Discerning God's will in the workplace
For those trying to think through how to live out their faith in the workplace, here is a lengthy article that appeared on the Gospel Coalition website. It is written in an American business setting but the principles set out are relevant. You can find the original article here: Discerning God's will in the workplace
How to Discern God’s Will in Your Workplace
JANUARY 16, 2019 | Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
In 2004, businessman Terry Looper—founder and CEO of the $6 billion Texon energy company—was partway through negotiating a sale when he realised he’d forgotten to pray about it.
“I hadn’t even tried to get neutral,” he said. “Getting neutral” is his term for pushing down any greed or selfish ambition, quieting his heart, and listening for the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Looper makes decisions by spending time in prayer and Bible reading, consulting with colleagues and family, watching for circumstances, and asking God for “peace in my gut.” (His book detailing the process, Sacred Pace: Four Steps to Hearing God and Aligning Yourself With His Will, releases next month.)
He’d forgotten the last part about peace.
“After all those months—I wasn’t supposed to sell,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe I’d been negotiating for a year to sell this division, and I wasn’t even supposed to sell.”
At the risk of angering his board and his potential buyer, Looper pulled out.
Following how he feels the Holy Spirit leading isn’t unusual for him. When he started his company in 1989, he felt convicted to limit himself to 40-hour weeks and no sales goals.
“I don’t ever recommend entrepreneurs starting a company or a ministry on 40 hours a week,” he said. “But I do recommend anything the Lord convicts them to do.”
His approach is unconventional, but not unusual for Christian businesspeople.
“I do look for that peace for big changes in direction,” said Fred Heldenfels, president and CEO of Heldenfels Enterprises. (The company manufactures and installs concrete structures.) “On the other hand, if we all acted like Gideon every day and asked for a sign on the fleece, you’d be testing God, and you wouldn’t get anything done.”
Christians in business—especially those whose choices affect employees and company direction—often wrestle with how to follow God in their decisions.
TGC (The Gospel Coalition) talked to five of them about the best practices they’ve developed to discern God’s will in situations that aren’t explicitly addressed by Scripture.
1. Realize God Cares About Work
Eric Stumberg grew up in a family of Christian entrepreneurs, where the rules for being a believing businessperson included: Don’t work in an immoral industry. Don’t do anything illegal. Work hard. Talk to people about Jesus. And give money to the church, so pastors and missionaries can do the real work of God.
It wasn’t until a retreat in 2013 that he realized that “Jesus would call people to the marketplace as businesspeople,” he said. “The Lord gives us different assignments in the way he’s made us.”
The realization changed his life and his business.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that is awesome news! I have to dig more into this,’” he said. He told his friends, started a book study, and talked his church into bringing in speakers on faith and work.
Okay, so what’s next? he thought. A decade earlier, he’d started Tengo Internet, a company that provides WiFi access for outdoor spaces such as campgrounds and state parks.
He started paying his employees full benefits, telling Made to Flourish that “compensation is also a theological issue. . . . I didn’t want people to be unable to get medical care.” He did a market analysis to find out living wages and bumped up his base pay. And when he moved into a new space, he designed extra offices to be leased to someone else—currently an Anglican church planter and a nonprofit that fights sex trafficking—at below-market rates.
There’s no decision—whether about health care or customer service or office space design—that doesn’t have a theological basis and implication, he said. And that includes who to hire.
2. Hire (and Fire) with an Eye Toward Calling
“When I was 16 years old, someone gave me the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill,” JP Morgan Securities senior vice president Jeff Durkee said. “I wish they would’ve given me a Bible.”
Hill wrote that “wise people make decisions quickly, and change them very slowly, if at all,” Durkee said. The message was reinforced by a manager who told Durkee “if you can’t tell within 15 minutes if a guy is a jerk or not, you shouldn’t be in management.”
“I carried that model for decades,” Durkee said. “My early hiring was not good.”
Thirty years later, while reading Proverbs, he learned that gentle words and many counsellors are a better way to go. Now he interviews potential employees multiple times, spending a lot more time getting to know and assess them.
LifeWay president and CEO Thom Rainer checks for three things—character, competency, and chemistry.
“I haven’t always gotten it right,” he told TGC. His weak spot is competency—if he likes a person’s character and personality, he can sometime hire without making sure the person can do the work.
“Some of the most difficult conversations are where people I have a good relationship with didn’t make it, because they weren’t the right fit at the right time,” he said.
Stumberg tries to “think about if they can do the work, and if they should do the work.”
That distinction can also be called “discerning your calling.”
“It’s kind of math,” he said. “If God calls everybody, and I am part of everybody, then God calls me. . . . When you hire somebody, that’s a factor—are they called to be here or not for a season of life?”
When you hire somebody, that’s a factor—are they called to be here or not for a season of life?
To figure that out, Tengo Internet assesses potential hires for competency and personal compatibility.
“And then we pray,” Stumberg said. Sometimes, someone in leadership will feel a “check”—what they call an instinct or gut reaction—that something is wrong with a potential hire. Once in a while, that’s enough to refrain from hiring somebody—say, if they’re a family member of a current employee, and the relationship between them is difficult.
But since Stumberg hires veterans freshly out of the military, people with difficult family situations, and people with a lot of student or credit card debt, that uneasy feeling is often “less of a deal breaker and more of a red flag,” he said. “We sense something is off in our gut, so we pray about it and think about it.”
