Max De Pree and the Art of Leadership

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say thank you.  In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.  That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” (Max De Pree: Leadership Is an Art, Page 11)


As many readers probably know, Max  De Pree is the author of several highly regarded leadership books including Leadership Jazz: The Essential Elements of a Great Leader and Leadership Is an Art, and was the Chairman of Herman Miller, Inc., during an especially creative period for the company.  He is also the inspiration and namesake for Fuller Theological Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, from which I retired as a member of the advisory board a few months ago.   I have recently been reflecting on De Pree’s  approach to leadership, and believe that there is much we can learn from him.

The Key to Leadership

For several years I knew that De Pree stood for a leadership style and philosophy that was very relational and concerned with employees’ well being; Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership comes to mind.

It was not, however, until I saw a presentation by Walter Wright of the De Pree Center that I grasped the power of De Pree’s approach.  As represented by the above quote, I believe it can be summarized as follows:

1) The leader defines reality, or the goals, values, parameters, and situation of the organization.  In other words, the leader frames reality in a way that enables the members of the organization to work creatively and productively, putting their skills, talents, and wisdom to work in pursuit of the organization’s purpose.

2) The leader supports and empowers members of the organization as they work toward organizational goals.

3) The leader thanks them, acknowledging the value of their contribution and the fact that anything accomplished by the organization was the result of their work.

The key point, it seems to me, is to allow people to bring their full talent to their work and to thereby enjoy the status of co-creator.  People have a deep drive to create and to work with competence, effectiveness, and agency.  This drive, I believe, is closely tied to our identity as humans and to whatever fulfillment we are able to derive from our work.

Leadership Insights

At a church retreat several years ago, we watched a video of De Pree as he interacted on the shop floor with some of his employees.  It was obvious that he was encouraging people to bring their ideas and expertise into the discussion and to act on their own initiative.

Afterwards we broke into small groups for discussion.  I asked my group (mostly small business owners) to picture a conventional C.E.O. who talks about maximizing shareholder value and to compare this image with De Pree as portrayed in the video.  I then asked two questions:

1) For whom would you prefer to work?  The response was immediate and unanimous: Max De Pree.

2) Who do you think would be most likely to maximize shareholder value?  Again, unanimous (and enthusiastic): Max De Pree.

The reaction to the question about shareholder value was particularly interesting.  I think it acknowledges what many of us know intuitively — that people are more likely to be productive and engaged if they have a chance to apply more of their talents and insights to their work and to participate in creating and producing valued products and services.  Not all employees will respond positively to this opportunity, of course, but many will — and the ones who do so will drive the organization, its culture, and its production of value.

I recommend Leadership Is an Art and Leadership Jazz.

(For more information, Max De Pree’s books can be found here; the Max De Pree Center for Leadership can be found here.  The Center has recently appointed a new Executive Director, theologian and Biblical scholar Mark D. Roberts; his new series of  daily reflections can be found here.)



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Do We Really Want to Integrate Our Faith and Our Work?


Underlying much of the “faith and work” movement and many of the books on the subject is the assumption that religious people want to connect their faith and their work.  In a recent presentation to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Rice University sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan questioned this assumption and made some very interesting observations based on his research.

Vaidyanathan studied professionals who work for multinationals in Dubai and Bangalore and who profess a faith (many were Christians from the Phillipines and India, but I think his observations have applicability in the West as well).  His interviews were designed to resolve the issue: why do people leave their faith at the door of their work?

During his presentation, he raised the provocative issue that perhaps people usually see faith and work as two competing spheres with separate devotions and would actually prefer to keep them separate.

I think he is on to something important, but I think the problem is not so much that there is a necessary conflict between faith and work, but rather how we understand (or misunderstand) the nature of one or the other or perhaps both.

How We See Our Work and Our Faith Matters

If we see our work in business primarily as a way to make money, to survive economically, or to achieve or maintain social status, then we might not want to encumber it with our faith.  Or if we see our work as a zero sum game where we benefit only if someone else is diminished, then we are less likely to see the value of faith-based values for building community and productive collaborative relationships.

