Teacher-scholar column, Faith-learning integration in Business: Examining Presuppositions and Setting Coordinates, by Matthew Fuss

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Faith-learning integration in Business:
Examining Presuppositions and Setting Coordinates

Matthew Fuss, PhD
Geneva College

In my first entry in the Teacher-scholar column, I addressed the larger topic of assisting students in developing a theology of management/HR. In this installment, I switch gears and take a look at the underlying presuppositions that misinform students’ ideas about faith and management. I also explore some important coordinates for students to use when building a theology of management/HR.

An Underlying Misunderstanding: The False Dichotomy

As students work toward developing their theology of management, it is important to provide grounding. One of the very first coordinates I set for students is to help them understand and reject the false dichotomy of the sacred-secular divide. This concept and its underlying assumptions must be brought to light before students can truly embrace the all-encompassing nature of Christianity and how that relates to management.

The very idea that only certain vocations are valuable (“sacred”), specifically, those associated with a religious calling such as priest or missionary, needs to be addressed and debunked. An indepth analysis of vocation and calling are outside the scope of this column, but it is important for students to grasp the idea that all occupations are of equal value to God so long as they are done to honor God. Martin Luther’s thoughts on this and the famous quote (actually a mis-quote), summarizes this point perfectly, “God himself will milk the cows through him whose vocation that is.”[1] Luther is referring to the fact that all work and all workers deserve honor. A more contemporary writer, Tim Keller, put it like this: “Your work is ultimately an act of worship to the God who called and equipped you to do it—no matter what kind of work it is.”[2] The idea I am trying to impress upon students is that business is a valuable vocation into which one can be called and used by God. The adage “grow where you’re planted” is one I often invoke.

Once students come to accept that all jobs are valuable to God and address their unacknowledged, and often unrecognized, bias against business as a Godly endeavor, I can move forward. I can begin to give them common reference points from the Bible that bring to light many of the basic concepts of management, and how one should treat people in an organizational setting. A few of my favorites include: (1) Proverbs 3:27, where we are instructed in areas such as giving workers credit for work done and to not be stingy with compensation; (2) Matthew 25:14–30, the parable of the talents from which we can discern several important lessons about rewards and punishment based on performance; and (3) Matthew 20:1–16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard from which we learn important lessons on labor demand and equity theory.[3]

Valuing the Person, Not the Labor

Another coordinate I set for students is the idea of person, not object. As I discussed during my recent (and first) column as it relates to the Imago Dei, managers must recognize the special uniqueness of each person. I use an old and a new example to drive home this point. The old reference is to Martin Buber (1878–1965), a prolific author, scholar, literary translator, and political activist whose writings ranged from Jewish mysticism to social philosophy, biblical studies, religious phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, education, politics, and art. In his most famous philosophical writing, I and Thou,[4] Buber comments about our relations to others and seeing and treating others as a person to be appreciated and not an object to be used.

The new, or more contemporary, reference is to remind students of the social custom of the fictitious Navi people from the movie Avatar. Most students can remember the scene towards the end of the movie when the heroine saves the life of the hero and her love interest (Jake Sully), as the two have a moment of deep emotional connection punctuated by touching their foreheads together and saying, “I see you.” The moment perfectly illustrates the concept of people, not object, as the heroine recognizes the uniqueness and specialness of the man before her, despite his inability to offer her anything of value at that moment.

Looking now at the use of the above-mentioned coordinates, we can see how the practice of business can be re-envisioned.

Performance management is a key element of any human resource management philosophy, and an essential part of good management practices.  Almost every business has some kind of performance review or appraisal process, even if it is nothing more than a once-a-year meeting in which your boss tells you how successful you are meeting previously established objectives.

The concept of performance management is intuitive and a topic students can easily understand because, in a sense, we act as managers with our students as employees. Think about it: we set the standards and expectations for the relationship at the beginning of the review period via a syllabus, we then provide regular feedback via exams/quizzes, and so forth, all resulting in a final evaluation in the form of a grade.

The model as “manager/employer” providing a performance review that I try to embody for students is one in which they feel valued and where grace is offered. I assert the importance of Imago Dei (image of God, see Gen. 1:26–28) when we consider how employees should and ought to be treated. The message I give students is that as Christians we should value employees not only for what they “do” for us, but also on a much more basic level, because they are created in the image and likeness of our Lord.

My go-to references on this topic is an article from two scholars from Redeemer University, Laurie Busuttil and Susan Weelden.[5] The authors do a great job of explaining Imago Dei and talk about its implications to human resource management. An understanding and appreciation for the fact that employees are fellow human beings created by the same God who created all things should have radical effects on how we value them and how we treat them in the employment relationship.

One of the key takeaways from this work is that Christian managers should keenly understand and therefore manage with grace. Grace in the face of earned justice is one simple yet profound way to live out your faith as a manager. This dovetails nicely with the idea of adopting a redemptive rather than punitive approach to performance management. Having an orientation toward helping others be successful rather than just amassing enough evidence to fire someone is a powerful message delivered through actions driven by the underlying recognition of their true value as human beings created in the image of God. One of the most profound ways we can witness with our lives rather than our words is by employing a redemptive management philosophy. As I explain to my students, people will know if you are out to get them or if you are out to help them.

In this installment, I have addressed and debunked the sacred-secular divide helping students to realize their incorrect and unrecognized underlying assumptions about work. To help them construct an appropriate view of business, I explained how I provide some important coordinates that help them view work and business practices in a new light.

In my next column entry, I will dive into the topic of human dignity with the goal of understanding how to help students make the connections between traditional Christian principles and the practice of management. My goal remains to help students develop a Christian-informed framework for the practice of management, specifically, management commonly considered under the purview of human resources.


[1] Luther, M., Pelikan, J., Oswald, H.C., Lehmann, H.T., Christopher Boyd Brown, Mayes, B.T.G., & Langebartels, J. (1955). Luther’s Works. Volume 6, Lectures on Genesis, chapters 31-37. Concordia Publishing House..

[2]  Keller, T. (2016).  Every Good Endeavor (Penguin Books, 71.

[3] For additional verses on management please see: https://smatchurchmanagement.com/25-bible-verses-about-management/ or https://www.openbible.info/topics/management

[4] Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (W. Kaufmann Trans.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

[5] Busuttil, L & Weelden, S. (2018).  “Imago Dei and Human Resource Management: How our understanding of the breath of God’s Spirit shapes the way we manage people.” JBIB, Vol. 21, #1.

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