Jesus @ Work

Then the Lord said to [Moses], “What is that in your hand?” — Exodus 4:2

Make no mistake — the 500 or so early risers gathered in the Woburn Crowne Plaza ballroom have come to see a rock star. As they sit around banquet tables, runny eggs and rubbery home fries digesting in their bellies, the anticipation is palpable. After all, the speaker on the program is Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life and one of the nation's best-known evangelical Christians. Let's put it this way: When Time magazine did a cover story on America's 25 most influential evangelicals, Warren graced the opening spread. It was his book that Ashley Smith famously read to her kidnapper after the courthouse killings in Atlanta.

Presumably, most of the people in the room have read the book already. I'm asked twice if I've read it before I finish my eggs. As they wait for Warren to take the stage, the men around me make small talk. “How did all the women get in here? jokes one to my left, leaning in conspiratorially. “They must all be women's libbers.” Across the table, an earnest man named Mike, who runs an auto-body shop in Jamaica Plain, tells me that since he accepted Jesus as his personal savior nine years ago, he's doubled his annual revenues. “There are some crooks in the collision business,” he says. “People respect it when you are honest with them.”

Mike isn't the only one here who is in the habit of bringing Jesus with him to work. This breakfast is being sponsored by the Marketplace Network, which encourages its members to practice Christianity on the job. Since its inception two decades ago, the group has attracted more than just your average nine-to-fivers. The parking lot outside is crammed with Lexuses and Mercedeses. At the table next to me, I spy anchorwoman-turned-minister Liz Walker. Near the front sits Brad Warner, former head of Bank of America's small-business division. Other attendees include the former chief operating officer of the New England Patriots, several Harvard professors, and the former head of Raytheon.

After some glitches with the sound system are worked out, Warren takes the stage. Wearing an inexpensive-looking blazer pulled over a paunchy belly, he has an unremarkable appearance that belies his prominence. “Yesterday, I had breakfast with the governor and dinner with [former General Electric head] Jack Welch,” he says before playing to the audience: “But I saved the best for last.”

The well-practiced sermon Warren delivers begins with a question: “What do you have in your hand?” That was the question God asked Moses from the burning bush, he drawls. Moses' answer was a staff — the symbol of his profession as a shepherd. When God commanded Moses to put it on the ground, it became a snake; when he picked it up again, it returned to dead wood. “God is saying, 'I want you to surrender your identity, your influence, and your income to me,” explains Warren. “And if you surrender it, it will be alive, and every time you pick it up, it will be dead again.”

By surrendering his own identity to God, Warren has achieved wealth, prominence, and a flair for spreading Jesus across the country. He continues: “Jesus took 11 men and turned the world upside down. I think today God could . . . start a spiritual force beginning in New England that all the forces of Hell could not stop. I want the Boston area to be an embarrassment to the devil.”

Sound familiar? In the 1700s, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards preached hellfire in Northampton, launching the evangelical movement in America. Anyone who reads the news today, however, knows that hard-core Christians are more apt to see Massachusetts, and Boston in particular, as an embarrassment to God than to his rival. The Northeast has the lowest church attendance of any region in the country. Here in the bluest city in the bluest state in America, we marry gays, research stem cells, and provide abortions on demand. And we frown upon mentioning God unless the word is followed quickly by “-damn Yankees.”

It's surprising, then, that the Boston-based Marketplace Network is one of the first and most influential groups in the movement to bring Christ to a cubicle near you. The group's thesis is simple: Jesus was a carpenter, his disciples fishermen and a tax collector; they clearly had some experience with the working life. Between them, they built the biggest corporation in the ancient world. So why not use the Bible as a manual for business success? In the eyes of these true believers, asking “What would Jesus do at work?” is the best way to bring ethics back to the boardroom.