Likewise, if we see our faith as primarily about endorsing the right beliefs about God, an afterlife, or salvation, or about joining the right religious tribe, then it is not likely to have much constructive application to our work.

On the other hand, if we see our work as our calling and business as a way to help build a better future, then we will probably be more open to the possibility that our faith and our spirituality can legitimately inform and support our work, and to the idea that it can help us build healthy community and productive relationships in pursuit of mutual objectives.

The two keys, it seems to me, are to have an appreciation for our work as a value creating process for ourselves and others, and to view our faith and spirituality as something that is not limited to the religious realm but can inform and support our entire lives, including our work lives.  If we can do these and, of course, behave accordingly, we will be more likely to see how our work and our faith can be connected and mutually supporting.


Note: For those interested in more on this topic, Vaidyanathan is working on a book detailing his research and observations.  Watch for it — it is bound to be good.

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Conflicting Grammars of Life

Different spheres of life have different grammars.  By this I mean that not only do we use different words in different spheres, but that the logical rules and structural relationships between the words can be quite different as well. This can create a problem when we are trying to connect our faith and our work — two domains with two different sets of grammar.  This is especially true when the differences are unconscious.

Compare the grammar of business with that of the “typical” church.  There is overlap; for example, altruistic concerns for others can be found in both, as can a desire for integrity.  But there are also differences.  A typical church grammar will highlight the relationships of concepts such as sin, forgiveness, and charity (roughly defined as giving things to the less fortunate), or perhaps institutional values such as spreading beliefs and expanding the church.  A business grammar might reflect more concern with producing value in the form of products and services, the exchange of goods with others (as opposed to giving them away), and serving customers.

When confronted with the problem of hungry people church grammar highlights donations, business logic looks for ways to produce more food.  Both are necessary, but both are quite different.  I think this is one reason why a business person or entrepreneur can spend decades building a business, producing goods and services, and creating jobs, but receive less affirmation from the church than when he or she spends ten days in Africa painting a mission classroom.

The Problem of Applying Church Grammar to Business

It makes sense to use different language and grammars in different spheres.  The problem comes about when we use exclusively church grammar to discuss our spiritual lives.  If we can only understand prayer, our sense of call or mission, and spirituality in general in terms of church grammar, then it can become very difficult to connect or faith or spirituality with our work.  Our work to create new products and services, to build healthy job creating enterprises, and to weather the storms of the marketplace, can seem to be outside the purview of God and disconnected from the resources of our faith.  How can we pray about our work if our work is outside the realm of spirituality?

Under these circumstances both our work and our faith are likely to be diminished.

The transcendent, all pervasive, fully immanent God is not confined to one sphere of life, even if that sphere is ostensibly religious.  Our spirituality should not be confined either.

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Chaplains in the Workplace

Workplace Chaplains PhotoWorkplace chaplaincy services are receiving increased attention and appear to be a growing phenomena.  An article by Cheryl Hall in the Dallas Morning News (November 25, 2014) reports on the firm Marketplace Ministries, Inc., and its founder Gil Stricklin.

Hall reports that Marketplace Ministries hires chaplains and provides services to businesses and other organizations for a fee; last year the company had 2,755 chaplains on assignment.  The chaplains provide a variety of services, all at the option and initiation of the employee.  These can include counseling, providing a sympathetic ear, and helping the employee find resources for dealing with personal and family problems.  Spirituality can be involved — but only at the invitation of the employee.

Advantages of Workplace Chaplains

One of the apparent advantages of having a workplace chaplain is that an employee with a problem can feel more confident that the problem will not effect their employment since they will not be disclosing it to a company employed human resources person who might also be involved with personnel evaluations and employment decisions.

Another advantage is that some problems are seen by some employees as having a spiritual or religious component.  Dealing with a chaplain allows the employee to consider this aspect with the chaplain, if they chose to do so.

