Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

Supporting the Workers

February 12, 2013
12 Feb 2013

To see our work as a vital frontline and a participation in God’s mission to the world, we need support. This document helps you think about what you can do yourself to encourage you in the workplace, what you can do for someone else, and what you can do to help your church leader help you.

Download ‘Supporting the Workers’.

 

 

WorkForum: Recommended Reading

February 8, 2013
08 Feb 2013

 

Getting Started

Thank God it’s Monday – Ministry in the Workplace, by Mark Greene, SU, 2001

A popular, introductory level book full of fun stories and lively illustrations.

 

Working It Out – God, You and the Work You Do, by Ian Coffey, IVP, 2008

A vibrant picture of work as part of God’s good plan for the world.

 

God at Work, by Ken Costa, Continuum, 2007

A helpful introductory book from highly experienced senior city banker and chairman of Alpha.

 

Working without Wilting – Starting Well to Finish Strong, by Jago Wynne, IVP, 2009

An exploration of the challenges and opportunities of serving God in the different seasons of working life.

 

Digging Deeper

Every Good Endeavour – Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World, by Tim Keller, Hodder and Stoughton, 2012

A brand new treatment of work, rooted in scripture and littered with real-life examples.

 

The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work, by Darrell Cosden, Baker, 2006

A strong theological basis for the creation purpose and lasting significance of our work.

 

The Abolition of the Laity, by R Paul Stevens, Paternoster Press, 1999

A stimulating theological and historical case for ‘A people without laity and clergy’.

 

Doing God’s Business, by R Paul Stevens, Eerdmans, 2006

An exploration of the potential of business for fruitful Christian life.

 

For Small Groups

Life on the Frontline, by LICC, 2012

A six-week course to equip whole-life disciples, wherever they spend their week.

 

God at Work, Ken Costa, Continuum, 2007

Six introductory level sessions with an easy to use guide available via www.godatwork.org.uk

 

Christian Life & Work, by Mark Greene, LBC, 2000

A six-part film with leader’s guide including creative Bible reading, group exercises and a wide range of real-life stories. Dated haircuts, but timeless content!

 

Where is God on Monday? Integrating Faith and Work Every Day of the Week, by A. MacKenzie and W. Kirkland, Navpress, 2003

Twelve short, readable chapters with insightful questions designed as discussion starters for small groups.

 

For Church Leaders

Imagine Church – Releasing Whole-Life Disciples, by Neil Hudson, IVP, 2012

A must-read for all church leaders wanting to equip their congregation for life on the frontline.

 

Supporting Christians at Work – without going insane, by Mark Greene, LICC, 2001

A concise guide for pastors setting the vision, theological foundations and practical ideas for creating a worker-friendly church without distorting the rest of the church’s work.

 

How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), by John C. Knapp, Eerdmans, 2012

In addition to analyzing why he thinks the church has failed businesspeople, Knapp suggests a theological framework for Christian life in the workplace.

 

Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work, by Tom Nelson, Crossway, 2011

A readable and practical book from a church leader, with some ‘real life’ stories.

 

More Topic-based

Get a Life, by Paul Valler, IVP, 2008

An exploration of the pressures of modern working life showing how gaining a strong identity and clear purpose enables us to make winning choices.

 

The Relational Manager, by M. Schluter and D. J. Lee, Lion Hudson, 2009

A relational lens for looking at common management issues in the workplace.

 

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed), by Jeff Van Duzer, IVP, 2010

A very helpful exposition of the view that business is an essential sphere in the unfolding work of God in the world.

 

Insight into Stress, by Beverley Shepherd, CWR, 2006

A basic understanding of stress and how it arises and a challenge to confront the deeper issues that stress presents in order to discover how God wants us to live.

 

Websites

Journal of Faith in Business, based in Ridley Hall Cambridge

The Centre for Faith and Work, New York

Theologyofwork.org: Papers on every book of the Bible through the lens of work

Transform Work UK: Good info on work groups, lunchtime talks, events and resources

What ‘John’ Did

June 23, 2011
23 Jun 2011

It looks like something bad is about to happen. How does the disciple respond? Mark Greene meets a man with bottle and spirit…

‘John’ works for a drinks company – not a soft drinks company, but a hard drinks company. He’s a Christian, and convinced that God called him into the job. One day, ‘John’ finds himself on a business trip in the Far East. One of the ways that business is done in the Far East is to go out drinking together at the end of the day. John has rules about this. He goes with the team and he doesn’t get drunk. Now, in the Far East, the kinds of places executives go drinking almost always feature beautiful hostesses. Some are there to serve drinks, and some offer rather more. John has rules about the kinds of places he goes to. And he sticks to them.

One evening, his team is out with some suppliers, and John realises that one of his colleagues has taken a real shine to one of the hostesses who is particularly luminous. As the evening proceeds, John grows more and more concerned that his colleague, a married man, will proposition her. But what can he do? The place is buzzing, there are suppliers and colleagues and the hostesses… but his heart ached and he fervently prays: ‘Lord’.

A little later, John finds himself in the facilities. By coincidence, perhaps, his colleague is the only other person there. So, as they are facilitating, John turns to him and says: ‘Are you having a good evening? I can see you have some decisions ahead of you. As your friend, I would encourage you to make sure that the decisions you make tonight are the same as those you’d make tomorrow.’

Now, that is some sentence. And although John is a bright, articulate man, he’s in no doubt that it came from the Spirit (Mark 13:11).

Ten minutes later the colleague left the club with the hostess in tow. John’s heart ached more. A little later, John left the club and went back to his hotel room and got down on his knees by his bed and prayed and prayed. A couple of days later it became clear that his colleague had in fact propositioned the girl…

However, she had told John’s colleague that she wasn’t that kind of hostess, but asked if he’d be interested in a long-term relationship. He then stayed up until 3.00am talking to her, much of it about her sorrow because her boyfriend had left her.

Now there’s a thing. The man who wanted to use this woman as a prostitute becomes her pastor. And maybe he learned more about how wrong his impulse to sleep with her was by having propositioned her than if he had simply left the bar at 11.30 pm. He learned that a hostess in a bar can have a life beyond that bar, that a hostess in a bar could be a woman with a heart that’s tender, a heart that can be broken, a woman with hopes and dreams for her own life…

But what about John?

Now there’s someone who loves their colleague/neighbour as a whole human being. And is confident that God’s ways are good for other people, and cares enough to intervene. There’s someone who believes in prayer, who knows how to call out to God in the maelstrom just as Jehoshaphat did in the middle of the battle (I kings 22:31-33), when there is nothing he can do himself. There’s someone who is confident in God to act – even if he can’t think how. There’s someone who also knows how to pray in the quiet place. There’s someone who asked others to pray for that trip before he went, someone who has involved the people of God in a frontline of mission that they themselves will probably never be in.

Bottle, spirit, prayer and the support of God’s people – it’s a mighty potent cocktail.

 

Mark Greene

How to Build an Empire

March 2, 2011
02 Mar 2011

Introduction

I want to begin with a question with which the UK evangelical business world has struggled in my lifetime: “What on earth do Christians think they are doing in business?” To answer it, I want to start with a more fundamental question: “Where does work fit in God’s plans?”

