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Jeffrey Van Duzer: Another way of doing business

Business is called first not to profit but to participate in the work of redemption, providing meaningful work and helping communities flourish, says the business school dean at Seattle Pacific University.

June 21, 2011

Jeffrey B. Van Duzer has never taken a class in business or economics, and he has no formal training in theology. But as dean of the business school at Seattle Pacific University, the former corporate attorney is bringing these fields together to rethink the role and nature of business from a Christian perspective.

The result -- as the school’s guiding vision puts it -- is “another way of doing business,” an alternative to the widely held view of business as a strictly profit-making enterprise.

“The dominant paradigm says the purpose of business is to maximize profit and increase shareholder value,” said Van Duzer, author of “Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed).” “This approach turns that upside down.”

To Van Duzer, the purpose of business is to participate in the work of advancing God’s kingdom by creating meaningful work for people and offering goods and services that enable communities to flourish. Profit is important, Van Duzer said; without it, no business can survive. But profit is not an end in itself. Instead, profit is merely the means by which business is enabled to pursue these broader ends.

Unfortunately, Christians in business have received little if any guidance from the church and seminary and have had no theological framework for understanding their work, Van Duzer said.

“We try to help Christians in business recognize that their work has theological significance,” he said. “But a theology for business needs to be robust enough that it can actively critique the dominant paradigms, which may or may not be in alignment with what we think God is calling us to.”

Van Duzer has served as dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University since August 2001 and is also a professor of business law and ethics. Previously, he practiced law for 20 years in Seattle with Davis Wright Tremaine, a national business and litigation firm.

He is a member of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where he also serves regularly as a teacher and preacher, delivering four to eight sermons a year.

He received a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1976 and a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

Van Duzer spoke with Faith & Leadership about business, theology and the tensions between the market and God’s call to participate in the redemption of creation -- of life in “the messy middle.”

The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited interview.

Q: Tell us -- as your book title suggests -- why does business matter to God?

Because business has a role to play in advancing God’s kingdom agenda, and it does so in two key ways. One, it helps provide meaningful and creative work for people to do, which is part of how people express their God-given identity. Two, it produces goods and services that enable communities to flourish. Economic capital is grown by business -- and almost business alone -- so all other institutions, in one fashion or another, draw on the economic capital that business creates.

Q: Where does profit come in? You contend that maximizing profit is not the top priority of business.

Probably the most controversial aspect of this view of business is that it relegates profit maximization or increasing shareholder wealth to a means and a constraint rather than a purpose. That doesn’t mean profit is not important. In the business school, we still teach how to run profitable businesses, but profitability is what you need in order to attract the capital that enables the business to do what it should be doing, which is to serve in the ways I mentioned.

The dominant paradigm says the purpose of business is to maximize profit and increase shareholder value. This approach turns that upside down.

Profit is like blood in a body. If blood isn’t pumping through your body, we don’t have to talk about your purpose, because you’re dead. Similarly, if profit isn’t flowing through a business, we don’t have to talk about the business’ purpose, because it’s bankrupt. Few of us get up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to live to circulate blood.” Blood is important, but it’s not our purpose, and similarly for profit.

Q: How are you incorporating this approach at Seattle Pacific University and the school of business? I love the guiding vision, “Another way of doing business.”

We introduce our students to the possibility of this alternative. We present the traditional models -- the shareholder or stakeholder models of business -- but we’re inviting them to say, “Maybe there is another way.” Then we ground that in Scripture and theology so they can see the connections between what they’re learning in other parts of the campus and our way of thinking about business.

We also have a Center for Integrity in Business, whose primary audiences are the broader academy and the business community. It hosts conferences and colloquiums and executive training sessions around how business contributes to the common good.

Q: Is what you’re describing the world as it is or the world as it should be?

Many Christians in business already fit the paradigm that we’re proposing, but nobody has given them a theological frame so they can understand, “Yes, I’m contributing to the kingdom.”

Mostly, they hear that business has only instrumental value -- it enables you to make money, which you can then use to support somebody who’s really doing God’s work. We try to help Christians in business recognize that their work has theological significance.

But a theology for business needs to be robust enough that it can actively critique the dominant paradigms, which may or may not be in alignment with what we think God is calling us to.