And behind that goal is another, more controversial one: saving your soul.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet.” — John 13:14

Situated on the Freedom Trail, Park Street Church is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Boston. The sidewalk outside its front door used to be known as “brimstone corner,” a reference to the gunpowder stored there in a crypt during the War of 1812. Over time, the name took on a different meaning as abolitionists delivered fiery speeches from the church's pulpit. In a sparse office in the back of the church is the headquarters for the Marketplace Network. Here I meet Kent Kusel, who left a job as marketing director of a Boston mortgage lender to become president of the group five years ago. “As I pursued my dreams and climbed all those corporate ladders,” he says, “I realized that God's definition of success and mine were different.” He then describes the group's multipronged approach, which includes hosting breakfast forums like the one with Warren; sponsoring Bible studies in offices and churches; and offering guidance to people around the country who want to talk to coworkers about their faith.

In the last 20 years, “workplace ministry” has grown to include more than 900 groups in the United States. But the concept was still nascent when the idea for the Marketplace Network first occurred to the late Dan Smick, a healthcare executive who left the field to attend a seminary on the North Shore. After graduating in 1986, Smick founded Touchstone Ministries and started holding prayer groups in local hotel conference rooms to tell executives about his experiences. Today, the Marketplace Network, Touchstone's successor, boasts about 2,000 active participants in the Boston area, according to the organization, with online adherents in at least 30 countries. Local supporters work at Bank of America, Gillette, State Street, John Hancock, Mass General Hospital, Harvard, MIT, the EPA, the IRS, law firms, the Museum of Science, and other major Boston-area institutions.

One of the people Smick reached out to was Tom Phillips, former chairman and CEO of Raytheon, who was widely known as a born-again Christian and had been holding his own prayer breakfasts at the Weston Golf Club. “Profits are important, no question about it. But the question is, how do you get the profits?” says Phillips. “Jesus said that 'I am truth.' It's important to me that there is truth-telling throughout a company.”

In an age in which Enron and WorldCom are the new Sodom and Gomorrah, adherents to workplace ministry see Jesus' example of “servant leadership” as an antidote to immorality in the boardroom. Former Bank of America executive Warner says he used biblical principles to improve employee morale during the merger of BankBoston with Fleet four years ago. Warner took a poll of employees and followed their suggestions. Within 18 months, the percentage of satisfied employees doubled. “It's hard to say where these good business practices stop and some of these biblical principles start, but you don't [make that kind of improvement] just by thinking this is a good thing to do. If people are made in the image of God, then they are capable of much more than they think they are.”

While Jesus himself never had to balance a budget or file a weekend report, those who follow him consider him the acme of managerial acumen. “Jesus was like, in my mind, the ultimate manager and leader and business visionary,” gushes Nancy Matheson-Burns, president and CEO of specialty food distributor Dole & Bailey. “I'm a shepherd of a flock. I'm responsible for them and how their jobs affect their family and affect their lives.”

At Matheson-Burns's warehouse and office in Woburn, there are few overt symbols of Christianity — just a sign that says, “God, I love this business” over her desk. But Matheson-Burns says her company is “faith friendly,” meaning that religion is encouraged and talked about openly. “It's such an important part of people's lives, you can't just pasteurize it out,” she explains.

Practicing what she preaches, Matheson-Burns has hired several mentally retarded workers and once took aside an employee who was working nights as a strip-club bouncer. “I had no right to do this, and it wasn't probably legal or anything else. But I said, 'Why are you doing this? How much money do you need?' When he told me, I said, 'I'm going to split the difference with you, and I want you to quit that job.'”

She emphasizes that she never tries to force her beliefs on anyone. (She lets a rabbi hold prayer sessions with Jewish employees, for instance.) As I'm on my way out the door, however, she offers me a box full of steaks . . . and a new, cellophane-wrapped book. “I usually don't give out Bibles,” she says. “But this one is so great.”

At the Marketplace Network's Bible-study sessions, ordinary employees learn ways to apply Christ's teachings in mundane situations. One such study occurs weekly at John Hancock. The group's coordinator is Jean Squire, a senior staffing consultant in human resources. Squire says she invokes Jesus when she needs to call someone back to tell them they didn't get a job. “It would be easy to let something like that slide, but I have to think, If it were me, what would I want [an employer] to do? Jesus encourages me to think about treating others as I would like to be treated.”

