Finding Vocation in the Corporation

[1] “Did you notice that there is not stained glass in the lobby of this building when you walked in here this morning?” my interviewer asked. “I noticed that,” I replied and retorted, “and funny thing, I didn’t see a cross on top of 50th floor either.” It was the winter of 2000 and this exchange began my seventh consecutive interview for a summer internship position in financial operations with one of Wall Street’s top investment banks. My interviewer, satisfied that I could match his antagonistic humor and relate to the firm’s competitive and ego-driven culture, continued the interview with a more traditional question. “So, tell me, how did you decide to leave the church for a position in business?”

[2] In 2000, I ended my service as director of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in Colorado, one of the ELCA’s state public policy offices and a joint ministry of the Rocky Mountain Synod and the Division for Church in Society, to enroll in the Master’s in Business Administration program at the Yale School of Management. Through my MBA program, I effected a career change from lay leadership in the church to business – a marketing management position with American Express.

[3] The investment banker’s question is a valid one, even though it is formulated on an incorrect premise. The false premise is that I left the church when I decided to switch careers from working in the church to working in business. As we know, membership in the ELCA and working in corporate America are not mutually exclusive. The true question and the one that this essay explores is how does an individual experience Christian vocation and ethics in the context of a career in business?

[4] The Lutheran theological tradition gifts us with a keen understanding of the vocation of being a Christian as rooted in how we approach our day-to-day work and how we interact with the communities in which we work, live and worship. According to Luther, Christians do the will of God when our work gives testimony to God’s order for creation. Luther did not forsake secular occupations, nor did he understand the Gospel to overthrow the state and the economy with supports them. As Lutherans, we know that a person can occupy the corner office in an office building high above Wall Street and simultaneously be a person of faith.

[5] When considering ministry in daily life and secular vocations, we often recall Luther’s interpretation of Colossians. Luther wrote, “the maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays — not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Informed by this theological perspective, we can draw a modern day parallel. A Christian banker does her Christian duty not by putting stained glass and crosses in her office building, but by executing fair deals and making prudent investment decisions on behalf of her clients, because God loves good ethics and sound business.

[6] What happens to this rather simple inference, however, when we start to question whether the shoe-making industry is innately just or unjust? How does a person engaged in banking, for example, understand his or her vocation when the industry of banking may be considered too greedy or the culture of his or her bank may be considered “cut-throat.” When these questions are asked, the call to a vocation in corporate America may indeed seem antithetical to Christian duty.

[7] Luther’s writings about civil government can further inform our understanding of the doctrine of vocation and help us to appreciate how Christian justification transforms our vocations. In the Augsburg Confession, article XVI, Luther writes that “Christians may without sin occupy civil offices” and he condemns those who believe that Christian perfection requires “the forsaking of house and home.” To Luther, the litmus test for Christian vocation consists solely of the proper fear of God and real faith in God. This fear and real faith requires that everyone “according to his (sic) own calling, manifest Christian love and genuine good works in his (sic) station of life.” Therefore, an individual can engage in the work of corporate America without sin and satisfy his or her calling to business if the individual’s outward actions are grounded in the Gospel’s call to righteousness. Having said this, an individual justified through faith in Christ Jesus begins to respond to the righteousness that is begun in us through Christ. In, with and through this response of faith, the individual who works in corporate America is compelled to continue in his or her vocation and to glorify God through this vocation. By doing so, the individual helps to maintain, and indeed, when necessary, reform the order of creation that business is meant to be. Paramount to Luther’s understanding of justification, grace does not, however, provide business people with free license to sin boldly and without ethical recourse. Volumes of theological discourse debate the theological foundations of business and business ethics.

[8] As a companion to that literature, this essay returns to the interviewer’s question above and reflects on how advocacy informs my professional foray into corporate America. In practicality, then, how does an individual experience Christian vocation in business today? How does one maintain and reform a business within an economy so that the economy may more fully be an order and gift of God? I believe that a person called to business can practice his or her vocation and corporate social responsibility in many ways. In addition to shareholder advocacy and partnering with the ELCA’s ministry of Corporate Social Responsibility, persons employed in corporate America can ensure that fellow workers are treated with respect and sound business practices are followed. Particularly, I have found that by employing emotional intelligence in the workplace and creating transparency in meritocracies, business people can witness to their real faith in God.

[9] Every corporate workplace has its own culture. Today, these cultures are experiencing high degrees of stress and anxiety due to the constricting macro economy. With downsizings, reorganizations, and layoffs, numerous individuals called to careers in business are unemployed, underemployed, or still working but now with a potential sense of survivor’s guilt. Particularly in difficult economic times, persons in business can better understand and respect their peers, direct reports, and managers by using emotional intelligence to inform their actions. Emotional intelligence helps to provide a language and a set of tools for business people to engage the fears and anxieties of the times. Emotional intelligence is defined as “a type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” The term, emotional intelligence, and its application to business and management grows out of the work of Professor John Mayer at the University of New Hampshire and Professor Peter Salovey, Yale University, and Daniel Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence.

[10] By cultivating one’s own emotional intelligence, a person employed in business, and indeed a church professional as well, can identify his or her own feelings, identify the feelings of others, and solve problems involving emotional issues. As a relatively new hire in my business unit, I have found that emotional intelligence has enabled me to discern the collective grief and fear of my peers and our work culture. Not only applicable to the management of grief and fear, emotional intelligence also helps to build collegiality, to reach decisions by consensus, and to provide a framework for effective feedback and role modeling. Emotional intelligence can be used to affirm positive business ethics, to care for others, and as Luther would say, to be “little Christs” to peers.

[11] Just as every corporation is its own cultural enclave, each corporation is also its own meritocracy with a compensation system to support it. At the height of business competition within a corporation, business people realize their vocation in an “upward or outward” environment, wherein the individual must outperform his or her peers or be outperformed and consequently laid off. Individuals who work in these high performing organizations may ensure fairness in competition by working toward transparency in performance appraisal processes, compensation structures, hiring and dismissal practices, and organizational redesigns.

[12] By codifying and disseminating the formal processes, which give order to meritocracies, and by giving voice to informal organizational dynamics, which support them, individuals called to vocations in corporate America can further enable one another to understand and have access to fairness in employment. Transparency engenders a means for discussion and discernment. For example, recent trends in executive compensation have led to a wide gap between CEOs and the lowest salary grade employees within a company. By helping to ensure transparency about salary grades and formalizing the system for advancement, individuals help their fellow workers and society at large to engage ethical questions about just pay for just work, the socio-economic barriers to advancement, and the principles of Christian stewardship. When meritocracies are built on unstated rules and unclear practices, an individual toils without true understanding and without the opportunity to realize his or her full potential. Although it does not promise ethical structures or justice, open access to fair and accurate information is a building block for corporate social responsibility.