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Another Way of Doing Business

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, April 23, 2009

I was in Seattle this week for meetings at Seattle Pacific University. Several of us who are associated with Laity Lodge got together with SPU faculty from various disciplines: business, economics, organizational psychology, theology, brain science, and marriage and family. We discussed our common vision for the integration of theology, psychology, and business, especially with regard to raising up servant leaders who are living out their faith in every part of life (Photo: SPU in the spring.)

For some time, I have been aware that SPU was doing some ground-breaking work in the area of faith and business, but I was impressed by how the School of Business and Economics, in partnership with other SPU departments, has developed a new vision for faithful free enterprise. The motto of the business school is: “Another Way of Doing Business.” They explained what they mean thus:

[I]n the School of Business and Economics (SBE), we start with the premise that the purpose of business is to serve. In particular, it is to serve the community by providing the goods and services that will enable the community to flourish (an external goal). It also serves by providing meaningful and creative work that will allow employees to express aspects of their identity on the job (an internal goal).

This philosophy of service reverses the dominant paradigm. Profit generating continues to be critically important but no longer as the end of the business activity. Rather, it is the means by which sufficient capital is attracted to the organization to allow the organization to do what it should be doing – that is, to serve. Shareholders are entitled to a fair return on their investments as the means to the ends of serving customers and employees.

Of course, efficiency, revenue generation, and profit-making remain critically important aspects of any business. Profit is as essential to the health of an organization as air is to the health of a human being. Without air, no matter how noble his or her aspirations, a person will die. This does not, however, mean that breathing is the ultimate goal of human existence. Likewise, generating profits is essential but not the appropriate “end” of the business enterprise. [Excerpt from an SBE brochure.]

If you find this intriguing, and I certainly do, I’d highly recommend that you listen to an address by Jeff Van Duzer, Dean of SBE. It’s on the topic: “How Business Contributes to Human Flourishing.” You can download the MP3 here or at this iTunes link.

I was struck, not only by the vision for business at SPU, but also by their commitment to interdisciplinary conversation about business (and other matters). In academic institutions, it’s rare for members of the business, psychology, neuroscience, and theology faculties to work together on projects of mutual interest. It almost seems as if they don’t have mutual interests. SPU is to be highly commended for their exemplary effort in this regard.

Seattle Pacific University is a Christian school with historical associations to the Free Methodist Denomination. The university’s statement of faith explains that they are “historically orthodox,” “clearly evangelical,” “distinctively Wesleyan,” and “genuinely ecumenical.” I know that several of their faculty are Presbyterians, so the Wesleyan commitment of the university does not shut out those of us with Reformed leanings.

If you’re considering a career in business, I’d highly recommend that you check out SPU for undergraduate or graduate education. As a plus, you’ll get to live in Seattle, one of my favorite cities (in spite of its well-earned reputation for drizzle, balanced by its equally well-earned reputation for coffee and seafood).

Topics: Recommendations, Faith and Work |

12 Responses to “Another Way of Doing Business”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 2:33 am

    SPU sounds like a great place, and one with a perspective on business that is sorely needed. BTW, the iTunes link downloads in less than a minute. I’ll listen to it as soon as time permits.

    The stock form of business ownership, unfortunately, lends itself to profit maximization as of prime importance, at least in our country. Most small stockholders that I know pay no attention to the ethics of the companies’ whose stock they invest in. They’re looking for money. It takes a courageous and talented board of directors to lead a company with a long-term goal as its main objective, rather than short-term profit.

    SPU’s program sounds like a great way to help change the general public’s attitude about service and profit and their relationship to one another. We’ve got to start someplace.

    We can do some good at our own workplaces, even as individuals with a vision, if we act in the name of the Lord.

  2. Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e64v4 Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 5:17 am

    […] Profit in the business world (re)considered. […]

  3. Ray Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 6:30 am

    I find this way of thinking disturbing. I’m certain that I will be misunderstood as a greedy capitalist, but I’ll try to say this in the best way I can. Feel free to disagree.

    Every business exists because someone put scarce resources at risk in an economic enterprise. The motivation to take that risk - and to incur the possibility of the complete loss of those resources - is not to “enable the community to flourish” or to “allow employees to express their identity through meaningful and creative work.” The purpose of the entrepreneur’s risk is to generate the maximum possible return on the investment of those scarce resources. Profits are GENERATED by successful business enterprises. They are not lying around in the environment like oxygen, waiting to be breathed in. Profit necessarily comes first. If there is no potential for profit, there is no motivation to take the risk that creates the business that does all of these wonderful things in the first place.

    Profits accrue to those enterprises that do the best job of efficiently meeting customer needs; that is, providing goods and services that enable the community to flourish (to use SPU’s terminology). In that way, profits are the measure of how well businesses serve the community. Profits begin as dollars in the pockets of consumers. The free market selects the best producers through the choices exercised by individual consumers in unrestricted economic exchange, and it rewards those producers in the form of revenue. After all of the costs of the enterprise are deducted from the revenue, the residual is profit. Therefore, the better a company serves its customers the more revenue it generates, and the greater its likelihood of creating profits for its shareholders.