Evangelicals need to face a problem here; a story might help to illustrate this problem.

Older folk will remember Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in the 80’s, and may recall an evasive reply she gave at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to what she considered a difficult and vexatious question. She cleverly made a difficult question appear to be time-wasting, and even ridiculous, by replying that when she was sitting on a cloud strumming her harp, she may have time for such trivialities! But not now, she implied, on earth, as a busy PM.

What do people think about life after death? She obviously thought that heaven was a place without time constraints – indeed without much to do at all – and the idea of sitting on clouds represents the popular concept of the immateriality of the soul, of a disembodied eternity, which reflects the loss of our physical bodies when we die and go to heaven.

I think her concept of heaven is widely accepted within the church, and is almost universally thought by those outside the church to be its official doctrine. It is a concept which devalues the material, physical, existence we experience, and which is central to our work as business people. It is a concept which separates the spiritual and heavenly from the physical and worldly; in which the work of the church is spiritual and of permanent value, whereas the world of business is material and of significance only until Christ calls time and brings the world of physical life, including our business lives, to an end.

This concept has contributed to an awareness that the church doesn’t value business folk except as a mission field and a funding agency. This implies that if I go to church on Sunday without taking a colleague to hear the gospel, or without a large cheque to support the church’s evangelistic mission – to which I otherwise contribute only in my spare time – I am a failure as a Christian. I continue going to church, but sermons and house groups are focused on a spiritual life which disparages the greater part of my working life.

Such thinking is sub-Christian and unbiblical. There is good news in the gospel for business folk, and this good news – when I finally allowed it to marinade in my business life – has transformed my purpose, my whole reason for being in business.

This paper will therefore begin with a scamper through the big picture, the story of the world as I think scripture presents it to us, before focusing on the place of work, and finally looking at what I understand to be God’s calling for our business lives. It ends with some examples of people who model the Christian vision for good business.

 

Theology: The Big Picture

At the beginning, God created the world and humanity and declared it all “very good”. Also at the beginning, God ordained work as a good for humanity. Work had several elements – to subdue the earth, to work it and to care for it. And for global success in God’s creation project, we would have to be fruitful and multiply! This ordering of the world comes before the Fall.

The Fall – human rebellion against God’s good order – brought a decisive break in relationships between God and humanity, which implicated the whole earthly creation. The mission of Jesus was the restoration of these relationships, the re-affirmation of the original order and the re-establishment of God’s universal kingdom or rule. The possibility for this restoration was achieved by his sacrificial death, and inaugurated or commenced in his resurrection.

As a result, the hope for creation and humankind which is promised to us in Christ is for the restoration of God’s rule, also called (by Matthew) the kingdom of heaven. Just as this started on earth, so it will be completed on earth, as described in the Lord’s prayer:

Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth, as in heaven. 

This means nothing other than that God’s will is for his kingdom to be realised in the earthly realm as it already is realised in the heavenly. In other words, it is the renewal of the creation which was once declared very good, and will so be declared again, when Jesus returns to earth in glory and in power to judge sin finally, and to establish his rule de facto.

So God’s plan is, and has been since the Fall, to re-institute his rule on earth through Christ. His people are those who collaborate with his vision of a world of wise order, glorious beauty and transparent justice. They are those who hate the sin and evil which destroy good relationships and the earth’s abundance. And when he returns in judgement he will finally remove all that prevents his kingdom being realised on earth in practice, and transform or perfect all that helps to build it.

 

The Place of Work

Working the earth is about using the abundant capacities of the earth to grow food, rear animals, extract minerals, develop and fashion products – so that humankind can be fed, clothed, housed and enjoy rest. These activities, along with a myriad others, are the stuff of our work and our business lives.

Using, or subduing, the earth is less fashionable today than the requirement to care for it. Care for the earth is about not subduing it to the point of destroying its capacity for future abundance. It is worth asking yourself which requirement is most relevant to the business each of us works in.

However, work was spoiled by the Fall and, alongside the good of work, we also experience frustration and selfishness, ugliness and injustice in our work as a result. Indeed we can find ourselves – despite good intentions – building empires which are quite alien, even antagonistic, to God’s purpose.

This is what Brueghel illustrates in his painting of the Tower of Babel.

Tower of BabelIs it possible that one of these builders is a hard worker who – unlike his colleagues – works solidly from clocking on to clocking off? Perhaps he spent last evening leading a house group? And this morning he spent an hour studying scripture and praying; only to spend the greater part of his day building, not for God, but against Him.

We need to establish what impact our work is having on people as individuals and communities – whether customers, staff of suppliers – and on our planet. Is this impact universally positive? What would Jesus say about it?

Quite apart from the fundamental purposes being corrupted with the Fall, there came also a rupture in our willingness to share fairly the labour of work, and the fruits of that labour. The human condition is now one in which we tend to prioritise for ourselves and our own family or business the fruits of work; and similarly we tend to leave for others the tidying up of our own mess.

However, just as God desires to renew creation so He desires – not that work should stop in an endless holiday – to renew our work.

How should Christians approach their work, in the light both of the fundamental good which God desires that we find in it, and the selfishness and frustration which attends work after the Fall? What are our proper priorities?

Jesus analysed human priorities in the Sermon on the Mount. In the second half of Matthew 6, he talks about our desire for wealth, our need for clothing and food, and our tendency to worry about providing for our own needs. His instruction was stark and challenging:

“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and your other needs will be provided for as well” Matthew 6:33.

God’s kingdom comes where his fallen creation is restored to his rule – his rule of the rich but unworked earth; his transparent justice which precludes greed; his kingdom of restored relationships and glorious beauty which subdues the earth to make it productive, and cares for the earth to ensure abundant and sustainable production into the future. God’s righteousness is his quality of right living in delight and obedience, humility and service, which rejects the rebellion of the Fall and the injustice and greed and ugliness which is its legacy.

This is the kingdom and the righteousness which we are called to seek as our first priority. This is the kingdom rule to which those who come to Christ choose to submit and to work for; this is the kingdom which will be extended unreservedly throughout the earthly realm when He returns in power and glory to judge us and our work, and to eliminate sin and establish finally his ownership and leadership.

Paul describes judgement as like purifying metal in a smelting process in which the dross gets burned or removed. If our work is like straw, then it will not survive, though we shall escape “as if through flames”. But work which reflects the trust, values and priorities of God’s kingdom will survive and be perfected and transformed for service in the kingdom.

This is what St Paul meant when, in 1 Cor. 15, at the end of a 58-verse chapter on resurrection, he returns surprisingly to the subject of work and he says: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that all your labour in the Lord is not in vain” – (1 Cor 15:58). How often has this text been spiritualised into the church’s work against the world’s work? No, the context is our earthly struggle until death, and God’s transformation and resurrection. Our work will be a struggle, but the struggle will prove not to be in vain if it is transformed into a part of God’s kingdom.

