“Why Business Matters to God,” with Jeff Van Duzer
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 Jeff Van Duzer. His teaching draws on a distinguished career in higher education, law, and financial management. At Seattle Pacific University, he held several positions including provost, dean of the School of Business and Economics, and professor of business ethics and business law. He was a practicing partner with the international law firm Davis Wright Tremaine for more than 20 years, and is the author of Why Business Matters to God, along with many other articles in academic and popular journals. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jeff Van Duzer: Yeah. It’s my pleasure.
Amanda: So before we get into the meat of your book, Why Does Business Matter to God?, it says in the introduction that you are an unlikely author of a work about business. Why is that?
Jeff: Well, as I say in the foreword of the book, I grew up, I’m a product of the 1960s and I lived at just outside of Berkeley, California. And at that time, just the ethos of the whole place was very anti-: anti-police, anti-government, anti-war, big protests against Vietnam War were ongoing. And in the middle of all of that, with honestly very little thinking about anything, I just grew up being anti-big business and anti-capitalism. And again, without any real good thought, I just assumed that business and capitalism were behind many of the great challenges of our day or of that day. And so I was taught to think that business was bad.
Jeff: And so when I found myself somewhat amazingly becoming the dean of a business school, it struck me that was probably not a good long-term posture to say. So I started looking around for positive things I could say because I was being asked to go speak at Rotary and things talking about why business was good and important. And it turned out that I found out lots of stuff very quickly, that there was a lot to celebrate about the work that business was doing in the world and the contributions it was making. And that my anti- posture was just really misguided. But because of that, the idea that I would actually write a book about why business is good and matters to God is kind of an odd place for me to land, given where I started.
Amanda: And yet, maybe that put you uniquely in the right perspective. I know as a former actress and performer growing up in the church, I can’t tell you how many times someone would say to me, “You want to be an actor? Well, you’re not going to go to Hollywood, are you?” in this very, like, “That would be the stupidest thing in the world. That’s evil, don’t go there.” And every single time, even as a very young person, I thought, “Why should I run away from it? Shouldn’t we be running into the fire?” Shouldn’t we be bringing God into that space versus saying, “I’m going to pretend that space doesn’t exist.”
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. And that is kind of the genesis of the book, as we started asking or identifying positive things that were happening around the world because of business, we wanted to take a step back and say, “Well, how does God think about business? From God’s perspective, is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it being done right? What are its purposes through God’s lens? What are the limits it should honor? How should it interact with other institutions in society?” So those kinds of questions, as you say, running in is really the genesis for the book that I wrote.
Amanda: And what I love about the book is it’s not simply a Bible study for someone in the business world to sort of find purpose in their day to day for them as an individual. So, let me ask you this question: Why is it so important for business owners, leaders, and supervisors to understand their unique role in God’s master plan?
Jeff: Well, one of the things that I discovered as dean in the business school, so one of the things you do as the dean of a business school, you go out and meet people in the business community. There’s a lot of reasons that those connections are beneficial to the school, and they were helpful for me as I thought more deeply about business. So I had, over the course of my time as dean, the opportunity to talk to tons and tons of people that most often are Christians in business. And with some very positive exceptions. One of the things that I noticed across the board was that by and large, Christians had a very impoverished sense of why their work would make any difference in the kingdom.
Jeff: And if you press them, “How is your work as a businessperson contributing to the advance of God’s kingdom?” you would often get a kind of, “Well, I make a lot of money and I can give it away to the church or to a missionary.” It’s essentially saying “My worth is instrumental. I fund the real work of God. But the stuff that I do day in and day out is, at best, irrelevant and possibly slightly distasteful.” And I would say that back when we were wrestling with this in the early 2000s, the church was still pretty broadly teaching, implicitly or explicitly, that if you were really serious about your faith, you would probably go into missions or possibly be a pastor. And then if you couldn’t achieve that high level, then maybe you could at least do social work of some sort. And if at the very bottom, if you couldn’t do any of that, well, then I guess you could do business, as long as you tithe.
Jeff: And so the sense that even the church was giving was that, as a businessperson, you were kind of a second-class citizen. And all of that seemed wrong to me and it seemed inconsistent with the way God would think about folks that work in a variety of settings, including business. And so it did seem to me important that this different perspective be told.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you can imagine how many people, I want to use the phrase suffered in silence or continue to suffer in silence, without even really knowing why, feeling like their purpose isn’t much of a purpose maybe.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. I will say one thing that I would observe is that in the last 20 years or so, I feel like the church has moved in a very positive direction around faith and work and validating the work that we might have used to call secular work. And so there’s been a real change, not in every church and not in every setting, but in general, I think the movement has been in the right direction. So we’re getting better teaching and better support from the pulpit now than we did a couple decades ago.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And when you unpack all this in the book, the purpose of business itself from God’s perspective, you go all the way back to the Garden [of Eden] to unpack this. Do you want to talk about that for a minute?
