What Does It Mean to Live Out an Incarnational Faith?
*This is part 5 of the Laity Leadership Institute Missional series with Senior Fellow Darrell Guder, who is the Princeton Theological Seminary Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
You may not recognize Jack vanHartesvelt’s name, but you will recognize some of the company's whose deals he has handled. vanHartesvelt was the Chief Development Officer for the Wyndham Hotel Company when it went public and for Westin Hotels and Resorts when it was purchased by Starwood Lodging, for example. He is Managing Director of Alvarez and Marsal Capital Real Estate. In addition to reorganizing failing companies, he buys, builds, and oversees the management of major hotels.
When vanHartesvelt was growing up, he thought he would become a pastor. But his father died and he dropped out of school temporarily to support his mother and sister.
“The idea of becoming a pastor got shoved to the side,” said vanHartesvelt, as he was driven to succeed in business.
“Even after everything got worked out economically, I just never could quite shake it,” he said.
vanHartesvelt has closed more than 300 deals over the course of his career, started several hotel brands, and has taken three companies public.
“I was pretty good at negotiating, but part of it involved deception. It involved saying I wanted something when I didn’t really want it, just so I could give it up later and get something I really did want,” vanHartesvelt admitted.
“It’s a game. Everybody seems to play it. I could play it. I was good at it, but at some point, I decided it was wrong,” he said.
Struggling through our human frailty to obedience is the stuff that incarnational living is made of.
“Interpreting mission in terms of the incarnation can be understood as an attempt to define what it means for a very human church to be obedient to the call of Jesus Christ as Lord, to do his will as it communicates his message,” writes Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Darrell Guder in his wonderful little book, The Incarnation and the Church’s Witness.
vanHartesvelt discovered that doing the will of God does communicate God’s message.
After deciding it was wrong to negotiate as he had been doing, he told his attorneys that he didn’t want to work that way anymore. He said he wanted to negotiate deals that were fair for all parties involved in a deal.
“Jack, there’s only two people in this company that can bankrupt it and that would be you and the chairman of the board, so unless you get permission from the board of directors of the company, we’re not going to represent you,” the lawyers replied.
He did just that and was given permission to try a new approach.
The first real estate deal he did this way yielded far more fruit than he expected.
“I was going through the agreement with the other party and they were about to flip the page. I said, ‘Excuse me, but before we turn the page. If you go to section 2.3.1, you will see that you’re supposed to get a management fee for the oversight of our construction. But if you go back to the termination section, you will see that if you are in default for any reason, I can deprive you of that fee, and I don’t think that’s actually right... What I want to do is fix this right here and right now.”
The men on the other side of the table looked at vanHartesvelt like they thought he was crazy.
“After I did this 2 or 3 times, they asked, ‘What’s going on here?’” he said.
“I just want to be fair,” he told them. “I’m going to look out for myself, but I’m also going to look out for you, and I want you to look out for me too.”
Guder said in his book that incarnational mission means integrating the salvation event of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our daily life and work. As missionary people, we are a witness to Jesus’ salvation.
“It can ensure that the ‘world’ that God loves (John 3:16) will in fact hear the good news about that love,” he wrote.
vanHartesvelt’s property was built in New Orleans for $25 million and sold two years later for $45 million.
“They got half the profit, which is the way it was supposed to work,” he said. “This was at the height of an economic downturn. It saved them financially, but it also changed them.”
In 2001, vanHartesvelt was doing another transaction with these men and one of them was scheduled to receive a community award in New Orleans. He asked vanHartesvelt to attend the ceremony. The man had made significant contributions to the city in the ten years since their first deal. During the ceremony, he publicly credited vanHartesvelt with being the catalyst for his success and generosity because vanHartesvelt had insisted on dealing fairly with him when he was in a vulnerable position.
“It didn’t take 10 years for me to realize that good things happen from fair dealing,” said vanHartesvelt, “but this was a peak moment. What I found was that bringing my faith to work made my job easier. You don’t get sued. You don’t have to sue people. You’re not necessarily being naïve. It does work. People like you. They don’t hurt you when they might have otherwise, because you never gave them permission to.”
What this businessman doesn’t do is talk openly about his faith, or use code words to signal it. Everyone he works with knows he’s a Christian, he said, both by the way he does business and by how he spends his time when he’s not working. He believes that having a firm moral rudder and doing what’s right speak louder than words, but said it isn't always possible to see the impact one's witness is making on those with whom we interact.
“The term witness integrates the who, the what and the how of Christian mission,” Guder explains in his book. “The Christian individual is defined as Christ’s witness; the entire community is defined as a witnessing community; its impact upon the world into which it is sent is observable witness—demonstration of the gracious rule of the Risen Lord. God’s Spirit, working in mysterious and gracious ways, empowers this very human and very fallible witness to be the means by which people hear the good news and are invited to become followers of Jesus. The purpose of incarnational witness is ‘so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God’ (2 Cor. 4:15).”
Jack vanHartesvelt’s decision to become an incarnational witness to the gospel involved considerable risk, but has had far reaching consequences. He extended grace and it increased thanksgiving to the glory of God.
How about you? Do you have a story to tell about struggling with your own human frailty to live out your faith to the glory of God? If so, please share it with us.