The Intersection of Church and Business

24 Aug 2011 21:05

This weekend, I'm blogging Urbana, a gathering of Christian students interested in the work of the church worldwide. This post was written by Christopher Lim, who generously agreed to blog Urbana's business track.

Speaking today are John (name?) & Chi-Ming Cheng of Dayspring Tech, a web and mobile app consultancy (Read DaySpring's Urbana 2012 info page)

How can Christians bear witness to the reign of God in a for-profit business?" they ask. Ministry is usually considered a non-profit endeavour. They're not here to talk about personal discipleship in a place of business (which is good), but how businesses themselves can bear witness to God.

These issue rise to the fore when you start making basic decisions in your business. This sometimes requires us ot expand how we think of business; it also requires us to expand the meaning of the word ministry.

John was an aerospace engineer coming out of school in '87-- not a typical ministry education. He wasn't doing ministry training, translation, okr languages. He sometimes wondered how his passions fit together, but he came to discover the broad varieties of living out the gospel in a discipline. We should be encouraged by the variety, freedom and possibilities that are available to us.

John shares a quotation from Amos 5:15, "Hate evil and love good, then work it out in the public square." Amos 5:15. The gospel must be worked out in our lives and it is not isolated, but it works itself out in the public square and everywhere else. It applies all the time, everywhere, in all arenas. How? That's what this talk is about.

Chi Ming is speaking now. He starts out with a story of the first time he spoke on business at a seminar for Intervarsity students. His session was double booked with one on relationships. He spent that hour session with an audience of two. Today's group has around 60 attendees.

Chi Ming's web and mobile app company, Dayspring Technologies, is in San Fransisco. It was founded 15 years ago by 3 church members. The company has 16 employees and 1.7 million in revenue. Recent projects include an entrepreneurship mentoring platform for the US State Department and the ImageNations group. They have also recently worked on a household budgeting app. Recent partners and clients include Accel, KPCB (VC), MercyCorps, North Face, PJCC, UCSF.

What does this have to do with announcing the kingdom of God?

If "Jesus is Lord", means anything, it must mean something in every arena of life. Early Christians made this affirmation and what they meant was that he is Lord over against all other gods and lords including the Roman Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not Lord. This affirmation had teeth and consequences.

What does this mean in the world of business? Chi Ming asks the audience a question.

"Imagine your business..." maybe you are part of a family business, or are entering one. If you are making decisions--how do you decide how to pay your staff? You have a small software firm with 8 developers, 1 receptionist. Software developers are paid well because of market demand, the latter are not typically paid well. How will you pay your staff? You can:

Here's another situation. Imagine a deadbeat client. You've completed work on time and as agreed. The client is NET30 and hasn't paid the last two invoices. Now they are ignoring your e-mails. What do you do? You Can:

These are basic business decisions and the are not necessarily right answers. Might the gospel say something about these scenarios? They open it up to the audience. Here are some of the responses:

How did DaySpring deal with these problems?

DaySpring started with $115,000, funded by their church membership. It was a 5-year unsecured loan (if it went out of business, they would all lose the money). The interest rate was from 3-7%. At the time, Money Markets were giving 5% at that time (1998). Compare this to today where they are paying .01%. Clearly, they weren't doing this for the monetary return.

DaySpring were a Christian business. Maybe if they charged market rates and paid professional staff below-market salaries they could take the difference and apply it to ministry purposes. They also wanted to create employment and job training opportunities for at-risk youth. This founding story of generosity and abundance through the church has freed them up in their use of money. They feel empowered to be lavishly generous--an outcome of the gospel.

DaySpring tries to embody and bear witness to God's redeeming of the workplace, marketplace and community.

The workplace is where officers and employers, project managers and staff, etc. meet. What does right relationship look like there? How are people paid? How do they give feedback?

The marketplace is where the company interacts with clients. How do you treat good clients? How do you treat bad clients? How do you treat vendors who serve you?

The community is where the business interacts with its broader neighbors. Companies should the financial stakeholders, but the schools, neighborhoods, etc.

As you work through the first scenario, how do you pay people?

Software developers can make much more than receptionists on the job for 20 years. One of the passages in Luke about advent is John the Baptist announcing the coming of Christ. One of the ways he does so is to announce the kingdom of God--every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The CEO to average worker ratio in salary has gone up to 350x. It used to be 20:1 and went to 411:1 (dotcom bust did the leveling). It's now around 200x.