This brings purpose to our work. Work for the kingdom will be transformed to become part of the kingdom. This brings meaning to our toil and hope in our frustration. Your work may be toilsome and frustrating – but it need not be in vain!

 

Work in Business

I come now to work in business. I want to be more specific about the impacts of the Fall in our business lives, and to offer a vision of what kingdom service might look like.

What are some of the impacts of the Fall in business? Firstly, I notice in myself a frustration at the narrow objectives which many businesses have set me, and the poor measurement of my performance in them. In my experience, measured performance omits a good deal which should be measured but which is hard to measure. As a result, I’ve often felt very flat both when I’m given targets and when my performance is assessed against them.

A second impact of the Fall is the ugliness, which is the only word I can use to describe some outcomes of our work. For the last 8 years, I have worked in the construction industry, and I am very aware that many of the buildings which our industry produces have to be acknowledged to be exceedingly dull. I’m sure some of the behaviour which is exhibited in the worst housing estates is attributable to the monotonous environments we have created. Another example of ugliness is disclosed by an aspect of our businesses we rarely examine – the waste which we produce in enormous quantities, and which we demand is whisked quickly out of our sight. We don’t take our visitors to see the Yorkshire tips, but the Yorkshire Dales! Why is it that we tend to prefer the work of nature to the work of man?

A third impact of the Fall at work is injustice – for example the extraordinary poverty of many workers. Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day; yet even this statistic fails to capture the humiliation, powerlessness and brutal hardship that is the daily lot of the world’s poor. And we might think that the natural cycle of economics means that differentials will narrow over time – but they don’t: income differentials are widening. The “trickle down” effect is wishful thinking.

The great thing about business – our immense privilege as business folk – is that business isn’t a zero sum game. It is possible to meet the needs of our employers for profit, and our customers for service – and to address other needs as well. It is possible to serve God in serving our businesses.

This simple truth that the market is not a zero sum game presents business with its great opportunity to create true wealth for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to “seek first the Kingdom of God” in business.

Applying this truth isn’t easy. Most people in market economies are happy to let those who can, take the market risks and reap its rewards. But I don’t think this is good enough for the Christian who seeks first God’s kingdom. Both Old and New Testaments reveal a God who requires His people to be holy in our devotion to Him and His service – and just in our dealings with each other. This requirement doesn’t cease when we go to work. If our freedom to be holy and just in our particular workplace may be curtailed from time to time, this is a matter for sorrow and for seeking a better way; not for exoneration and the abandonment of God’s requirements.

I suggest there are two applications of God’s justice in our day, for which people in business should take active responsibility.

The first is trade justice – the problem of highly unequal access to global markets of the developed and developing worlds, which results in our highly differentiated and widening standards of living. This should be a matter of the deepest shame to all who follow Christ, as it certainly is to many who don’t. Fair trade is simply a matter of justice, business folk should support it actively, and organisations like Traidcraft are a beacon to us all.

The second is less well known as a justice issue, but touches me very deeply. Climate change for most westerners is a matter of needing more air conditioning in our offices in summer and of hearing news of occasional floods in Yorkshire, Gloucester or New Orleans. It is a modest nuisance.

But if you live in the flood plains of Bangladesh, in parts of the Caribbean or on one of 100’s of low lying islands in the Pacific, the view is very different. Climate change means more frequent, and worse, storms, and continuous, permanent rises in sea level, which gradually – but directly and predictably – result in the loss of all your land and therefore your home and livelihood. Or in other parts of the world, like Ethiopia, it means near permanent drought, mitigated only by floods. The cause of the change is now very widely accepted to be human emissions of greenhouse gases, and it is the wealthy in the developed world who pollute most and suffer least. Are Africans and Asians our neighbours? Are your grandchildren, who will suffer the negative impact of my emissions, my neighbours? I think they are. When Jesus says to us “What you did to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did to me” – what will you say?

Let me apply this to our family business, NG Bailey. The biggest part of it is the design and installation of heating, cooling, lighting and electrical power systems for buildings. These are the systems which are both essential for productive occupation AND the cause of carbon emissions which damage our planet. Seeking first God’s righteousness surely puts a heavy business demand upon me.

The result of taking justice seriously is that Christians face imperatives at work which for our colleagues are simply strategic options. Our challenge is to find means of speaking persuasively to our colleagues in language they will understand, with proposals they will be willing to support – and that is not an easy thing to do.

 

Examples of Kingdom Businesses

Does this consign a Christian to be no more than a thorn in the flesh of a business enterprise? Or can we make a valuable, profitable and even unique contribution to our companies?

There are some wonderful examples of businesses which understand that business isn’t a zero sum game, and have set themselves the goals of being fruitful both in terms of profit and in terms of service to the world, in a manner which seems to me to further God’s kingdom. What can be achieved by business people with a noble vision and great determination?

DublinThink back 150 years: suppose you lived in Dublin in the 19th century potato famine and saw the ruin caused by gin addiction. What might you have done?

You may have started a brewery to produce a less addictive, less costly and more nutritious alternative drink. This is what a young man called Guinness did – and he made a huge contribution to the alleviation of poverty as well as developing a fine business for many generations of staff and shareholders.

What about today? Maybe you work in retail, and are appalled by the tragedy and injustice of third world poverty. Might you be able to create opportunities for sourcing goods from 3rd world suppliers whose economic development you could thereby promote? This is the calling for Paul, a friend who runs a mail order business which has led the supply of fairtrade produce in the UK.

Perhaps you’re in the world of manufacturing. Ray Anderson is the recently retired Chief Executive of the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer, called Interface Inc. Ray AndersonRay tells the story of how he realised in the 1990’s that while his business was highly successful in conventional terms – market share, profits, share price – there was a huge amount of carpet manufacturing waste, which was filling up the rubbish dumps near his manufacturing plants. As he researched the issue, he learned how many hundred years it would take for this waste to decompose; and how the oil which was his main raw material was irreplaceable. He was deeply shocked by what he discovered, he wept, and decided to stop “plundering the earth” – his words. So he launched his 2020 vision – that by 2020 his business would have a zero impact on the environment, by reducing its waste, recycling what was left and recovering old carpet tiles from customers so that his product, both before and after it was sold, left no legacy of pollution for future generations. He struggled for some years to bring shareholders and staff with him, but has now won them over. Incidentally, his strategy sharply reduced his business’ costs, which enabled it to weather the 2002 downturn better than its competitors. Interface is now well on the way to its 2020 goal, and is a world leader whom many have followed.

 

Or suppose you work, like me, in construction, and are disgusted by the quantity of builder’s waste you send to the local tip. The building industry currently buys materials for 7 houses, but builds only 6 – the rest is over-bought or damaged, and is scrapped. Could your calling be to manage the ordering process to avoid over-buying, to improve site processes in order to reduce waste on your projects, to recycle what’s left and eliminate waste to land fill in your company by 2010 – so saving your company a lot of money, motivating staff and improving our environment. This is the calling for Rachel, who works for a major builder – a customer of ours – and has gained the support of her directors to work fulltime doing this, because it will save so much money.

