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Viewing Your Business as Sacred with Hugh Welchel

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Today’s show features Hugh Welchel, Executive Director at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics.

“Why does God not care about what I do from 8 to 6 every day? I really saw myself as a second-class citizen of the kingdom of heaven, thinking the real important jobs were what pastors were doing or missionaries. If you would’ve asked me back in those days, ‘Hugh, what do you do that’s important to God?’ I would’ve said, ‘I teach adult Sunday school, I’m an elder at my church…’ I would have never said, ‘I run a computer company to the glory of God.'”

Ray: Welcome back to another edition of Bottom Line Faith, and for those of you who are familiar with our program, you’ll know that this is where we love to lift the hood on the engine of Christian leadership and tinker around by talking with some of our nation’s greatest Christian leaders in the marketplace. As you know here, we learn how these little leaders think, how they plan, how they fail, what they learn from those failures, the greatest advice they have to pass along. And this is a place where we learn best practices for today’s top marketplace leaders. I am your host, Ray Hilbert. Welcome back if you’re a regular listener. If this is your first time, buckle up, we’re gonna have a great conversation today, and I am particularly excited. Coming to us from our nation’s capital area is, I don’t want to say an old friend, Hugh, but a friend from years past. We have Hugh Welchel, and Hugh is calling into us today from the McLean, Virginia area, where he is the executive director at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. Hugh, welcome to Bottom Line Faith, my friend.

 

Hugh: Thank you, Ray. It’s a privilege to be with you today.

 

Ray: Well, Hugh, we’re going to jump right in because our listeners are going to learn a lot from you today. And so take just a moment. Share with us a little bit about exactly what you do there at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics, what your organization’s all about, and tell us a little bit about your role there as well.

 

Hugh: Okay, Ray. Let me go ahead and start with kind of a little bit of background on me because that’ll kind of give the people a glimpse into why I actually started the Institute. I tell people I grew up in the south, but I actually grew up in South Florida, which is a little different. I was very fortunate that I grew up in a home where my mother and father were deep believers. And I can truly say, I never knew a day that I did not know about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I was raised in the church and was very involved in my church from the time I was little. High school, I did a lot of youth work. I went up to the University of Florida; I was more interested in those days about football than I was about learning. Nevertheless, God used me there. Then, when I graduated, I really believed that you know, if you really wanted to be on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the world, you either needed to be a pastor or a missionary. I knew God wasn’t calling me into the mission field. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll go to seminary and become a pastor. So I went to seminary for a year, and I don’t know who was more excited to see me leave, them or me, because I was not cut out for seminary. And when I left, I went back into the business world and for the next 30 years, worked as a business guy.

Now, the interesting thing, probably, I was down in Orlando, Florida, probably in the mid-‘90s running computer companies. And I really began, again, to have kind of a crisis in my faith, but it was different than most people have, I think. I really began to wonder why does God not care about what I do, you know, from eight to six every day? I really saw myself kind of as a second-class citizen in the kingdom of heaven, thinking that, once again, because I had this mindset that the really important jobs were what pastors are doing, or missionaries or even maybe some non-profit people that were doing quote-unquote ministry. I was one of those guys who would tell people all the time, did you hear about Joe Smith? He quit his job at the bank to go into full-time Christian service. And I didn’t see what I was doing as full-time Christian service. In fact, if you’d asked me back in those days, what do you do that’s important to God, I would have said, “I teach adult Sunday school, I’m an elder at my church, I sit on a couple of Christian non-profit boards.” I would have never said I run a computer company to the glory of God. And really, it was that struggle that I had, and the answers that I found, that really drove me to start the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics almost 20 years later.

 

Ray: That is incredible. So you know, as I listened to that story, Hugh, it’s really not an uncommon one, in terms of this feeling that as we talk with many believers who are in the marketplace and in business where they feel like they’re, you know, somewhat second-class Christian citizens, right? Where the holy ones, the called ones become missionaries, become pastors, and then it’s the rest of us, our role is to make the money to support those who are really called. So that sounds like that was your story. What changed? What, what caused you to have this great awakening that yes, God does care about the marketplace, yes, he does care about our work and how we lead? What happened there?

 

Hugh: Well, I found the answer in a most unusual place; I found it in a seminary, I actually went to my pastor and said, “You know, I’m having this struggle, and you’ll laugh because he said almost exactly what you said.” He said, “Well, Hugh, God’s just given you the ability to make money so that you could bring it to the church, so we can do good stuff with it.” I thought, “Aw, that can’t be right.” And so literally, my office was across the street from the seminary there in Orlando, Florida. And I went over at night, usually after work, and started taking some classes. And probably about the second class I took, I began to reading some stuff by a guy named Francis Schaeffer. He kind of led me to read some more stuff by a guy named Abraham Kuyper.