The Church and the Workplace

Workplace chaplaincy sounds like a valuable service but most of us do not have access to a workplace chaplain.  I wonder if the church could provide more of this type of service.

Perhaps pastors could devote more time to visitations in the workplace, and maybe even become familiar with more of the employees in firms owned or managed by members of the congregation.  They could also make it a point to encourage the discussion of workplace issues in church settings.  My guess is that these sorts of interactions would benefit both the lay person who receives the support and the pastor who would see a different side of the member.  Both would develop a better sense of how faith and work might connect.

A problem, of course, is that pastors have very limited time available for new areas of ministry, especially in churches that already  require pastors to spend considerable time managing programs.  The burden for workplace ministry might therefore fall on lay ministers in many churches.  Lay counselors, workplace oriented small groups, and the exchanging of workplace visitations all come to mind and might be useful.

A key place to start, it seems to me, is for the church and its leaders to recognize the workplace as a key area of ministry, to adopt an appreciative attitude toward the work lives and businesses of the members, and to encourage lay ministry in this area.  Members of the congregation need to know that they can bring workplace problems to the church for discussion and support.




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Holy Week Audio Meditations

I am writing this post on the Monday of Holy Week.  While the post does not relate specifically to workplace faith and spirituality, you might nevertheless be interested in a series of daily Holy Week recorded meditations that a group of us have put together.

The drama of Holy Week was not just a struggle between the Jesus and the political and religious authorities of the day, but also a conflict between two very different ways to approach God. The conflict continues today, representing as it does two different religious tendencies that cut across sectarian and cultural lines.

The conflict intensified during the week until it resulted in Jesus’ death.  It is worth meditating on this conflict and what it might mean for us as we go through the week and prepare for Easter.  I recommend taking a break from work for a few minutes each day, and listening to these recorded meditations as a starting point for your own meditations.


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De Pree Center Event: Faith, Leadership, and the Global Marketplace

Recommended: The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary will host a lecture by Lord Brian Griffiths, Vice Chair of Goldman Sachs International, on the relationship between the Christian faith and the global marketplace, on April 10 (7p.m.) in Pasadena , CA.  It will be followed by a panel discussion.  More information is available at

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Nancy Ammerman on Religion in Everyday Life

In her “Paul Henley Furfey” lecture at the annual Association for the Sociology of Religion meeting, Nancy Ammerman offered ideas about how sociologists might find religion in daily life, including the workplace.

Defining “Lived Religion”

Ammerman’s subject is “lived religion”, which she calls the “embodied and enacted forms of spirituality that occur in everyday life”, including the workplace.  Beliefs and religious membership are included in lived religion, but the term goes well beyond these to include everyday practice.  It can also apply to the workplace.

Lived religion can be found within a full range of predominantly secular domains, intermingled with the ordinary:

Just as our research project found that most of life is pretty ordinary, we also found that no social domain is always and utterly devoid of spiritual meaning.

Religion and spirituality helped individuals find meaning throughout their daily lives:

Looked at from one angle, what we found in stories of everyday life was that individuals were cultivating a religious consciousness and weaving a layer of spirituality into the fabric of their individual lives, a warp and woof that extend far beyond the institutional domain designated as “religious”.

Religion and the Workplace: A Social Process

This intermingling of the sacred and the profane frequently occurs during conversation; conversations in the workplace can sometimes be imbued with religious or spiritual significance.

This is especially likely for people who are already religiously committed; individuals are more likely to engage in spiritually significant workplace conversations if their religion has a high degree of salience, if they engage in spiritual practices, and if they attend a church or other religious entity.

These conversations are most likely to take place, and have a higher degree of religious significance, among people who believe they have a similar religious perspective:

People who perceive each other  as spiritually similar were more likely to report having conversations about religious and spiritual topics, and people who have such conversations were more likely to see religious and spiritual dimensions in their working lives.  That is, people find each other, they talk, and out of that conversation religious realities are created.