Where business is out of alignment, we want to call Christians in business to realignment. Where it’s in alignment, we want to affirm what they’re doing. So yes, many Christians in business already behave like this, but many others unthinkingly adopt this dominant understanding of business. We’re inviting them to consider another purpose.

Q: Back in 2003, you wrote about the Enron scandal. What runs through your mind years later, when you see the kind of misconduct that led to the mortgage crisis and the financial meltdown?

Regulation is useful, but at the end of the day, I don’t think you regulate ethics. There is brokenness in humanity that reveals itself in greed and dishonesty. That’s a given in any institution, and it sometimes is more immediately visible in business. But I also think that there’s this underlying model that says it’s really all about how much money you can make.

As long as you train business leaders that that’s what they’re about, you will continue to run up against these things. But what if you train business leaders, “Your purpose is to use the assets under your control to better serve the community. You have to be profitable, but that’s your goal”?

It would change things. What if the mortgage brokers, instead of asking how much money they could make, had asked, “Is it really good to put people into loans they can’t afford? Is that good for the community?” If they’d been asking that, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

Q: You mentioned earlier that this approach to business is grounded in Scripture. How so?

In developing a theology for business, we started by thinking of the grand narrative of Scripture. We took a conventional “creation-fall-redemption-new-creation” model and asked, “What do we learn about business from this?”

For example, much of our understanding of purpose comes out of the creation narrative, the notion that God chose to provide for his world, in part, through the work of human beings.

So how does that connect to business? How does the understanding of work in Genesis 1 and 2 inform how we think about work and the meaningful and creative work that God intended for humanity?

Then we look at the fall, which in some ways was a rejection of limits. If we’re going to try to redeem the fall, if we’re going to participate in redemptive activities, perhaps it involves bringing back into play some set of limits or boundaries.

That gets us into thinking about things like sustainability -- not just environmental sustainability, but sustainability vis-à-vis all the stakeholders. Do you have sustainability vis-à-vis your shareholders? Are you paying a reasonable risk-adjusted rate of return? Are you paying your employees a living wage? You can go through each of the various stakeholder groups and ask those kinds of limits questions.

Then, regarding redemption, what does it mean to participate in work that comes out of the creation? You didn’t have to talk about reconciliation or redemption in the garden, because nothing was broken. But now that things are broken, you have work to do that’s restorative, repairing and redeeming. How does business play a role in that?

Finally, we look at new creation, and we talk about how work seems to return to its intended purpose -- this notion that some of the work we do today, the product of that, in some mysterious way will be caught up by God and used in the new kingdom, the New Jerusalem.

Q: You have said that redemption ensures conflict with the dominant culture. What do you mean?

The dominant culture isn’t very concerned about reconciliation. It operates on a narrative that says, in its extreme form, almost an Ayn Rand view of Adam Smith, “If I pursue what’s good for me and my company, no holds barred, then magically, mysteriously, that’s good for everybody. I don’t have to worry about brokenness; I just go after my thing.”

It challenges that paradigm to say, “No, you have a calling that’s beyond yourself; you are called to participate in the work of redemption.”

Q: How does this conflict play out?

Sometimes my students say, “It would be easier if all my shareholders and customers shared my views so that there wouldn’t be any tension between me doing these good things and what they’re expecting. Then I can both maximize revenue and pursue these more godly purposes.”

I tell them, “Yes, that would be wonderful, and if I were training consumers or investors, I would talk to them about that. But I’m training managers, and I’m training you to ask what God’s calling you to do even if you don’t yet have full alignment with your investors or your customers.”

As soon as you say that, that’s where the conflict comes in. That’s your conflict. That’s where you have a potential to behave prophetically, but it’s bounded, because if you stray too far from the market, you’re not playing anymore. It’s at that tension point that we need the most help.

To me, that’s a huge question. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about compromise and ethics, and I just haven’t found a lot of good theological wisdom to bring to bear. I think the confrontation in business is going to come more from an active engagement and trying to strain against some of these pressures in pursuit of these higher purposes.

Q: It’s what you’ve called “the messy middle.”

It is. It’s the “already-not yet,” and what shocks me is I know this isn’t an issue just for business. This is an issue just in life. You can’t, in some ways, live up to all of the New Jerusalem way of life, and yet you want to, and how do you navigate in between?

