The Last Taboo: An Interview With David Miller

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Under a God and Business cover story headline, Fortune magazine reported in 2001 that a “groundswell of believers” is breaching “the last taboo in corporate America.”

If it’s true, if faith is the final unmentionable, then David Miller, executive director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, is smack in the breach. From his spot in the overlap of academia, business, and the church, he is turning up the talk in all three circles . . . urging leaders to begin to integrate the claims of faith with the demands of the marketplace—at bare minimum to start to think about it.

David comes to his unusual work well-credentialed. From working for IBM in the U.S., he moved to London to direct European operations of a leading U.S. securities services bank. During his eight years there, he was also a senior executive for a British bank, and later an equity partner in a private bank specialized in international investment management, corporate finance, mergers, and acquisitions. He returned to the U.S. to study theology, where he received his M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). During his doctoral work, he cofounded The Avodah Institute with Bill Pollard in 1999 to help business and academic leaders integrate faith and work. In 2003, he took the work of Avodah to Yale Divinity School, where as the executive director, he helped to launch the Yale Center for Faith & Culture with renowned theologian Miroslav Volf. In addition, David teaches a course called Business Ethics: Succeeding without Selling Your Soul, which is comprised of both Yale MBA and divinity school students.

David’s forthcoming book, God at Work (Oxford University Press, 2006), studies the growth, dynamics, and future of the faith-at-work movement.

We spoke with David about this “movement”—where it comes from, what it stands to change, and how he got into it.


David, you refer to the burgeoning discussion of faith at work as a “movement.” Is it a bona fide movement?

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my doctoral advisors, Professor Bob Wuthnow of Princeton, one of the great sociologists of religion of our time, said, “David, you keep talking about this thing as a movement, how do you know it’s a real movement and not a flash in the pan?” I was dumbstruck by one of those brilliantly simple questions I couldn’t answer. I thought of Civil Rights and the women’s movement. They had real shape and staying power, and they influenced society. Through empirical and qualitative research, I concluded that what I call the faith-at-work movement does meet the sociological criteria to be one.

What is behind the movement?

A deep desire by men and women no longer to compartmentalize their lives and parts of their days as did our generation and older. For us, work and play were two different worlds: “Work hard, play hard.” Baby Boomers have come to see that as an unhealthy way to live. Not only that, but it robs our careers of powerful resources. Generations coming along after us—GenX and the Millennials—won’t have it. A guy who wears an earring on the weekend wants to wear it at work too. “Why should I take it off? That’s who I am.” People are saying,“my faith is part of who I am. Why should I leave it in the parking lot when I go to work? My faith helps me shape, filter, and interpret my world.”

Where is the Church in the faith-at-work movement?

The Church generally shies from the topic, and our divinity schools and seminaries are no better. Fewer than 10 percent of regular churchgoers, surveys say, can remember the last time their pastor preached on the topic of work. When he or she did preach on work, inevitably the tone was critical—if not hostile—and painted all business people as greedy and uncaring. Seldom do pastors honor the work world as a place for parishioners to live out their high calling. Whether you’re a secretary or a CEO, people in the pews seldom hear from the pulpit that God has a plan that includes your work, and that your faith can help inform how you approach your work.

You left the marketplace to help bridge Sunday and Monday. Would you say that we need business professionals to become spiritual leaders because too few spiritual leaders know the business world?

No, I didn’t leave the business world for that reason. In fact, I didn’t want to go! I had no repressed childhood desire to be a pastor, no dreams of running a nonprofit. I did have a lengthy wrestling match with God over it. I loved my work. As a senior executive, I had a significant sphere of influence. I felt like I was being pulled out of the game. Then it became clear that God’s plan was first to equip me to understand the language of the business world and then to learn “God Talk”—theology—and fluently move in and out of the boardroom and the Bible. I’ve since discovered a deep passion to help others integrate those very compartmentalized worlds.

Why are the boardroom and the Church only now clearing common ground?

People enter the ministry in different ways. Some are called at age 22 to get an M.Div. and, as such, they don’t know what it means to pay taxes or get passed over for a promotion. In seminary, they learned how to sit at a deathbed or visit an oncology ward but not how to walk around a company canteen or boardroom. Many clergy say they feel intimidated by business people. And let’s face it, Joe Blow, the senior VP of such-and-such, has the best suit, nice car, and looks well put together. He may be dying inside and as spiritually needy as the person scraping to get by, but most clergy don’t see that. And even if they do, don’t know what to do with it.

Would you comment on the tensions between marketplace pressures and faith principles. Many of us can consider the pressures more real than the principles.

One big pressure is competition. The marketplace is deeply competitive. That can be positive because it brings out our greatest creativity, a biblical principle. Or it can be destructive. Also because of its intensity, the marketplace often lacks space for compassion and grace and mercy. And the Christian life, of course, includes those teachings. Another tension comes from shareholders and from Wall Street—who demand high returns. To meet those earnings expectations, you might decide to reduce your workforce by 10 percent . . . and that hits hard with some Christians. These are just a few of the tensions. But, short of a perfect world, many of these issues would also exist under other economic systems, but that’s a conversation for another day!

That’s a lot of responsibility over lives . . .

