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Can Bible, Business Mix? : Evangelicals Run Their Firms by the Book

ETHICS AND ENTERPRISE: One of a series.

July 13, 1986|PAUL RICHTER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The accountants at SSC Industries always tried to maintain a strong cash flow by postponing payment to creditors as long as possible, while trying to get customers to pay up immediately.

That's how it was until one day in 1984 when B. G. Stumberg, president of the East Point, Ga., chemical company, picked up a Bible and decided that it wants businessmen to follow contracts to the letter. Pricked by conscience, he borrowed $150,000 to pay off SSC's outstanding debts, and instructed the accounting department to henceforth keep as current on bills as possible.

"It may not have been the right thing for the bottom line, but it was the right way to do business," said Stumberg, who is a born-again Christian.

As the number of American evangelicals has swelled to 40 million from 30 million over the past decade, a growing number of business people have sought to apply conservative Christian principles to the ethical problems they face at work. Like Stumberg, they are turning to religion to guide the way they finance their operations, manage and pay employees, contribute to charities, and reinforce what they consider proper values.

Many business people of other faiths are, of course, seeking to apply the principles of their religions as well. But observers say the efforts of born-again Christians have been particularly visible recently amid a resurgence of conservative Christian doctrine.

"There's been a lot of discussion in the evangelical community about 'the Christian way' of doing business," says Carnegie Samuel Calian, president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution.

The interest in applying a Christian ethic at work is reflected in a steady proliferation in evangelical business and professional organizations, which are often forums for discussion of applying born-again doctrine, say officials of evangelical associations. The latest National Assn. of Evangelicals directory lists 38 such groups; among them are organizations for airline flight attendants, dentists, doctors and lawyers in addition to physical therapists, rodeo riders, social workers and soldiers.

Born-again Christians' growing interest in applying biblical precepts may also be reflected in a small but growing number of complaints of discriminatory employment practices by evangelicals. Civil libertarians and employees of other faiths have charged that evangelicals have discriminated against outsiders in hiring and promotion, for example, and in the way they have used ads to seek clients and business partners of similar views.

While no definitive figures are available on the number of such complaints, "there has definitely been an upswing," says Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress in New York. "A few years ago you never heard of this kind of thing."

The courts have recently struggled with a number of cases pitting employers' rights of speech and religion against those of employees, and Stern predicts that there are more to come. "These conflicts arise because people sincerely believe they're called on to live out their beliefs at work, just as they do in the rest of their lives," says Stern.

That's the way B. G. Stumberg feels.

At SSC, he held voluntary Bible study sessions and organized annual retreats where managers and their spouses considered issues of business practice from a Christian perspective. Stumberg hired a personnel counselor with an evangelical outlook to help employees solve problems with their spouses, children and personal finances.

Contributed to Success

"They called us the Bible-thumping chemical company, and that was fine with us," he said. Stumberg believes that his attempts to put Christian ethics into practice didn't penalize the company financially, but contributed to its success.

Stumberg retired last fall to devote more time to an evangelical business organization called the Fellowship of Companies for Christ, which he heads. But he faced an occasional question of business ethics, as he did last month, when he and an associate had an opportunity to buy a commercial tract in Atlanta.

Stumberg's associate had an option that would have allowed them to purchase the property for half of the $12.5 million they calculated it would be worth after development. But Stumberg turned down the deal because it would have required him to co-sign a note guaranteeing other investors' financial commitments--a practice Stumberg believes is prohibited in the Book of Proverbs.

John Reaves, a Dallas restaurateur, has also had his convictions tested in a costly way.

Reaves, 41, built a chain of five Smokey John's Barbecue restaurants in the Dallas area with co-investors Drew Pearson and Harvey Martin, both of whom are former members of the Dallas Cowboys football team. The chain became well-known "and it looked like I was on my way to becoming a millionaire by the time I was 35," he says.

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