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Greg Leith on a bad theology of work and a good theology of work

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Unsplash/Drew Beamer

Which careers honor God the most? What does God think of entrepreneurs? Is the highest calling for business leaders to be ATMs for the church?

These are the kinds of questions that inspire people like Greg Leith to step up with answers. At present, Greg is the CEO of Convene, a national network of Christian CEOs, and he brings an incredible wealth of experience and wisdom. He's worked in senior leadership positions for over 40 years. Big businesses, small businesses, non-profits, academia; Greg's operated in all of them.

I recently had the joy of speaking with Greg about a wide variety of topics on an episode of the podcast Business in the Kingdom on the Edifi network. Here are some sections of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What is Convene?

Greg: "Back in the day when Rick Warren was [yet] not famous and Saddleback Church was meeting in a gym, there was an elder named Rick Green at the church who was in a secular group about how to do great business, [...] how to [operate well and] make lots of money. [Rick] met a pastor at Saddleback by the name of Brian Thatcher. They put the secular business [model] together with spiritual formation [ideas] and created the BBL Forum, Beyond the Bottom Line: 'Turning the Sunday stuff into Monday stuff for [better] lives and [better] businesses.' So today there's 500-600 men and women who meet in small groups [in person and online] from coast to coast. They work on their business, they work on their life, and they [wrestle with] what the Bible has to say about business."

How does doing business in a God-honoring way increase performance?

Greg: "The [...] wonderful thing is that 85% of Convene members actually outperformed their industry."

Jerry: "Even though they're not treating the bottom line as the ultimate metric of performance. In other words, outperforming even when outperformance is not the one and only summum bonum goal."

Greg: "That's a great point, because there's a lot of things being written even in the secular press [asking], 'Why is the shareholder the only thing that matters?' And in fact if you look at God's word, the shareholder isn't the only thing that matters, the stakeholders matter. So what about employees? Where I spent 20 years of my life, in the $9 billion company ServiceMaster, we used to say, 'We want to love and value and respect service workers,' and we did, and that's why we grew 27% a year for 20 years."

Jerry: "We just did an analysis here following some research by Alex Edmonds from London Business School, where he talks about employees as essentially an intangible asset. If you look at the best places to work indices, the best places to work outperform for shareholders. Happier workforces are better for shareholders than unhappy workforces. Even when you adjust for things like what sector they're in or whether they're mid-cap or small-cap up, there's a performance edge when you have a purpose and when you treat everyone well."

Greg: "Exactly. We have a member, Ken Lain. Ken and his wife own Watters Garden Center. Garden Center Magazine, a national publication, surveyed 15,000 garden centers from coast to coast and Watters Garden Center is the best horticultural garden center to work for in the entire United States. Why? Because Ken honors and values and loves people. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God. It doesn't say, 'Whatever you do [only glorifies God] when you write a check to a missions organization.' That's good too, but it says all. What does all mean? All means all. So when Ken sells a plant, he can do it to the glory of God."

Are Christian businesses just ATMs?

Jerry: "I find in the Christian conversation about business, to the degree that there's anything positive about it, it is that Christian-owned or operated businesses are ATMs for nonprofits and churches. 'You're a CEO? Then your main function is to cut checks to people who are doing real kingdom work, like churches and ministries.' That is not what I'm hearing coming through as the Convene message or what's coming from you."

Greg: "Absolutely not. I will take you back to my younger days when I was working for ServiceMaster. Back in the day, the Sunday night service at my church was when you laid hands on the missionary and they returned to Africa. And I remember as an elder laying hands on these missionaries and then I would run out of the back of the church to catch a night flight to wherever I needed to be on Monday morning. I remember flying through the skies at 35,000 feet thinking, 'Maybe someday God will smile on my work in healthcare like he does on those missionaries.'

"Why did I think that? Bad theology. Because if God honors Watters Garden Center, then He honors and values whatever is done under the sun to glorify God in business. We don't have to think, 'Wow, I finally was able to write a $30,000 check to a mission organization, now God really smiles on me.' He did smile on you when you wrote that check, but He also smiled on you when you produced that software product, when you created that healthcare device, when you sold a plant, when you put tires on a car, when you made a table."

How does the church react to business owners?

Jerry: "It probably would have helped if someone was laying hands on you Sunday night before you entered the mission field of Monday morning. The marketplace is, in some sense, an unreached people group, and that needs the blessing of God as well. Are you finding that churches are beginning to recognize that or are they stuck in that bad theology?"

Greg: "I think we're still somewhat stuck in the bad theology. Three of my kids have their Master of Divinity and somehow nobody taught them that business is ministry; that being a nurse is a way to glorify God, that being a plumber can glorify God. I think the church is starting to be populated with pastors who have done more thinking than they have before about work, and how it honors God."

Jerry: "Speaking of plumbers, that reminds me of my friend Rob Plummer at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who I've interviewed recently. They have a faith and work center there and that's the largest seminary in the world, so some do get it."

Greg: "I've asked hundreds of Christian business owners this question: 'Has your pastor come to visit you at your office?' And in 10 years, I've only had one business leader say yes to that question, but if I ask the same group of people, 'Has your pastor invited you to be on the finance committee?' I bet I get 95% yes."

Jerry: "Of course, because that's the ATM model. Back when I was hosting Christian radio, a woman called in very distressed and she said, 'I'm trying to get a list of the support groups for women Christian entrepreneurs.' It's all I could do to not burst out laughing because she's not looking for one group, she's looking for a list of groups. She was with a big, prominent megachurch. She said, 'I looked on my church's website for women's support groups and I found groups for women trying to conceive, and pregnant women, and mothers of preschool children, and women who are empty-nesters. But there are none for women who are entrepreneurs, or even for men who are entrepreneurs. So where are they? They must be someplace.' She was frustrated by this, because she was in a business crisis and needed a support structure and she didn't have one. I said, 'This radio show can be the support group for women and men Christian entrepreneurs.'

"After the show the general manager asked me, 'What is this about the show being for Christian entrepreneurs?' I told him it's an unreached people group and we need to serve them. He said, 'It's very narrow, how many people are entrepreneurs?' I replied 'Maybe 5%-10%, but how many think they might want to be? How many are married to one, or work for one? And by the way, didn't you tell me that you wanted to retire early and start a business?'"

If you want to listen to the first half of our conversation, click here. In the next half we'll look at what Greg has to say about the front line role Christian business leaders play in today's culture war.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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