Perhaps, after persistent trying, we find that we cannot persuade our colleagues or employers where we work to change to a kingdom way of working. Is it time to shake the dust off our feet and move to another place of work where our new colleagues may heed a call to build a better empire? Or maybe we need to start our own business with like-minded colleagues?

YunusThe story of Grameen Bank is an example of this. Its founder is a man called Yunus who approached several mainstream banks to ask their help in launching a new form of finance aimed at enabling the poor in Bangladesh to purchase animals, sewing machines and other tools to enable them to work. This proposal had the potential to open up substantial new credit markets to these banks, but the absence of good security was a drawback. The banks universally rejected him. So he experimented with a loan of $27 from his own pocket in 1974. Grameen Bank has since lent $7Bn in microcredit to the poorest people in the world. It has a repayment rate of 98% despite the complete absence of collateral – considerably higher than the average of AAA-rated western banks who today have serious bad debt. Yunus has enabled no less than 7.5 million of the poorest people in Bangladesh to find dignity and income through work. He has developed a highly successful banking model developing new banking markets, which is now being copied in over 100 countries, including the US; he has also made money for his shareholders. In 2006, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Summary

In summary, I contend that God’s will is for his original creation plan, which we now call his kingdom, to be realised in the earthly realm. “Thy kingdom come … on earth”, we say when we pray. Seeking first His kingdom means that our priority at work is to bring about this kingdom by diligent, humble, wealth-creating, justice-seeking service: this can render great wealth to our employers, to our customers, and to our neighbours – and so also to God.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, if we liken our work to building an empire, we need to ask ourselves “Whose empire are we building?”

 

Cal Bailey

Redundancy: A Christian Response (PDF)

November 2, 2010
02 Nov 2010

Ask any group of people you know in your local community, and you’ll find that the experience of being made redundant from a stable job is a very common one today.

Changing patterns of work, increased mobility of workers, the emergence of new job roles, globalisation of business, mergers & acquisitions, the impact of information technology and the current extended economic downturn with its cutbacks – these are all factors which are continuing to cause significant changes in theemployment market which affect all sectors of industry and commerce. Everywhere, the demand for increased efficiency and value for money seems to…

 

Download the PDF.

 

Robin Scurlock

Redundancy

October 22, 2010
22 Oct 2010

The sight of stunned employees carrying their personal possessions in cardboard boxes out of the Lehman Bank building is etched in my memory. Gathering in a state of shock in local bars, some dulled their pain with alcohol and tried to rebuild self-worth through group support. And this might well prove to be just the tip of the iceberg; ‘downsizing’ will likely hit many of us with a new intensity as the economy falls into recession.

Whatever the cause, the impact of losing your job is often traumatic. Redundancy strikes at the heart of our most basic human needs for acceptance, security and identity. Inevitably, feelings of rejection, pain and confusion accompany being thrown out of an organisation. A friend of mine said it felt like being kicked in the stomach by an angry stallion. There is a very real sense of pain and grief. It is not just the loss of the job and the income; it is the loss of the sense of belonging to the workplace community, and of the associated organisational identity and future.

Thankfully, nobody can ever be redundant from their calling and vocation in the kingdom of God, or lose their identity in Christ. When the metaphorical rug is pulled out from under the feet of the Christian, it reveals the sure footing of the rock that cannot be moved. Nothing changes our self-worth, our acceptance, or our personal significance and dignity in God’s sight.

Redundancy is a time when the body of Christ has an opportunity to demonstrate the love of God to those feeling rejected. Showing personal friendship, being available to listen, providing financial help and prayer ministry are gifts we can give. Redundancy can be a time to reflect more deeply about our calling, so helping someone work through the process of understanding their gifts and vocation is a significant contribution towards redeployment. Redundancy is also a time when people ask deep questions about meaning and purpose. It is therefore a time when the gospel can be discovered, or reaffirmed, as really good news.

Whether or not we are in work, we enjoy a status before God of dearly loved children with no condemnation:

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ Romans 8:38-39.

 

Paul Valler

Extreme Exposure

October 16, 2010
16 Oct 2010

One of my former clients had a lovely office, a big desk and a high-backed throne to sit on. He was always well dressed and you could comb your hair in the reflection of his highly polished shoes. But he was an ogre. On one famous occasion, he took one of our beautifully produced, much considered recommendation documents, dramatically suspended it high above the waste paper basket, paused, and then let it drop … Later, one of his employees told me how lovely he was with his children.

So, probably, was Attila.

 

Most people don’t know how their friends, their spouses, their parents behave at work. And if they did, maybe their friends, their spouses and their parents would behave a mite differently. People watch people at work – and they make judgements about us, about our performance, our character, and our values. If you’re a boss, your decisions affect more people, and you’re under greater scrutiny. But usually, unless it’s a very big company indeed, not many of the people we socialise with or go to church with have any idea about what kind of person we are at work. We’re safe. At least from human scrutiny.

But when you run a fairly large business in a fairly small city, and that business happens to exist to serve the Christian community in Britain, then pretty much any social event or any church community you go to will have people there that you employ, or who are related to people you employ. Keith Danby runs STL, which is a fairly large business with 600 employees. It’s located in Carlisle, a city that’s surprisingly small – with just 80,000 people. STL publishes Christian books and resources under the Paternoster and Authentic imprints, owns the Wesley Owen chain of Christian bookshops and a large distribution centre that services the Christian book trade. So when Keith walks into his church, always well dressed, with highly polished shoes, there are a large number of people there who are either employed by him or related to someone who is. He works and lives in a goldfish bowl.

 

Hand in Custom-Tailored Glove

But he’s hugely enthusiastic about what he does. “I’m doing this because it’s what God has called me to do. And I’m passionate about it because what we do makes a difference in eternity – we’re selling Christian resources which we believe will have a spiritual impact. I felt called into specifically Christian work back in 1973 but it wasn’t until 1987 that I joined STL. Everyday I went into work before then I went in not only to do the job I had then but with the conscious intention of equipping myself for the work that God had for me in the future. When I arrived at STL, it was like putting my hand in a custom-tailored glove – it was the fulfilment of God’s calling and equipping.”

This sense of calling certainly sustains him under pressure, but it doesn’t relieve him from it. The decisions he makes affect his brothers and sisters in Christ and, inevitably, his brothers and sisters in Christ don’t always think that they are ‘Christian’ decisions. So a while back, a pastor asks him to lunch, and challenges him: “I don’t like the un-Christian way you are making people redundant.” The pastor may never have run a business, but it is certainly no bad thing that he is concerned for his people, and for Keith, and that he has the courage to do something about it. Keith pauses, takes out his Bible and says, “You would do me a great service if you could show me from this book how to make someone redundant. Because,” he says, “I’ve done it all kinds of ways, in an attempt to preserve the person’s dignity and minimise the pain – and there just isn’t an easy way to do it.” In reality, he has made relatively few people redundant in 16 years, particularly when you consider that the publishing industry has seen massive consolidations and widespread redundancies, even in the Christian sector. “I take making people redundant as the ultimate failure,” Keith says, “because it means we haven’t been able to retain their skills or retrain them for another role.”