Churches’ Role In Daily Spirituality

Churches and other religious institutions can play an important role.  According to Ammerman, they can help us develop a language for our spirituality (including, in my view, our spiritual intuitions and experiences), bring the sacred forward in our consciousness, and start conversation threads that can carry over into our daily lives:

. . .the more deeply embedded people are in these organized sites of spiritually infused conversation, the more likely they are to carry strands of that conversation with them.  It is not that they have learned a set of doctrines or subscribed to a set of behavioral prescriptions.  It is that they have learned to “speak religion” as one of their dialects.

If people do not have a place where they can regularly engage in spiritual discourse and can learn a spiritual language, they are less likely to bring these into their understanding of their work lives.

Workplace Implications

It seems evident that Ammerman’s lecture and work have significant implications for the workplace.

One implication is that in the workplace, and elsewhere, the right conversations can help us connect our work with our faith, helping us find more meaning in both.  Our individual insights and perspectives are important; engaging in conversations gives us more opportunity to develop and apply them, potentially enriching the integration of our work and our faith.

Another implication concerns how broadly we define our shared perspective.  If  we limit our willingness to share perspectives to those who use the particular language and doctrines of our particular church, then there will probably be relatively few people with whom we can have spirituality-tinged conversation in the workplace.  On the other hand, if we acknowledge that we all stand before the great mystery of God and of our existence, and if we are open to differing attempts to deal with this mystery, we will likely find that we can expand the range of people with whom we can engage.

Religious institutions  are obviously important, for the reasons Ammerman sites.  In  my view, churches could play a more valuable role if they could learn to express more appreciation for people’s work lives.  They could also use language and stories that help people see sacred connections in their work and their workplace relationships.   This would make it easier and more natural for people to extend the conversation threads and theological perspective into the workplace.

(Nancy Ammerman’s lecture material was based on her “Spiritual Narratives in Everday Life” project, which recorded and analyzed interviews with several hundred people and was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  The lecture itself was published in the Summer, 2014, issue of The Sociology of Religion, published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately it is behind a paywall, but her most recent book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life also includes material from the project.)


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Work Engagement and The Value of Workplace Spirituality

Work engagement — the degree to which we are engaged in our work — is an important issue. The level of engagement of employees and volunteers is critically important for the health of organizations. And from the perspective of the individual doing the work, whether employed or self employed, it would be difficult to find satisfaction and fulfillment in work with which we are not fully engaged.

One would think that seeing spiritual significance in our work would encourage us to be more fully engaged, but there has been relatively little actual research on this.  There has been some, however.

Spiritual Strivings and Sanctification

Psychologist Robert Emmons found in his study of personal strivings that strivings imbued with spiritual significance appear frequently in interviews and are considered especially important by those who mention them:

“Although the motivational triad of achievement, affiliation-intimacy, and power are well represented in strivings, they fail to capture what for many people are their most valued goals and concerns.  In particular, strivings pertaining to the transcendent realm of experience, most notably those making reference to God or some conception of the Divine, appeared with some degree of regularity in striving lists.”

Researchers in the psychology of religion sometimes refer to the “sanctification” of an activity or aspect of life (including strivings), meaning that the person sees it as spiritually significant.  Annette Mahoney and Kenneth Pargament of Bowling Green University found that “people are likely to invest more of themselves in the pursuit and care of those things that are sanctified than in the search for other ends.”  They are also more likely to find satisfaction and a sense of well-being from activities that they consider to be sanctified or have a spiritual connection.

Sanctification of Work?

Some people have been able to see the spiritual significance of their work, whether they speak of it as sanctified or use other terminology.  Does this lead to greater engagement?  Some research (with admittedly narrow samples) suggests the answer is yes.