Jeff: Yeah. As I was trying to put the book together, there would be different structures that you could use. And what I ended up deciding was to think about really the grand narrative of Scripture. As we know, Scripture has many genres and many stories. Typically, when you preach a sermon, you’re preaching out of just one of those stories. But it’s useful frequently to stand back and look at the whole sweep of Scripture from beginning to end, because it does tell one big story, and it tells it in different traditions divided up differently. But the one I used/told is in four great movements: creation, fall, redemption, and then new creation. And so the structure of the book was to say, “What do each of those movements contribute to our understanding of business?” And it turned out, at least it seemed to me, that we could draw a lot around the fundamental question of what’s the purpose of business in the first place from the creation accounts. It certainly gets shaped a little bit further in the later movements, but really, you can frame it up pretty well just looking through Genesis 1 through 3.
Amanda: And you want to shape that for us?
Jeff: Drawing on several different parts of the Genesis account, we basically ended up concluding that at a first-order, fundamental level, business exists in God’s plan for two reasons. One, it exists to provide opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities in meaningful and creative work. We noted that work was part of God’s design from the beginning. It’s not as so many people seemed to feel the consequence of the fall. What it was meant to be was fundamentally how a way of expressing that you were human was in part through work, but it was work in the image of God, creative, meaningful work. And so business, it’s not certainly the only institution in society, but it’s really maybe the dominant institution in society in providing opportunities for people to engage in that kind of work. And so the first purpose is to create really meaningful and creative jobs that allow people to express aspects of who they are.
Jeff: But then the second, and this was the one that was sort of new discovery for me, if you look closely at Genesis 2:5, what you’ll see is that … I’m paraphrasing, but it says God made the fields, but there was no grain, no food was coming up. And it gives two reasons. One reason is because there’s been no rain, so God hadn’t yet just given the natural ingredients that were needed. But also it says because as of yet there was no human being available to till the ground, to work the ground. And what that suggests is that as part of God’s perfect plan, before sin messed anything up, God intended creation to flourish, to grow, to develop in part … I always have to be careful when I say this. You want to put it in quotes. “Out of a partnership between God and human beings,” that doing work together, but that human beings had a critical role in bringing forth the crops, bringing forth that which was already resourced in the garden but not yet fully formed.
“’Out of a partnership between God and human beings,’ that doing work together, but that human beings had a critical role in bringing forth the crops, bringing forth that which was already resourced in the garden but not yet fully formed.”
Jeff: And so a second purpose of business is simply that business exists to provide goods and services that will enable a community to flourish. So it’s really a focus. The first purpose looks at meaningful and creative work. And the second purpose looks at essentially the output of that work: products and services that enable a community to flourish. And that’s what I concluded was really the first order purpose of business that one could kind of back into through a careful look at Genesis.
Amanda: The way that you lay that out, which seems so obvious the way you say that, it’s like, “How come we all didn’t see it that way from the beginning?” But what it brings to mind for me is an article I read many years ago based on some writings of a monk from back in the early 1800s. He was talking about the idea of doing everything as unto the Lord, which we know we’re called to do. But that’s easier said than done. And sometimes it was his turn to peel potatoes all day long. You can spend all day peeling potatoes, and you can do that as unto the Lord. You don’t need to be carving the potatoes into the shape of a cross, right?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda: We don’t have to overtly show something that says to the world “ministry” for us to be doing something as unto the Lord. And I think that’s a lesson that I know I’m still trying to learn. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that’s a good one … I appreciate that. I think the idea of work that promotes a flourishing creation, a created order that’s flourishing, is part of God’s intended design. And so that when we step in and engage at that level, we are doing the work that God has called us to, and it doesn’t have to be carving a cross.
Amanda: Right. Right. Amen. Amen. Along those same lines, I’m sure a question you get a lot when you talk about this is, what about profit? I mean, how can you serve shareholders? How can you build your business? How can you pay everyone and do well for yourself and be serving God at the same time?
Jeff: Yes. So profit is interesting and largely because until the last few years, or maybe 50 years before that, there’d been a pretty dominant understanding of the fundamental purpose of business. And this is what would be taught in most business schools and certainly most of public corporations and many, many private corporations would run on this model, and that is that the purpose of your business, if you were a business manager or an executive running the business, your purpose was to figure out how to maximize the return, the financial return for your investors. In support of doing that, you might conclude, “Oh, we better be good to our employees because that’ll just reduce turnover, keep costs down, and so forth.” Or you could also say “We better provide products and services that are really admired and desired by consumers because that’ll increase sales.” But in that case, the care for your employees and the quality of the work that they’re given to do and care for the products, those two things become means to the end of serving profit. They’re only important insofar as they actually increase the return on the investment.
