“Faithful Business,” with JoAnn Flett

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with JoAnn Flett. In August 2021, Dr. JoAnn Flett became the executive director of SPU’s Center for Faithful Business, a leading think tank on the integration of faith and business. She’s a frequent speaker, collaborator and organizational consultant, teasing out the intersection of faith and business that promotes human flourishing.

Amanda: She has served on and advised numerous nonprofit organizations and was a 2019-2020 Fulbright teaching scholar in Trinidad and Tobago. Now she’s leading the work of the Center for Faithful Business, calling business leaders to integrate their faith with their work and encouraging business to embrace its full potential as a force for good in the world. JoAnn, thank you so much joining us today.

Dr. JoAnn Flett: Thanks, Amanda, for having me; great to be here.

Amanda: Well, let’s just start at the beginning. What brought you to working at the intersection of faith and business?

Dr. Flett: What brought me to working at the intersection of faith and business … I have long been interested in the idea that business has a lot of power and influence in the world. I initially left Trinidad and Tobago to study at a Bible college because I wanted to be a missionary, but I also did not want to be a supported missionary. I wanted to actually go to the countries and live there and have my being, not that there’s anything wrong with being a supported missionary.

Dr. Flett: I just felt like if I could go to a country and live and work alongside folks and they could get to know me and build relationships with me, that I would have a better medium of communicating the Gospel. I’ve since thought that business provides that opportunity in the world, that in business, we go to work and we can have relationships with our co-workers and so many, many people that we touch in the medium of business, and that we can bring that same sense to this work where we’re caring for them, walking alongside them, getting to know them, and they’re getting to know us and our Christian identity. And so that’s always been appealing … looking at business as an opportunity to get to know people and love them into the kingdom, if you will.

Amanda: Yeah, I’ve always found it interesting that we feel like we have to get so far away from what we know culturally and experientially in order to really be out there doing God’s work. Right? Like you said, the mission field, and yet isn’t the mission field a factory at Boeing? Isn’t it an executive suite at Microsoft? Aren’t there still people in those areas much closer to what we know and understand that need the Gospel and need to have faith modeled for them?

Dr. Flett: Yeah, exactly. And in the medium of working alongside them, you get to really know them in very fundamental ways and you, as a Christian, become a place of friendship and care and support. For other Christians in the workplace, you could be a person that they look to for help and support for people who are not Christians in the workplace. They look to you for input and advice.

Dr. Flett: I worked at a local city here in the Northwest, and I was going to seminary at the time and often people would stop by my desk. And if they’d had everything from a car accident to a marriage going wrong, they’d stop by the desk to process with me. I was that place that they felt safe, that they could come and do that work with. And often I would leave that place, and I wouldn’t sing it, and I won’t sing it now, but thinking through, “You’re the only Jesus that they’ll ever see …

Dr. Flett: You’re the only words of life they’ll ever meet. So let them see in you the One in who is all they’ll ever need. You are the only Jesus that they’ll ever see.” Often, I would walk out of that place thinking that and singing, humming that to myself.

Amanda: And when you think about it, it’s really a privilege to be in that position. And yet there’s a burden that goes along with it. And I think back to growing up in church, and at least the way I was taught, that day-to-day living out your faith was seen as something very different than living out your faith, say, on the other side of the world in a community that’s very different than yours. And yet I think even as a child, I remember thinking, “Why is that so different?”

Amanda: I get that it’s more difficult in a lot of ways, but I don’t know that the work is so different. Well, let me ask you about your Fulbright appointment. I think probably most people don’t really understand what that is and what it means. What does a teaching scholar do?

Dr. Flett: So the teaching scholar … Fulbright gives out a number of awards. Quite frequently, when faculty get the awards for their research, they go overseas and they do research. There are a few awards where they offer you to do teaching so that you’re actually introducing new courses into a curriculum and working directly with students. So on this particular occasion, I had been teaching social entrepreneurship and had discovered that at the University of the West Indies that they hadn’t introduced at that point an upper-division social entrepreneurship course and felt, “Wow, I’ve been doing this for about eight to 10 years. So it’d be great if I could just help structure that curriculum offering.”

