Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Can religion be a part of business life?

ESR student Karen Tibbals is organizing the first US meeting of Quakers and Business and presenting a workshop at Friends’ General Conference Gathering in July:

Over the past 25 years, I have been searching for ways to apply my faith to my business life.  But what I found was unsatisfying. 

I wanted help in making the difficult decisions when there was a conflict, such as dealing with outsourcing, automation, layoffs, environmental issues and many more.  But much pastoral counseling and theological work is done by people who don’t understand the business world and their suggestions and potential solutions weren't helpful to me.  I found more help in the business world than in my faith community, which saddened me.

In studying early Quakers, I have found an example of how religion may be helpful in work life.  Since George Fox (and other Friends) had many things to say about the hypocrisy of merchants and traders, Friends who were traders had to find a way to carry on their business life in such a way that was consistent with their profession of faith.  In those days, there were three main ways in which Friends expressed their faith:  one price, honest weights and measures and keeping one’s word in contracts and debts.   

These principles found their way into various writings by Friends, such as merchants who wrote their memoirs or sermons given, in the minutes of the local meetings and eventually in the Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.  The Biblical basis for these practices were drawn from both the Old and New Testament, such as from Proverbs  22:7: “the borrower is servant to the lender,” Matthew 5:37: ‘let your yea be yea and your nay be nay,” and Matthew 7: 12: the Golden Rule.   These were the foundation of what we Quakers today call the Testimony of Integrity.

Another important Quaker principle of the day was simplicity, which has also become one of today’s Quaker Testimonies.   This was not an abstract principle.  Quakers behaved this way for two reasons.  One was to be in solidarity with everyone in the world, including the poor, and the second was that everything had to be used for a good purpose.  Any money that wasn't spent on gaudy cloth or jewelry was to be invested in their business or donated to the poor.  

What I loved about this example was that Quakers struggled with how to make this work. It wasn't the first messages that eventually became the basis of the Advices, it evolved as those who had to apply it worked on it.  This is what religion is not doing today.

This struggle was the topic of my thesis (The Theological Basis Behind Quaker Businesses: A Comparison of the First 150 years to the beginning of the 20th Century) and will be the subject of a workshop I am facilitating at Friends’ General Conference Gathering in July.  

But I want to do more than just study history, I want to think about how to apply these principles to our business life today.  I don’t want philosophy or business to take the lead in how to ethically conduct business, I want religion to have a voice. To kick that off, I am participating in the first US meeting of Quakers and Business, which will meet in California, PA on the weekend of July 27-9. 

If this topic interests you, I would love to connect with you as part of my ministry, or come join me at either event. 

You can follow Karen's posts on her blog: http://karenjtibbals.wordpress.com/


  1. Hello, Karen! It was such a nice surprise to stumble across your article. I've been looking into how to bring my Quaker principles into the day-to-day running of my little café here in Iceland. I've started putting some things into practise already and I really feel like it's helping me and my business overcome some obstacles. I would love to read your thesis, it sounds really interesting! I know it's cheeky, but would that be possible somehow? I'd really like to make it to one of your conferences, but I'm somewhat stuck on this island in the middle of the North Atlantic! ;-) In friendship - David (http://www.quakerquaker.org/profile/DavidAnthony)

  2. Hi Karen,

    I'm afraid I'm in the Atlantic too (Ireland, not Iceland) so a face to face is not likely in the sort term. I do have a particular interest in parallels between Quaker testimonies and business practices; and two particular business trends - Agile software development frameworks such as Scrum, and Open Book Management.



  3. I was and am interested in your calling. I wish your calling unfolds to the way you hope. Blessings to you.

  4. Dear Karen,

    I hope you know that I also follow your calling.

    Friends are often driven by conscience. John Woolman had a conscientious objection to personally participating in the sale of a slave, Merely saying no for himself wasn't enough -- he spent the rest of his life traveling and worshiping with slave-holding Friends, until by the end of his life the entire Religious Society shared his opposition to owning slaves.

    Friends were and are COs to personal participation in wars. I see a new conscientious objection among Friends to their personal participation in the process of catastrophic climate change. I'll gently label these people as CO2s, if they'll accept that moniker. Some of us will become CO2 counselors, activists, lobbyists, journalists, scholars and inventors.

    Merely saying no for ourselves won't be enough for individual Friends. To truly get away from nonrenewable fuel sources we need cooperative access to solar and to energy conservation products. I accept our modern Friends' antipathy toward business and the reasoning behind their antipathy, but Friends have been making exceptions in the fields of running schools, retirement communities and social action nonprofits. I believe that Friends will soon make one more broad category of exceptions, for producing greenhouse gas minimizing products. Many of us personally want to stay clear of the carbon dioxide machine, and then we want everybody else on earth out too. One road to this goal is a social entrepreneurship venture dedicated to driving down solar costs and driving up consumer value.

    Paul Klinkman

  5. As a Quaker business owner I found this interesting. I have also been struggling for the last 25 or so years to integrate my principles and business training.

    Just wish I was going to be in PA in July! I've posted this onto the Quakers and Business LinkedIn group.

  6. Dear Karen,

    I wish you well for the first meeting of Quakers and Business in the U.S. I have been a member of the British Quaker & Business Group for many years and find it invaluable. Whenever I can I make to our annual conference in London (usually in November) and also to the spring Gathering. Perhaps you might be able to join us one day.

    In Friendship

  7. Looking forward to both the conference and workshop.

    In my software business (writing and selling software for churches and charities), I find that two of my hardest issues are transparency (how much to say to the users) and how generous to be to users who have paid for support and upgrades in the past but have not chosen to continue paying for it, and then need help. Hopefully we will be able to discuss specifics like that at some point.

  8. Dear Karen:
    When I first saw your query, I thought, hmm, interesting, but then went back to work. I find it still interesting but also irritating. Surely as Friends we seek a whole, undivided life. We have our varying experiences and areas that we function in, but at our core, I hope we are one person. That person is a vessel for the Light within, and is hopefully engaged every day in seeking the Light within others. In my experience with Friends I meet many who are engaged in business. They stand out in my experience for their conservative fiscal approach, and fair-mindedness. They are leaders among Friends and in the wider community we exist in. The principles that distinguished early Friends in business, the Cadbury's, Rowntrees, Hopkins, Sheppards, and others are just as relevant today as ever.
    I have owned and operated businesses, and have worked for non-profits including Friends. I am not sure if it is relevant to expect leadership from 'religion'. In my experience that is not necessarily synonymous with seeking the Light.
    I wish you well with the conference,
    peace, Adrian B.