Unpublished: In the Final Analysis Does the Bottom Line Win Out?

I've been thinking a lot, for years actually, about the nature of Christian institutions and organizations. I ask myself all the time, beyond mission statements, what makes an organization, especially one that is a business, Christian?

More specifically, what makes a Christian organization Christian in how it goes about its business? What makes a Christian organization unique in how it hires, fires, allocates resources, makes hard decisions and cares for employees?

Even more specifically, when push comes to shove and we're down at the bottom line does a Christian business do anything differently? Or in the final analysis does the bottom line win out?

--questions from a start of an unpublished post I never finished as I pondered issues of downsizing and budget cuts at my Christian institution

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

27 thoughts on “Unpublished: In the Final Analysis Does the Bottom Line Win Out?”

  1. If it goes out of business because it can't pay its bills, and all the rest of the employees therefore lose their jobs in a down economy, has it fulfilled its mission better than if it let a few employees go to stabilize cash flow?

  2. Hmm... I think it's easy to say the bottom line shouldn't matter when we're not looking at the accounting, but the accounting does matter. I have a sister-in-law who has a family run business and she often lets her faith guide her decisions. She does the morally good thing even when it's not the financially good thing.

    But she has to keep her business running, so the bottom line has to be maintained or she can't do *any* good at all.

    I was thinking about Oskar Schindler as I was reading this. He saved a lot of folks in WW2, but he still cried in the end for not selling his car and his watch. Could he have sold his car and his watch? It's not a simple question. He needed transportation and timekeeping to run his business, yes? I think the scene at the end of the movie reminds us that we follow a God who in the end will wipe the tears from our eyes. I think we will be crying for the same reason Oskar Schindler cried at the end of Schindler's List. We'll think that we could have done more and didn't.

  3. does a Christian business do anything differently?

    The problem with this question is you have to have an agreed upon definition of Christian and Christian Ethics which we don't have. When it's left up to everyone to define the terms as they wish, than anything can be rationalized. We get into arguing the same boundaries that happen in certain circles as to who is and is not a Christian.

  4. Exactly, that's my point. The ethic of all institutions, even Christian institutions, is survival. Suggesting that, at root, there is not distinction between institutions. It's survival of the fittest.

    And to be clear, that's not a judgment. It's just a way to stripping away the Christian veneer and rhetoric to reveal what is really going on.

  5. That's a lot of what I try to explore in The Slavery of Death, how we live in this tension between survival and sacrificial love. I don't think those tensions ever get resolved. They can only be constantly managed.

    My questions in this post, then, is what sort of "sacrifices" do Christian institutions make in order to love their employees and constituencies better? Sacrifices that a "secular" instituion doesn't make.

  6. Maybe then, if we are managing the tension, the question is not "what" do we sacrifice, but "when" do we sacrifice it. Both may need to sacrifice payroll at some point. The secular institution might pull the trigger a little sooner to not just stay afloat but to make a maximum profit. The "Christian" institution makes them later and only as a last resort?

  7. Im not so sure that you have to have a definition. If someone calls themselves a Christian and they operate a "christian business," does their business operate differently than other businesses? If they all operate under the same principles, then Christianity makes no difference to them.

    Of course, we can slide off into legalism and list out what Christian businesses should do and not do. But a good place to start would be if they are going out of their way to love people? As in their employees, customers, and competition.

    A few examples from my past jobs as a banker and highway patrolman...

    At the bank, we prayed before every board meeting and asked God to guide our decisions. But the powers that be decided that one teller, for example, should be paid $20,000/year because if she were to get a job anywhere else in the small town, that is all she would make. And this small, four-location bank, made over $2.5 million in profit per year, of which 90% went to the two main owners. I asked for a raise for her multiple times. "It's just business" would basically be the response. And lower salaries for many of the women were justified because their husbands made quite a bit of money.

    When I was a patrolman, I would often hear over the radio something along the lines of, "There goes a good one (followed by a description of the vehicle)." Translation: That car/person looks like someone who might have some drugs, no license, warrants, etc. When I talked to my boss about it, he said it is just good police work. And he was right. Profiling makes for good police work and brings results. But can the trooper or policeman walk up to the car he stopped for a "cracked tail light" and tell them the real reason they stopped them? As in, "you look like a criminal and your tail light happened to be cracked. I would like to dig through your car and see if you have any drugs in here."