 

Firing your Brother

But it happens. On one occasion, Keith had to make a leader in his own church redundant. It was one of the most difficult decisions in his life. The leader had made a significant contribution to the business over many years, and was not far from retirement. Could Keith get round it in some other way? Might it not have been more ‘Christian’ to keep him on for a few more years and absorb the cost? Keith consulted others at the highest level, including his chairman and trustees. After much prayer, three principles emerged:

 

Firstly, there was the question of the dignity of the person – does it show respect to give them a role that lets them coast through to retirement, knowing as they would do, that they were not best placed to serve the needs of the business going forward?

Secondly, is it good stewardship to tie up a salary that could be deployed better to build the business?

Thirdly, would Keith actually be contravening the Biblical call to impartiality? Could he look a warehouse person in the eye if he had shown preferential treatment to managers?

 

So Keith made the leader redundant. Very hard and public for the leader. But hard and public for Keith too. In that difficult time, it was the Holy Spirit who gave him the patience, the strength, the perseverance, and the emotional resilience to carry on. In reading Paul’s letters, he was reminded that God never promised ‘happiness’, but that he does promise joy and fulfilment in serving him.

 

Greater Expectations

Keith recognises that people have greater and different expectations of a ‘Christian’ business than of other organisations. Some of those expectations are appropriate, and some are not. Allowing poor performance is not a Christian way to run a business; failing to be a good steward of resources is not a Christian way to run a business, but that doesn’t mean that profit is the only motive.

When Keith took over STL in 1987, the company had a turnover of £1.2 million, and had lost £250K in the previous year. It was four weeks away from bankruptcy. He had 34 staff from 18 different nations, all were volunteers and all were there for the short term. They were strong on faith but not highly trained. Keith wanted to build professional competency without sacrificing the faith.

What that means in practice is not only that STL have sought to recruit outstandingly talented managers, but have also kept their overall goals in mind. Overall, for example, their 40 bookshops have lost around £200k per year over the last ten years. In reality, the distribution business subsidises the bookshop business. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all the bookshops lose money, but some do. So why not simply close the ones that don’t?

Wesley Owen are in business, but they are primarily in business to serve the Christian community – to get the word out. Of course, you can’t get the word out if you are bankrupt, but sometimes you can decide to make less profit so you can achieve your ultimate goal. Not that Keith will shrink from the difficult decisions: “If I’m looking down the barrel of a gun, I won’t blink. I’ll remove the leg to save the body.”

If this sounds tough, then that is indeed the way Keith comes across – tough, or rather focused. The kind of person you’d follow into a battle. Focused but fair. Good leaders, like good pastors, have to be focused, to do what they believe is right before God. Good leaders don’t ignore their people’s advice, because they know God may be speaking through his people too, but good leaders know that the popular decision is not always the right decision. So good leaders need to be tough. But toughness isn’t indifference; toughness isn’t lack of care. Godly toughness comes from care for the people, and focus on the cause they’re involved in, and it is resourced by the Father’s love.

Jesus, for example, rebukes Peter in the most severe way for seeking to divert him from God’s tough call to go up to Jerusalem to his death: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:21-23); God tells Isaiah to deliver messages that no one will pay an attention to; Jeremiah has to deliver messages that will get him persecuted. It is the reassurance of God’s love and God’s call that sustains. And it is no different for Keith: “Am I called to do this job? Yes, I am. Have I finished what I’m meant to do? No, I haven’t.”

 

Divine Intervention

If profit is not the only measure of success, then nor are professional skills the only way in which Keith has seen the business grow. “It is easy to get wrapped up in numbers and to become self-confident and self-reliant but there have been a number of incredible things where we have seen God’s blessing, intervention and affirmation.” About a year ago, for example, they needed to find a new location for a shop in Manchester, but were also tied into a five to six year lease on the current shop. Then one day they found the perfect site for the new shop. But, as Keith stood outside the new location, he wondered what to do. Could they afford to pay their current landlord the compensation for breaking their lease? Probably not. At that moment Keith’s mobile phone rang. It was the property agent for their current property. “Would you be prepared to surrender your lease on your shop? The landlord will compensate you accordingly.” The timing was beyond coincidence.

Naturally, Keith is not suggesting that faithfulness necessarily leads to prosperity, or that God will always act in such a way, but rather that God did bless the company on that day. And on many days before that.

 

After our interview, Keith writes me a little note:

“When I work at STL, I feel God’s pleasure.”

But that doesn’t make it easy. After all, being in the right place, at the right time, and doing the right thing, isn’t any guarantee of success, or even happiness, but it is a guarantee of God’s approval. Whatever anyone else thinks.

 

“On one occasion, Keith had to make a leader in his own church redundant.”

“Not many of the people we socialise or go to church with have any idea about what kind of person we are at work. We’re safe. At least from human scrutiny.”

 

Mark Greene
Mark is Executive Director of LICC and the author of a number of work-related books and resources including Thank God it’s Monday.

Rich Christian in a World of Need

September 1, 2010
01 Sep 2010

“I am in the business of making wealth to distribute wealth,” says Kim Tan, who has indeed generated a lot of wealth and distributed a lot of wealth.

Which is not, as we shall see, quite the same things as giving it away. Kim is, in fact, one of the richest people in the UK. An international venture capitalist with a clear focus on trying to do something significant about global poverty, doing it in ways that have been shaped by deep and long reflection on the biblical teaching about poverty and in particular by the Old Testament concept of Jubilee and its centrality in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4). Today, he is involved in developing ways of doing business on a large scale, which may indeed provide an alternative to contemporary models of poverty alleviation.

I meet him at his home in Surrey. It is a beautiful, large, old stone house, set in acres of fields. I am greeted by Molly, a golden hound with a gently wagging tail who is surely far too friendly to this complete stranger. But there again there is a peacefulness about Kim and his wife Sally’s home, and indeed something about the way that they have decorated it, that is wondrously welcoming. Great wealth can sometimes intimidate – I just feel at home. Kim is the son of a Malaysian businessman who came to Britain at 16, and soon became a Christian. He was as he put it ‘a reluctant convert’ but, having found Christ, at what he considered an old age, he felt he needed to catch up and knew he needed good teaching. So when it came to choosing a university, he first identified 3 where the best Bible teachers in the UK were and, from that list, chose a university with a relevant course. He ended up in Guildford, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he ended up being taught by David Pawson whose combination of Biblical depth and determination to engage with the great issues of the day deepened Kim’s understanding of God’s concern for all of life. This combined with his church’s deep concern for world mission and its attitude to money – their policy was to give away 50% of the budget to mission and to give away any budget surplus at the end of the financial year so that they could look to God afresh.

 

From Community to Venture Capital

Kim studied biochemistry, fascinated by the creativity of God, and began to live in community with a group of Christians with the goal of creating a context in which they could do discipleship and evangelism together. They began by acquiring the cheapest house in Guildford. Over the years, though, the group grew to around 45 living in 12 houses in two streets. As a community, they pored over the Scriptures every night, bought commentaries and theological dictionaries, and found someone to teach them basic New Testament Greek so that they could read the texts and the commentaries with more discernment. All this was in the cause of seeking ways to respond to the radical nature of Christ and the radical lifestyle of the early church. Indeed they had ‘all things in common’, except, Kim points out, their wives and their books. They lived simply. At one point they decided that the men would live on £10 a day and the women on £20 – the women got more because they were always feeding people.

