WHEN MEASURING THE intersection of religion and the corporate workplace, many people want the church to confront the ethical scandals and financial malfeasance. They expect the church to provide instruction. But according to two Episcopal priests, the church itself has a lot to learn … from business.
Kevin Phillips, rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in California's Silicon Valley, is one of them. Phillips directs the Business Leadership and Spirituality Network, part support group, part resource center for business executives seeking a bridge between their workweek life and their weekend religion.
He calls on the church not only to soften its often blanket criticism of business ethos but also to embrace the commercial realities of life as the way to bring about the change that the church seeks — and upon which the church's survival depends.
"The Episcopal Church has identified the political sphere as the primary way of engaging the world. … I think in a lot of ways, the Episcopal Church is misdirecting its efforts," said Phillips.
"Virtually everyone is engaged in commerce as either a producer or a consumer," he says. "That is where the American life is lived."
Phillips's perspective is shared by William Messenger, an Episcopal priest in Boston and the director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace. Messenger started a BLSN branch on the East Coast in 2002. His concern was born from the intersection of business and religion in his own life.
A former IBM computer salesman, Messenger earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1988 and started his own business before preparing for the priesthood.
"What attracted me to business in the first place was that I do think it is the most creative social or organizational arena in modern society," Messenger said.
"Businesses are better organized. … I think the reason for that is that they are more directly answerable to their constituents. If you treat your customers badly, they are gone pretty quickly."
He believes the same is true with employees: Treated badly, they will leave. "If [managers] are not effective, they are replaced or given training or reassigned. Virtually all nonprofits struggle because it is very hard to measure their effectiveness — but I wish churches would struggle more," he said. "That's why we are losing so many people, because we are not effective at what we are doing."
Phillips makes no apologies about calling the church to adapt to marketplace rules of supply and demand. He believes theoretical discourse can distract the church from growing and can lessen its effective mission and ministry. He stops just short of suggesting that churches exact a fee for Sunday morning services to determine the market value of the experience.
"It is easy, when you remain theoretical, to criticize business people for being greedy or for cutting corners or laying off workers and saying, ‘They are lacking compassion.' It is quite another to appreciate the real world-limits that business people work in that drive those kinds of decisions. For the church to live in that world would give us a greater appreciation of the real struggles that businesspeople face every day.
"What if the church conceived of its ministry as a service it provided in the marketplace?" asked Phillips. "How would it market it? What would the price point be for its services? Would anyone line up to buy it? Messenger agrees that churches should consider a new way of conducting ministries and that reorganizing on business principles is a good place to start.
"The average business is far better-run than the average church, far better-organized. And that's not morally neutral, in my opinion," he said. "A church's organizational dysfunction is really hurtful to people."
Messenger explained that when a church has people with great creativity and fails to utilize that creativity, or when the church attracts people who are suffering and fails to assist them through their suffering, the church fails to be the body of Christ.
For both Messenger and Phillips, the challenge of redirecting the Episcopal Church is more than a practical matter; it invites the very theological questions that they hope will make the transition from the Sunday morning pews to the Monday morning boardrooms.
"Questions like ‘What's worth doing? What's meaningful -- whether your point of reference is God or not," listed Messenger. "I still think of these as theological questions."
It was just such questions that prompted the establishment of the Mockley Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace a decade ago. The center holds classes and workshops for people to discuss business topics from a Christian, theological perspective. It recently introduced a master of arts degree program in Religion in Leadership and Business Ethics through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
"We are trying to counter the perception that ministry is what happens in church, especially what paid clergy do, and [that] what happens at work, when you are serving your customers, is not of much interest to God," Messenger explained.
"We have bifurcated the church into professionals who get paid to do work in church and volunteers who mostly work other places," he said. "We are afraid at some point that is more primal than intellectual: If we honor their workplace too much, they will stop coming to ours."
So, the center challenges churches to transform themselves into places where people are equipped for daily work and where weekday work is honored, valued and used to further the church's mission.