An Interview With Joan Ball: Marketing with a New Mission

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

Joan Ball worked as a public relations executive for over 15 years before she began teaching in the Tobin School of Business at St. John's University in 2007. In her book Flirting with Faith: My Spiritual Journey from Atheism to a Faith-Filled Life and on her Beliefnet blog), Joan shares her story of how her new-found faith led her to reprioritize her life and enabled her to put her career into proper perspective.

How do you use your faith in the classroom setting?

I am a big fan of service learning, which involves active application of theoretical principles to serve the needs of community organizations. My business students have developed marketing plans and executed fundraising events for nonprofits, marrying St. John's University's Vincentian mission to serve the needs of the poor and displaced with hands-on field experience. As the semester unfolds, even the most skeptical students begin to see that their business skills can provide value to cash-strapped service organizations that could not otherwise have afforded to hire a marketing consultant. That insight often prompts discussions about careers, life's ambitions, and definitions of "success" that extend beyond salary and prestige.

How has this paradigm of what it means to be successful changed over the past say 50 or 100 years?

In the middle part of the 20th century, the intellect was considered paramount. We tested IQs, and the smartest people ran our businesses. That began to shift in the latter part of the century when business leaders began to see the value in "soft skills." Terms like Emotional Quotient (EQ) were introduced into the business lexicon and the ability to interact well with others, in addition to smarts, became valued and a marker of potential success. As we cap the first decade of the 21st century and see intelligent and charismatic people like Tiger Woods and Bernie Madoff lose fame and fortune due to moral and ethical failings, I believe a third marker of success—maybe a Lifestyle Quotient—is coming into play. Gone are the days in this hyperconnected world where failings and infidelities can be kept under wraps. I'm very interested in what it takes for highly intelligent and relational individuals to actually finish well.

How do you see the church playing a role in helping move that dialogue forward?

I think the church tends to create initiatives or programs for businesses and businesspeople rather than encouraging people who claim to have faith be reflections of that faith wherever they walk—in church, at home, and at work. If the church digs deep into creating space for a genuine transformation of heart that leads to a genuine transformation of life, it would stand to reason that more people might reflect their faith in their day-to-day lives seamlessly as opposed to having it be a second thought or something they do only at church. If more people had that transformative experience, then when they are at work, they would view everything through the lens of what it would mean to respond to this in a way that reflects loving God and loving others in that situation, even if it required a countercultural response.

How can the church do a better job of helping business people discover the talents they can bring to the church?

I see a tremendous amount of attention paid to identifying natural skills and finding ways to use them in the church. That seems backwards to me. The Bible is full of stories of people who were called to serve way outside of their skillset. These are champions of the faith. I think we all need to learn how to listen and obey—even when it takes us outside of what we perceive to be our "gifts."

What do you see your students needing to learn so they can form a moral compass to guide them when they graduate?

There's been a lot of discussion among educators about what it means to go beyond the letter of the law and do what is right. When the structures that have traditionally taught right from wrong—whether it was civic classes in school or churches—start to dissipate, one can find an overreliance on regulation and legal to make these decisions. When the regulations are repealed, people go and push themselves as close to the edge as they can.

How does working at St. John's University help you to integrate faith and work?

Teaching marketing might not seem like a Christian vocational calling, yet it was where I was drawn and where I believe I'm supposed to be. I've come to believe that loving God, loving others, and practicing the principles of my faith in all that I do is the foundation for everything I do. To that end, I try to connect with my students in a way that is genuine so I can know and understand them as human beings and not just numbers in a classroom. When we work together on projects, I'm certainly reinforcing the importance of serving others ethically. We do discuss issues as they come up such as lying on the job, and I feel I'm able to respond as a person of faith without proselytizing.

I'm very blessed to work at St. John's University, which is Catholic and Vincentian, though we do have a number of students who are not Catholic or even Christian. A very large part of the St. John's mission is providing a high quality education through the lens of Vincentian sensibilities, which involves having a heart for the immigrant and poor. This fall, for example, my marketing students are working as a marketing consulting firm to City Harvest, a New York City organization that collects food that would otherwise be discarded by restaurants and delivers it to food pantries.

What are some of your future plans for integrating your calling as a writer and a marketing teacher?

I am constantly on the lookout for community organizations that could use marketing support in hopes that I can create a learning opportunity for my students with a hands-on component. Marrying theory with practice and service is the best way I know to plant that seed in my business students.