Jeff Van Duzer explains why businesses should prioritize people and product over profit.
In Part 1 of this series on “investment as witness,” we saw how our investment practices can witness to the Big Story by which Christ-followers are meant to live. Part 2 focused on what we learn from two of Jesus’ parables about how our investing should witness to God’s character. Both posts were directed to individual believers.
In this final post I want to speak more specifically to investment advisors who are Christ-followers. Over the past decade I’ve been teaching on “vocational stewardship” — how we live out our faith through our daily occupations. A big part of this involves allowing the Bible to thoroughly shape our thinking and priorities.
Christian investment advisors can glean wisdom from Scripture about their vocation in at least two basic ways. The first is by identifying and analyzing specific verses or stories that speak directly about investing and financial stewardship. That’s what I tried to do in my second post. The other approach is to consider major biblical themes and ask how they might bear on investment practices.
In keeping with the latter approach, let’s consider how our investments can witness to key themes in the creation story.
All work, including that of financial investors, is a particularized reflection of God’s general command to humans in Genesis 2:15 to “work” and “keep” His creation. Christians call this the Cultural Mandate. God created us to both develop (work) the potential of his creation and to preserve and protect (keep) it. Discerning how to do that within our specific callings so that God is honored and our neighbors are well-served requires intentionality, study, imagination, and much prayer.
“Developing” the creation is a specific type of work that imitates God’s. The Hebrew word describing God’s creative labor (and work that is prohibited for Jews on the Sabbath) is “melachah.” Applied to human labor, it means work that transforms a substance in the world into “a more developed state of being” through intelligent intervention. Our labors are meant to create new wealth, broadly defined. They are to bring new things into existence (bread from wheat, wine from grapes) and to multiply resources (planting single seeds that grow whole trees).
Put into investment language, “melachah” work is about increasing value. An investor uses intelligence to discern what appropriate amounts of capital to invest and when to do so. The goal is transforming a business into a stronger, higher state; that is, enabling it to increase in value. An investor doing “melachah” work wants a business to thrive holistically, growing in the good it can offer its customers, employees, and community (e.g., through increased/improved goods and services that meet human needs, by creating more jobs, and by paying taxes).
Notably, this “melechah” work is focused more on the good that the capital can do for the recipient business than on the return it will bring back to the investor. The world teaches that investment is fundamentally for the investor; i.e., its purpose is to return benefit to the investor. The Christ-centered investor’s focus is different. She knows the money is not hers to begin with, but God’s. And God wants his money used to create more wealth (value) that brings ever more thriving, not only for the investor but for all the neighbors influenced by the recipient business. This is what we might call God’s “creational intention” for investing.
This is not to say that financial return on an investment is unimportant. It matters because the investor wants to be able to repeat her “melachah” work, making more investments that help community-serving businesses grow. If she never earns a positive return, she will soon run out of capital to invest. Making return to the investor the main point of investing, however, is a deformation of what God intends investing to be.
Christian financial advisors help fellow Christian clients by guiding them in making “melechah” investments. This begins by reminding clients of the counter-cultural purpose for investing: not, primarily, to build a nest egg for the investor, but to faithfully deploy God’s money in ways that bring more good into the world. This reminder is necessary because of how frequently and thoroughly our culture vocalizes, in fact, idolizes, the nest-egg conception instead.
Advisors help their clients by performing due diligence on companies seeking investment capital, learning about their business model, practices, and mission. Advisors can ask clients whether there are areas of the world or specific issues they are particularly concerned about. Do they want their investments to help companies that are trying to tackle healthcare challenges or that are involved in providing housing? Are they interested in investing in companies doing business in Africa, seeking ways to contribute to economic development there? Would they be especially excited about supporting minority owned businesses? Advisors then work to assemble a portfolio of potential investments that reflect their clients’ passions and that seek to limit their financial risk.
How should Christian financial advisors think about the second part of the Cultural Mandate, the call to preserve and protect the creation? One obvious implication for Christ-followers is to avoid investing in companies that engage in harmful environmental practices. A less obvious implication concerns the connection between “keeping” the garden and another key theme in the creation account: the Sabbath.
By creating the Sabbath, God embedded the rhythm of rest into the creation. Sabbath-ceasing means ceasing the productive labor of developing the creation. Sabbath implies margins and boundaries. It honors creaturely limits.
God’s law instructed the Israelites to honor the Sabbath by not only resting themselves one day each week, but also by granting rest to their lands. Every seventh year the people were to leave their fields fallow. This allowed at least two amazing things to happen. First, the people’s trust in God was deepened, as they were forced in a very tangible way to rely on him and not their farming to provide for their daily needs. Second, a different, unseen, productivity unfolded: God’s replenishing the soil. While it may have appeared that nothing productive was going on in those uncultivated fields, in fact, by God’s wondrous design the land was actually growing in its capacity for fruitfulness.
Christian financial advisors can find here the root purpose for what has been called “patient capital.” The term refers to investors adopting a long-term perspective, accepting low/no financial returns in the short-term in order to help a business lay a strong foundation for future profitability. Like the hidden chemistry that nurtures fertility in fallow soil, in those first several years of development, a firm is putting in place the systems, resources, and customer and supplier connections that can enable future success. Patient capital eschews the demand for immediate dividends, recognizing that extracting returns too early endangers a firm’s long-term prospects.
The Sabbath principle also sheds further light on the kinds of firms the Christian financial advisor should avoid. The Sabbath is God’s reminder to humans about the limits of creaturely things — that is, humans and the wonders of nature all around us. The Sabbath establishes margins for people, animals, and natural resources. Businesses that insist on total and relentless extraction, demanding every last drop of employee labor or of the land’s capacities violate God’s design.
Some of the ideas advanced in this series likely feel unfamiliar — and perhaps unrealistic — to some Christian investors and financial advisors. We are used to thinking that investing is about making money, that risk is about financial loss, and that witness is simply about verbal evangelism. But just as Jesus challenged some old ways of thinking and behaving, Christ-followers today must interrogate the world’s assumptions about the purpose of investing and how it ought to be done. Our Lord calls us to create new wineskins, adapting our priorities and practices so that they align with the ways of his Kingdom. It’s work that requires rigorous thinking, fresh imagination, and Holy Spirit-empowerment. Thankfully, it’s work that more and more advisors and investors take seriously.
This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), an investment adviser. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.