From a very early age we are told to avoid at least two topics during any dinner table conversation: politics and religion.
After all, these are personal topics that can easily offend and turn an enjoyable dinner party into a debate match.
Attend one of the Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Work luncheons sponsored by the Offutt School of Business and one of these supposedly sensitive topics serves as the centerpiece of the gathering.
The Lorentzsen Center provides resources to students, faculty and business leaders who want to integrate faith and work while practicing values-based ethical leadership. One of its key programs is a luncheon where leaders in business, nonprofits and other community organizations share how their faith influences their work.
In a world where we’ve been taught to separate church and state, public and private, these conversations are challenging. But in a world where businesses make headlines for unethical and immoral conduct – think the financial crisis – it’s a refreshing discussion.
“It’s not a forum for preaching,” says Dr. Faith Ngunjiri, director of the Lorentzsen Center. “It’s a forum for conversations about values, ethics, faith, religion and how all of these things are related.”
Luncheon topics have ranged from trust in the workplace to bioethics. In 2013, three individuals in the legal profession presented “Faith and Law” where they explored the tension between God’s law and human law. They also admitted how unusual it is to think about, much less publicly discuss, one’s faith.
“Historically, judges don’t talk about what they think or feel outside of the courtroom … We don’t have this conversation in public very often,” says Ralph Erickson, a U.S. federal judge. And yet, “I have never met a person who does not have a philosophy or a theology. But a high percentage of people I know cannot put into words the philosophy or theology they hold.”
He then challenged the audience: “Go home and think about what it is you really believe and why you believe it.”
Go home and think about what it is you really believe and why you believe it.” – Judge Ralph R. Erickson
Conversations about faith and work sparked in the late 1980s and early 1990s when mass organizational restructuring occurred and workers in the U.S. no longer had the assurance or security of a job. People started searching for something stable, something that centered them in the workplace, Ngunjiri says. The impact of 9/11 solidified that search.
Concordia is well situated to facilitate these “search for meaning” public conversations. Our Lutheran identity encourages exploration of the duality of daily life and spiritual expression. The Lutheran understanding of vocation as serving the needs of the neighbor also contributes to the discussion.
“If your faith is not telling you how to lead your life, it’s not answering a key question,” Ngunjiri says.
The Lorentzsen Center is named for the late Norman Lorentzsen ’41, who was CEO of Burlington Northern railroad between 1970 and 1980. Lorentzsen’s faith formed how he lived and worked. He was known for hiring employees who had integrity, high personal motivation, determination, good judgment and loyalty. He also believed the company had an obligation to provide an affirmative work environment and the opportunity for personal growth and development.
Lorentzsen, a former member and chair of the Board of Regents, died in September.
The center strives to provide a safe environment where one can model how faith connects the whole of life – personal, family, community and career, says Dr. Paul Dovre, president emeritus of the college who helped to establish the center.
We all have faith in something. Many people in business can find in their faith a good resource, a resource for helping them understand and carry out their work."
– Dr. Paul Dovre
As such, faith can and does influence elements of leadership like the treatment of employees, the company mission, goals, product quality and management style. Especially in the Upper Midwest, people often see this connection between faith and work even if they can’t articulate it.
“In our region, there is a whole group of business people who serve others because of their commitment to God,” says Leann Wolff ’82, co-founder of Great Outcomes Consulting and a presenter at one of the Lorentzsen luncheons. “The Lorentzsen Center gives us a place to come together and talk about that.”
Ngunjiri strives to invite presenters who reflect different ages, faith traditions and genders. Through diverse voices, she hopes people will feel more comfortable initiating honest, reflective discussions about faith in the workplace – even among people who may not share the same views.
After all, understanding can happen one conversation at a time.
Originally published in the Fall 2016 Concordia Magazine
Erin Hemme Froslie '96 is a freelance writer and editor.