Ministry in the Marketplace by William E Diehl 19

"Mr. Diehl, how can you possibly say you are a Christian and yet continue to work, as an executive, for a large corporation in the business field?" That question has been put to me directly by more than one student as I have lectured on seminary campuses. It has been implied by many others in the religious community through other questions they have asked.

Can a Christian be in business today? More than that, can there be Christian ministry in the marketplace? The student's question is a troubling one because it suggests a distorted notion of the world and a misunderstanding of some basic Christian doctrine.

While critics of the world of business can point to the detrimental consequences of competition, materialism, and selfishness, the marketplace has no lock on the evils of human nature. I have seen vicious competition on college campuses among both students and faculty. The lust for power and prestige is common in government and politics, as well as in business. Materialism is typical of the lifestyle of top performers in the fields of entertainment and sports. Selfish people are liberally sprinkled through all segments of U.S. society. There are many aspects of business that do indeed need to be improved or changed, but to suggest that business is the field that brings out the worst of human nature is to demonstrate a distorted understanding of our culture.

The student's question, also, demonstrates some ideas of Christian doctrine that differ substantially from my own. It has been my understanding that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein." When we read in Genesis that "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good," do we add "except for those parts of creation which we judge to be evil"? Has God given up on certain parts of his creation, or does he still love and care about all of it? When we read that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son," do we exclude the world of business?

One also has to ask about the doctrine of salvation. To suggest that one's occupation validates or denies one's Christian status is to define Christianity on the basis of what we do rather than whose we are. In baptism we were brought into the family of God. We do not say that the relationship is taken away, based on one's later occupation. Paul reminds us that we are justified by faith alone, apart from what we do. In the same manner that there is no such thing as a Christian field goal in football or a Christian appendectomy in a hospital, there is no such thing as a Christian business deal. Yes, field goals can be kicked by Christians, and appendectomies can be performed by Christians, and business deals can be negotiated by Christians, but it is neither the football field nor the operating room nor the marketplace that defines whether or not the participant is a Christian. They are neutral grounds. It is the relationship that the football player or the surgeon or the businessman has with the creator, through baptism into the Christian family, that defines his or her status.

Throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, we read that all the people of God are members of a royal priesthood. As priests, we are the channels of God's love for his creation. The whole incarnational principle indicates that God's action in the world comes through human beings. There is absolutely no suggestion in our scriptures that certain parts of creation are "off limits" for God's love and concern. Therefore, as priests of our Lord, we do not absent ourselves from segments of society. Jesus ministered among the social and political outcasts of his time; he drew the line at no one. Should we do any less?

Can there be Christian ministry in the marketplace? There must be Christian ministry in the marketplace! I have come to see a variety of ministries that are necessary in the marketplace. Here they are:


St. Augustine put it very well. When asked why he bought his sandals from a non-Christian craftsman instead of another who was a Christian, he replied, "Because he makes better sandals." We live in an extremely complex society. We depend upon the work of so many people to make our society function well. To the degree that people do their jobs well, they minister to all of us. We depend upon airline pilots to get us safety to a destination. Judy and I have four children, who have been placed in the hands of scores of schoolteachers. To the degree to which they did a good job of teaching our dear children, they ministered to us. As we carry out our jobs to the best of our ability and to the glory of God, we minister to one another.

Even a salesperson? Yes, even a salesperson. Early in my career with Bethlehem Steel, I was assigned to our Detroit sales office. My job was to sell construction products, which were fabricated in a shop outside the city. It became apparent to me very early that the workers in that shop were depending on me to do a good job of selling. Every time my car pulled into the parking lot of the shop, the foreman would come out to see if I had secured a new construction products contract. When I brought in orders, the men in the shop were certain of work. It was obvious for their basic necessities. Later, as a sales manager, I became very impatient with any of our salespeople who began coasting because they didn't plan to go any further in the company. "Listen," I'd say, "maybe you don't care, but the people in those steel plants care! They are counting on us to provide work for them, and we are going to do our best!"

