This is (as of 2002) the problem with the Chinese economy: Getting wealthy by any means necessary creates collusion between government and business rather than accountability. Personal profit rather than doing what’s right damages everything from upholding contracts to funding businesses that extract wealth rather than create it.

The problem? It’s one of faith, says Dr. Zhao Xiao.

“These days Chinese people do not believe in anything. They don’t believe in god, they don’t believe in the devil, they don’t believe in providence, they don’t believe in the last judgment, to say nothing about heaven. A person who believes in nothing ultimately can only believe in himself. And self-belief implies that anything is possible — what do lies, cheating, harm, and swindling matter?”

  • Market economies with churches, however, tend to uphold the rule of law and ethics like integrity and honesty.

“It is people who turn their eyes to church spires who generally respect financial norms and integrity… Puritans, though they may be called the most fervent people in the world in their drive to accumulate wealth, nevertheless do not pursue wealth for personal benefit but rather ‘to the glory of God.’”

Divine reward and punishment caused Reformed Christians not only to create wealth, but to also be honest, thrifty, and committed to the public good rather than merely private benefit.

  • Zhao Xiao’s conclusion: “From the perspective of human society, the most successful model is church + market economy. That is to say, the happy combination of a market economy that discourages idleness together with a strong faith (ethics) that discourages dishonesty and injury.” As you can imagine, coming from a high ranking Communist party economist, this perspective was wildly controversial.

Going back to “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation,” you can see how this kind of theology might create a society of both honesty and prosperity.

(1) God is King over all of creation, including the natural world, the social world, and our economic affairs.

(2) God provides for the needs of his people, which means they can be content with what they have. It also means we’re accountable to God for how we use what he’s given us, including our wealth.

(3) Work is a gift of God, and so are the fruits of our work, such as profit. As such, wealth is to be used for the public good, and not only personal benefit. And our work should be dedicated to living for “God’s glory” rather than personal success.

It’s unfashionable today to say that the market economy is fundamentally dependent on the ethical system derived from Christianity. But there’s strong evidence that this is the truth – and that economies are fundamentally dependent on ethics like trust for growth.  There’s also strong evidence that a secular economy, like we see emerging in Europe and America, is weaker and more stagnant. (See for Harvard President Larry Summer’s “The Age of Secular Stagnation.”)

On a personal level, there’s also strong evidence that teaching my kids reformation-era hymns is not only good for their souls but also for the world. A brief point of application: Let’s start sharing songs that affirm God’s activity in creation, his provision for our needs, and the gift of work. Here’s a good place to begin.

Discussion: Would you leave your favorite creation-affirming or work-affirming hymn or contemporary song in the comments section below?

BusinessCultureEconomyVocationWork

Theology for Business (Keynote Address)

This is the keynote address I gave for the recent event “For Whose Glory: Exploring Faithful Practice in Life, Leadership and Business.” Below I’ve included a brief outline of my talk. The video also includes all slides from my presentation. Like it? Visit my speaking page by clicking the menu above. 

I. Introduction: What is the purpose of business?

  1. The answer from business culture
  2. The answer from church culture
  3. The answer from conferences like this

Thesis: Christian theology is just as important for your business life as finance, operations or sales, customers or employees.

II. First, the doctrine of CREATION and FALL calls us to THINK THEOLOGICALLY about the purpose of business.

  1. The purpose of business is to provide for the needs of world by serving customers and creating meaningful work, while giving glory to God.
  2. It provides
    1. The goods and services we depend on every day
    2. Meaningful work
    3. The wealth we need to afford those goods and services
  3. Business is an extension of God’s own work of creation
  4. The Fall impacted both our work and our business, which we see most clearly in the Prophets
    1. Idolatry causes injustice
    2. The hinge between provision and oppression is the God we worship in business life.
  5. “For whose glory?” is a critical questions which will determine how we answer the question of the purpose of business.

III. Second, the doctrine of the TRINITY calls us to EMBRACE RELATIONSHIPS.

  1. The American workforce is stressed, disengaged, and unhappy (Gallup/BCG Research)
  2. God is relationship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and healthy businesses are bound together through healthy relationships based on a foundation of trust.