    Surely we don't have to have an agreed upon definition of Christianity to get started on treating people differently as Christian business people.

    As a trooper on the witness stand in a court room, you are called a liar, your qualifications and abilities to do your job are attacked, and you are accused of making up charges or seeing things you didn't really see on a traffic stop. And afterwards, the attorneys (most of whom I knew personally) would say, "don't take any of that personally, its just business. I'm just doing my job."

    I don't think its "just business" when you are dealing with people. And all businesses deal with people and are made up entirely of people. "Its just business" appears to me to be a free pass to act as selfishly and unsympathetically as possible for personal gain.

  8. But a good place to start would be if they are going out of their way to love people?

    That itself presupposes a definition, but the phrase 'to love people' is ambiguous. The owners of Hobby Lobby feel they are loving their employees by protecting them from certain medical options. They are certainly doing something different, although I personally wouldn't call it Christian. In your example of the bank you say they started the day with prayers, they feel that makes them a Christian business, but you say they based salaries on the prevailing wage so they were not. What you have here is two competing definitions. The question is not Christian or not, but what does 'Christian' mean in this context.

  9. Here's a recent thought-balloon I had about all this.

    Most businesses are aimed at efficiency, the maximization of the ratio expenses/revenue. Which is often labor cost/revenue. You want to get as much work out of people for as little pay.

    But what about care within a Christian business? For example, what about, say, an older employee, or one who gets sick or disabled, who costs a lot but isn't all that efficient anymore? Bottom line thinking--trying to maximize labor cost/revenue--would suggest cutting this person. Care would figure out a way to keep this person but at the cost, it seems, of losing efficiency and, thus, being less competitive in the marketplace and, thus, being at risk of shutting down (death).

    So it seems to me that Christian instutions are always struggling with how much inefficency that can tolerate while still being effective. So that's what I've been thinking about. What does efficiency look like in Christian institutions? It seems that Christian institutions--because care will trump the bottom line from time to time--will be less efficient. So how much inefficiency can they tolerate and still be comptetive? And are there ways that this inefficentcy can be managed or mitigated?

  10. Fair enough.

    I wouldn't say that the governing principle for Hobby Lobby is love. Rather, I think the owners have convictions about what they will allow within their company, and they view some medical options in conflict with their Christian beliefs. Obviously, Hobby Lobby owners don't think all of their employees agree with their decision, nor that even all of their employees are Christian or claim to be. That seems like a personal decision on the part of the owners, not something done in love towards their employees.

    Would you say that my act of love will look identical to yours, or anyone else's? I am assuming no, thus your insistence that we need a working definition. But I don't know that there is a specific, mapped out, working definition given even within the Bible. Rather, it is left up to conviction of the Holy Spirit, examples of Jesus, etc. What is loving for me will look different than what is loving for you. A definition of Christian or Christian ethic can never be agreed on. But if all businesses look and act the same, no matter how Christian love is defined, we can safely assume that the bottom line, rather than Christian love, is the guiding principle. Even if we can't agree on how to define Christian love.

    Back to the original post. What makes Christian organizations unique? The two organizations I mentioned didn't act differently than any other organization. But I know of a Christian painter that pays his workers twice the wage that other companies in the area pay. Not because it makes financial sense. And not even to make sure that their wage = productivity. Rather, they have done well with their business and want to reward their employees. That may not fall within one's definition of love, but it is different. It conveys value to the employee through self-sacrifice. And that sounds a lot like love.

  11. Good stuff, there, RB. What I've admired in my sister-in-law is her ability to do the good of keeping those kinds of people employed while remaining competitive. It takes some outside-the-box creativity and maybe her particular business gives her some flexibility that others don't have, but there doesn't always have to be an either/or in doing good by your people and maintaining your business.

  12. I see that my original line of thought missed the point. We all know there are ways to be loving in business, but how far should we go? And what if our charity leads to being squeezed out of the market and having to close up shop?

    I would think the cheerful giver (2 Cor 9) and also the widow's mite (Luke 21:1-4) would apply here. We give cheerfully and sacrificially. Our giving should threaten our livelihood (Luke 21:4). And this includes institutions, because institutions are nothing but a bunch of people.

    That doesn't make business sense, but neither does one claiming to be King dying on a cross.