Managers and supervisors have a special calling for competency. It is they who teach, coach, encourage, and support their people so that all perform to the best of their ability. in a world in which most people have never fully developed their human potential, the manager has a sacred responsibility: to help people grow to their fullest capabilities. As a management consultant, I have found it extremely ironic that those organizations that are in the "phone business" - social service agencies and church organizations-disdain the very notion of using good management skills and, thereby, hurt their own staffs. Most for-profit organizations know that the farther down the ladder they can delegate responsibility and decision making, the more efficiently they operate. The for-profits work at developing human potential; most of the nonprofits do not It's tragic.

The ministry of competency is the first level of Christian ministry-in the marketplace or elsewhere.


A job in the marketplace almost always involves person-to-person relationships with many people. There are customers, suppliers, co-workers, support staff, and owners or managers. The fact is that during our working years we spend more hours of the day in relationship with people in our place of work than with our own families. The quality of those relationships can define our ministry.

Most of us are poor listeners to begin with. In the workplace, we tend to be so much consumed by our own tasks that alertness to the personal messages sent out by our associates is even further diminished. It is entirely possible for one to work side by side with another human being for years and never really know that person. We can interact with an associate all day in the workplace without ever picking up a clue that he or she is hurting. Why is this so? It is primarily that we are not intentional about developing open relationships with others and improving our interpersonal skills, like being a good listener.

At Bethlehem Steel, we gave all our young salespeople a course in effective listening. We worked hard at improving their interpersonal relationships, especially with regard to being a good listener. Many a sale has been lost because the salesperson failed to pick up the message that was being conveyed in the midst of many words. In the same way that we need to concentrate on effective listening at the point of sale, we need to be just as intentional in our listening to all our associates in the workplace. This, too, is ministry.

The ministry of interpersonal relationships also suggests that we need to be very sensitive to cultural and ethnic differences in the workplace. This awareness should govern our interaction with others, but it also provides an opportunity for more than that Much of our prejudice toward others is thoughtless and results from impressions made upon us long ago. When people of goodwill are given an occasion to look at their own thoughtlessness, most will become more sensitive to cultural and ethnic differences among their associates. So, we have a teaching ministry to perform.

For some persons, the workplace relationships that are developed become their "family." This is not to suggest that the job should replace one's family in the order of priorities. We already have too many workaholics who have neglected their families with tragic consequences. But, there are some persons who literally have no natural family, or at least none in close enough proximity to provide the nurturing function of family. For these persons the job is the center of their lives, and the workplace associates become family. We can minister to these persons by being aware of their needs and by providing support for them. In fact, to include them as part of one's extended family and to invite them for special family events, such as Thanksgiving dinner or a Memorial Day picnic, may be an appropriate and effective way to minister to their needs. The ministry of interpersonal relationships has within it a wide range of possibilities.


In many jobs in the marketplace we are called upon to be good stewards of the resources of another. A sales clerk is steward of the merchandise he or she has available for sale. An office worker is entrusted with computer equipment, copy machines, communication equipment, and other tools to accomplish the job. Obviously, we are expected to be honest and careful in our use of these resources. In some companies, workers are permitted a "reasonable" use of copy machines or telephones for personal needs. In such instances, good judgment is necessary. Furthermore, we are able to be good stewards of our use of time. If we are expected to give eight hours of work, that's what it should be.

Perhaps all the above is so obvious that it didn't need saying. What doesn't seem to be so obvious, however, is that the principal of good stewardship applies at all levels of the business organization. There is reason to be critical of many people in management who somehow assume that the higher they go in the organization, the more freedom they have to use the company's resources in their own interests.

Expense accounts are the most obvious examples. Many managers use company expense accounts to cover trips, entertainment, or meals that really do not contribute to the benefit of the organization. And such use is not considered cheating. We call such advantages "perks." They are part of the way we do business. Everybody does business that way. If I'm a sales manager and my competition is entertaining customers, I had better do the same. I may just happen to select those customers whose likes are similar to mine-golf, theater, gourmet dining, or whatever. But why not? It comes with the job.