IV. Third, the doctrine of the RESURRECTION calls us to CREATE GOOD WORK.

  1. We tend to not talk about business at church because we don’t think it’s a part of the gospel, or “good news”
  2. The resurrection calls us to think more comprehensively about redemption, creation, and, thus, our work.
  3. Our daily work matters because God is redeeming not just individual souls but all of creation.

V. Fourth, the doctrine of VOCATION calls us to SEEK DEEP SPIRITUAL HEALTH.

  1. The exhilaration and speed of business life rarely affords us the opportunity to slow down and ask “Who are we becoming?”
  2. The word vocation comes form the latin root vox, or voice: it’s about responding to the voice of God in the day to day lives, including our business decisions.

VI. Finally, the CROSS calls us to SERVE OTHERS SACRIFICIALLY.

  1. Central to the gospel is that Christ gave his life for ours.
  2. It’s one thing to talk about customer service in our business, or even creating a company of “love.” But it’s another to talk about sacrificial love.
  3. Boaz was a model “Christian business leader,” as he calls us to hire and care for the “Ruth’s” of our day.

VII. Conclusion: Christian faith calls us to think theologically about the purpose of business, to embrace relationships, to create work in a spirit of hope, to admit our flaws as we seek deep spiritual health, and to serve others sacrificially in our city.  

BusinessEconomyWork

Investing in Human Flourishing: The Story of Eventide Funds (Videos)

“The real issue we face today,” says Robin John, CEO of Eventide Funds, an asset management company, “is that investors are divorced from their investing.” Most of us invest money for retirement in mutual funds, but many of us also have no real idea of which companies we own, or even how the companies we invest in are being operated.

In April I had the chance to visit the Eventide Funds team in Boston (along with my adorable daughter Lily), to go a little deeper.

In a new DIFW short film (5:23), crafted by award-winning documentary film-maker Nathan Clarke, Finny Kuruvilla, Jason Myre and the Eventide Funds team ask pressing questions about values-based investing, investing as ownership, and how God’s purpose for business might shape our retirement portfolios.

Don’t have time to watch the whole video now? Watch these excerpts and share with a friend. 

Investing is Ownership – Eventide Funds from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

Investing in Human Flourishing – Eventide Funds from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

Ethical Investing – Eventide Funds from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

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BusinessEconomyTheologyWork

The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America

 

On July 16-19, I will be presenting a brief paper at the Christian Economic Forum in San Francisco entitled, “The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America: Three Economic Challenges and What Christian Leaders Can Do.” The CEF Leadership collated the conference papers into a book, and kindly provided a PDF of my paper for distribution. The content of the paper is below, and the PDF can be accessed by clicking the link above.

The Quiet Unraveling of Work in America

Three Economic Challenges and What Christian Leaders Can Do

On August 1, 2007, the I35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis looked like any other bridge in America. Commuters stuck in rush hour were waiting impatiently, talking on their phones, and assuming they would get safely to their destinations. Yet at 6:05 p.m., a strange noise was heard underneath the bridge. Suddenly it collapsed, sending 111 vehicles and 18 construction workers plummeting 115 feet into the river. In total, 13 people were killed and 145 injured in an unexpected tragedy.

In the same way, on the surface the American economy looks healthy. The Dow Jones is now over 20,000, unemployment rates are low, and economic growth is strong. But there are signs that the support system under the bridge of the American economy is beginning to wobble.

There are three worrisome signs that our economic support structure–the American workforce–is beginning to unravel:

  • Prime age men are exiting the workforce at historically unprecedented rates.
  • The “precarious” economy has made work for millions more part-time, less stable, and less connected to a coherent career-path.
  • Work is now defined by a narrative of individual achievement rather than service, which puts stress on businesses, levels of public engagement, and our pension system.

This essay briefly explores each of these three challenges to work in America, in addition to what Christian leaders might do to heal these fissures in American life.