Dr. Flett: And so wrote a Fulbright [application] to that effect and was really fortunate to be granted a one-term Fulbright to work at the University of the West Indies with the Arthur Lok Jack Global School, introducing the social entrepreneurship curriculum to the graduate program there.

Amanda: And I don’t want to minimize because I’m sure it’s very deep, rich, expansive work, but what’s your two-minute elevator pitch with someone who says, “I don’t even know what social entrepreneurship is.” How do you describe that to people?

Dr. Flett: That’s great. So social entrepreneurship actually sits along a spectrum for everything from nonprofit to for-profit, but the basic element is that entrepreneurship is used to create value to society. The original father of social entrepreneurship on the academic side is a person by the name of Gregory Dees, he was at Duke University and located it in a nonprofit. Our British friends have sort of taken it and created this social enterprise movement, and this is part of the B-corp and the B-corporation.

Dr. Flett: And so these are for-profit entities who are seeking to use business as a force for good. And they are all social entrepreneurs, but the ultimate underlying thing there is they’re using entrepreneurship and innovation in business to create not just profitability, but to serve people and planet as well.

Amanda: I’m always fascinated by this idea of why business that’s doing good has to be a nonprofit. Why is it that you have to be a starving student basically to run a business whose end goal is to do good? Why can’t you make a good living and do good with your work?

Dr. Flett: That’s so great, and this is what the whole B-corp movement is doing, right? Using business as a force for good, it’s what Jeff Van Duzer’s book, Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed), is addressing and Kenman Wong’s Business for the Common Good. These are books that have put in play the idea that business actually can serve society. You needn’t look at it as a trade off, right?

Dr. Flett: You’re going to create as much money here, and then you’re going to create the nonprofit that gives away the money, but that in the actual activity of business and the products that you create and the people that you employ and the suppliers that you keep in business, in the community in which you serve, all of these things have a knock effect for business. Business can actually operate in that medium and do so with really impactful results.

Dr. Flett: It can actually be used for good, and good is a moral category. And so as a Christian, once we put good on the table, and I say this to our friends at B-Lab all the time, using business as a force for good is a moral category. And as a Christian, I have a distinctly Christian approach to what I think that should look like, and that doesn’t preclude any other persons of faith interacting with good, but I have a specific orientation towards that. That informs how I think business should be done and lived out in the world.

Amanda: Yeah. You don’t have to share the same complete definition of good to be working alongside each other saying we both want to do good with what we’re doing, right? Yeah. Before we move on, I have to back up and ask a selfish question. If we go to Trinidad and Tobago, what should we see? Where should we go?

Dr. Flett: Yeah, so the interesting thing is I went back as a heritage Fulbrighter, which means I was actually born in Trinidad and Tobago, a naturalized American citizen, and then I headed back. So, in so many ways, I did that, seeing my country for the first time in the eyes of a tourist. So, here are some things I would say you would definitely want to hit. Top priority is the bird sanctuary in Caroni. For $10 US, you literally can go and see some of the most impressive birds in the world, the Scarlet Ibis.

Dr. Flett: And so you’ll get a full tour of the bird sanctuary down some rivers. The other thing I would say you want to see is the pitch lake. Trinidad has one of two natural pitch lakes in the world. I believe the other one is in Norway, but basically the asphalt that’s used to pave roads, you can scoop it out of this place and it replenishes; that’s another thing that you would want to see. The other thing you would definitely want to see is the steel pan music.

Dr. Flett: So while there, I participated in what’s called the medium size steel pan competition. I went to the finals of that in the sister island of Tobago. And it just has all the creativity and the beauty of what Trinidad supports as carnival, which as a Christian, we were steered away from it, it’s a deep cultural identity for the place. And the steel pan music is really something to see and behold, to watch like 80 people on stage, beating the same note in an oil can, basically, and making melodious music. So those would be some of the things I’d pull out the flora, the fauna, the real sense of the warmth of the people on the island … and, of course, the beaches.