Jeff: What I’m suggesting that from a biblical standpoint, that really needs to be seen almost exactly upside down, and that is, that profit becomes the means for letting a business do what it’s supposed to do, which is to provide meaningful and creative work and to create products and services that enable a community to flourish. And so profit, rather than being the goal, it becomes the means. That actually can get played out even further. It’s not just a means, it’s also a constraint in that if you run your business and you say “I’m all about giving meaningful and creative work to my employees, and I’m all about making these high-end or great products,” if you can’t do it in a way that generates a profit, pretty soon you’re going to be gone. And so you have to choose options. As you pursue these higher-level goals, you have to choose options that allow your business to return a reasonable profit. So it’s not that profit isn’t important, it’s just not the ultimate purpose.
Jeff: One analogy that I’ve used to explain it is to say that profit in a company is a bit like blood in a body. If blood is not pumping around your body, we don’t really have to have a long discussion about your purpose because you’re dead. But really, wouldn’t it be weird to get up every morning and say, “My purpose today for living is to pump blood?” No, it’s critically important, but it’s not the purpose. And so sometimes I get accused of denigrating or suggesting that profit is either not important or easy, and really nothing could be further from the truth. I have huge admiration for people that can run profitable businesses, particularly over the long haul. It just doesn’t convert it into the ultimate purpose of the business, at least as I think God sees it.
Amanda: Is it possible to sum up in maybe too simplistically a way, to say it’s about your definition of success?
Jeff: Yeah. Sure. You could talk about that. I think of in terms of what’s the goal of the business. But yeah, absolutely, it’s the same thing. If what you’re going to do at the end of the year is look back and say, “Wow, look at all the money I made,” then that’s one goal or that’s one definition of success. And I’m suggesting that there’s a higher definition and one that maybe more closely aligns with what God is interested in. And that is sort of broadly servicing to employees and to the broader community generated and made possible by profit. And so yes, go get your profit but as a means to the end, not as the end itself.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Which brings me then to, there’s all sorts of decisions and pinch points that need to be made in any business, in any, really, project of any kind. It’s not always the good answer or the bad answer. I feel like when we have this conversation, people might tend to think, “Oh, I could choose to do the godly thing or I could choose the thing that’s going to make us more or money.” But I feel like it’s very rarely that simple. I think most of the time you have to make a decision. You’re not sure where either decision will lead. You’re not sure if God’s best is really an A or B. How do you talk about business leaders trying to do this, trying to serve God, trying to follow this model, but then you keep getting into these situations where you have a choice to make.
Jeff: Yeah, well, there’s certainly nothing in what I wrote that would suggest that once you establish the right goals, all sorts of business decisions become simple. And they’re not simple for two different reasons, probably more, but two that I can think of sitting right here. One is, they’re not simple because there’s just too many factors that can shape an outcome and you just often don’t know enough and sometimes you have to make decisions on limited information, you have to make decisions quickly. But none of that … that kind of decision doesn’t really … you can still say, “What am I trying to achieve ultimately?” Good jobs, meaningful, creative work, good products that enable the community to flourish. That’s what I’m going for. Now, is this going to do that? Is this going to make that more possible? I hope so. I think so. Odds seem like maybe so. But you’re making these decisions, as you say, in a kind of cloud of what you don’t know. So that’s one level of problem.
Jeff: The other level, which I think is more theologically challenging is that you sometimes know exactly what you want to achieve, but there is no option that lets you get there. And the reason often in this is because of market forces. “I simply cannot run a business in a way that aligns completely with what I think God calls me to and stay alive as a business.” And so you could say, which I don’t know many that do, I certainly don’t, but you could say in that situation you must try to do the 100% godly thing as you go down with the ship. I think that this is really a consequence of the fact that we didn’t stay in the garden, that we left because of the fall, and brokenness got introduced into our world. And so now we have to make these kinds of decisions in the context of a broken world. And so certainly I’m broken. So my own motives and my own desires can enter in ways that aren’t helpful. But more than that, the structures that I’m operating in are also broken.
Jeff: And so I have a section of the book and it’s actually a section that if I were ever to do a renewal or a rewrite of the book, I would sort of expand upon because I’ve done more thinking as I’ve encountered more people asking these questions. But sometimes it just seems that living in a broken world, we cannot fully be obedient to all that God calls us to, which is a harsh statement. And it’s one that should drive us to our knees in confession and to make us dependent on God’s grace.