Men Without Work

There is a silent army of able-bodied men in America who have dropped out of the workforce. Nicholas Eberstadt’s new book, Men Without Work, shows that from 1948-2015 the percentage of prime age men in the workforce dropped from 85.8% to 68.2%, a rate lower than it was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.[i] Today there are 10 million men ages 25-54 who are either unemployed or have stopped looking for work altogether.[ii]

Perhaps more overwhelming is the fact that these men tend to have no college degree, no wife or children, and live in economically depressed parts of the United States such as Appalachia, the Rust Belt, or the Deep South. Books like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America from 1960-2010 show that the white working class is no longer the virtuous “blue collar America” of political lore. Murray notes that less than a third of children grow up in households with both biological parents, men claim disability benefits at alarming rates, and church-going rates have plummeted.[iii]

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis has pulled back the veil on what it’s like to live in white working class America. Raised by his Mamaw (grandmother), Vance grew up with a host of father figures, a drug addicted mother, and in a culture of hillbilly honor, often retaliating at every slight, especially toward outsiders.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that among America’s white working class–many of whom were the key swing voters for Donald Trump–suffering and resentment is rampant. Among this group, cirrhosis of the liver is up 50%, suicide has increased 78%, and drug and alcohol poisonings have skyrocketed 323% since 1999.[iv]

“There is indeed a gap in this country, and it has now led to a political revolution, a significant realignment in American politics,” Brooks writes. “But the relevant gap wasn’t income.” For blue collar America that has seen manufacturing jobs go overseas and real wages decline, the relevant gap was a loss of dignity.

The Splintered Career

Another factor impacting the American economy is that the age of working for a single employer for a career is long gone.

Today, we live in the “gig” economy. In 2015, freelancers in the US labor force numbered an estimated 54 million, or as much as one third of the workforce.[v] Researchers have dubbed this the “precarious” economy as they describe the massive shift toward temporary, part-time, or contract work. Today, the average job tenure is less than 4 years (and closer to 18 months for millennials) and a young worker can expect to have 11-12 careers over a lifetime.[vi]

Both low-income and middle class workers have entered new territory. The challenge for the poor is trying to cobble together a variety of part-time jobs to support their families, most of which pay no benefits. Sociologist Allison J. Pugh found that many low-income families struggle to stay afloat financially as they try to navigate constantly changing social ties, relationships, and employers.[vii]

For the middle class, the challenge is to “reinvent yourself” constantly, learning new technologies and skills throughout a lifetime. A college degree 20 years ago is no longer enough. The job you prepared for at university may no longer exist today. Technology is transforming the professions as much as it is the trades.

The challenge for both groups is to find a sense of vocational identity and social location in a community amidst constantly changing careers. “What do you do?” is now a hard question to answer at a dinner party. Even harder is trying to figure out what you might do for a paycheck tomorrow.

The “Big Me” Culture

A final worrisome sign of trouble in American workforce is that we now live in a work culture that prizes individual achievement and personal gain over sacrificial service.

“We have seen a shift,” says The New York Times columnist David Brooks, “from a culture of humility to what you might call the Big Me.”[viii] In his book, The Road to Character, Brooks explains that since WWII America has shifted from a culture that was realistic about sin and personal limitation to one of self-centeredness, personal achievement, and “belief in yourself.”

As the positive psychology movement advanced in post-war America, the doctrine of sin was replaced with a doctrine of self-esteem. Today, fueled by social media, we tend to see work as the chance to make a mega impact or to build our LinkedIn profiles. Humility has become a lost virtue.

This view of work tends to have three economic consequences.

First, sustainable businesses (and economies) are built on trust and the ability to serve the long-term needs of their customers. Business practices fueled by short-term thinking and personal gain can damage entire economies, as we saw in the Great Recession of 2007-2008.

Second, healthy economies need a robust civil society to provide for core social needs apart from government aid. In The Great Degeneration, historian Niall Ferguson shows that numbers of volunteers have plummeted in the past generation, putting more pressure on governments to pay for socially beneficial programs.[ix]

Third, our aging American population is fast becoming an enormous economic liability. As Baby Boomers retire yet live longer–often for 20-30 years drawing on pension benefits–the economic stress on state and federally funded pension plans is fast reaching a tipping point.[x]

In each of these circumstances, when work is about personal benefit rather than contribution to the community, we see increasing stress put on the wobbly beams of our economic bridge.

