“Oh, good…I’m glad you called,” whispered one familiar voice to another, “I was just about to fall asleep!”
“Yeah, I’m sorry for not calling sooner.” I replied, having anticipated a tired voice at the other end, “it went longer than I think we all expected, but I’m on my way home.”
“Oh no, it’s OK…how was it?!”, she had hoped waiting for my update on the night’s events would be worth a rare bedtime hour in the double-digits.
“I’ll put it this way…” I quickly responded – getting to the point, “tonight is what I’ve been hoping and praying would happen for the past 3 years!”
“Oh, yes…praise God!” My sentiments exactly…
The tired, yet hopeful and enthusiastic, woman to whom I was speaking was my wife, Catherine. The occasion about which I was referring was a “Vocare” – a conversation about calling. As I see it, a Vocare’s purpose of gathering a group together to discuss and explore a shared calling is twofold: to examine and affect the individual heart of each person in attendance and to consider the collective potential of those gathered to take authentic steps towards bringing about the kingdom of God. So, as I attempt to recount the happenings of the evening, I hope to capture both sides of its story.
This particular Vocare focused on the calling (or vocation) of business. Centered around the dining room table of its host, Steve Garber, the evening consisted of sharing a meal and deep discussion between the fifteen or so present. At the beginning of the night, once all had arrived, Steve commenced by reiterating the simple purpose and structure of the night: “‘Vocare’ he said, “means ‘to call’,” and he explained he had personally invited all in attendance because they each had shared with him their relatively common desire to serve the Lord in the marketplace…some even having a particularly bold vision of reshaping the manner in which it operates. Steve then requested we each share a brief account of what brought each of us to the table that evening. To provide an explanation of how I came to attend and be so touched by this event, I’ll offer the same synopsis I provided at the Vocare.
In college, I studied and planned to pursue a career in either law or politics. I saw those two paths as vehicles of the peace and justice through which I hoped to serve the Lord and honor his creation. While I had a genuine desire for a career in these areas because of their easy convergence of justice and steady income, I also steered toward them in avoidance or, perhaps, even dismissal of a career in business. From my brief exposure to and limited study of economics, I always had been skeptical of business’s capacity to actively “do good.” Essentially, I believed the principles of modern economics were “not enough” to live up to the hope I had for what God meant the world to be…even in its broken state.
Then, the summer before my senior year, I reticently accepted an internship with a Christian think-tank exploring the implications of a global economy. My experience that summer reaffirmed many of my frustrations with business as a source of suffering and injustice. But it also opened my eyes to what I considered to be the market’s vast potential to be a source of healing and redemption. In fact, the more I began to comprehend how integral the marketplace is to the way in which the world operates, the more I recognized there is little hope for any peace to be achieved in a global and sustainable way without involving profit-incentives and market economics. Thus, with continued uncertainty but honest hope (plus the encouragement of family and friends), I turned my heart’s intentions to serve God and his creation toward a career, and possibly a vocation, in business.
As I began to learn how the economic gears turn from within a piece of its engine (via my job at a large, management consulting firm), I observed the free market’s continuing and compounding effects on inequality; yet I also glimpsed the possibility for creative economic remedies to this suffering and towards the promotion of peace and justice. The necessity for rethinking and reshaping the business world to better steward God’s creation seemed more obvious with each passing financial quarter. I assumed and hoped this clarity and perspective came from Christ, but I feared it might have arisen from a naïve idealism and self-importance, typical of ripening young professionals. However, in three short years, I had exhausted any professional and spiritual experience or wisdom I had about loving Christ through business and seeking his kingdom in the marketplace. To continue with confidence, I needed to hear and learn from others. Clearly, I was thrilled to join this particular evening’s conversation!
As each Vocare guest shared his name and back-story, the night’s potential for wisdom and inspiration grew stronger. The seats were filled by people whose resumes covered the spectrum of industries and experience. A handful – like me – had just stepped off the school bus and into the door of their first corporate job, a few were about to head off to pursue advanced business and economic degrees from the world’s most respected institutions, and the rest had either already founded or were leading successful companies. Specific areas of expertise and involvement ranged from banking and finance, fast-casual restaurants, urban planning, manufacturing, transportation and international development. By the end of the introductions, I think it’s fair to say we were all eager to know what the evening might hold…
In preparation for the evening, Steve encouraged us to read and consider the concept of the “economy” of the kingdom of God as proposed by Wendell Berry in his essay, Two Economies. In it, Berry asserts the need for an economy which seeks first the kingdom of God – i.e. a market which exists within the “here but not yet” kingdom and so must do its best to operate in harmony with it, else create serious harm in its opposition to it. Two men at the Vocare, Jay and Bruno, had the same contention and discussed their vision. As highly influential economic and business executives at the same multi-billion dollar corporation, these two men serve as stewards of both their company’s economic well-being as well as that of God’s people and planet. In order for their company, but more importantly, the world to survive and to act justly, Jay and Bruno assumed the daunting task of developing a new kind of economy – a “kingdom kind” of economy. This audacious proposition steered the “conversation about calling” for the rest of the evening.