I thank Squire and am about to hang up the phone when she asks, “As I think about you, is there anything in particular that you would like me to be praying about?”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” — John 4:11

Despite the influence attributed to them after the last presidential election, evangelical Christians only make up about 7 percent of the U.S. population. Here in New England, the percentage is even lower. What distinguishes them isn't their numbers so much as the passion of their beliefs. To evangelicals, the Bible is the infallible word of God, Hell and Satan exist, and Jesus really meant it when he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Unless you accept Jesus as your savior, they'll tell you, you have booked a hotter ride to the afterlife. Unlike fundamentalists, who separate themselves from nonbelievers, however, evangelicals feel they are obligated to bring those they care about to Jesus, a practice they call the “great commission.” That's the topic at a Bible study I attend with a men's group on the North Shore.

The sun is barely over the trees when 20 men gather in a basement room at Gordon College in Wenham. Plastic flowers sit in vases on green tablecloths, and a Coke machine buzzes in the corner. To a man, they are dressed in collared shirts sans ties. Salesmen, lawyers, executives, a car dealer — they've been coming here weekly for months to put the G in their TGIF. As I enter I'm greeted by Randy Kilgore, the Marketplace Network's senior writer, who pumps my hand warmly and tells me how glad he is I could come. With his self-deprecating humor and the perfect part in his hair, Kilgore calls to mind Ned Flanders without the glasses and mustache.

After a short opening prayer, we get to the lesson of the day: how to talk about faith to non-Christians in the workplace. “The challenge is how to communicate timeless truths in jargon-free language,” Kilgore begins. Opening up the workbooks that he wrote, the men read through a selection of Bible stories to see how Jesus communicated those timeless truths. First there's the adultress about to be stoned by the Pharisees. Jesus' response to that, as we all know, was: Let he who is without sin throw the first stone. “That's the response we have to have to sin in our workplace,” says Kilgore. “We waste way too much time trying to condemn that.”

In another case, however, we learn that Jesus reproached a Samaritan woman who was living a life of sexual promiscuity. Knowing the woman wasn't married, Jesus asked her to go call her husband. In response, the woman repented her sins and returned to her village, where she converted countless other Samaritans. “There is a different barrier for each person between them and God,” says Kilgore, “and we need to identify what is the barrier between our coworkers and God and use the best tool to remove it.”

The workplace is like a mission field, he goes on to explain, comparing workplace ministry to the efforts of missionaries who travel to Africa and Latin America. “When missionaries go overseas, they use examples from the culture to explain Christianity,” says Kilgore. “We have to learn to introduce Christ into the workplace using workplace situations. So how do we do this?”

Someone suggests showing grace to coworkers when they make a mistake. Another counsels “turning the other cheek” when attacked. A lawyer says that just talking openly about Jesus on the job can pique someone's interest. “When people ask me how I get clients, I tell them God brings me the clients I need,” he says. That method is not always easy, though, he acknowledges, “because people don't want a wack job for an attorney.” Rob, the car dealer, says staying closed on Sundays actually helps him get clients. “They might not want a wacko lawyer, but many people want a wacko Christian car dealer.”

“We're fearful of this,” says a seminary student named John, “but we shouldn't shrink back from the culture of Christianity taking over the world. One day the wackos might be the people who don't have a relationship with God.”

Like any good teacher, Kilgore provides his own answer: It's about relationships. “If you walk into a new job and say, 'I got this job because of Jesus,' they are going to say, 'Oh no, we have got a wacko here.' But if you work for 3 years or 15 years, working shoulder to shoulder, and say the same thing, it will be received differently.”

As in the case of the Samaritan woman, it's knowing enough about a person to say the right thing at the right time that counts. “If you want to change a coworker,” Kilgore explains, “you have to demonstrate that you care about them. Only in the context of [the] relationship are you able to demonstrate what is true.”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” — John 14:6

For every image of natives being cared for by altruistic missionaries, there are stories of missionaries trampling on native practices, spreading smallpox, or softening up lands for military conquest. So what happens when your coworker simply doesn't want to hear about Jesus?