Looking back, Kim sees that this experience “gave God a chance to deal with our material addiction. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have learned how to hold things lightly.” Which is a good thing to learn when you are holding millions. Even then, though, there was an entrepreneurial edge to their way of life. “We realised that we were buying so many books that we might as well set up our own book company, so that we could get them cheaper and pass on the discounts to students.” The company, Bethel Books, still exists today. Similarly, one of their members was a gifted mechanic, so when he graduated, they set him up in business. In both cases, the investments were designed to serve people’s interests, not merely to make money.

 

Liberating People’s Potential

From the money he made, he began to invest in other companies, bringing a distinctive approach to the venture capital process. Kim had learned a great deal about servanthood from his early contact with Roger Forster and Alan Kreider and the Anabaptist tradition, and had been gripped by the example of Jesus the servant. So, for example, when he and Sally married, he insisted on crafting his own vows, because the traditional marriage vows do not include the concept of servanthood, which is, after all, the dominant New Testament metaphor for marriage. Importantly, he sees Jesus’ servanthood characterised by a tremendous desire to see people liberated to fulfil their potential in Him – that they may have abundant life.

This theme of ‘fulfilling potential’ is indeed a motif that carries across all Kim’s activities. You can see it in the way his company invests in ideas – helping others fulfil their dreams, but not simply by writing a cheque; but by offering them skills where they don’t have them – in developing the business plan, in helping them with mergers and acquisitions, and so on. You see it in his preference for investing in companies that are to be located in areas of high unemployment – in India, in China and in Africa – so as to generate jobs for people who would otherwise not have them.

You see this yearning to help people fulfil their potential in his exploration of what he has called Social Venture Capitalism. “People need jobs,” he argues, “more than aid,” and are more interested in taking responsibility than taking cheques. So Kim has actively looked for opportunities not only to invest in businesses where there is endemic poverty, but to do it in a way that empowers everyone involved for the long term. So, in setting up a safari game park in a malaria-free, and almost job-free area of South Africa, he hasn’t just appointed a manager to train, for example, the fencing team of 65 workers. He’s appointed a manager to train a fencing team, to pay them well, to house them well, to teach them to read, and to equip them for future employment. Indeed, when it was over, the leaders of the team were well enough trained for Kim and his team to ask them whether they wanted to set up their own business. Note the radical point here – Kim was not interested in starting a fencing business himself and employing the team, but rather empowering them to do it for themselves. And indeed, they helped the team write a business plan and negotiate an eight-month fencing contract with South African National Parks. And that is very significant, because every job created has the potential to affect 10 other people positively.

But it is also significant because the principle behind this is that of allowing people to enjoy stewardship. In the Jubilee of the Old Testament, the people of Israel were called to cancel all debt and restore all lands to the original families. And Kim sees that in Luke 4, Jesus is re-inaugurating the Jubilee. Indeed, the Lord’s prayer is a ‘jubilary’ prayer: ‘forgive us our debts as we ourselves have also remitted them to our debtors’ (cf John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, Eerdmans, p66). The liberator God provides a mechanism for a fresh start, and the generous, delegator God wants people to be able to take responsibility. In the Jubilee, the means to wealth is re-distributed back to people. This is not a charity mentality, but a stewardship mentality.

 

A Share (or more) for all

Furthermore, Kim notes that wealth is not meant to stay in the hands of a few people. And that is why in every project he has been involved in, there has always been some element of share distribution. So even in a joint venture with the communist Chinese Government to commercialise six products, he insisted that the senior scientists would get some share ownership. Similarly, when he built a cancer hospital in Malaysia, he insisted on issuing share options. The Board thought he meant for the senior managers – he meant for everyone. But most of the workforce had never owned a share before and didn’t have any capital to exercise their option. Kim offered them a loan that turned out to be interest free. Because, as he told them, the Bible says we should not charge interest. Kim is clearly a generous man, but this generosity is not simply the capacity to give money away, but the capacity to create opportunity. “Some people, he says, “are like rocks, they give when you strike them. Some people are like oranges, they give when you squeeze them. Some people are like flowers, they give because it’s in their nature to give. And when I meet people I ask myself do they smell of Jesus? Have they known the deep, deep grace of God?”

As one of Kim’s old friends put it, Kim has a much greater capacity to believe that something is possible than most of us. He sees opportunity and thinks, why not? So for example, his bankers advised him against investing in the game park in South Africa – the country is unstable, the Rand is weak, the white population are leaving, you don’t know anything about the leisure business… But he has done it, not in a rush of defiant, arrogant impetuosity but he has done it – two truck loads of animals are being delivered to the park every week and the South African National Parks Board is their joint venture partner.

This, however, is not simply a single good news story, but a potential model for the future. Kim is demonstrating to governments and to major institutions that social venture capital has something to offer the world’s poor, which the Non-Government Organisation (NGO) model often cannot. Often, the NGOs don’t know how to run businesses. That means that the skills required to make loans turn into sustainable enterprise – whether micro or macro – are often not there. And even if they are, what Kim is beginning to prove on the ground, is that the private sector can make a significant contribution to alleviating poverty.

And it is this that has led him to find other like-minded business people and start the Transformational Business Network (TBN). It’s caught the imagination of many Christian business people, who can use what they are good at to make a difference to the world’s poor. Today, there are over 170 members of TBN working on business projects all over the world, using their holiday time to do field trips, reviewing business opportunities, and offering their talents to others so that others may develop their talents. “Lots of Christian business people are seeing that there’s something they can do for Christ – besides making coffee, putting out chairs and writing cheques. If the church really believes that people are our biggest assets why do we let them rot in the pews? Here are all these highly gifted, talented people – creative, innovative with superb executional skills, and we let them rot in the pews!” There it is again. Kim really, really hates to see potential wasted. He really, really wants to see people – the rich in the West, and the poor wherever they are – live a life that helps them fulfil their potential in Christ.

 

Smells like flowers to me.

 

Mark Greene

 

Kim Tan’s lastest book The Jubilee Gospel (2008) is published by Authentic.
To find out more about the Transformational Business Network, go to www.tbnetwork.org

Opportunity Knocks

August 7, 2010
07 Aug 2010

Now is our moment.

Now. Not in ten years time, not in twenty years time. But now. The West in all its glitzy self-confidence is imploding before our very eyes. And this represents a fantastic opportunity for the Gospel.

It is not bin Laden who has rocked Western confidence. On the whole, bin Laden has done the opposite – he has made us more self-righteous, more certain that Western democracy is the one true path. No, even though much of the world thinks that the West is materialistic, morally bankrupt and sexually depraved, we, on the whole, do not have ears to hear the criticism, nor hearts attuned to the misery we inflict, never mind an inclination to alleviate the misery that, yes, some national leaders inflict on their own people. It is misery nevertheless. And none of the G8 nations is giving the level of international aid that they promised.

