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BVC brings practical Christianity to be leaven for corporate culture.

Mike Flynn used to sell roat beer. It's not the calling usually associated with bells, books and candles, although it is closer to what most people do than preaching from the pulpit, like the priest, or filling jelly jars, like the monk.

Mike and I ate lunch at a hermetically sealed club in the new Board of Trade building where young men in bright jackets trade most of the food we eat before they go to the club to eat food that few people can afford Cars zoomed underneath the club, built on, an overpass. It was unreal.

Flynn was president and CEO of Dad's Root Beer, a Chicago-based company that had a bite-sized share of the vast softdrink market. Marketing root beer was a good job.

When Dad's was sold, Flynn stayed on for a while. Then he signed on as the first executive director of the Business Vocation Conference.

The late Augustinian Father Dennis Geaney used to say that Sunday is for "churchianity" and Monday is for "Christianity." "On Sunday," Greaney wrote, "people go to church to feel good about themselves. They want homilies and music that are comforting, that tell them how good they are. But they have no frame of reference for connecting religion and life."

It was precisely to address those issues that Flynn left corporate employment to join the BVC, a project of the renowned Woodstock Theological Center now attached to Georgetown University. The BVC's mission statement, adopted in early 1992, states that the conference "assists individual business executives to integrate faith, family and professional life; helps the leadership of the firm to develop a corporate culture consistent with Christian values; and influences business leaders and corporations to exercise a beneficial influence upon society at large."

The conference is an attempt to view Christian faith through prescription glasses ground by the laity rather than the church.

Its philosophical and theological underpinnings are poles apart from the approach to business practiced by John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate, who amassed enormous wealth through tactics that would make a Middle Eastern emir blush. Rockefeller was a devout Baptist who prayed regularly and who donated at least half his fortune to charity. Yet, he was a man without scruples when it came to business. He just didn't see the connection.

Rockefeller wasn't alone. The robber barons were viewed as heroic figures. Unrestricted capitalism was seen as the only alternative to godless socialism (later communism). In spite of Leo XIII's monumental encyclical on labor, Rerum Novarum, in 1891, the Vatican entrusted its U.S. investments to the House of Morgan, ruled by self-made monarch J. Pierpont Morgan, and heaped lay honors on the very men who were still lobbying to keep Catholics off Harvard's Board of Overseers. The devil's work is often sprinkled with holy water.

The BVC's purpose is to expand the perspective of a company's top officers on the business vocation and to lay the foundation for the next generation to discern their own calling in life.

We welcome believers," Flynn said. "But we try to stay away from people with causes. We simply want to bring Christian values to the marketplace - not only saying it but doing it."

The conference is not philosophically elitist, but its recruiting methods virtually ensure that only top players are invited. to participate. "I don't throw the party," Flynn said. "We look for three or four core people who do the inviting and we go from there. I guess we're elite by nature."

The conference gathers people who are willing to talk for values and then seeks out other people who will listen. The issues are plain: How do you treat your fellow workers? How do you treat the community? In late 1991, the BVC met in Milwaukee to respond to Centesimus Annus, John Paul Il's encyclical on the social order, issued on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.

Work thus belongs to the vocation of every person," the pope wrote. "Indeed, man expresses and fulfills himself by working." John Paul II described precisely the goals of the BVC.

The BVC likes to quote Robert Bellah, one of the authors of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, two in-depth examinations of societal values that cross and recross the moat between the church and the world they hope to ignite. Bellah's understanding of work as a calling holds that "work constitutes a practical ideal of activity and character that makes a person's work morally inseparable from his or her life." He believes that a calling "has meaning and value in itself, not just in the output or profit that results from it ... (and that) work links people to others and to the larger community in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all."

The BVC now has three experimental models, in New York, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. A recent New York meeting drew 18 executives - not a big number, but the BVC was encouraged. The 18 are change agents. They can make a difference. "It's like launching a new product," Flynn said. "We have no formal membership yet. We're at the test-marketing stage."

The board of directors is itself discovering the discipline of reflecting on its own acts. They are largely top players who have already experienced the discipline of prayerful reflection. They want to have a collegial effect on other executives, used to 99 percent action and one percent reflection, busy people who have rarely taken much time to reflect upon or review their lives. Now, they are learning to fasten their emotional seat belts, put their intellectual seats in an upright position and think about the consequences of their actions.

BVC is using an old Jesuit approach to organizing: recruiting three or four core people. (Two Jesuits, William J. Byron of Georgetown and James L. Connor of Woodstock, remain on their board.) "We don't just invite," Flynn said. "We want to know the people. Leadership from the top is the single most important factor in creating and maintaining an ethical climate in any business. We want to get proven leaders."

The BVC asks questions of its participants but doesn't demand chiseled catechism answers. Instead, it examines the influence of the corporate environment upon an individual's ethical behavior. The range of issues reaches from chemical dependency on the part of workers, to race and gender discrimination, insider trading, industrial espionage, bribe-giving and bribe-taking, embezzlement or other white-collar crimes.

The problems of business often seem to be out of control. The preoccupation with financial success combines with a culture of selfish individualism, ideal for a corrosive atmosphere. Too often, business responds to these problems by hiring lawyers and public-relations people. "As a result," one of their first reports states, "executives are worried more than ever about lawsuits, institutional instability and the corrosion of respect for business as a profession.'

The BVC's ideal could best be described by its urging that a prospective employee's first encounter with a firm be marked not only by an introduction to the technical and procedural policies of the business but also to its ethical style. In such a company, the standards are reinforced by its oral culture and through its informal publications, newsletters, memos and other communications.

The late John Courtney Murray, perhaps the greatest American theologian of this century, used to define his Jesuit vocation as "standing at the boundary of the church and the world, helping each one understand and enrich the other." Perhaps, the young and budding Business Vocation Conference can do the same.
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Title Annotation:Business Vocation Conference
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 12, 1993
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