Most recently (2014), a team of psychological researchers (Stephen Carroll, Joseph Stewart-Sicking, and Barbara Thompson) conducted a large scale study (n=827) among Catholic school employees to determine if there is a positive link between viewing work as sanctified and having positive work attitudes.  The results suggest that there is; people who were on the high end of the Sanctification of Work Scale, which means that they were inclined to see spiritual or religious value in their work, were also more likely to have higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment with lower turnover intention.  This seems to speak to engagement. 

Similar results were found by earlier research (2008) conducted by Alan Walker, Megan Jones, Karl Wuensch, Aziz Shahnaz, and John Cope  with a smaller sample (n=103 ), using a network of volunteers (all full time employees in a variety of industries).  This study found that respondents “who sanctify their jobs are more satisfied, more committed to their organization, and at the same time less likely to leave.”

Practical Implications

The authors of both workplace studies point out that more research needs to be done with broader samples to validate the conclusions. This is true, but as a practical matter there is already good reason to expect that recognizing spiritual significance in our work is likely to increase engagement, effectiveness, and satisfaction.  This has several important implications:

1. Individuals who are able to see their work as a calling, or to at least to find spiritual significance in it, are more likely to find a deeper sense of fulfillment in their work. (Related C.F.E. page)

2. There are benefits for organizations that allow employees the freedom to bring their faith and spirituality to work; employees are more likely to be committed and engaged, and to experience greater satisfaction in their work.  This does not mean, of course, that organizations should allow unwanted proselytizing or favoritism.

3. Churches and other religious entities could play a valuable role by helping their members think about their work and how it might connect with their faith and spirituality.  Church leaders could begin by acknowledging the value and importance of the daily work of the laity. (Related post)

There are possible downsides, especially if we assign to work or career a misplaced ultimacy or become too rigid in our expectations; to find spiritual meaning in our work is much different than saying that our work or its results is our ultimate value or purpose, or that God has ordained success.

That said, most of us would do well to expand our faith and our sense of spirituality to include our work, and at the same time to deepen our understanding of our work so that we can see its spiritual connections.

For related information, see the Center for Faith and Enterprise Work as a Calling page.


Carroll, Stephen Thomas, Stewart-Sicking, Joseph A., and Thompson, Barbara, “Sanctification of Work: Assessing the Role of Spirituality in Employment Attitudes” in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17(6), July 2014, pp 545-556. (abstract)

Emmons, Robert A., The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns: Motivation and Spirituality in Personality, The Guilford Press, New York (quote from p. 89).

Pargament, Kenneth I., and Mahoney, Annette, “Sacred Matters: Sanctification as a Vital Matter for the Psychology of Religion” in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 15(3) 2005, pp. 179-198. (working paper)

Walker, Alan G., Jones, Shahnaz, and Cope, John G., “Sanctifying Work: Effects on Satisfaction, Commitment, and Intent to Leave”, in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 18:2008, pp.132-145. (abstract)

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Find Your Calling — Music and Acorns

MusicianFind Your Music

A few months ago I attended a retreat that focused on Celtic spirituality.  At one point, the retreat leader used a very appealing metaphor – find your own music.  He told a story of Irish musicians who, before playing, would quietly listen inwardly “to hear the music.”  He challenged us to listen for our own music, and then to play it through our lives.  I took this as a metaphor for a calling.

We think of a calling as something we are called to do, as a life mission of sorts.  Sometimes we hear people express it as something that comes from beyond ourselves, as in “I was called by God to do . . .” But people also talk of it as something that comes from from deep within us, like our own music for which we need to listen.

The Acorn Principle

AcornJames Hillman, the long time director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, used a different metaphor for a similar idea.  He spoke of the acorn principle, which is the idea that each of us is born with something inside us that we are meant to become, like an acorn that becomes a particular oak tree.  As Hillman put it in The Soul’s Code (Kindle location 143):

…each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.

Perhaps we should think of a calling not only as something we are meant to do, but also as something we are meant to become.  Action and becoming are intertwined in a sense of call.