When one visits the corporate offices of some of our major business and law firms, one has to question the practice of stewardship. Huge amounts of company resources have gone into the furnishing of executive offices. Expensive desks, rich carpeting and draperies, antique furniture, exquisite art, private bathrooms with stall showers-these are the marks of success in business. If a new executive moves into an office, it is refurnished to his or her taste, no matter how recently it has been decorated before. It really is a shameful waste of corporate resources. Perhaps the law firms are worse.

Presumably the corporate jets and the company limousines conserve the time of busy executives; in many instances that is true. But, all too easily, the limos can be used for personal trips, and the company jets make an extra stop at an airport to accommodate an executive and spouse who ask to "hitch a ride."

Must there be separate corporate dining facilities for the high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow employees? If the secretaries manage to negotiate cafeteria lines, why must the top brass have special table service around huge, walnut tables in paneled rooms? It can't be to save time; the managers have oodles of time to talk about golf, football, and the stock market. Somehow, the Japanese have managed to do pretty well by integrating their lunch facilities. It's curious how the top brass learn more about the company when they eat lunch with the workers.

The point is that those who would minister in the marketplace need to consider the matter of stewardship throughout the organization, and they should be especially sensitive to the abuse of resources as they move into management.

There is another issue of stewardship that primarily relates to management. It has to do with short-term performance. Wall Street closely monitors reports of earnings. A dip in one corporation's quarterly earnings can send the price of its stock down, while glowing returns form another company will frequently boost its stock value. As a result, there is great pressure within American corporations to do that which will have an immediate impact on corporate earnings, even at the expense of long-term profitability. The annual bonuses of many managers are directly related to the price of the company's stock. So within many corporations, projects that might have a beneficial long-term result are scrapped in favor of those that provide a quick profit. It takes a manager of great courage to argue for long-term strategies when all the rest of the organization is intent on quick results. Yet, in the overall interests of the organization, the long-term projects can often be the best stewardship of corporate resources.

The biblical concept of stewardship-of caring for that which has been entrusted to us-has numerous applications in the marketplace. It is a vital piece of Christian ministry.


0n December 3, 1984, a tragic accident at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India, took the lives of 1,700 people and injured an additional 200,000. Much has been written about the cause of the accident and what steps might have averted it. But nowhere in the stories has there been any suggestion that the accident was the result of a premeditated act of top management. It was an accident. Yet, all admit that it was an accident that didn't need to have happened. Something went wrong in the system. Those of us who have worked in large organizations know only too well that actions taken by persons of the highest moral character can turn out to be tragic. Why?

For one thing, we need to recognize that we work in institutions that take on lives of their own. The character and style of a corporation is not simply the sum total of the character and styles of those who work in it at any given time. Corporate culture is developed over long periods of time and is frequently difficult to change in the short run, as many a new CEO (Chief Executive Officer) has found. William Stringfellow suggested that the institutions of our society indeed become demonic. They tend to possess those who work for them. Likening them to the "principalities and powers" to which the Apostle Paul makes frequent reference, Stringfellow wrote that the organizations of our society, profit and nonprofit, develop their own existence, personality, and mode of life. Reinhold Niebuhr made a similar assertion in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. If this is true-and I believe it is-then there needs to be more intentional checking of the decision-making process in our corporations.

Most corporations have a manufacturing department, a sales department, an accounting department, a law department, a purchasing department, and many more. But, very few have a department of ethics. Why? Well, we assume that if good, ethical people make decisions, the outcomes will be able to stand up under ethical review. Yet, it didn't happen at Bhopal, India, and it hasn't happened in hundreds of other instances.