You know, I guess I’m -- in sort of, in old Niebuhrian terms -- I’m a transformationist, so I believe you can make changes. I don’t believe in a triumphalism, that you can make enough changes to be the New Jerusalem. But you can move the ball. It’s just, what do you do when you can’t -- not through some internal brokenness, because there’s that too -- but when even with best alignment, best heart, best understanding, external forces just make it such that you can’t do it?

Now, one of the answers, I think, is you strain harder than anybody else. This ought to be something that pulls creativity out of Christians -- in particular, Christians in business. I think Christians in business should be the most creative ones, because they can’t say, “Oh, I’ll take this option” or, “I’ll take that option” too quickly.

They have to keep saying, “How can I have both? How can I have both?” until the very last second, when they just can’t come up with it. They keep asking, and very often these third ways show up that are amazing and wonderful and kingdom-advancing and profitable, and you wouldn’t have gotten there if you hadn’t forced yourself to ask the harder questions. So in some ways, I think this is a very positive thing.

Q: What is the church’s role in this different approach to business?

Things are getting a little better, but there has been a fairly persistent feeling among Christian businesspeople in church that they’re not valued.

They’re valued because they bring money to the church or some skills that the church needs on the finance committee, but what they do with the majority of their life, it’s a little sordid.

That’s an old-fashioned, dualistic kind of understanding, which is breaking down. Still, I don’t think we get constructive theologies out of the pulpit for people in business. My hunch is that’s also true for people in other fields.

But this theology that I’ve been talking about should have emerged from the church. It should have emerged from the seminary. We’re trying to learn this stuff and build on it. But it would be better if it started with people who had great depth in theology and Scripture, who could then teach us.

I would love to see pastors who understand enough about business that they can articulate how it connects with Scripture and theology, so they can say, “The work you’re doing matters, and here’s why. In creation, God called people to work and look at the kind of work he called them to do. But God also put some edges to it, and you ought to think about whether your work has those kinds of edges.”

If we got that kind of teaching from the pulpit, it would give Christians in business a sturdy theological framework for what they do.

Q: So the church should both affirm this different vision and push against practices that fall short?

Yes, but also helping Christian businesspeople understand that Scripture speaks to the things that they make decisions about. Should we merge? Should I lay off this person? Should I close this division?

There are theologically important questions to ask around those decisions. It’s not a different area of life for which the church has no expertise.

Q: What’s a Christian perspective on the free market?

They don’t use this word, but many Christians in business idolize the market in the sense that, “If the market says it, I must do it.” That’s clearly wrong. The idea that “if the market says so, it must be so” is idolatry. As Christians, we have to reject that.

On the other hand, when you look at what the market accomplishes, it is amazing. I go to the store and buy milk; behind that, somebody’s bought a field, raised a cow and milked it and made cartons and organized trucks, and the lights have to come on, and the doors have to open and the parking lot has to be paved.

Nobody organizes that; it just happens. It’s so amazing, I can’t see God’s hand not in there someplace. The best I’ve come up with is that it’s an interim common grace. It’s one of the structures God has given. There’s no way that the market, left to its own devices, will take us where God will take us, but it’s a useful tool along the way.

Q: How did you come to this intersection of business and theology?

When I interviewed to be dean, my faculty asked if I had any questions, and I said, “Well, you’re a Christian business school; what difference does that make?”

That question prompted us to do a big literature review [on business and theology], but hardly anything had been written. So that launched a series of discussions and finding collaborators, often working by themselves in other institutions, but really trying to wrestle these things through.

It’s grown from that. It’s weird in the sense that I’ve never taken a business or economics class, and I don’t have any formal training in theology. So to be trying to bring these two together -- I’m just very fortunate to be surrounded by really smart businesspeople. Actually, about a quarter or a third of my business faculty also have theology degrees.

Q: You’ve said that the institution that will have the greatest impact over the next 50 years is business. Why? And why not the church?

I always qualify that by saying “direct influence,” because a vital church can, like a heart pumping blood to the extremities, influence all the various institutions. But basically, business just owns too much of the world. As business has become increasingly global and as capital flows increasingly across boundaries, it’s just harder for governments to control business.

The idea that we’ll corral business through some other institution seems unlikely. I think it makes more sense -- and this is what I tell students -- if you’re really interested in changing the world for good, go into business.

Get into that place where you can work from within. Business is going to change the world for good or bad. If you’re there, you may help change the world for good.