Three Tasks for Christian Leaders

Considering these three trends–men without work, the splintered career, and the culture of the Big Me–what can Christian leaders do? I believe three things will help rebuild the structures of our shaky economic bridge.

  1. Recovery of Dignity (and the Doctrine of the Image of God) – The Bible teaches that all people are made in God’s image and have inherent dignity (Gen. 1:27-28). Moreover, meaningful work is a gift of God and a way we express our God-given value (Gen. 2:15; 1Pet. 2:10). In a culture of “men without work,” we must not only praise the work of men but also work to provide quality jobs that allow them to provide for their communities. This needs to be the basis for new educational and workforce development programs across the US.
  2. Recovery of Mutual Responsibility (and the Doctrine of the Church) – We need each other. Management and employees, customers and suppliers, products and producers: we depend on one another for our housing, our food, our laws, and our well-being. Calvinist reformers saw social organization in terms of the Body of Christ, where members depended on one another. Christian leaders must resist seeing employees as mere “human resources,” but seek ways to provide good jobs with meaningful work to men and women across industries. Projects like Zeynep Ton’s The Good Jobs Strategy show that profit and compassion (business success and investing in employees) are not contradictory but can be complementary.[xi]
  3. Recovery of the Doctrine of Vocation – “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give himself as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Work is about service, not our own career success or quarterly shareholder reports. Just after WWII, theologian Elton Trueblood said, “A Church which seeks to lift our sagging civilization will preach the principle of vocation in season and out of season. The message is that the world is one, secular and sacred, and that the chief way to serve the Lord is in our daily work.”[xii] Vocation is a summons to service–of God and neighbor. Here is the elixir to our economic woes, and the quiet strength still present in the American people.

 Photo credit: Union Workers.

 

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[i] Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016).

[ii] Derek Thompson, “The Missing Men,” The Atlantic, June 27, 2016, accessed at: http://theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/the-missing-men/488858/

[iii] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America from 1960-2010 (New York: Crown, 2012).

[iv] Arthur Brooks, “How Donald Trump Filled the Dignity Deficit,” The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2016, accessed at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-donald-trump-filled-the-dignity-deficit-1478734436

[v] Louis Hyman, “The Rise of the Precarious Economy,” The Hedgehog Review, 18, no. 1, (Spring 2016):18-32.

[vi] Josh Bersin, “The Future of Work: It’s Already Here – and Not As Scary As You Think,” Forbes, September 21, 2016, accessed at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2016/09/21/the-future-of-work-its-already-here-and-not-as-scary-as-you-think/print

[vii] Allison J. Pugh, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[viii] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015).

[ix] Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[x] Tyler Durden, “’This is Going To Be A National Crisis,’ – One of the Largest US Pension Funds Set to Cut Retiree Benefits,” April 20, 2016, accessed at: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-04-20/going-be-national-crisis-one-largest-us-pension-funds-set-cut-retiree-benefits

[xi] Zeynep Ton, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014).

[xii] Elton Trueblood, The Common Ventures of Life: Marriage, Birth, Work, Death (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949).

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BusinessEconomyWork

Am I an Imposter? The Weary Souls of Entreprenuers

 

Banks Benitez said it perfectly.

When I was interviewing Banks about his work as the VP of Global Expansion at the Unreasonable Institute, a start-up school for social entrepreneurs, one of his founders shared about what it feels like to be an entrepreneur: “It’s like I just joined the very front of the parade and people are cheering me on.”

He continued, “Today it seems like entrepreneurship is almost this embodiment of the American dream. You have this small idea and then you figure it out along the way and you grow and become really wealthy and successful – and you’ll also solve a global problem. Everybody wants you to become like Tesla, and the world is cheering you on…”

But on the inside, being an entrepreneur is fraught with emotional pain and difficulty. One of his founders said in a post-experience survey, “I don’t deserve to have this platform. People don’t really know who I am, and once they really find out who I am they’re going to be unimpressed.”

That’s it. Exactly.

I started Denver Institute for Faith & Work in 2012. As I look back, I think it was a combination of luck and lots of God’s grace. Board members joined, a handful of donors got behind the idea, and we started holding public events. It was odd at our first event to say, “We at Denver Institute…” What is Denver Institute? Just a fiction? We have only a couple thousand dollars in the bank, and yet I’m acting like this is somehow real?