A few years ago, while I was still at Bethlehem Steel, we faced a decision about whether or not to close a manufacturing operation which had been losing money for two years. A young accountant assigned to our department was very assertive about why we should shut down the operation. Knowing of the cyclical history of that shop, I was urging a bit more patience. He kept pressing. Finally, in desperation, I said, "Well, what about the people who have worked there for all these years? Don't we owe them a bit more time?" He shot back, "It's not my job to think about the people!" And, he was right. His job was to crunch the numbers, period. Was it my job, as sales manager, to worry about the workers? No such item was in my job description. And I wondered where, in our system, will someone ask that question about our responsibility to the workers?

Until such time as the marketplace does undertake an ethical study of corporate decisions, it seems to me that there is a Christian ministry in raising the awkward question about our decision making. That is risky. To question the morality of decisions made by management is to question the morality of managers. Why? Because we kid ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our institutions, instead of realizing that frequently they control us.

There have been instances in recent years in which top management ignored or second-guessed warnings about product design from within the organization. Where this happened and accidents have occurred, management has to accept the responsibility. But the problem is that not enough questions or warnings come from within the system. We always assume someone else is taking care of the ethical implications, because it is "not our job." It is a risky, career-threatening business, but to raise some questions about the quality of decisions in the marketplace is, indeed, Christian ministry.


During the 1960s, when the environmental movement was gathering popular support, I would occasionally be challenged with, "What are you doing to clean up the steel industry?" To which I answered "Nothing!"

Having mentioned in the previous section the need to risk awkward questions about decision-making, it must be added that one has to assess one's potential for bringing about change. The environmental issue is a good example. The steel industry was a dirty one. It polluted the waters, air, and earth. But during the 1960s the steel producers were pouring what limited financial resources they had into new plants and equipment in order to stay competitive. For any one of them to divert millions of dollars into pollution-control equipment at the expense of new production equipment would be to give their competitors an advantage. No employees would change the situation. Unless every steel producer was required to clean up its plant, none would do so. What was needed, in this situation, was legislation requiring all steel companies to install pollution-control equipment. That's what happened, and that's why the steel towns are much cleaner today.

It is my conviction that changes in the marketplace almost always come as a result of outside pressure or legislation. It is not reasonable to expect Christians, within the organization, to effect change on the major issues.

Where there is the potential for a ministry of change in the marketplace, it is with respect to the corporate culture and the treatment of people. The old patterns of sex, race, and age discrimination can be erased within the organization by persons who seek to bring about change.

After the women in my family succeeded in opening my eyes to sexism in the workplace, I decided to try an experiment. I had just been made the manager of the department. Shortly after moving in, I went to the small room where we kept the coffeepot and poured myself a cup of coffee. As I returned to my office, my new secretary said, "Oh, I'll get your coffee for you, Mr. Diehl." I replied that, no, it was OK. I would get my own coffee. The other men in the department soon noticed what I was doing, and one by one they stopped asking the women to bring them their coffee. Before long, everyone was going for his or her coffee and, in time, we even had an assignment sheet posted as to who would make the coffee in the morning. After a while, our department became known as "the one where everybody gets their own coffee." I learned many years later that other departmental managers picked up the idea and, surprise, surprise, the other men in their departments soon followed, also. Some managers may say that my time was too valuable to be wasting it on going for coffee. Baloney! Management time is frittered away on many nonproductive things. Besides, good managers go out where their people are, anyway.

0ne of the criticisms of the marketplace is that it fosters such values as status, materialism, power, obsession with security, selfishness, and the like. While such values are not found exclusively in the marketplace, they do, indeed, exist there. Since many of these values are self-destructive and hurt others as well, an important Christian ministry in the marketplace is to challenge them and work to change them.

The newly appointed executive who turns down the company policy of redecorating offices, whether or not they need them, is raising the issue of values. Do we need elegant surroundings to give visibility to our status? Is status that important?

