Note: Tom Parks recently graduated from Seattle Pacific Seminary and is now teaching a course at Seattle Pacific University’s business school.
Nearing the end of my coursework at Seattle Pacific Seminary, I took Christian Values, Ethics & the Marketplace, an interdisciplinary elective “across the street” at Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business, Government, and Economics. I entered seminary with all the hope and uncertainty that a vague call to “grow and serve the church” can encompass. My spirit stirred with anticipation as I sat in the midst of a diverse body of non-theology students for the first class of this business course. Seminary had prepared me to see theology lurking everywhere – in the nitty-gritty of reality, to hear the narratives at work, and to identify the theological truths God might want to be named and practiced within those contexts. I was curious to see what God would reveal through this course.
It didn’t take long for spiritual yearnings to emerge as we discussed the complexities of business. Invisible hands guiding economic forces were disrobed, as the overarching nature of the marketplace struck me. Furthermore, the capacity for narratives to shape our understanding of the potential for business stirred my imagination. Business and its activities within the marketplace revealed how the way of business showed not only its values, but also embodied those realities within the world. No longer was business simply a means to an end – business was an opportunity to manifest the gospel.
From Seminary to Business School
Anxiety bloomed in my gut last summer when I was asked – now with my seminary degree in hand – if I would be interested in teaching this same course for the fall term. I longed to develop a meaningful class whose ramifications would move well into the student’s careers. I desired to provide the expertise and content to invite the same “ah-has” I had experienced. I wanted to reveal the ethical frameworks and concrete possibilities that they could entertain. Yet I knew that such a framework wouldn’t be established through a typical MBA approach. If I was to deliver such a course authentically, it would be through the lens of theology.
I sought out a variety of voices to prepare for the ethnically and religiously diverse student population that enrolls in Seattle Pacific’s MBA program. As a learning community, our class read about case studies in business journals; reflected on stories in Christianity Today; considered disciplines in Wired magazine; asked about experiences shared in The Atlantic; ruminated on practices in organizational psychology journals; and asked if, how, and where these readings intersected with our own stories as well as with Christian scripture and theology. Together, our voices, as well as those from across other disciplines, helped us consider how business reflected the Christian narrative of “creation – distortion – renewal – hope.”
Seattle Pacific Seminary was integral in preparing me to teach business ethics. I repurposed tools and practices I had gained to help us identify the latent spiritual statements within the market, as well as to ask if those statements reflected the narratives we value. Here are some particular ways my seminary education proved particularly valuable in teaching a course in Christian business ethics:
My constructive theology and Hebrew courses brought nuance to the creation story. Students were surprised to learn that work was initially good and participating in it was integral to God’s creative initiative. Personal stories reflected a longing to return to such an experience, revealing a great need for church leaders to reflect again on the scriptures and help their congregants reimagine the transformative power of their work.
Students didn’t require readings or lectures to be able to express the distortion that humanity has experienced. But as we humbly shared different stories, I helped students with the critical practice of identifying how people and companies are often blindly established by people who fail to see the cultural currents in which they swim. My seminary courses on Christian reconciliation shaped how I facilitated conversations and offered modern contexts to reveal how relationships falter, blame occurs, and people and creation are objectified when humanity denies its identity and hides from God in shame.
Revealing the dissonance between hope and reality moved our class to consider practice. By drawing on the need to encounter an ethic beyond ourselves, I invited students of different beliefs to think critically about the source of their values. A myriad of courses helped me affirm that we, like Christ, ought to make ourselves vulnerable and willingly identify the powers that run counter to our values as we live in obedience to a truth that transcends us. Furthermore, I was able to articulate how “right action” may leave us being seen as “unclean” and therefore lead to the death of a project, promotion or even a career. Jesus’ story invited our class to reimagine our own stories and what it meant to work and live in a new way.
Hope proved most difficult to discuss. Perhaps more than any other lecture, I relied upon threads of the Abbey paradigm (communal spiritual formation) that is woven throughout the Seattle Pacific Seminary program. I leaned into prayer and sought to embody gracious truth-telling. Within this section, I advocated for the unique social power of the Christian tradition. Through belief in the resurrection, Christians can be emboldened to act in spite of our fear of the potential ramifications. As we ventured into the role of the Spirit and the Christian community, I harkened back to global religions and missiology classes, to insist that revelation sometimes comes from outside our paradigms, and will come from voices who are not typically in places of power. This led to discussions about stakeholders, both the people and the land in which they dwell; how are we inviting, asking, listening, and working to ensure all are invited to experience a new way of life? We asked again how relationships are intended to be and what we might do to take them there.
As we closed our time together, I left the students with two questions that continue to ruminate within me: “Does our business and way of engaging with the marketplace reflect our values?” And: “What changes do we need to make to ensure they do?”
I entered seminary with a heart for the church and its people, as well as the desire to learn how to help God’s people live in a manner so the world and all who live within it could flourish. While I thought that this commitment would mean working within ecclesial structures, I now see it will forever involve me working to help people to a new way of engaging the marketplace and going about business – to a way of hope.