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What does it look like when a follower of Jesus runs a business?

A man stands in a large window in a corporate office.

What does it look like when a follower of Jesus runs a business?

By Michael Zigarelli, Professor of Leadership and Strategy

 

That’s a question that I’ve been researching for more than two decades. The answer, it seems, goes well-beyond the negative narratives we so often hear—you know, “no birth control for employees, no wedding cake for same-sex couples, no chicken sandwiches for anyone on Sunday.”

I’d suggest that’s about one-percent of the reality, and often a caricature at that. Can I share with you the rest of the story? It’s based on my recent study of 50 Christian-owned companies. They vary quite a bit by size, industry, geography and denomination of the founders, but when they’re juxtaposed, something unique emerges: a holistic, data-driven picture of what really happens in these businesses. Here’s some of what I learned.

They genuinely care for employees. 

Most Christian-owned businesses prioritize employee well-being. Broetje Orchards in Washington is an exemplar, not only providing year-round jobs in a seasonal business, but building low-rent houses for employees, a school for their kids, a church, a gym, a grocery store and a bilingual library for the mostly-immigrant workforce. They put their money where their love is.

So does Mary Kay Cosmetics, where the default for decades has been to love their people by lavishing praise on them. Tyson Foods employs more than 100 full-time workplace chaplains to offer advice, assistance, or just somebody to listen. And Hobby Lobby pays entry level workers twice the minimum wage and, despite being a retail store, closes at 8 p.m. to safeguard employee family time.

Beyond that are the faith-based companies that exist primarily to create jobs for those who wouldn’t have one. The mission of Lamon Luther, a high-end furniture company in Georgia, is to employ the homeless. Most of the workers at Second Chance Coffee in Illinois are former felons. And Tegu Toys manufactures in Honduras to lift workers out of poverty, even though Chinese production would increase margins considerably.

They fund faithful causes. 

Philanthropy is another common expression of the faith among Christian entrepreneurs. Some have even built businesses specifically for philanthropic purposes.

Typical is Pura Vida Coffee, launched by two faithful Harvard Business School grads to channel money to impoverished families and farmers in Costa Rica. Similarly, the longstanding purpose of TOMS Shoes has been to put shoes on the feet of kids who have never had them, inventing along the way the “buy one, give one” business model. Bridgeway Capital Management wrote into its articles of incorporation the mandate to give away a full 50 percent of its profits. Forever. And “Auntie Anne” Beiler founded her well-known pretzel company for this little-known reason: to fund her husband’s free marriage-counseling service. It’s now helped repair thousands of relationships at no charge.

These companies and countless others are improving the world, leveraging capitalism to fund faithful causes.

They value creation care. 

The theology is straightforward: God gave us the Earth so it’s our responsibility to take care of it. Christians call it “creation care” and for many Christian business owners, their very essence is green.

Tom’s of Maine, for example, offers all-natural products for personal care, pioneering the category in the 1970s. Elevation Burger insists on humane treatment of animals in their supply chain, while making every part of their operation eco-friendly. A company called OOBE makes all the uniform shirts for Chick-fil-A out of recycled plastic. And for decades, Cardone Industries has remanufactured old car and truck parts, keeping literally millions of them out of landfills.

For these and plenty of other Christian-owned companies, sustainability is not an add-on or a greenwashing tactic. It’s part of their triple-bottom-line of “profit, people and planet”—a theological mandate for them, not an ideological one.

They introduce people to God.

Some business owners see their company as a platform for sharing the gospel. For instance, those driving by U.S. Plastic Corporation on I-75 in Ohio can’t miss the message “Christ is the Answer” in enormous letters on the building side. Like many others, this company also gives millions to worldwide evangelism.

Another approach: Pure Flix and Interstate Batteries produce films with a penetrating evangelistic message. Those who are more subtle about their outreach put discreet scripture citations on their packaging, inviting customers to investigate it for themselves (e.g., In-N-Out Burger, Cookout, Forever 21).

There are other manifestations, but what all these companies have in common are leaders who love people enough to tell them about salvation through Jesus Christ.

They stand firm, regardless the cost. 

Here’s where we get stories that are so often caricatured. When Christian and secular values collide, Christians are often expected to compromise.

Many, however, simply will not. Case in point: When the Army, during World War II, asked Correct Craft to build assault boats seven days a week, the company drew the line at six days, risking the biggest contract they had ever been offered. In the end, they faced down the Army and even delivered the boats before the deadline, ultimately helping win the war.

A couple more examples, these with a twenty-first century flavor. When the courts insisted that Masterpiece Cakeshop create custom cakes for same-sex weddings, the owner, despite fines and death threats, refused to violate his conscience. And when a new law required benefit plans to cover abortifacients, Conestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby risked everything to avoid complicity in any type of abortion. After years of uncertainty about their survival, all three of these faith-based companies emerged victorious at the U.S. Supreme Court.

It may not happen daily, but some believers in business can attest that faithful management means standing on principle, even at great potential cost.

Notice something, though: This sort of conscientious objection is but a sliver of the Christian way of business. Christian-owned companies don’t operate on some papyrus scroll of “thou-shalt-nots.” Instead, my research suggests that many are model workplaces and model corporate citizens, elevating lives and communities, helping people to get right with God, and contributing to the common good of society.

Want further evidence? Let me tell you another story about how these companies operate. Actually, let me tell you 50 of them.

 

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College. He is the author of several books, most recently Christian-Owned Companies (9 to 5 Media, 2019), from which this article is adapted.