Amanda: OK. Well, as soon as we’re done, I’m going to go plan my trip. And also, I knew we connected right away, JoAnn, but I also was a percussionist growing up, for about 10 years. So next time you want to get out your steel drum, steel pan, please invite me over and let’s have some fun.

Dr. Flett: Yeah, you’re on.

Amanda: OK, all right. So back to what we were talking about, doing good in business, why do you think reshaping the way we look at business … where we find these intersections of faith in business. Why is it so vital to our future, to our community, to unpack this way of thinking?

Dr. Flett: Yeah, Michael Porter, a Harvard strategist, had this beautiful slide in 2013 that showed three sectors producing revenue: the nonprofit sector, the government sector, and the corporate sector. On the graph, he shows that the nonprofit sector is producing roughly about $2.1 trillion. These are 2013 figures. The government sector is about $3.1 trillion and corporations are $20.1 trillion.

Amanda: Oh, my goodness.

Dr. Flett: The thing I take away from that is the biggest revenue-generating engine in the world, and the only wealth-producing engine in the world is business, for-profit business. If that engine could be used to pay attention to the social issues that are arising in our society for innovation, for solutions, we’ve unleashed a really powerful mechanism for solving social issues.

Dr. Flett: So many folks have seen business as the problem, and this is an invitation for business to be part of the solution, in how it’s innovating, in how it’s caring for customers, in how it’s caring for employees, and how it’s caring for its community. So this is a real opportunity for business in the 21st century to have a more evolved form of capitalism where it serves triple bottom line businesses or goals.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Because when you talk about that revenue generation, really in a lot of ways, you’re talking about power, aren’t you?

Dr. Flett: Right. Right.

Amanda: Power to make decisions, to shift culture and communities one way or another. And I think in the past, it’s really been seen that government work, policy work, even if it’s grassroots, trying to get certain things on ballots, trying to put things in place that curb or steer business, is really the only way to change. And yet how much more powerful is it to make change from the inside than to try and see what business is doing and then run around trying to put up roadblocks, right? To steer business in a certain way. How much more powerful is it to work from the inside and say, “Let’s do this. Let’s do this in a better way, in a different way.”

Dr. Flett: Yeah, and those are moral ways to approach it, as well, with lots of benefit to everyone involved in business. I like to think that profit really is a reward for business done well. And so increased profitability is a sign that you’ve created something that the market wants and they’re willing to pay for. And you need to maximize profitability by squeezing the supply chain or getting the most out of your employee in terms of paying them the lowest wage.

Dr. Flett: But you can actually have a more expansive view of business, and seeing it in this way as an opportunity to serve and to create a space where people can come and participate in a market economy that allows them to bring goods and services and have profitability and utilize that profitability in really equitable ways. That’s a huge game-changer for capitalism and for business in general.

Amanda: And I think there’s a lot of young people, especially right now that are saying, “That’s what I want to do. I want to go into this world and make change from the inside out. I’m not willing to simply hold a protest sign anymore. I want to get in there and make change.”

Dr. Flett: Yeah. Young people are looking, and they have been ever since I was in the classroom, to say they want purpose in work. They want meaningful work, and they want purposeful work. And they want organizations that are aligned with those two elements of how they understand themselves and the work that they want to contribute to in a society. And so think how amazing that would be if organizations actually were looking out and attracting young people who would bring their full selves to work, with all of their creativity, in every field in which they entered.

“Young people are looking, and they have been ever since I was in the classroom, to say they want purpose in work. They want meaningful work and they want purposeful work. And they want organizations that are aligned with those two elements.”

Dr. Flett: Everything from accounting to answering the phones, to cleaning, janitorial services. Every space can have people who show up delighted to be there, thankful to be doing the work that they’re equipped to do and doing it well. And that has its own blessing for the individual, for the organization, and for society as a whole.