Bruno laid out the proposition to the Vocare attendees as he did to his company’s CEO – in a PowerPoint deck. His argument for the need for a serious change was convincing. To briefly paraphrase, he claims our current model and economic principles (e.g. maximize shareholder value) have led us to a serious and insurmountable crisis – we’re living at a consumption rate of 1.5 planets (i.e., .5 more than we have to spare) and have recently encountered a unique global and domestic economic calamity (i.e. food crisis, dangerously high GINI coefficient, and convergence of inflation, recession, and housing crash). Thus, they are not simply seeking an economy which would align with the kingdom of God (moral), but one which is necessary for survival (pragmatic).
The kingdom-aligned market Bruno proposes as the necessary alternative can be described simply, but many would argue is impossible to put into practice. Basically, it is an economy which does not simply seek to competitively increase profits or shareholder value by maximizing the bottom line, but one which places the same importance, value and need to measure, on a company’s ability to benefit people as well as the environment. This economy strives to maximize the good of 3 P’s – Profit, People and Planet – creating a “Triple Bottom Line”.
As Bruno shared this vision and Jay offering timely additions…at one point even amusingly interjecting to ensure us they were not Communists or Socialists…I could hardly contain my excitement and joy. As one who feared my own naiveté or idealism may have been the actual source of such hope and vision of reshaping the economic paradigm, I listened with immense relief that, among those who had exceedingly more practical and experiential understanding of the economy than I did, but who were also seeking Christ in it, there were some who seemed to be moving in the same direction I felt the Holy Spirit taking me! Moreover, they had practical evidence and research to back it up and spoke more as realists than idealists. With this, the conversation already succeeded in bolstering and affirming one person’s confidence in God’s calling.
However, as you may expect, a proposition to overhaul the economic paradigm stirred some feathers. For centuries, countless intelligent and well-meaning people, including many Christians, have explored the limitations and possibilities of economic and capitalistic principles…including some of the concepts related to Jay and Bruno’s proposed economy (e.g. the “Triple Bottom Line” has actually been evolved and debated over the past few decades). Indeed, over a dozen of those bright minds and hearts sat around the Garber’s dining room table, eagerly waiting to respond to this bold plan-perhaps what a MBA/Economics/Theology/Public Policy/Seminary class dinner group may look like. As the personalities and opinions of the room shifted back and forth between collaboration and vision casting to practical debate and unconvinced questioning, the eyes and voices of each involved captured some intense emotions – from excited, hopeful, and admiring to pensive, frustrated, and skeptical. Steve, as the artful and gracious moderator, made concerted efforts to ensure each person was given his moment to offer his thoughts or a new perspective.
At the height of collaborative thinking, the group posed the intimidating question of how to influence and explain to the rest of the world the imperative to “buy-in” to this new economy. At this point in the discussion, the group’s World Bank representative, a Kenyan man with impressive insights into the developing world, suggested the arts – music, film, etc. – as a potentially potent way of bringing this economic concept upstream to the culture it hopes to change. Nevertheless, as economically savvy minds pushed back and directed adroit questions, key basic concerns arose. Namely, how can we expect the world to go against basic economic principles such as the required return on investment (RRI), if we attempt to measure that based on anything but profit? And, hadn’t history clearly proven capitalism to be the best of all “isms” (i.e. socialism, communism)? So, with this understanding of history’s failed economic experiments, this latest proposition – while we were assured of its divergence from prior and existing systems – struck some as an effort all too familiar to those tried and failed by many before us.
The conversation, like this story, ran long. However, the most encouraging element of the “Vocare” was its identity as more than just a single evening of intimate conversation and delicious food (which, by desert, the group had noted as its favorite part of the evening!). Ultimately, the group considered Jay and Bruno’s proposition with great hope and a mutual desire to help explore and advance it further. So, as Steve closed the evening, each of us made our way home (I myself making a late but joyful phone call to my wife), but all looked forward to be in continued conversation…about a radically exciting calling.
Sean Burke, a native Washingtonian, works for Accenture.