At Dole & Bailey, a Catholic employee complains about an evangelical coworker: “He keeps asking me to go to his church, but I haven't gone. He doesn't want to come to my church; I don't go to his.”

An employee at John Hancock is unsettled by the fact that a Bible study is held in the conference room. “I think it can only lead to a more divided working environment,” he says in an e-mail.

Boston College professor Alan Wolfe agrees. “I think it's wildly inappropriate and offensive,” says Wolfe, who heads the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. “We say in America that we like religion because it's inclusive, but we get nervous about religions, because they are exclusive.”

The constitutional separation between church and state covers only government property, Wolfe points out. In private offices, the law actually affords more protection to those wanting to practice their religion. “It's a blind spot in the Constitution,” he says. “Because the state is protected but religion is powerful, it almost automatically goes everywhere else.”

That doesn't sit well with some workers. “People come in to work to earn a living. They don't come in to work to be exposed to Catholicism or Judaism or anything else,” says Tony Daniels, president of the Greater Boston Business Council, a gay business group, who is also an evangelical Christian. “I don't come into the workplace trying to convert people to be gay. I don't want to hear someone say, 'Hi, I'm Bob Smith, and praise the lord. Come to church.' If my boss sent me an e-mail saying there is a Bible study, I would have a problem with that.”

Complaints to the federal government about religious discrimination in the workplace have increased nationally by 84 percent since 1992 and 30 percent since 2000. The Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination received 167 complaints last year concerning workplace discrimination based on faith. The few legal cases that have made their way to court, however, have generally been decided in favor of those promoting religion in the workplace. In one such case, tried in Massachusetts Superior Court, a woman sued her employer, Electro-Term (which billed itself as a “Christian company”) for requiring her to attend a training seminar at which scripture was used to support the inferior status of women in the family. The jury decided against the woman, saying the seminar didn't conflict with her religious views and that the company had not discriminated against her by requiring her attendance.

“I think this stuff is screwy,” says Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “If you know the boss is a born-again Christian and pushing this stuff and you are a Jew or a Muslim, it would be almost impossible not to have this affect your employment.”

In a federal case, a Jewish employee working at a Minnesota car dealership complained in 2000 that Christianity pervaded the atmosphere, right down to the boss saying he wanted everyone to be a Christian or “that will be their demise on Judgment Day.” After the employee objected to opening management meetings with a prayer, he was fired. The court, however, found that it wasn't clear whether he'd been subjected to a “hostile work environment,” a high threshold that means harassment must be “severe or pervasive” and must present “an ongoing nightmare for the employee,” according to the ruling. On the issue of discriminatory firing, however, the judge allowed the case to proceed, and it was later settled, with the terms not disclosed.

Kilgore says a group like the Marketplace Network can ease such a situation by setting boundaries. “We are only 10 or 12 years into thinking about these issues, so we haven't figured out manuals for this yet,” he points out.

One issue under discussion in the group is whether supervisors and managers should conduct Bible studies in the workplace. “It's dangerous for a manager to be a leader in a Bible study,” Kilgore acknowledges. “On the whole, I would say you should have someone who doesn't have authority over people running the Bible study.”

Despite these difficulties, Kilgore takes umbrage at the suggestion that it's advisable — or even possible — to keep religion to oneself. “It's like being a Red Sox fan in New England. Even if you wanted to make people stop talking about the Red Sox, you couldn't. It's so important to them.”

As for all of the political and spiritual baggage that comes with the evangelical movement, he says he sympathizes with those who may find its message harsh. “The reality of the workplace is that sensibilities will be offended,” Kilgore says. “The question is, are you being mean-spirited? I don't think that honors God. But to suggest that something so central to our faith is off-limits is not fair. I reject the notion that I don't have the right to talk about it.”