Amanda: Because how much better of a person are you in your faith community, in your family, with your children, if you are feeling fulfilled and nurtured and seen at work versus 40+ hours a week, dreading it, watching the clock run down and then bringing that energy home from work?

Dr. Flett: Yeah. We do, we spend, at a minimum, 40 hours at work, but then think of (maybe not so much in the COVID era) the commuting time or the prep time to get there. And then the decompression time from all of the challenges and the things that have happened in a day if you’re working in the idea space, and this is the knowledge economy, so most of us are pushing something in that space.

Dr. Flett: And so we bring all of that to our families and yeah, how much more amazing if, when we show up for work, we are showing up as whole people, being supported as whole people, and then leaving that place feeling a sense of accomplishment and excitement and success, and going back to our families and to our lives and exuding that as we take up our 6 to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. life.

Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. We talk about wellness so much these days, and I think back to my childhood and how often you felt like you were a piece of yourself, right? There’s a piece of myself I can show at school, a different piece of myself I can show at church, maybe a different piece with my family, and how much more, how much better it feels, to bring your whole self to any and every space.

Dr. Flett: Yeah. Part of the work that we are doing is trying to break away this sacred/secular divide, i.e, business is secular, you and the church is sacred. We need to muddle those two a little bit, bridge that gap, because, in fact, business is ministry. It is God’s work in the world. You’re joining God’s work in the world through the medium of business, and you’re being supported for that work in the world through the medium and the activity of the church.

Dr. Flett: So we need both sectors to do their ministry, if you will, in really fundamental ways. And to get back to, I guess, the liberation of the laity that recognizing that people who get up and put their clothes on and go to work are actually fulfilling an opportunity to love and serve God in the context of their everyday lives.

Amanda: So help us understand all this that we’ve been talking about, all this rich work of blurring those lines so that we can be our whole selves, a person of faith everywhere we go. How does that align with the goals of the Center for Faithful Business? What are you doing to help make that more of a reality?

Dr. Flett: I’m delighted to be at SPU to take the leadership of the Center. This has been work that’s been going since the early 2000s. The Center has positioned itself as the place where conversations can happen in the academy, in business, and in the church. It has sought to another way of doing business to awaken prophetic imagination and to increase moral courage in business.

Dr. Flett: This has long been the work of the Center through the many directors that have come before me, and it is my work at present to steward the excellent resources that have been created in the past decade or so. Resources around the films, the Faith and Co. film series, that put that conversation around business and society right, front, and center in 8- to 10- or 12-minute clips that churches can use to drive conversations. The work of the center is also about the academy and creating knowledge products for students to engage ideas about who they can be in the world of business.

Dr. Flett: So even as we’re training our students and producing material in the classroom for them, we also offer this other thing called the Pollard Scholars Fellowship. It’s a fellowship program where we bring academics from other institutions, and we host them here for two weeks and they get to use the materials that Bill Pollard has given to Seattle Pacific University’s library. These are private speeches.

Dr. Flett: They are things from Bill’s life and work when he ran ServiceMaster. We think about leadership in that way: We’re equipping leaders who want to serve society, who want to nurture this human flourishing. And so we’re doing that among the student population, and we’re doing that among faculty in our peer institutions. The other element of what we do at the Center is we’re creating a place where there’s collaboration and co-creation.

“We think about leadership in that way: We’re equipping leaders who want to serve society, who want to nurture this human flourishing. And so we’re doing that among the student population, and we’re doing that among faculty in our peer institutions. The other element of what we do at the Center is we’re creating a place where there’s collaboration and co-creation.”

Dr. Flett: We really see ourselves in this era as a platform entity to have conversations that matter about faith and work. Where are those happening, and who’s having them, and how can we join them? And so those are the things: We’re listening, we’re convening, and we’re collaborating with a number of different organizations and institutions to help produce this new awakening in business where we touch prophetic imagination and increase moral courage. So that’s the current work of the Center.