Once hired, Stumberg’s employees “probably get more chances than they normally would because . . . there’s a different level of ownership of leadership around the sins of people,” he said. He aims to disciple and shepherd them in their work, and that carries a different burden than someone looking for competencies right off the bat.
He’s careful with his hires, because “there is no neutrality in the gospel,” he said. “You’re either in the kingdom of heaven or of Satan. You can’t make a decision that doesn’t have an implication” for kingdom work.
Making those decisions is a lot easier when your fellow leaders understand gospel motivations.
3. Seek Unity Among Leadership
“Once, I was trying to sell a division, but my biggest customer said they didn’t want me to sell to their biggest competitor,” who wanted to buy it, Looper said. “They had been a gracious customer of mine, but they were also 40 percent of the business,” so removing their part from the sale wasn’t going to make the buyer happy.
He prayed about it, and felt God was leading him to honour the customer’s wishes.
“The investment banker, management team, and board said I was crazy,” he said. But Looper owns the majority of his company, so he has the latitude to make counterintuitive decisions. (This one worked out. He carved off and kept his best customer’s part, which then grew on its own.)
When a leader in a Christian company wants to follow God into those sometimes foolish-looking decisions, it helps to have everybody on board.
At Tengo Internet, all three members of the leadership team are Christians. “Sometimes when we’re wondering which product to offer or direction to go, we pray,” Stumberg said. “Sometimes we feel peace or confirmation. If someone says, ‘I’m not for that,’ then it will not win. We have unity before we charge forward.”
You can’t make a decision that doesn’t have an implication for kingdom work.
He links that pursuit of unity back to Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.”
At Suntech Building Systems, the leadership team doesn’t usually pray together. But executive vice president and COO Brad Larson does pray about decisions privately.
“I would also ask myself, Is there any fear of missing out involved? Is there any unhealthy ambition? Are we growing for growth’s sake?” he said. “We’ve done that before, and it’s horrible.”
His leadership team is also made up of Christians. “To be equally yoked is really important,” he said.
Stumberg uses the same language. When a friend asked his advice on whether it would be a good idea to buy into a business, Stumberg asked him whether he’d want to be yoked to the current owner. (He didn’t.)
“Why spend energy to yoke yourself to someone you don’t want to be yoked to?” Stumberg said. “We don’t need to put a ring on it. Let’s just keep dating”—in this case, remaining employer and employee without binding together as co-owners.
Being equally yoked doesn’t mean you always agree, Heldenfels said. “But knowing that most of my leadership team members have been believers is important to me, and gives me a certain confidence that at least the values and priorities are shared.”
That’s especially helpful if the company looks at power and money in a countercultural way.
4. Hold Power and Money Loosely
As Looper found out, sometimes following God will cost you a business deal. And as Stumberg discovered, sometimes it’ll cost you in salaries and benefits.
“One of our core values is to do the right thing no matter what it costs,” Larson said. He’s in construction business, where customers, general contractors, and subcontractors all argue over who covers unexpected costs. For Larson, following God might mean paying for someone else’s mistakes, not filing a lawsuit when he has legal grounds to do so, or fessing up to a mistake even if it might lose him a customer.
Or it might mean sacrificing to give other people margin—such as pricing services lower than the maximum market rate or not asking employees to “give 110 percent” and be constantly available, Stumberg said. “That’s not caring for them. If you’re taking more than is in them, that’s not sustainable. That’s exploitative.”
It can be expensive to follow God. But it can also be profitable. Looper has “never been disappointed” when following Scripture and prayer to his decisions. And Heldenfels—who is facing rising construction costs due to administrative tariffs on steel—isn’t worried.
“God has worked out situations like this before,” he said. “I can see with hindsight God’s hand on us, and his providence with giving us just the right project at the right time.”
5. Rely on Daily Prayer and Bible Reading
“God sees the future, and I don’t,” Looper reasons. “He knows what’s best, and I just think I do. He loves the people around me more than I ever could.”
Discovering God’s character and will through Bible reading and prayer, then, is crucial.
“I virtually do not leave the house until I’ve prayed, meditated, and read Scripture,” said Durkee, who also has two friends who pray for him. “I put that armour on virtually every single day.”
Reading the Bible doesn’t mean you’ll find a verse to back up your latest business plan, Stumberg said. “But if you’re always in Scripture, that’s always forming you into the mind of Christ, so you can say, ‘This sounds right and true.’”
Even then, not every decision is the right one, Heldenfels said. “There are a lot of decisions made. Sometimes my instinct is to do something counterintuitive, and it doesn’t always work out. Certainly, my life would be a lot less stressful if I batted 1,000 percent, but I don’t.”
Larson doesn’t either. “I don’t ever assume that I am sanctified enough to make the right call,” he said. “My default mode is selfish and sinful, so I’m going to make decisions that benefit me. I want to be so immersed in God’s Word and in good teaching and counsel that I protect the people in my care from myself.”
Ultimately, the most important leadership skills aren’t about tactics, but about the leader’s heart, Larson said. “Whether a pastor or a CEO, the most important thing we can do for our leadership ability is to shepherd our heart in the gospel and be washed in grace.”
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.