    According to SPU, “shareholders are entitled to a fair return on their investments as the means to the ends of serving customers and employees.” That sounds nice. What is fair? And who decides? Those are not inconsequential questions. If sharehoders aren’t making a “fair” return, what happens then? What if shareholders are making “more than their fair share” of profits? Does the community being served, by way of its government, step in to make things right?

    Where I disagree with SPU is in the subordination of profit to service. The invisible hand of the free market, through choices made by individual consumers acting in their own self interest, will automatically reward those firms that best serve the community. And there should be no restriction on the magnitude of those rewards, because those “excessive” profits attract new firms into the market which then compete to earn those profits, and service to the community is improved. When we go down the road of accepting the premise that businesses exist not for profits, but for some esoteric notion of community service, we’re headed for trouble.

  4. Bill Goff Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 7:45 am

    I applaud SPU for its effort to bring Christian values to the marketplace. I also appreciate Ray’s strong articulation of pure capitalism. But I strongly disagree with Ray’s confidence in the “invisible hand of the free market”. This invisible hand is surely an idol, a false god, that has led to the current crisis in our economy. It is a false belief to trust that “through choices made by individual consumers acting in their own self interest, will automatically reward those firms that best serve the community.” Individuals acting in their own self-interest without regard to the interests of others or the environment or God, lead to destruction.
    I have been reading The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani which details some of the disastrous results of consumers acting in their own self-interest. This is simply godless capitalism, no better than godless communism. The way to escape both is to follow Jesus’ admonition to be a servant.

  5. Ray Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 8:58 am

    It is a false argument to assert that self interest and Christian values are mutually exclusive. In my religious, political and economic freedom I can choose to follow biblical principles as I live my life, and I do with God’s help. To acknowledge the natural laws of economics does not make the free market a “false god” or an “idol” any more than dropping a rock on my foot causes me to worship gravity.

    As a mechanism for regulating the economy I trust the collective impact of free individuals behaving economically in ways that better their own lives much more than I trust any force, no matter how benevolent, to make decisions for the market. You would replace my freedom of choice with what? Bill’s Articles of Economic Fairness and Equality? How would Bill determine what those articles of fairness should be? And how would we recognize Bill’s authority to do so?


  6. Mark Roberts Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Ray: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have read it, twice, actually. I don’t have time to respond in detail now. But I want to say that the sort of position you’re articulating was also represented in a SPU business school faculty conversation in which I was a participant. They are wrestling with these very ideas.

    My question for you, and for myself, is how a theological perspective might inform the discussion of the purpose of business. I wonder how business reflects the first instruction for humans, to “be fruitful and multiply.

    The question of fairness is an important one. The answer should come, in part, from those who are doing business: investors, stockholders, entrepreneurs, etc. I do not think it should be imposed by any external authority.



  7. Bill Goff Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 10:00 am

    This is an engaging discussion. Mark, I disagree with your statement that fairness should not be imposed by any external authority. I don’t think those who do business would agree. If I am an honest businessman, I want someone to check the scales of my competitors. I want investors to be honest, for stockholders to rely on the statements of the companies in whom they invest, for entrepreneurs not to destroy the environment. Surely the external authority of government (especially in a democracy) has an important role in inforcing laws that ensure a fair marketplace.

  8. Barb Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    you should also check out Whitworth University in Spokane WA–I confess–as an alum and a current parent I am just a bit biased :)

  9. J Falconer Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Thanks Rev Roberts & posters, All of the ideas are engaging & interesting. The present world system relies on currency &/or bartering in the economic realm. Bartering referring to land, equipment, products, services, etc. My guess is only an eternal kingdom will present a fair balance for all where economics will not play a significant role at all. Wonder if some believers consider in the world but not of the world?? Thanks again for everyone’s thoughts & opinions. It’s refreshing for the times we’re in and reminds me of the old fashioned newspaper editorials. Thanks again for everyone’s input-very valuable!! Have a great week–

  10. Mark Roberts Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Bill: Yes, a fair marketplace with respect to process. But I wouldn’t want the government to decide how much profit is fair if a company is doing everything legally.

  11. Thomas Buck Says:
    April 25th, 2009 at 6:26 am

    I listened, finally, to Mr. Van Duzer’s speech, and am in general agreement with it. I’d like the “sustainability” aspect of his vision to be refined a bit, especially the “livable wage” part of it. There are some industries, particularly “service” industries, that offer non-livable, but still very useful wages and job experience to people just entering the work force.

    The primary focus on service, yet not setting aside profit, is a good one, in my opinion.


  12. Final Comments on the MBA Oath | Says:
    June 5th, 2009 at 12:02 am

    […] the leaders of School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University are working on. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. The folks at SPU are seeking “another way of doing business,” in which profit is not […]


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