No, the West is in trouble not because of any external threat. The West is in trouble because there is a vacuum at its core. The West is now beginning to reap the whirlwind of its flight from God, and its disdain for the very idea of truth.

Few events illustrate the bitter fruit of that disdain for absolute truth better than the circumstances surrounding the collapse of Enron and WorldCom. What is startling is not that two very large companies could be run in such an appalling way; what is startling is not the internal culture of Enron which bred fear and greed in gargantuan proportions; what is startling is not that some highly placed individuals were lying. No, what is startling is that their auditors behaved with such dishonesty. Auditors have only one thing to sell: their honesty. Without honesty, they are out of business. As Andersens, Enron’s auditors, may well soon be.

How then could a business that trades in honesty so easily forfeit its key asset? Presumably because there was no deeply felt personal commitment to honesty. Indeed, for decades, business schools didn’t even have ethics courses. That might not have mattered when everyone shared the basic view that truth existed, and that lying was wrong, but it matters very much when people have been educated not to believe in the possibility of ‘truth’, and when lying is increasingly perceived to be bad only if you get caught.

 

Business needs Trust

A while back, the University of Westminster conducted a survey among UK Board Directors, and discovered the saddening, but not surprising, discovery that the majority of Board Directors said that they would do something unethical if they thought they could get away with it. They had no inner conviction about right or wrong; they were simply concerned with managing risk. Truthfulness does not matter. What matters is results. Now this may work for some individuals for some of the time, but it doesn’t work for business as a whole, and it certainly doesn’t work for big business. Here’s why: big business needs investors. And investors make judgments about their investment decisions on the basis of audited accounts. If you can’t trust the numbers, you have no basis for making an investment – you might as well buy a lottery ticket. And if people don’t invest, business can’t invest, and won’t expand.

Although some individual businesses can thrive with dishonest policies, business as a whole cannot. And nor can societies. Trust is the basic building block of all relationships. And trust is in very short supply. And this explains why President Bush is so worried by the collapse of those businesses, and why he has pushed through much tighter legislation.

So what is the connection between the decline in truthfulness and the flight from God? And why is this such an opportunity for the Gospel?

 

The Theory: Part 1

When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe anything.

Look around. People are not uninterested in ‘spirituality,’ in the transcendent, in the occult, in magic, in crystals and hugging trees, and a host of new age variations on old Eastern themes. No, people will believe anything. Including the insight that “Life has enough embarrassing moments,” so “don’t let your mobile be one of them.” Imagine that: your reputation in tatters because your mobile is the wrong model. Happiness used to be a cigar called Hamlet; now it’s a mobile called Nokia 8310.

 

The Theory: Part 2

When people stop believing in absolute truth, societies have no legitimate basis for ethical decision-making, and people become less truthful.

Well, look at Britain. As we have moved away from our Judeo-Christian heritage, as we have rejected as a culture the idea that there might be one way, one truth and one life, so too we have seen an astonishing decline in trust in our major institutions, in our leaders, in our employers and indeed in one another.

At the same time, we have seen a huge rise in the pressure to lie and to spin. And the more you lie, the easier it is to lie. As Paul makes clear in Romans, the first step on the road to moral degradation is the suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18ff), and the progressive suppression of the truth leads to the progressive dulling of the conscience. The results are clear: the wages of spin is the death of trust. And without trust, relationships, businesses, societies just don’t work.

Now, liberal moral philosophers have been running around for a century trying to construct a set of ethical principles, without reference to absolute truth. Which is like trying to construct a skyscraper without foundations. It can’t be done. Because if there is no agreed starting point which underpins your ethical framework, you are simply constructing one individual person’s view of a moral framework. And who is to say that it is better or worse than the next person’s? How can it be criticised? Without some external point of reference, it can’t be. As Annie Lenox sang in ‘Sweet Dreams’, “Who am I to disagree?” So truth becomes relative. Here’s my truth, show me yours. It’s true for you. But not for me. Which of course is illogical. The cup is either empty or it isn’t. Jesus either died on the Cross or he didn’t. And when there is no truth, there is no basis for morality. As Rowling’s Voldemort put it, “There is no good or evil, only power.”

Now the problem for the atheists and the agnostics and the liberals about the current decline in trust and truthfulness in Western democracy is that the Western human beings are not flourishing as a result of the flight from God and the disdain for truth – they are increasingly alienated, isolated, depressed and weary. Furthermore, Western society as a whole has now reached a point where it desperately needs a shared ethical framework. However, the atheists, agnostics and liberals have failed to provide one.

If you get rid of God, you shatter truth, and trust crumbles. And when trust crumbles, capitalism doesn’t work. So here’s a surprise: capitalism needs God. Thankfully, God doesn’t need capitalism, though he may well be prepared to work with it.

 

The Time is Now

So, why is ‘now’ a great time for the Gospel?

Because when a culture cannot answer its own questions, it is much more likely to be open to alternatives. The West has for decades basked in self-satisfied, self-confidence. Never mind the social data, just look at the economy: capitalism works. We don’t need God. But now the West is beginning to realise that without a God of truth, the economy may not work, Capitalism will founder. As Charles Coulson puts it:

“The lesson of history is that capitalism (or any other economic system, for that matter) is only beneficent when it is subject to moral restraints derived ultimately form religious truth.”

The West needs a God of truth.

Furthermore, Western liberals promised that kicking God out of the public arena would not only deliver prosperity, but happiness. It hasn’t. The yearning for something more remains. This is the opportunity. Paul recognised a similar opportunity as he walked round Athens:

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” Acts 17: 23.

 

Paul’s close observation of Athenian culture recognised that, despite all the gods the Athenians had, there was something missing. And that yearning for something else was expressed in the altar to the unknown god, the god who had, according to their own history, rescued them when no other could. This was Paul’s opportunity. He saw the culture’s dissatisfaction with itself, the need it could not satisfy, the truth that had escaped it. And he demonstrated that the Gospel of the resurrected Christ was indeed the answer to that need.

It is not just Enron that is bankrupt. So is Western liberalism. It can still put on a good show, but the writing is on the Wall Street TV monitors.

They don’t have the answer.

The Church has got to recover confidence in our God as the Creator, the One who knows best what His world needs. God is truth. And although we must recognise that many contemporary people are suspicious of anyone who claims to know the truth, that should only make us think carefully about how we make our case. It shouldn’t deter us from living it and arguing it. Christ is the cornerstone, and you can’t build a healthy society without Him.

And now is the time to proclaim it.

 

“Capitalism needs God. Though, thankfully God doesn’t need capitalism.”

“The wages of spin is the death of trust.”

 

Mark Greene

Models for our Time: Of Leviticus and the London Fan Company

July 28, 2010
28 Jul 2010

Leadership seems to suit Andrew Webber. Or at least if it doesn’t, it doesn’t show. He’s one of those deeply irritating people who looks at least twenty years younger than he surely is, hasn’t got so much as a pixel of grey in his hair, and has the unflappable demeanour of someone who wouldn’t blink if you ran at him with a chainsaw.