As the organization grew, we began to hire a few staff, got a foundation to underwrite much of our work, and moved into our office. And it was a very odd feeling: in the period of 12 months I went from working in an old, decaying shopping mall at a small Christian school to getting connected to millionaires and city leaders. What just happened to me?

My public persona was growing – often despite myself – and yet tension followed me almost every single day. I would watch the bank account. “We have exactly 6 months until we’re out of money, and then we close the doors, I would think to myself.” Where am I going to get more money to keep this going? Donors, staff are depending on me…

I felt a strain on my relationship with my wife, and with my kids. My work had been consuming. Until one day, divinely, my six-year-old daughter even called me out for making my work an idol.  I felt an acute sense of shame.

And I got into this work because I’m driven by a conviction, that I could solve a key problem in the world. But now I’m leading a staff team, reading P&L statements, trying to manage sales with operations with finance, and I’m afraid to let me know know I don’t really know what I’m doing. I feel like a top that is spinning, and is soon to tip over.

​The contrast between my internal world and my external reputation was creating a chasm, often void of peace and hope… and of God.

Imposter. Once they found out who I really am…

A couple years in, I realized I wasn’t alone. One article in The Economist called it Founder’s blues. All of us founders are filled with energy and entrepreneurial fury. But underneath the fervor is a world of uncertainty. “In the morning you feel everything is on the right track and in the evening everything seems in the gutter,” said Shawn Zvinis, the co-founder of Tab, a London startup which eventually closed down.  The stress can sometimes even become grimmer. Tragically, some entrepreneurs buckle under the pressure and take their own lives. This happened to an entrepreneur in Denver just last year.

As I searched for answers, I was both glad to see the problem being acknowledged – but I found the answers coming from the secular world were painfully insufficient. Much of the counsel coming to entrepreneurs takes into account how to build a lean start-up or access venture capital, but little of the questions that were plaguing my soul. How long can I sustain this kind of life? What will I do if I fail? Where is God in this process (didn’t he call me to start this, anyway)? Who am I becoming? Good advice or tropes like “fail fast” weren’t enough.

Because these questions were gnawing away at my soul, this spring I decided to gather a group of friends and peers to talk about “Caring for the Soul of Entrepreneurs,” one of our breakout sessions at the June 15 event “For Whose Glory: Exploring Faithful Practice in Life, Leadership and Business.”

Of course, I invited Banks, my friend, a 5280 Fellow, and a key leader at the Unreasonable Institute. I also invited Reilly Flynn, Managing Partner at GAN Ventures and fellow follower of Christ. As a venture capitalist, Reilly works with entrepreneurs every day. And as he evaluates new deals, he also recognizes that entrepreneurs are people, with hopes and dreams and frailties and failures.

My Tuesday morning prayer partner, John Paasonen, CEO of tech start-up Maxwell, will also be there (assuming kid #2 doesn’t arrive on that day!). As a Duke MBA, former executive for American Express and PayPal, he came to the start-up world with a unique resume and amount of experience. Yet still, the tension of spending investment capital, hiring staff, and scrambling for new customers, even amidst having a killer product – well, he’s felt what we all do this space. Tension.

I also invited both Henry Kaestner, founder of Sovereign’s Capital, and his colleague, Russell Bjorkman, to join us. Sovereign’s is unique: not only do they work exclusively with Christian entrepreneurs, but their unique niche in this space is caring for the souls and emotional health of their entrepreneurs. Reilly has said that Henry is one of the most faithful thinkers/practitioners in the land on this topic.

Finally, my friend Drew Yancey, who is President of Yancey’s, a food service company, and doing a PhD in both theology and business right now, will be there facilitating the discussion. His research interest in the moral formation of entrepreneurs – yet his heart has also been deeply impacted by his own failures in the world of entrepreneurship.

The Front Range lacks a place for Christian entrepreneurs to come together both for business support and spiritual direction. As a nonprofit entrepreneur who has felt the tensions of both heart and hand, spirit and strategy, I hope this small gathering is the beginning of something bigger… for the sake of our city, and, quite selfishly, for my own life.

Photo credit: Exhaustion

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