    Which brings us back to the original question. How far should we go? That is difficult to answer. Maybe the better question should be "what can we do today"? And then we can cross the bridge of the future when we get there.

  13. I had a close friend a few years back who worked as a maintenance employee at a “Christian College”. When they couldn’t make the payroll, he complained vehemently that he was on the edge of debt collection and foreclosure. They quickly reminded him that he had contractually taken an “Oath of Poverty” when he signed up and if they needed to sequester his employee funds to survive as an institution, then he was obligated to accommodate their need without complaint or legal recourse. He eventually bit the bullet and weathered the storm, but wow, it pressed his faith against the wall and left a bitter residue.

  14. i think the golden rule: 'do unto others as you would be done by' is a beginning place. what do you think?

  15. it is a time of perpetual war we live in. corrie ten boom's family sacrificed their business, their family life & eventually themselves. their family watch making busiess progressive became a hub of subversive activity hiding & placing Jews out of harms way of imperial rules. I think the talk of Christian's in business in time of war may be called on to make similar sacrifices for the oppressed and hunted globally.

  16. i think that is called 'coercion' and is a well known ploy of organized crime.

  17. I've thought about your last questions quite a bit. I think a Christian business - if there is such a thing - would be self-sacrificing. So there must be some criteria for when to bow out and end the business for the sake of something or someone else, be it an employee, morals, integrity, loss of particular values, etc. We talk about how important identity and values are to an institution but we don't talk about those situations when you lose those core values or that identity. It's interesting that we don't talk about what that criteria would be - at least, I've never heard of such a conversation. That alone speaks volumes about what really does win out usually, even in Christian circles. I think we have just scratched the surface regarding doing business in a Christian way, primarily because the bottom-line wins out, even if it is a triple bottom line.

  18. This was an interesting topic to read after your previous post about Paul and moral depravity among early followers of Christ. It seems like the two posts have a certain relationship, and made me think more deeply about what our response should be to people or entities that use what we feel is our identity to do harm rather then good. It is a hard thing to reconcile that Christians can be just as evil as a non-Christian, and it makes me wonder if this is because we collectively feel a responsibility to right those wrongs even though they are not our fault. I think it is a healthy thing though, and helps us understand Jesus better and what it means to carry the cross or the sins of others.

    My personal experiences with Christian business are mostly though my wife's viewpoint where she observed some very shady practices like tax evasion. Or in another one where it bordered on spiritual abuse because the owners felt that their position gave them spiritual authority over the employees so not meeting expectations were signs of an unteachable spirit, and work desks were anointed with oil to cast out unclean spirits of past employees. Oh and there was a creepy Jesus in a business suit shaking hands with other businessmen painting when you walked in to what you might otherwise think was a professional lab and testing facility.

    The hard part for me with this is that I can understand and relate to people that make bad choices, but when they use Christian lingo as a cover story the hypocrisy makes the offense smell so much worse because it feels like all hope is lost when the evil isn't even recognized for what it is.

  19. Not sure that would be exclusively Christian, but I don't see any downside to it! :)

  20. My experience in the business world is slim, but I have worked in a number of non-profit organizations, both faith-based and secular, and now work as a fund raising consultant for non-profits, both faith-based and not, and when it comes to decision-making, the way they treat their employees, ethics, efficiency, effectiveness, etc. my experience is that there is precisely zero difference between an explicitly Christian organization with an explicitly religious mission and one that is secular. They run the gamut from abusive and dysfunctional to mediocre to outstanding. The explicitly Christian ones pray more - or say they do - but if that makes a difference in how they make hard decisions, I've yet to see it (with one possible exception.) I have however been sorely tempted with some clients to say "I don't know what Jesus wants you to do, but I have a number of suggestions about how you can treat the people who work here better and stop lying on grant proposals, and it's probably safe to assume Jesus would be on board with that."

  21. have you been looking at warren throckmorton's blog? Over the past year he has been posting about mark driscoll/mars hill church Expose`

  22. My answer, with no equivocation whatsoever, is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CHRISTIAN INSTITUTION! The term "Christian" can ONLY describe a person. Given that human beings are persons in relationship with others, such persons must figure out how to go about corporate action in which individuals willfully/willingly cooperate with one another. I despise the collective, in which individual will is denied. Institutionalization tends too much to favor collectivism.

Leave a Reply