Amanda: And for everyone who’s listening, if you have not seen any of the Faith & Co. film series, these are stories of business owners, sometimes executives, within businesses that are walking out their faith, that are showing how they use their faith in business. Go to faithandco.spu.edu and do it when you have a few minutes on your hands because I guarantee, you won’t watch just one. You will dive in and watch several of the stories. They’re amazing films.

Dr. Flett: Yeah, thanks for that, Amanda. And the other piece to that is we’ve heard from friends who’ve said they actually use this as a coffee break moment in their day where they go and they watch one of these films for 10 minutes. It’s like a visual devotional, and so we have four seasons of those films: Business on Purpose, Business Serving Employees, Business Serving Customers, and Business Serving the World.

Dr. Flett: And they have been conversation starters in faith communities. They have led to people getting together and watching them and praying for each other and supporting each other and work. So yeah, please make use of that really free resource available to you.

Amanda: And encouraging, too. There’s so much encouragement from watching other people really succeed through sometimes very hard times. And it’s just like reading a Bible story and saying, “I’m going to use that as an example to keep going.” It’s current. I like to think of it that way. Current Bible stories of people who lean in and get the work done through hard times. Well, if money were no object, if I could write you a blank check for you and the Center, what would you do next?

Dr. Flett: I think we have an opportunity to think about convening larger groups of people in the faith-based world. Folks in the international development organizations, we’re talking about the ones that go overseas and work, and the ones that work here, nationally, in communities, where they’re addressing poverty and equipping them to see that their work joins the kingdom.

Dr. Flett: So that’s the piece that we are trying to touch. We’re going into that space of leadership work and working with church leaders and faith-based leaders and helping them feel resourced for the journey. And the other piece to that is helping pastors and churches feel resourced to develop the discipleship element of people who sit in their pews, their congregants who work in business.

Dr. Flett: So those are the two elements of where, if we had a blank check, we’d be heading into both of those areas, helping faith-based nonprofits and other entities develop strong leadership, developing elements that point to thinking of themselves as participating in building the kingdom of God, and then helping pastors through the church medium to disciple the congregants who work in business so that they can hear and feel that they, too, are participating in building the kingdom of God.

Amanda: So, if I can yet, again, oversimplify, you’re trying to bring faith more clearly into business, but you’re also trying to bring some business into our faith communities because there are lessons to be learned there. And there are ways that faith communities can be resourcing better to do more of their work that they do?

Dr. Flett: Yeah, so there are so many folks who are in business who attend churches, and they need to know that the work that they’re doing, the 40 hours or the 50 hours a week, significantly contributes to building the kingdom. And we at the Center have created conversation tools to help that conversation between a pastor and the congregant who’s working in business figure out some of the difficulties of what it means to show up at work and bring your faith and bring your whole self and do so in a way that’s contributing to building the kingdom, but also in a way that’s contributing to building relationships with your co-workers, your employees, your suppliers, your community.

Amanda: So, whichever side of the coin you’re on, go check out the Center for Faithful Business at SPU and all their resources and the work they’re doing. I know it’s going to be helpful for you. OK, JoAnn, we’re going to end with our famous last question: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?

Dr. Flett: I would say that the one thing that would make the world a better place is if we found someone who differed from us politically or socially or religiously, and just committed to a year of going once a month to a meal with that person and asking questions of curiosity. I think that’s been the thing that’s been impressed on me, is just how to be curious, how to ask a good question, how to really hear what the other person’s saying and their point of view and where they’re coming from, and it can absolutely differ from mine.

Dr. Flett: But I think in a world that’s feeling very divisive and broken, that might be the first way to do that. Committing to finding someone who differs from you on any opinion, and going to lunch with that person, or coffee, or a walk, for a year, once a month. And seeing what you think and feel and how you’ve been taught to pray about that particular issue.

Amanda: What a great idea. Nothing better than proximity to help expand our minds, and also bring more humility about our own opinions and ways of seeing the world. Well, JoAnn, as always, I have loved hanging out with you today. Thank you so much for joining us, and I hope you come back again someday.

Dr. Flett: Thanks, Amanda. Thanks for this opportunity to share about the Center for Faithful Business.


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