Jeff: But it means that we are choosing, in some sense, the lesser of two evils at times because there is no good on offer. And that, I think, is a more challenging set of circumstances for Christians in business. And I don’t know how frequently it shows up. One of the nice things about businesspeople in general is that they tend to be pretty win-win, can-do optimistic, so they encounter one of these seeming conundrums and they don’t throw up their hands and say, “Oh, well, there’s no way out.” They press in. They’re very creative. So I don’t know how many times you get to the end of all of your options and still say, “There is no good choice on offer. I just have to choose the best of the bad choices.” But I think that does happen. And I try to talk a little bit about some practices that I think Christians and business can do to help them in that place, but there is no easy one-size-fits-all kind of answer to that situation.
Amanda: Sure, sure. I mean, I think that’s every walk of life, isn’t it?
Amanda: I mean, in what stream are we absolutely perfect in every choice, every situation?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda: Well, I’m assuming that there are going to be some people listening to our conversation for whom this is kind of a new way of thinking, that there are some light bulbs going on. And for those folks, do you have any simple first steps for those people who are saying, “Wow, my eyes are open to a new way of thinking. I really want to walk this out. How do I get started?”
Jeff: Yeah. I think, of course, my answer would depend a lot on where they were in an organization. So, if you are starting your own business, I mean, if you’re an entrepreneur and you’re just about to launch, I mean, then I think you can go back to first principles and say, “How am I going to measure the success of this? How much of a return am I going to need? How much control can I turn over to outside investors with the expectation that I’m still running this business in this direction?” I think you can do some more first-order kind of thinking if you’re right at the front end and you’re the person that’s creating a business and running with it.
Jeff: I used to share these ideas with some of our undergraduate students or first- or second-year alums. And they’d come back and they’d say, “Jeff, this is all really nice. Someday when I run Boeing, I’m going to run it this way. But right now, I’ve just got a little role. I sit in front of a computer and I work on trying to compare different prices for different components of a … and I’m just part of a team that rolls up into another team. Does any of this make sense for me? How can I think about creating products and services that enable the community to flourish and so on?” My answer usually is, whatever position God puts you in and whatever position of influence you might have, just lean into these ideas to the extent you can. You’re not going to reshape the overall agenda of Boeing or Microsoft or Amazon, but you have a small arena that is yours. And in that arena, you can look for places and they’ll mostly, initially, be right at the margins, but you can look for places where you can give expression to these ideas a little bit.
“My answer usually is, whatever position God puts you in and whatever position of influence you might have, just lean into these ideas to the extent you can.”
Jeff: One of the things that I was always surprised by, and I don’t mean this because when I say it that way it sounds like I’m not reflecting well on the quality of our students, but when I have somebody that’s like a second year out of undergrad and they come back and they tell me, “Yeah, I’m in this position and I’m running a small team,” I think we forget how quickly college students move into the workforce and early on have little spheres of influence.
Jeff: And so if you’re running a team of two people, well, then all of a sudden you’re in a position to ask, “Is there a way that I could structure the work they’re doing for me that would be more meaningful and more creative?” You know what I mean? There’s big limits to that, of course. But are there little changes I could make around the edge as I lean into it? And I’ve just been struck by the opportunities that very young employees in very big organizations have to just lean, just to push a little bit into some of these concepts. So I think that’s what I would say generally, is just look for opportunities to step into this in small ways and to the extent that you can.
Amanda: Absolutely. That puts me in mind of the parable of the talents. You may be running Boeing someday, but what you practiced when you ran a team of two, you will practice when you’re running an entire company.
Amanda: And we say, we’ll get better when we get to the top, but we won’t. We’ll be who we’ve been. So yeah, I think we can all put that into practice.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Jeff, this has been a fascinating conversation and I hope you’ll come back and talk to us again one of these days.
Amanda: But let me end with our favorite 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?
Jeff: OK. So it’s a little cheesy to sort of say “Follow Jesus” so I’ll set that aside, but that would actually probably be a very good thing for us. I mean, boy, there’s a lot of brokenness. I guess maybe I would start by asking us, as a broader community, when we encounter someone else, I think it would be helpful if we could start with the assumption that they are trying to do good and that they are fundamentally interested in things that are right and good, and that we may disagree violently with them and they may turn out to be grossly misinformed, but they’re not fundamentally out to do evil. And I think if we just gave each person that we encountered the initial benefit of the doubt, it might change the flavor of the discourse that’s going on around us and create some greater sense of community and unity to allow us to move forward and solve some of the problems that we’re facing. So maybe that’s what I would say.
Amanda: Amen. Amen. I think that’s a wonderful answer. I feel that all the time that we may disagree vehemently about what the next two or 10 or 30 steps are, but usually the end goal looks pretty similar. Usually, the end goal is something we all want. We just have a very different way of getting there, for sure.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda: Well, thank you so much, Jeff, let me pray our prayer of blessing over you: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hands to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May God bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.