Another advantage of Hillman’s acorn is that it reminds us to be patient.  Oak trees take a long time to develop and grow.  The same is usually true of callings.  Most people develop a sense of calling not suddenly, as a flash of insight, but over a considerable period of time, with the trial and error of experience combined with much prayer and reflection.

Metaphorical Implications

These are two different metaphors with slightly different implications, but they both speak to the idea of discovering a sense of calling (or finding the deeper meaning of a life) as being mediated through something deep within us.  I believe both metaphors reflect the way most people experience their sense of calling.  And they both have the additional advantage of leaving the door open for diverse theological explanations.

(More information about your work as a calling is available here)


Hillman, James. (1996). The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York, NY: Random House (available here).


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Coping With Stress: When Religion Helps or Hurts

Coping with StressTo prepare for our recent Spirituality for Busy People class, I reread some of psychotherapist and scholar Kenneth Pargament’s classic book The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. One of his key observations is that while religion can provide relief during times of stress, the actual form of religious coping matters a great deal.  According to Pargament:

The seemingly straight forward question, ‘Does religion work,’ could not be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  Instead, the answer depends on the kind of religion one is talking about, who is doing the religious coping, and the situation the person is coping with.  Depending on the interplay among these variables, religion can be helpful, harmful, or irrelevant to the coping process. (p.312)

Religious Forms of Coping

Religious based coping can take many forms.  These can include various forms of prayer, congregational or pastoral support, reframing the threat using religious attributions, the performance of rituals, meditation, and others.

Pargament suggests three distinct approaches, or categories, relative to the individual’s role in the coping process, as quoted from page 180:

  1. The self-directing approach, wherein people rely on themselves in coping rather than on God;
  2. The deferring approach, in which responsibility for coping is passively deferred to God; and
  3. The collaborative approach, in which the individual and God are both active partners in coping.

In research conducted by Pargament and his students, the self-directing approach tended to be associated with lower scores on most measures of religiousness (though these people were nevertheless religious), greater likelihood of a “quest” approach to religion, and greater problem solving confidence.  People adopting a deferring approach tended to be more dependent on external religious authority (including doctrine) and have a lower sense of personal control.  People adopting the collaborative style had a higher frequency of prayer, a higher level of religious salience, and a “more committed, relational” form of religion (pp 181f).

Positive and Negative Effects of Religious Coping

The potentially positive benefits of religious coping are quite diverse.  They can include social support from members of the congregation and from pastors; the ability to understand negative events using religious attributions that help the person find and maintain significance and hope in the midst of stress; a sense of connection to a deeper, longer reality that can help put the current crisis into a more realistic perspective; and the psychological benefits of practices like prayer and meditation that help calm and refocus the individual.

Religious coping can also have negative effects, especially if support is not forthcoming from the congregation, the crisis leads to spiritual conflict, or the person feels like they are being punished by an angry God.

Pargament notes that the factors surrounding religious coping are complex and diverse and that much research needs to be done to clarify the distinctions between helpful and harmful forms of religious coping. Nevertheless, it seems clear (in my opinion, at least) that there are at least two points in particular we can take from Pargament’s work in this regard:

  1. Our image of God is critically important.  When God is understood as benevolent, religious coping methods are more likely to be helpful in terms of both reducing stress and constructively engaging the problem.  When we see God as primarily either judgmental or aloof, the effect is more likely to be negative (p. 284ff).
  2. If the nature of the stressor calls for some level of problem solving, constructively engaging the issue is more likely (depending on the people and the circumstances) to result in a positive outcome and overall lower distress; coping methods that consist of avoidance and passivity are more likely to have negative results on both counts.  There are, of course, exceptions — especially circumstances in which we are faced with a threat about which we can do nothing  (such as waiting for medical test results or the actions of others).

Pargament has much more to say; I recommend the book (Kenneth I. Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, and Coping, The Guilford Press (New York: 1997).

There is also more information available on the Center for Faith and Enterprise stress page.

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