From a market perspective, this might make sense: high demand for fortune 500 CEOs, low supply. But this disparity does not match the vision of justice in the scripture. See Mary's magnificat (the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted up), Hannah's song (1 Samuel 2, God lifts the poor from the dust), Amos says judgment is against the rich who trample on the poor, and Jesus says in Luke that blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God and woe to the rich who have received their consolation.

In DaySpring, they proactively and explicitly monitor the ratio of salaries from lowest to highest. The number is in their face. The ratio is 2:1 for fulltime staff. The highest paid person is paid 2x more than the lowest. It isn't a legalistic rule, but is a heuristic. When they set salaries, they benchmarked to market rates. They are all engineers, so they smoothed the curve. So they have a discounting or upcounting function.

(Christopher's note: What does this practically mean? I want to hear more of the struggles of starting up and how they achieved profitability so that they could survive and have the flexibility to experiment with these different models of just business?)

DaySpring also embodies the gospel through remembering the sabbath. Many have families and churches where they serve. They believe work is good, but that in the fallen world, it tends to overstep its bounds (see writings by the Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul). So they must structure their business in a way that doesn't require staff to work evenings and weekends. In the space of technology and consulting, the general ethos is run fast, run hard, there is enough time to sleep when you die. This results in aggressive commitments that you can't keep unless you work your staff to the bone. The Sabbath is a reminder of the Lord's provision and it is a hedge against injustice, when authorities push workers to ever greater lengths in the service of the god of productivity. They turn down some business at Dayspring, so they don't overpromise and sacrifice profits to protect their staff.

Righteousness goes beyond simple moral rectitude. (see Matthew 5 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled"). It requires doing what is right. One aspect is right living is relationships. DaySpring holds out the possibility of human-to-human relationships instead of purely transactional/power-oriented relationships.

This frame of relationships and righteousness gets complicated when you sit across a table from a client hasn't paid and still has the guts to ask for more work to be done. After conversations with folks before this meeting with the client, they wanted to treat this not as a business transaction where they try to use leverage to get the upper hand. One strategy would be to do the work since, in case they didn't get paid for what they had already done. Alternatively, they could refuse to do more, in order to prompt their clients to pay. In both cases, the focus is on money and getting paid. DaySpring saw this moment as an opportunity to relate rightly with this delinquent client.

The client didn't want to operate that way. They didn't acknowledge that not paying was wrong. Their choice to pay or not was a negotiating tactic to get what they wanted. DaySpring decided not to send collections after the delinquent client, since it wouldn't further righteousness in the sense of relating rightly with their client. (end of story, I suppose. I want to know if it made a difference to the relationship or not)

Chi-Ming shares another example of how they operate in the marketplace. Drawing from Jesus's message of "good news to the poor," they wondered, "If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?" If you do good to those who pay the bills, what credit is that to you? DaySpring sends christmas cards and gifts to everyone who serves them (the janitors, the insurance agent, the UPS delivery guy, the doorman, etc.) They try to do good and not expecting anything in return (Christopher even though it's not strictly doing good to evildoers). Since they're already friends with their doorman, they know what the right gift would be for him.

In the local community, their practice is a shared story of their partnership in the gospel with local churches and ministries. DaySpring offers youth internships (ran for 10 years) in partnershipwith Grace Fellowship Community church. It's a nonprofit and for profit partnership. They have had interns from the neighborhood and from the congregation. The church is in a high risk area for gang activity, and the company has provided a positive alternative to the children.

They have offered:

Some interns joined them as part time staff afterwards and some are now full-time employees.

After 12 years, DaySpring moved out of SF's financial district. True, they were above the transit station, there was good food, and the downtown location had cachet and great facilities. Instead of staying, DaySpring moved to Bayview, an extreme poverty area in the Bay Area. Unemployment and poverty are double the rate elsewhere. The poverty line is below $23k for a family of four. This is the home of Redeemer Church. They now share space with the church.

How did DaySpring structure their board? Their board includes Executive Director of Grace Urban Ministries, the pastor of Redeemer Community Church and Chi-Ming. You become who you hang out with and you need people who will speak the truth to you. Chi-Ming is glad to include people who ask hard questions that you normally wouldn't ask as just a business person.

Overall DaySpring hopes hopes what they do seems odd because it shouldn't be in line of what the world does, across all of these areas:

This isn't prescriptive, it is descriptive. They are saying the gospel should infiltrate all areas of their lives. They want the business they do to equally reflect God's reign. It may seem easy since they run their own businesses and make their own decisions--but even though you don't have decision making control, you have a position of influence and trust.

How does God's reign meet me in this place?


Final Thoughts: