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God at work: Business embracing faith

More companies nationwide find benefits in promoting a religious context in the workplace.

ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published August 1, 2004

Digital Lightbridge started with a few scribbles on a Denny's restaurant napkin. Richard Hayes and Jeffrey Damm had been friends for 13 years. They worked in marketing. They went to the same church. About three years ago, they sat down at the diner to sketch out a business plan that would merge their careers with their Christian faith.

Today, the company has about 50 clients, including J.P. Morgan Chase, the University of South Florida and Simdag Investments. It's a private, for-profit company with five employees who work out of an office building at 102 W Whiting St. in downtown Tampa. Hayes is vocal about the role of faith in the business.

"Ultimately, everything we do has some kind of Christian base," Hayes said.

Although the owners are quick to emphasize their employees don't have to be Christian, their faith is a vital part of their business practices. Digital Lightbridge volunteers its services to ministries that cannot afford pricy marketing firms, including the Tampa Port Ministries, a nonprofit group that ministers to seafarers. It also shells out several hundred dollars each month so Hayes can attend sessions with other Christian company presidents through a national group called the Christian 12 Group, or C12.

Digital Lightbridge is not an anomaly. The joining of companies and faith is a growing trend throughout the Tampa Bay area and the country. Prework prayer meetings, corporate retreats to discuss faith-based business strategies, chaplains hired to minister to employees and other faith-based programs are sprouting up in businesses that range from mobile home park management to high-tech companies.

"Hopefully, it's a trend that's positive both here and around the world," said Jerry Key, a senior chaplain with Corporate Chaplains of America and executive director of Tampa Port Ministries. "Employers are beginning to realize their employees have lives outside the office door."

Just 12 years ago, there were about 25 faith-based organizations in the workplace in the United States, said Os Hillman, president of the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries, an Atlanta Christian nonprofit group that tracks faith in the workplace. In 2004, International Coalition identified more than 1,200 such organizations.

The organizations vary widely in size and product. Coca-Cola has a group called the Christian Employee Fellowship. The owner of Sign-Age of Tampa Bay in Clearwater, a company that manufactures promotional signs, belongs to C12 and holds a weekly prayer meeting. ChurchForce Inc. in Tampa links Christian companies and job seekers online.

"People are looking for more in their jobs," Hillman said. "Everyone has a God-shaped vacuum in their life."

Groups such as C12 are determined to fill that void. Founded in Apollo Beach in 1992 by Buck Jacobs, C12 has swelled to 206 members in 29 groups throughout the country, including seven groups in Florida. Membership costs depend on the corporate revenue, ranging from $450 to $850 a month.

Jacobs, who moved his headquarters to Atlanta last year, said he fields calls and requests from businesses around the world, including, most recently, Nepal and Zimbabwe, that are interested in developing faith-based programs.

"The separation of our work life and our faith life is becoming more unusual," he said.

He attributes the interweaving of the corporate and religious worlds in part to the Internet. Technology links people around the world, bypassing traditional church hierarchies, he said.

"Business is all about relationships," Jacobs said. When employees are treated as if "they all have something to offer," productivity increases. If a business doesn't see increases in profits, they don't have to stick with C12, he said.

The trend does have potential pitfalls, though, Hillman warned. "The danger can be when any CEO goes beyond the limits of what the government allows us to do in terms of religion in the workplace."

The introduction of religious practices and beliefs in the workplace is meant to improve business ethics and help employees, he said. When employers cross the line and begin to hire based on religious beliefs or exclude people whose beliefs differ from their own, their practices negate the intent of the movement, he said.

"America is a place of freedom," he said. "But there are limits of certain expressions in certain areas."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, is a national Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. The group also cautioned about the influx of religious beliefs into the business world.

"These types of programs can be a healthy aspect and a nice benefit for employees," said Ahmed Bedier, Tampa-based spokesman for CAIR. "However, it's like a double-edged sword. You have to be careful not to alienate your workforce by not giving a diversity of religious beliefs."

Bedier worried that many nondenominational programs tend to espouse Protestant Christian value systems. Vulnerable employees in search of help may not critically evaluate the advice they're given, he said.

"At the end of the day, they're still a Christian perspective," he said. "How are they going to help a Muslim or Jewish person?"

Mark Cress, president of Corporate Chaplains of America, oversees a staff of about 70 full-time chaplains. Companies pay a flat fee based on the number of employees in exchange for the chaplains' services.

Cress is optimistic about the increasing number of programs such as his. He bemoaned the lack of scientific research into the trend but said it's clear that faith in the workplace is gaining momentum, increasing interest in his business. "As they say, "The trend is your friend,' " he said.

He cited President Bush's openness about his Christian beliefs, marketplace downsizing that has left employees wanting someplace to turn for support, and the increasing stress level for baby boomers who now are caring for aging parents as a few explanations for the trend.

Some say it's a trend that has been forming for decades.

Each Thursday morning, about 10 men make their way through the lobby of the Sheriton Suites Hotel near Tampa's Jefferson High School. They sit at the bar, but God is on their minds. They are Tampa's Christian Business Men's Committee, a group whose mission is to minister to other business people about Christianity. The origin of the committee's Tampa chapter dates to the 1930s.

When Bill Martin joined the group 20 years ago, he owned a cable television company in Bradenton and was looking for a way out of $2.5-million in debt, he said. He met a member of the committee, who introduced him to "the manufacturer's handbook," more commonly known as the Bible.

"When you're not familiar with what to do as a businessman, you get a handbook," he said. He figured it worked that way with religion, too.

He thought employees at his cable television company could use it, too. He said the other committee members helped him find solutions to cut down his debt and pay back what he could. Now, he tries to help others.

"We try to touch people in such a way that their primary focus is not business," said Martin, now a financial adviser and no longer in debt. "What is it worth if a person gets ahead but misses out on the most important thing - going to heaven?"

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