Faith-learning Integration in Organizations: Helping Students Develop a Theology of Management/HR
Matthew Fuss, PhD
As a former manager in both Human Resources and Operations, I spent a little over thirteen years managing people and processes in industries ranging from trucking to telecommunications, in organizations ranging in size from just over 100 to well over 10,000.
Having answered the call to Christian higher education, I now try and teach budding business professionals about the realities and challenges of managing the “people side” of business. Returning to my alma mater, Geneva College, just over eleven years ago, I have embraced the challenge of teaching students—most likely raised in Christian homes—the messy business of company politics. And, more importantly, as a Christian business owner, how we should we treat employees. Prior to Geneva, I spent three years at Duquesne University as an adjunct professor while completing my PhD. Duquesne is rooted in the Catholic tradition and therefore took a Thomist approach to faith and learning, with overt or explicit issues of integration left unaddressed.
Over my years in Christian higher education, I have found that many students and some professors, don’t seem to demonstrate an understanding of faith-learning integration in the classroom. At Geneva we do a good job of focusing on faith-learning integration, requiring all full-time professors to write an essay detailing how faith is integrated into their classrooms. This essay is the most significant element of a tenure application. I’m glad to report that the institution realized the amount of stress this project was causing some professors and began a preparatory course taught by our President and Provost.
Like Joshua wrestled with God in Genesis 32:22-32, as a business professor I want students to wrestle with the idea of what it means to integrate faith into their business and professional lives in concrete and practical ways. Toward these ends, I assign a summative paper in my 16-week 300-level undergrad Fundamentals of Human Resource Management class that requires them to articulate how faith and business integrate. I have dubbed it a “theology of management/HR paper.” Following is an assignment description from the syllabus:
Using the scope of information presented in class, you are to examine and write a paper on the concept of a “Theology of HR.” Strive to answer the question, “As Christians do we, or should we, practice human resources differently?” You will need to do your own research to support your opinions with outside sources.
You will notice the assignment is not prescriptive at all. I believe in setting a basic expectation and giving students latitude to approach the assignment in a way that makes sense to them. When questioned about the specifics, I tell students I expect their best work. I explain how that may look different for each student. Other details such as format and style are covered in the syllabus.
Throughout the semester, the topic of faith integration, vocation, and calling are addressed as the course unfolds and the material lends itself to specific discussions. For example, when learning about managing in a multi-cultural workforce, the issue of emotional intelligence is discussed with special attention given to acknowledging and respecting those with different life experiences and perspectives. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-28, it is vitally important for students to understand that acknowledging and respecting differences does not mean adopting practices that are in conflict with biblical truth or which cause them to compromise their beliefs. I remind students how Geneva College went all the way to the Supreme Court because we took a stand against supplying abortifacients under our health plan even though the Affordable Care Act required them. Geneva met her responsibilities under the new law but was unwilling to compromise on the issue of the sanctity of life.
Similarly, significant time is spent during the semester bringing specific focus to management/HR issues. We address, for instance, how as a Christian businessperson one might, or should, treat employees. Topics include compensation and benefits, employee motivation, discipline, ethics, and employment law compliance in the form of policies and procedures.
In short, the fundamental driving purpose in this particular “theology of management/HR paper” is to help students explore the ways they, as Christians, ought to be different from their secular colleagues when addressing important workplace issues. Put another way, students must explicitly address how their faith influences and informs who they are at work and how they interact with others.
This “theology of HR/management” assignment encourages students to address practical issues such as, what kind of leader and follower will they be? How much outward expression of faith will there be? A wise colleague recently reminded me of a quote purportedly from St. Francis of Assis which sums up the idea: “preach the gospel at all times, and use words only if you must.” The idea behind the assignment is to make students wrestle with these questions and think about them from a biblically informed perspective. The goal is for students to reach beyond a simple exploration of the standard Bible verses which have been identified as applying to HR or management. The idea is that students must explore deeply how these issues and questions pertain to an organization’s most valuable asset, its people. Much literature confirms the essential nature of the human as resource in business. What I am challenging students to do is think wisely about what we do with that valuable human resource.
Students generally respond well to this assignment partly because it’s the logical outcome of our semester-long discussions around the subject and partly because it gives them a chance to apply the “so what?” principle. One of my old pastors used to finish each sermon with a discussion of the “so what?” in which he would talk about how to take what we heard in Church and put it to use in the world. The “so what?” principle for my students is the practice of thinking purposefully about how concepts learned in the classroom apply to their lives as Christian businesspeople. The assignment has not changed over the years, although my approach to explaining it has been modified. I am generally not prescriptive in my assignments, allowing students the latitude to approach the paper from their own perspective and unique faith journey. I have begun to coach students more on what not to do. I make it clear I do not want a string of Bible verses that pertain to management that are connected by a few brief expositional comments.
Over the course of the next several blog posts I will try to work out some modifications or refinements to how I approach the issue of faith-learning integration in the classroom. One of these specific issues within management that is fertile ground for faith-learning integration comes in performance management, specifically basing performance management on virtue or character. Another issue, the newest frontier of organizational culture building, is what it means to have an organizational culture based on love. And there is much ground that needs to be explored around human dignity and servant leadership with a focus on positive psychology. I will take a deeper dive into these and other topics with the goal of understanding how to help students make the connections between traditional Christian principles and the practice of management. My goal is to help students develop a Christian-informed framework for the practice of management, specifically, management commonly considered under the purview of human resources.
 A full discussion of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Thomist approach to faith and learning is outside the scope of this article. Additional information can be found at https://www.accunet.org/About-Catholic-Higher-Ed-Catholic-Intellectual-Tradition as well as https://godandgoodlife.nd.edu/digital-essays/natural-theology-aquinas-and-anselm/
 Anyone wanting a copy of the course syllabus can contact me at [email protected]
 Additional readings on the topic from a Christian perspective include Just Business (A. Hill, 2018), Faith Based Human Resource Management (D.A. Robinson, 2018), Christian Scripture and Human Resource Management (G.A. Roberts, 2015), and Beyond Integrity (S. Rae & K. Wong, 2012).