When I was assistant manager at Bethlehem Steel, my car had an especially designated spot on the second floor of the company garage. I was surprised one morning, shortly after my promotion to manager, to drive into my familiar stall only to find a strange name on it. So, I parked the car outside the garage and called the administrative supervisor to ask what had happened. "Oh, you're now down on the first floor with all the other managers," he explained. "Why must I park with the other managers?" I asked. "Well, it's kind of a status symbol to have a better parking spot," he replied. "I don't want status symbols," I said. "Besides, I like the people I've been parking with. Why must I leave them?" The administrator had a hard time believing I was for real, but, after I threatened to leave the garage if I didn't have the old spot back, he agreed. So, I had my own little statement about status. I learned some months later, from my secretary, that the chief engineer in our department, a very status-conscious man, suddenly agreed to let his secretary use his second-floor parking stall when he was out of town. Previously no one else had been permitted to use his "status symbol."

Through our ministry of values, we really are communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ in contemporary forms. Jesus promised us that we would know the truth and the truth would set us free. The truth is that we are saved by the grace of God alone, without regard to anything we do to merit that gift of grace. Power, prestige, wealth, and status mean nothing in the eyes of God. He accepts us as his children. Yet, so many of us are slaves to a works-righteous culture that says that our identity is based on what we do and our worth is based on how well we do it. We become captives of a system that defines human worth in terms of power and material gain. When Christians challenge the values of that system, they are making a theological statement: The gospel has freed us from the destructive and demonic philosophy of having to prove our worth.

The homes we live in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the clubs to which we belong say much about our values. This is not to suggest that we should renounce all wealth and power. Since we are called to minister in the marketplace, we do need certain tools to do the job effectively. There is a thread running through our Bible that speaks of a "theology of enough." The Lord provided manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, but they were admonished only to take what was needed for that day. Those who took more than they needed discovered on the next day that it had 'bred worms and become foul." Jesus warned about the obsession with wealth and storing for tomorrow that which was not needed for today.

If we follow a theology of enough, then it seems to me that we try to live on the down side of the range of our associates. Our homes, our cars, our clothes are modest, but adequate, for carrying out our Christian calling in the marketplace. By practicing and talking about a lifestyle of "enough," we are ministering to those who are captives of a demonic philosophy that requires them to prove their worth.

What about the high salaries paid to top executives in the marketplace? Again, it is a matter of stewardship and values. There are a few top leaders in the private sector who have chosen to make a statement of their own by eschewing high compensation. Peter Drucker, the guru of business management, has suggested that it would be wise for there to be a ratio within an organization between the highest and lowest paid jobs. He has even suggested that the ratio be as low as I to 10. That is, if the entry-level job in a corporation pays $12,000 a year, the top position can pay no more than $120,000. I'm sure that suggestion went over like a lead balloon with his readers. His reasons had to do with mobilizing support of the whole organization for greater productivity. But whatever the reason, the issue of how much salary is enough for those in leadership positions is worthy of some examination.

Can there be ministry in the marketplace? Of course! As we fulfill our priestly roles in God's world, we can find ministry in competency, interpersonal relationships, stewardship, ethical decision making, change, and values. There's ministry aplenty for all of us.

  1. If we define Christianity on the basis of whose we are, rather than what we do, can any occupation, any way of occupying one's time be a Christian vocation? What would prevent an occupation from being a Christian vocation? What might "redeem" that occupation?

  2. How is competency a ministry? What examples of this ministry can you identify in your occupation?

  3. How can interpersonal relationships be ministry? What examples can you identify in your occupation?

  4. How is stewardship ministry? Examples in your life?

  5. How is ethical decision-making ministry? Examples?

  6. How is change ministry? Examples?

  7. How are values ministry? Examples?

  8. Which of these ministries or aspects of ministry do you feel is your strongest gift? Which is your weakest? How might your congregation/Christian community/group support you in your ministry?

19 Willlam E. Diehl is the president of the Coalition for Ministry In Daily Life. He was the manager of sales of Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania for thirty-two years. He is an active layman In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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