Lutherans, Episcopalians discuss corporate social responsibility

January 31, 2000

"This was a first-time acquaintance for all of us," said Dr. Robert C. Holland of Bethesda, Maryland, newly elected chair of the advisory committee for corporate social responsibility of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after the first meeting with its counterpart committee on social responsibility in investments of the Episcopal Church.

The committees advise and counsel various commissions and institutions of their churches about the social records of corporations in which they hold stock. In some cases, shareholder resolutions may be considered to effect change in the corporation's practices.

Generally, resolutions are filed with corporations before the end of each year in preparation for stockholder meetings to be held the following spring. Many resolutions are withdrawn before reaching those meetings because they prompt significant dialogues between the filer and the corporation's management.

"There was a synergy here that was extraordinary," Holland said after meeting with Episcopalians early in January. "We found they were extraordinarily knowledgeable, intelligent, committed people. We learned from them. I think they learned from us." He added, "You can tell the group as a whole felt that way with how quickly they accepted the idea of having another meeting."

That meeting will be held September 15 in New York to coincide with a meeting of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). About 275 religious organizations, including the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, coordinate their corporate social responsibility efforts through the ICCR.

The Rev. Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church's peace and justice ministries, said that "there is a real possibility for collaborative work with the ELCA in the area of socially responsible investments" and he looks forward to discussing the possibilities at the September meeting.

Joyce Austin of New York, who chairs the Episcopal committee, said in an interview that it was "an important and exciting exchange. We quickly knew that we had much to share--and much to learn--from each other."

New nature of poverty

The committees met together to discuss the idea of Lutherans and Episcopalians co-sponsoring shareholder resolutions on one or two issues in which they share common concerns. Jean Pogge, senior vice president of the National Funding Group at South Shore Bank in Chicago, addressed a plenary meeting of the two committees.

"It's criminal to think that people are okay because they have jobs," said Pogge. "Poverty has taken a new nature in our community." She said the minimum wage cannot support many of the families in the area South Shore Bank serves.

South Shore Bank was established in 1973 as the first community development bank in the United States. It has lent more than $400 million to more than 11,000 businesses and individuals in economically depressed areas of Chicago. The bank's model has been replicated in other states and other countries, Pogge said.

Inner-city and rural areas of the United States are "under-invested communities," disconnected from the prosperity of the larger economy, she said. "With the economy doing so well ... it isn't as true in our neighborhood as it is in other neighborhoods."

She added that "faith-based investors have been very important to our work. Some of our early shareholders were church institutions. We're talking about putting your money into a federally insured bank account at market rates of interest, where you know your money is going to be used for a purpose that matches your values."

In an interview, ICCR director Timothy H. Smith expressed his belief that "the faith communities have had a great impact on corporate thinking." Smith, a member of the Episcopal committee, gave a brief report on ICCR activities to the Lutheran committee. He said that investors are looking for companies that share many of the values religious organizations have supported for years--racial diversity in decision-making, a good environmental record and fair labor practices. "It's going to stick if moral values are blended with why it makes good business sense," he said. "As people of faith, we are called to be in this ministry."

 

--Frank Imhoff is associate director of the ELCA's Office of News and Information.