Finding God in What You Do - an interview with Ken Eldred

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Ken Eldred is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and ministry pioneer. For over 20 years, Eldred served as CEO of Inmac, a public company he founded. He assisted in founding Ariba Technologies and has participated in business ventures in the U.S., Europe, China, and India. Eldred's passion is to bring Christ into the workplace. Toward this end, he has developed a model called "kingdom entrepreneurship" that encourages Christian businesspeople to spread the gospel by starting for-profit businesses in the U.S. and abroad. Eldred is co-editor of On Kingdom Business (Crossway), winner of a 2004 Christianity Today Book Award. His most recent book is God Is at Work (Regal).

When you became a Christian, you thought that in order to do real ministry you would have to become a pastor. Is this idea—that real ministry happens only in conventional ministry—still pervasive in the church?

Yes, I think it is. It screams at you more by its silence. It's not that people talk negatively about business; they just don't talk about it at all. So it's assumed that it's not something that's important to God.

It's also created a gender divide in the church. Several studies have shown there are a disproportionately small number of men in church. I think part of the reason is that pastors talk a lot about relationships. Women tend to be better at relationships than men. Men need help in this area. But when that's all that the pastor talks about, the women sort of say, "See what I told you?" So the guy's ribs get a little sore. Finally he says, "The pastor has nothing to say about my biggest concern, which is providing for my family's needs. He just picks on the weakest area of my life." He starts thinking "What am I doing here?" Then he walks away. Then the kids start to walk away and only the wife stays. It's going to get worse because more and more women are joining the workforce and they're going to wonder, "Does God have anything for me in my business life, because that's where I spend eight hours of my day?"

How can church leaders connect more effectively with business people?

Church leaders need to go to their business community. And when I use the word business, I mean people that are in the workforce, because ultimately everything is a business. The pastor needs to go to them and find out about their problems, learn about what they fear, what gets under their skin, and about what they're dealing with in the office. Thirty years ago, when I started my company, I invited my pastor to come over. We were operating with about 200 employees at that point. We were growing. And I said to him, "I don't know how to bring Christ into this business. How do I do that?" He looked at me and said, "I don't know either." That was the last conversation we had.

We're pretty good at being "the church gathered." We've learned how to worship. We're pretty good at teaching, at least inside the church. But we really haven't followed the model that Christ gave us of the church scattered—being out in the community, spending time in the public arena. Who is the moral authority of this nation? It's the pastors. They have to stand up and be part of this broader community. Pastors are our shepherds. Jesus went out and he took the twelve with him and he showed them how to live. He never was a businessman. He wasn't a fisherman like Peter, but he showed Peter how to operate in the world.

You base your ministry on a "kingdom business model." What does that mean?

It's been defined various ways, but when you get down to it, it's an attitude. It's a sense of priority. Is Jesus number one? Is he the center of all things? Or is something else the center? A business person can be a loving Christian. But if that person is focused on the bottom line as the primary driver, that isn't Jesus, and the bottom line becomes the god for that hour. We have to always ask, "Who is Christ in the middle of what we do?" And it forces us to ask what business is really about and what we expect to accomplish.

In your book, you add a new term to the business lexicon: "the triple bottom line." Can you explain that?

A growing trend in secular philanthropy and economic development is commitment to a "double bottom line." This means that not only must a business provide strong financial returns, but it must also provide significant social or environmental returns. Kingdom business rests on a similar recognition that our objectives should go beyond financial returns. For the Christian, however, effective transformation involves addressing economic, social, and spiritual conditions. So we have a three-fold objective for kingdom business, a "triple bottom line" that may be outlined as follows:

  1. profitability and sustainability
  2. local job and wealth creation
  3. advancing the local church and building spiritual capital

Each of these objectives is important, and they should be pursued simultaneously. None should be sacrificed.

If we operate a business within a kingdom model, we're not only interested in what comes in, but in how we treat our employees, what we teach them about God. We have eight hours a day to teach them about God and to apply the truth of the gospel in business activity.

That's a particularly important principle right now. So many companies are failing. I'm sure Christian businesspeople are grappling with how to maintain their witness as they have to make tough decisions.

It's a very difficult time. I've been through a number of these cycles and I've been hurt in all of them. But God has made me rise again. This downturn has been very hurtful. But I look at God. I don't look at the circumstances. I'm looking at his word and what he's promised me. God is going to do what he intended. He's going to do this for my good and for my welfare.

Someone once asked me, "What happens if your company fails and you're a Christian? Haven't you really just let your employees down?"

I said, "Yeah, I have."

He said, "Well, doesn't that have a negative impact on your ministry?"

I said, "Absolutely not!" It's how you treat people in the process of failure. It's God's business. If it's going to fail, that's the way it is. But what an opportunity to show the love of God, to treat people with love and respect even when things fail.

The debate over money in the church has become highly polarized. "Health and wealth" proponents think of blessing primarily in material terms. Then there are others that almost extol poverty as a spiritual virtue. What's the balance?

Basically the prosperity gospel is all about me. The gospel of prosperity is about others.

But God has one plan for us, and it trumps all other plans: to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. Sometimes wealth does not conform an individual to the image of Christ. Christ did not have wealth in this world. There are people who have great wealth and use it responsibly for God, and there are people who receive great wealth and just blow it. So wealth, by itself, is nothing. But wealth with God is something else. When things get tough for me financially, I submit myself to God's plans. If he wants me to finish my life selling pencils on a corner, that's his decision. He knows what's best for me. God's seen me through difficulties before. I've watched him raise me up again. I don't necessarily mean financially, but he always raises me up out of a pit.

Your book contains some powerful stories about how God rewarded you for not cutting corners or participating in questionable business practices.

I've never sacrificed doing this. Early on in my business we faced a dilemma. Back then we had some software that we just passed around. Somebody brought to my attention that that software was sold for only one application, and I didn't have a right to share it. I called in my chief financial officer and told him about it. I asked him how much it would cost to get the software for each computer. It was going to be a quarter of a million dollars! He said, "I don't know how we can handle this hit." I told him we'd worry about the hit later. I said, "Go out and buy this software and replace everybody's pirated copy with a purchased copy. God's going to provide somehow."

Well, we bought it. At the end of the quarter, our earnings were right on target. Sales jumped significantly, and it made up the difference that we needed to pay for the software. When I honored God, he took care of my problem. And it was something that God showed my CFO and other employees as a witness. When we operate in righteousness, whether we're in somebody else's company or in our own company, God is going to honor that. He's trying to show people his righteousness. That's what it's all about.