Sundoulos - Spring 2010

On the Intersection of Faith, Economics and Social Ethics

Business and Spiritual Transformation

by Scott B. Rae

For most of this decade, the culture has been open to listen to those who are addressing the intersection of ethics and economics. From the Enron class of accounting scandals (which included Tyco, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen) in the early part of this decade to the subprime mortgage and banking meltdown of this latter part, there has been an open window of opportunity to speak into the business community about ethics, character and integrity.

But I’d like to focus our time on something you probably won’t read about in the newspaper, but is critically important—the link between business and spiritual formation. Let me start with a real life story of spiritual transformation—that came as God used a man’s business as the crucible to shape his spiritual life.

Barry Rowan was about to face the most significant challenge of his twenty-five year business career. He had just recently been hired as chief financial officer for a telecom company providing wireless phone service to both residential and corporate customers in Latin America. He was later appointed CEO of the Brazilian subsidiary of that company, charged with turning around a troubled situation.

The company had won the license to compete with the national phone company to provide services in a vastly underpenetrated market. It turned out to be a massive undertaking, since in order to win the license, the company had committed to turning on service in 80 cities (roughly 125 million people) in a two-year period, half in the first year and half in the second. They hired a staff of 4,000 people to roll out this service and it took off like a rocket. Once they turned on service, they put on 500,000 customers in the first 10 months making it one of the fastest growing competitive local exchange carriers in the world at the time.

According to Rowan, things looked like they were going smoothly, but underneath the surface, some cracks began to appear in the operations. The CEO was terminated, and the shareholders recruited Rowan to be the replacement CEO. It became clear that they weren’t going to achieve the results they had promised. Rowan also learned that many of their customers couldn’t pay their bills. Of the 500,000 customers they had signed up for the service, ultimately 200,000 had to be written off—fully 40% of them. The credit screening had been too lax.

Rowan realized quickly that a massive financial and operational restructuring would be required to save the company. “After I was there about 4 months, it dawned on me that ‘This thing could crater. Not only will the stock potentially not go up, it could go to zero.’ It just stunned me that this could happen and I was just blown away by the prospect of that failure. I had failed in small ways before but never anything as cataclysmic as this.”

As Rowan reflected on that difficult time, he understood that God was powerfully at work, using the challenges of his business life to shape his soul. In thinking back on it, he realizes that this time was one of the most significant times of spiritual growth in his life. He said, “So as I was in these very, very challenging circumstances, God was showing me what was really going on. As painful as the dramatic business failure was, it paled in comparison to the anguish in my soul. God showed me in the midst of the pain, and continuing in the solitude of the ensuing months, the reason I was so distraught and in such a spiritual funk. I had made achievement my god. It wasn’t until the achievement went away, that I realized a part of my god also went away.”

He adds this spiritual perspective. “Jesus calls his disciples with the words, ‘Come follow me.’ He is just beckoning us to come with Him on the greatest adventure life has to offer. But it must be on His terms, not ours. For me, He was saying, ‘Come follow me to this next level of abandonment and surrender. Give up everything you have.’As He has continued to draw me into deeper levels of relinquishment, I realize that it takes much more strength to let go than to hang on. But through our surrender to Him, Jesus draws us into this profound intimacy with Him and a freedom and joy I had heard about but had never really tasted. Out of a darkness that grew blacker than black for me, God brought me into a freedom and a lightness of soul I didn’t know were possible. I experienced God through the pain of Brazil. Nothing the world has to offer compares to the inexpressible joy that comes from experiencing the tender intimacy with God for which we are designed.”

He summarizes it like this, “My business career has been the crucible for the formation of my soul.”1

Business and Spiritual Transformation

Consider how God can use business to help develop a variety of virtues that shape our souls. Consider the virtue of service. Business requires that both business people and business organizations serve their constituencies well in order to thrive. As George Mason University economist Walter Williams puts it, “you don’t have to like your fellow-man, but you have to serve him.”2

Business also requires and cultivates the virtues of trust, trustworthiness and fairness. For the vast majority of businesses that are dependent on repeat customers for their success, trust and fairness are critical to keeping customers. Think about how quickly a person would take his or her business elsewhere if that person concluded that trust was missing and they were being treated unfairly. It is not uncommon for people to go out of their way to do business with companies and individuals who they trust. It is even more common for people to go out of their way to avoid doing business with those whom they do not trust.

Business fosters the virtues of initiative and perseverance. Business encourages what some call “entrepreneurial traits,” which also includes creativity.”3 Long run success in business requires creative solutions to complex problems. It further demands that people exercise persistence in order to accomplish significant business goals that can take months if not years to achieve.

With persistence comes the ability to deal with adversity. James 1:2-5 indicates that adversity is a regular part of the Christian’s life and business is one of the primary crucibles in which character is forged, by overcoming hardships and difficulty. A business person’s intimacy with God is often nurtured by having to wrestle with difficult times, potential layoffs or ethical dilemmas, both in the request for wisdom and for the strength to follow one’s moral convictions.

This was a major part of the story of Barry Rowan. He made it clear that business in general, and adversity in particular, have been crucibles that God has used to effect his spiritual transformation. His business challenges have nurtured what he calls “surrendered leadership,” and away from what he calls “an idea of self-sufficiency and to interdependence.”He sees this as having significant ramifications for what it means to lead an organization. He says, “It now means that it’s not about being in charge and doing things well myself. It’s about releasing the potential of other people to grow into what God has in mind for them to become. So I think that’s an example of a character dimension that God has grown out of this self-sufficiency into inter-dependence and recognizing the value of everybody, which I think leads to another one. God is bringing me into an authentic humility. . .”

Though it is clear that Christian values and ethical practices should influence the workplace, it is also true that business is a tool that God uses for our spiritual transformation. Though it is certainly true that business contains a wide variety of temptations, to greed, idolatry and materialism, those are hardly unique to either business or capitalism. Business both requires and nurtures some important spiritual virtues that God can use to effect our spiritual formation.

[The Society invited Dr. Rae to deliver his paper at a plenary session. For a complete version, email . ]


1 Personal interview with Barry L. Rowan, April 7, 2009. All subsequent quotations from Mr. Rowan come from this interview.

2 Cited in John Stossel, Give Me a Break, (Perennial Currents, 2005, original publication Harper Collins, 2004), p. 244.

3 For further discussion of this, see Robert Sirico, “The Entrepreneurial Vocation,” cited in Scott B. Rae and Kenman L. Wong, Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics, 2nd edition, (Zondervan, 2004), pp. 60-66.

Scott B. Rae (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Southern California) is Professor and Chair, Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Scott has written a number of books, including Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed. (Zondervan, 2009), and Beyond Integrity: A Judeo-Christian Approach to Business Ethics, with Kenman L. Wong (Zondervan, 1996). He has published many articles, and lectured on ethical issues worldwide. Scott and his family live in Irvine and are active in Mariner’s Church.

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