To encourage the philanthropic spirit so readily experienced this time of year, Kelly Greene recently penned an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “How to Change the World … Whatever the Size of Your Wallet.” In this piece, she outlines a variety of programs to which one could volunteer time or donate money.
From committing to service programs to becoming a lender through Kiva to starting a nonprofit or endowing a scholarship, the article recommends a full spectrum of charitable investment options with corresponding prices. While these options serve to better the lives of others, Ms. Greene’s article neglects one of the most important philanthropic ideas: the moment-by-moment opportunities business people have to change the world by investing deeply in workplace relationships.
Positive change happens at both the personal and systemic level. As leaders we should not only work to build departments and businesses that serve well and contribute to human flourishing, but also to invest personally in the lives of the people in which we interface every day. We must choose to subscribe to daily, real-time moments to encourage, empower, and open up possibilities for others.
More than the message of Advent — a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas – the incarnational ministry of Jesus Christ who heals and restores is the ultimate example of this kind of selfless service.
Many years later in remembrance of Christ, the Apostle Paul encouraged the community of faith in Philippi to consider their calling in a similar manner:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:3-5 ESV).
What would it mean to live an others-focused life characterized by the incarnational God? Although the philanthropic suggestions in Greene’s article detail ways in which individuals can accomplish servitude, attitudinal intentionality expressed by Paul in Philippians demands more — namely serving others in humility.
The demands of this kind of intentionality recently confronted one of this blog post’s authors while he was vacationing in Florida with family members. A notice in the local newspaper for an auction of Bernie Madoff’s personal affects for the benefit of defrauded investors prompted the question: How would I respond if Bernie walked into the room this very moment?
Would I treat Madoff with decency, even though his Ponzi scheme robbed thousands of investors of billions of dollars? If given the opportunity, would I have treated his family members with respect, including Mark, his son, who recently hanged himself on the two-year anniversary of his father’s arrest?
This might seem like an extreme example, but the humble, selfless service to which Paul speaks invites this kind of commitment in the everyday moments of our working life.
Advent is about crossing barriers and caring for others, even those who are difficult to love. Serving colleagues and neighbors with this kind of spirit connects us to the deeper meaning of Advent. It also helps us recognize and confess our own shortcomings and the ways in which we fail others.
At a broader, institutional level, Ms. Greene’s article focuses exclusively on nonprofits as the avenue for service and assistance in the world. Nonprofits are crucial, for sure, but so are vibrant, life-giving, for-profit enterprises. Business, when committed to the service of others, is not tangential to world change, but rather, at the center of opening up possibilities for people to grow and flourish.
As the Advent season closes with the commemoration of Christmas, may our imaginations and celebrations focus not only on God incarnate, born in a lowly stable in Bethlehem, but also on the serving, healing, restoring Jesus who crossed barriers in humility for the benefit of all humanity, and inviting us to do the same.
Donovan Richards is a graduate assistant in the Center for Integrity in Business.
John Terrill is the director of the Center for Integrity in Business.
Let’s look at why I believe that both pushing or fighting to get ahead and striving or pushing in pursuit of excellence may not be wholly accurate depictions of Kingdom values. First, the resource pie is not fixed in its size, shape or allocation. We serve a God of abundance, a God of loaves and fishes, a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Although we are called to be wise stewards of the talents and resources given to us, there is nothing in scripture that suggests that we need to fret about whether we are working hard enough. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about their material needs. In a famous passage he reminds them to seek first the Kingdom of God rather than pursuing their material security. “The pagan world runs after such things . . .” (Luke 12:30, NIV), but the believer is to trust to God for his or her provision. Faithfulness is the key to the believer’s material security, not harder work. If we authentically follow our call, the resources we need will follow. Second, excellence means something different to God than it does to us. Growth programs, new initiatives and innovation may be fine. But they may also get in the way of our faithfulness. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had and follow Christ (Mark 10:21). Other Jesus-followers have left lucrative or successful careers to live in the desert, serve the poor or do other unglamorous or seemingly irrelevant work. The world may not have understood, but they knew that the call of Christ was requiring something different of them. And although I firmly believe there are those who are called to serve God within higher-profile careers such as business, law or politics too, I would humbly suggest that a Christian will be called upon to express excellence within these fields in a radical, even counter-cultural way. In the teaching of Christ, traditional measures of success are almost always derided as not of the Kingdom (cf. I Samuel 16:7, Luke 12:20). We cannot earn our salvation, nor can we measure our success by worldly standards. Finally, I believe God wants us to be people of wholeness. Many workaholics I know argue that “they have no choice.” If they don’t work so hard, their competitors will put them out of a job. Ignoring God’s promises of provision for the moment, there is still a question of what such behaviors and attitudes do to the individual. The admonition of Christ is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Matthew 22:27, NIV) Can such a command be fulfilled when the heart is weary with conflicts and the soul with striving? Can we be whole when the mind is burdened with the troubles of the workplace and the strength worn down by too many late nights burning the midnight oil? I don’t think so. The Sabbath principles God gave to the Hebrew people were meant to correct such an imbalance. We need work and we also need rest. People who have been working too much, too long or with too much stress will be less capable and productive than those who are rested and renewed by time away from work. There is a law of diminishing returns that even non-Christians acknowledge. Ultimately, I would ask us to reconsider whether pushing the boundaries of our limitations should be a chronic part of our lives and work. To set such an expectation may be an act of disobedience against God’s Sabbath principles, a sign of distrust in his provision and may even keep us from the vocational expression of counter-cultural Kingdom principles. Mark Oppenlander is married to Beth, who is a 2003 MBA from SPU's School of Business and Economics. Mark is the Director for the Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University.
My wife and I were recently in China as part of the leadership team for a study abroad program. During our time there, we noticed how everyone seemed to be hustling to make money. It was striking, in this Communist country, how capitalistic and entrepreneurial everyone was. Each street vendor, taxi driver, hotel employee or shop owner was working, working, working all the time. They seemed desperate to make the next sale or find the next opportunity – to use the minutes and hours that they had every day to get ahead financially.
I commented on this phenomenon to one of our fellow travelers, someone who had been to China many times before (this was our first trip). Her response was, “With the economy growing so quickly, everyone believes that they are either on the way up or on the way down. There is no status quo. If they seem desperate it is because they actually feel desperate. There is no middle ground for them.”
A few weeks later, back in the US, I was speaking with a friend, a Christian man I respect and admire who has held a number of leadership positions in his lifetime. We were discussing how some organizations push people harder and harder, asking each employee to do more each year with either the same or fewer resources. He said, “Mark, I don’t think I’d want it any other way. I am interested in the pursuit of excellence. My company could probably be OK at what it does if we pursued fewer programs and new initiatives, but we wouldn’t be excellent. Any organization that strives for excellence must press up against the constraints of its resources. It must be pushing forward.”
I don’t think I have ever heard such an eloquent defense of overwork. But I think my friend is wrong on this.
The dilemma for the Chinese is that they see the economic pie as one of fixed proportions. Despite the growing economy in Asia, the person on the street feels that if one person wins, another must lose. Therefore they must push, push, push to get ahead. My friend’s point of view has slightly different contours. The suggestion is that there can in fact be a status quo place for us in work and vocation, a place where we can continue what we do without constantly pressing against the limits of our time and energy. BUT, if we opt for that place, we will produce work that is merely average and will fail to fulfill Christ’s best call for our lives.
In my next entry, I'll tell you why I think that both of these positions are untenable.
Mark Oppenlander is married to Beth, who is a 2003 MBA from SPU's School of Business and Economics. Mark is the Director for the Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University.