People at the top are under great pressures to make high-stakes decisions quickly. The time to reflect, contemplate, bring in other voices . . . takes effort. And it takes real wisdom when the faith teaching might conflict with your best-practice leadership in the marketplace. So what do you do? You have to pick your fights carefully; you can’t take on every single issue. The discernment and wisdom to know what to choose and what to let go—we all have that in life. Jesus dusted off his sandals and marched on at some points; other things he was deeply engaged in. Business leaders have to figure out what to put up with—which things are just the reality of life in a fallen world and which things, as a matter of principle, they should take a stand on, say “everyone else can do that but we won’t as a company.”

How does an American company in the new millennium allow for faith at work?

If the top executive is interested in those questions, it sure helps. One of the biggest things a CEO can do is give people permission to talk about these things, let them know it’s not taboo, not bad, to raise these kind of questions. In effect, you’re being given permission to live out your faith at work.

Why in the world would an employee need permission to have personal faith?

It’s not that you need permission to have a personal faith; it’s the issue of whether and how you express it at work. Say you live in New York City—a different religious demographic than Dallas, Texas. Say that in Dallas it’s common to “Praise the Lord” and say “bless you” and use religious language and expressions at work. You don’t find that in New York City, because you’ve got Jewish people, atheists, and a host of non-Christian coworkers. Such expression of overt religiosity seems insincere or like sloganeering. So many just decide to side-step the faith question, shutting down for fear of offending someone.

But a CEO can grant permission to think and talk about these things. We’ve figured out how to talk about historically thorny issues like race, sex, and gender orientation. Why not give people permission to talk about faith and its role in our lives? It may be as simple as, in conversation, casually mentioning a sermon that weekend or that you’re leaving early for choir. There’s a way for people to have a faith identity and mention it without causing a ruckus. In the Bible Belt, that may sound like a no-brainer. But in London, New York, Boston, Beijing, you’ve just signaled to all your employees that it’s okay to have and express your personal faith at work.

No worries about proselytizing?

While not an unimportant question, I think it’s really a big red herring. This is often raised by people not in favor of the topic. But there’s a difference between obnoxious harassment and an attractive life of faith. On balance, I find worries about proselytizing to be overblown, and good leaders know how to address the few conflicts or isolated problems that may emerge. Where would we be if businesses decided not to integrate Blacks into the workplace for fear of problems? Management learned how to work through the issues. Why not do the same thing with faith? Will it surface issues? Of course. But we can think, talk, and find healthy ways to develop what I call a “faith-friendly” culture.

In my research about you, I read that Dietrich Bonhoffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Stott were all strong influences on you. What do these men have in common for you?

Two dead guys and one live guy?! The common thread is all three had a deeply held Christian faith, great minds, and all felt that their faith should be in service of something in life; that faith should be a shaping force in how we live our daily lives. It wasn’t just a matter of getting a doctrine right or being proud of correct orthodoxy. They believed their faith was made to shape and impact the world, and all three did that in dramatic and powerful ways. Two eventually gave their lives for that. John Stott, still alive at 84, very much went against the grain of secularization trends in the UK to hold together a cogent intellectual case, a compelling case, for reasonableness of Christianity. Not only that, he felt faith wasn’t just about church, but how it impacted your whole life. Those are the questions that interest me with faith: how it shapes and forms our life, how it functions in our life—particulary in the marketplace.

What do you know now about faith and business that you didn’t as you were leaving school?

When I graduated from college at age 22, I was the quintessential compartmentalizer. I focused on my work and my career, and never in my wildest dreams did I think faith might have something to do with it. Not that I turned into a jerk on Mondays, but the idea of scripture guiding me in an ethical gray zone or as a leader in a fast-track work world was an unheard of concept—never did I think faith would play a role in that. Maybe I slept through the sermons that sought to teach me otherwise, but I don’t remember hearing this message from the pulpit.

John Stott helped me connect these worlds. The “ah-ha moment” was the realization that faith was a reasonable proposition in its own right; it was not incompatible with science and reason and all spheres of life, including work. I began to realize that faith wasn’t just a Sunday event.

Was your understanding a “single point of illumination” or more gradual?

Gradual, but a geometric curve once the ah-ha happened. I couldn’t get enough of thinking and reading about it and realizing how vitally important this was in general to people of faith—in the marketplace and in life as well.

Let me also say that in my own life, and as I work with execs and CEOs, as we all become more intentional about faith at work, life somehow becomes more vibrant and enjoyable. And work is more fulfilling, more natural. Not necessarily easier—if you pay more attention to faith, you might make less popular decisions. The Bible says something about the picking up the cross, dying daily, and following Jesus. But Jesus also reminds us that his yoke is light, and he frees us from sin, empowering us to a healthier way of living even as we struggle every day about how to do it in a faithful way.

Why do you like what you do?

I’ve never been asked that question. I love the business world and the marketplace. I love Jesus and my faith. And I have a real interest in the roles of theology, reason, and thinking to help bring these worlds together. I suppose I like what I do because I get to swim every day in my three favorite swimming holes: business, academics, and the church. At the end of the day, my greatest reward comes from helping other people—both business people and clergy—have their moment of illumination to integrate faith and work.