He runs a smallish business called The London Fan Company. Not surprisingly, they make fans. Rather good industrial fans, as it happens. Some of their fans are around 1.5 metres across, cost £3500, and would run 24 hours a day for the next twenty years. You’ll find LFC fans in the roof of Lakeside Shopping Centre, in Watford’s sprawling Harlequin Centre, and in the joint-services hovercraft that went up the Amazon. Famously, in the trade at least, the fan at the front of Hollywood’s latest Batmobile was based on an LFC design.

Most years, though not last year, LFC make a reasonable profit. And more than a reasonable twelve and half per cent of that reasonable profit goes to charity. It’s a third generation family business, and you might think that that’s what a family business with a long Christian heritage should do – give some of the profit to charity. On the other hand, you might think that giving to charity is not what businesses should do – they should plough the profits back into the business, and let individuals decide what to give to charity. Companies, after all, need profit like humans need air. And although profit, like air, isn’t a purpose, it’s tough to live long without it – unless you happen to be a haddock. Humanly speaking, Andrew’s taking a risk.

But it isn’t just that Andrew’s management team show their concern for the poor in the way they distribute profits, it’s reflected in some of the little things that happen in the factory. A cup of coffee from the canteen machine will set you back a whopping 10p. “A pretty good deal,” I commented to Gary, one of their employees. “Yeah, it is,” he replied, “And all the surplus goes to charity.” Indeed. Maybe in some companies the coffee is free, but I suspect it isn’t in many light industrial factories. But the bigger point is that the company is building into every employee a consciousness for the poor. And building into every purchase of a cup of coffee a contribution towards helping the poor. I’ve no idea whether the coffee was fairly traded – it seemed churlish to even ask.

Now, as you might expect, there is a certain amount of metal involved in the making of an industrial fan and, as the machine tools carve their precise paths round the metal parts, slivers and curls and twirls of aluminium fall like catkins to the factory floor. The slivers are valuable and they’re swept up, loaded up, and taken off to the scrap metal merchant. Pretty much every responsible company would do that – save the waste and take the cash. The London Fan Company saves the waste, takes the cash, and then hands it to charity.

 

Suddenly, something happens to me that doesn’t happen very often – a passage from Leviticus pops into my consciousness:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19: 9-10

So Andrew has decided not to reap every last smidgen of profit from the grains and slivers of aluminium that fall to the floor – he’s allocated their value to the poor, even if, in this instance, he can’t allow the poor into the factory to pick up the scrap themselves. Nevertheless, it is a marvellous outworking of the principle of compassion in action.

Andrew inherited the tradition of giving the cash from the ‘gleanings’ to charity from his predecessor but it’s an inheritance he is more than happy to continue, and it’s entirely consistent with his concern for the welfare of his own people. This concern has manifested itself, not only in his determination not to make any of his team redundant through the ups and downs of the new globalised market, but also in his day to day management. Andrew comes from the Sven Goran Eriksson/Arsene Wenger school of management. He’s self-effacing, but clearly has the knack of gaining people’s trust and getting to the heart of any work-related issue:

“Loads of people have problems, you’d be amazed. Normally, you see that they’re in a bit of trouble at work, not performing, late – you get behind it and find that there is a whole load of reasons why. You look at their lives, shake your head, say to yourself, ‘We’re not a social service, we have a business to run,’ but we will support them up to a certain limit. It’s an opportunity to get involved, and say, ‘Right, I’m a Christian, this what I believe.’ In some instances, you can give them Christ, in others you give them the benefit of your experience, try to help them along. I spend a lot of time sorting staff out, trying to sort their problems out, taking them under my wing. It’s a big part of my work and it’s one of the most significant changes in business. Twenty five years ago, people didn’t bring their problems to work – but today people do and management can’t ignore it.”

 

This concern to ‘help people along’ runs through much of what Andrew has to say about his management style. Sometimes at considerable corporate cost. In one instance, a serious crime had been committed by a staff member. Andrew decided not to prosecute, but to confront the individual in the presence of their spouse, and direct the individual to an external counsellor to deal with the root issue. This might just happen in a flush multi-national, but in a small business with 26 employees, it represented a considerable cost and a considerable risk. But the result is that a family has been held together. As Andrew puts it, “Some people might start to think that we’re a soft touch but it’s a family business and it’s the kind of decision I can make. It’s down to me.”

Reputation is everything for the London Fan Company, and it’s their reputation that enables them to punch above their weight in the global market. They’re known as conservative, solid, trustworthy. Those aren’t necessarily exciting adjectives, but their consistent investment in technical development and their reluctance to over-promise on the performance of their fans has enabled them to continue to compete with much larger companies.

Trustworthiness also marks the way that Andrew handles that most difficult of hot coals – cash-flow. He recognises that he cannot always pay within thirty days, even though those are the standard terms. He can’t do it because he is not always paid within thirty days. “We simply wouldn’t survive if we did. You have to play the game to a certain extent. I have lines in my head beyond which I know I will not go. My view is that if we say we will do something then we must do it. That’s what I tell my accountants. A lot of business is built on trust, and still is. And on relationships too. Once that breaks down…”

Recently, the Company has begun to do business in the Far East: “In Malaysia they use Indian labour. You get very good prices over there. Prices you couldn’t match them over here. You say, ‘Well, to be in business I have to take advantage of that. You go and visit these places, and the people are being paid peanuts. And you ask where are they living – they’re living in empty storage containers out the back. So you ask the question, ‘Should we be doing business with these kinds of companies?’ It’s like slave labour. You say, ‘Well, if I don’t take advantage of the prices, and everyone else is, we will go out of business.’ The view we’ve taken is, ‘These people have jobs over there, they’re getting more money than they would otherwise… but it’s quite an eye-opener. If we were bigger we might have more pull and be able to dictate terms.” Consistent with Andrew’s honesty, he refuses to use the size of his company as an excuse: “If we were that unhappy about it we wouldn’t do business with them.”

Andrew takes a softly-softly approach to witness. He’s not against morning prayer meetings or sending round overtly Christian Easter or Christmas letters but it’s not his way. Still, the Christian basis of the company is clearly set out in the staff handbook and everyone knows where Andrew and his Board are coming from and where they stand.

Surprisingly perhaps, Andrew Webber, heading up this light industrial business in urban West London, reminded me of a man known for his rural communion with the birds and for his words: “Preach constantly, use words if necessary.” Of course Andrew knows, as St Francis did, that words are vital, but following Christ has much less to do with where he places us than with how we choose to follow him. Perhaps some of Andrew’s decisions would not have been yours or mine but, as a maker of fans, he knows that “the Spirit blows where He wills” (John), and he has tried to set his sails accordingly.

 

“My view is that if we say we will do something then we must do it.”

“If we were bigger, we might have more pull and be able to dictate terms.”

“In one instance, a crime on company premises had been committed by a staff member. Andrew decided not to prosecute but to confront the individual in the presence of their spouse, and direct the individual to an external counsellor to deal with the root issue…”

 

Mark Greene