And they took me back to reading the reformers, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. During the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote, “The work of the milkmaid is just as important to God as the work of the priest.” That was heresy in his day and still heresy in some places today, right? I had never, ever heard anything like that. And the more I read of these great men long ago, in church history, I really began to understand that my work was incredibly important to what God was doing in the world. The church just never told me about it. And so that really started me on this journey down the faith and work path. And, you know, back in those days, there weren’t any ministries like yours, or there weren’t really a lot of faith and work books. I had to kind of figure a lot of this stuff out on my own. But I found that mainly in a seminary taking church history classes.

 

Ray: That’s an amazing story. And so it sounded like, you know, even though it’s taken a long time or a number of years to get there, you had this moment where it just like lightning, right? Eureka. It struck you. And then what happened? Did you then stay in business for a while after that awareness? Or did you then say, “I need to start this institute?” Just give us a little bit of history there.

 

Hugh: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, I moved up; I was still running computer companies, I moved up here to the Washington DC area back in 2000, to run a company up here. I was kind of a turnaround guy in the computer business back then. And it took me about five years to turn that company around; turned that around in 2005. The bad thing about a turnaround guy is that when you lose your job when you turn around the company, you sell it, you lose your job, even though when you when you do well. So it’s an interesting thing to be in the turnaround business. But nevertheless, I was looking for something else to do, and the seminary that I had attended in Orlando had a branch campus in Washington, DC, and it was really struggling. And I met up with a couple of those guys, and they asked me if I would be willing to step in and help them get back on track.

Now to be quite honest with you, academic guys to ask a business guy to help them, had to really be desperate. And they were really desperate because that was really struggling. But God was gracious. And of course, I’m thinking; I’ll do this for six months or so while I find something else to do. But in God’s providence, I ended up doing it for seven years, but during those seven years, I really began to realize that one of the reasons pastors don’t understand the faith and work dilemma that’s out there, this idea that all work matters, is that they’re not taught it in seminars. And seminars really don’t care about the faith dilemma. And really, that was the thing kind of pushed me over the edge. And so I left the seminary, and that’s about six years ago now, at the start of the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics to really produce content that could be used in churches and seminaries and other places to help people rethink this whole idea about their faith in the work – no matter what God has called them to do.

 

Ray: I love that. And it would seem to me, Hugh, that on one hand, you’re on the kind of the leading edge of this, and yet we have seen a movement, have we not, in the last, say, decade or so in this whole area? Has that been your experience as well?

Hugh: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, one of the things that I was kind of involved in the movement even when I was working as seminary, but one of the things I felt like was missing in the broader movement was the piece that economics played. And if you remember the name of our organization, the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. The best way to illustrate what I’m talking about, we talk a lot about the importance of your work and how your work adds to something someone else does, it adds something else to what someone else does. And the total effect of that is to bring flourishing to God’s creation. We would actually say the purpose of our work is to bring glory to God by bringing flourishing to the communities in which your work touches. I feel that’s very important. I was at a conference several years ago as well.

Actually it was in Missoula, Montana, and a guy came up to me afterward – actually, I was preaching at a church after the conference – and he said, “I’ve heard everything you said.” He said, “You need to know, I’m 55 years old, I came to Christ about 10 years ago, and I wash dishes for a living.” He said, “I’d always thought that after I became a Christian, about the only thing good I could do at work is occasionally share my faith with someone.” But he said, “I work back in the back, where it’s hot and sticky; no one ever comes back there.” Then he said, “But if what you’re saying is true, if I watch every dish that I have the opportunity to wash, every counter I clean, if I do that to the glory of God, in ways that I don’t completely understand, he’ll bring other people alongside what I do, and the combination of our work will bring flourishing to my community?” And tears are rolling down his face when he says this. I said, “That’s exactly right.” Then he turned to me and said, “That makes all the difference.” So that’s the kind of thing that we’re trying to bring to the faith.

 

Ray: And I love that. And as I’m listening to you share that example and that story, you know, I guess if I were Satan, one of the strategies I would use to defeat the church is I would cause like, 99% of those Christ-followers to feel like their lives don’t count. And what they do with the majority of their waking hours has no impact on anything. And so, you know, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but what I’m hearing you say, at least in my mind, is if followers of Christ can really begin to understand that there’s a greater purpose, even in washing dishes, and being an accountant and a police officer, that literally, this is going to manifest the kingdom, right? This is going to make a huge difference.

 

Hugh: Well, here’s the most amazing part of the whole story. You’re exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying. But the reality is for a thousand years plus, this is what the church has done. You look back through the history, particularly in the church, look at Western civilization, I can make an argument that almost everything that was done that was good, that really promoted the well being of society, whether it was hospitals, universities, education, abolishing slavery, just go on and on and on – great art, great news, great inventions were done by believers who understood the call on their life from God was to use the gifts and the talents that God had given them within the vocational calling that he gives them to bring flourishing to their communities. We have lost that idea in the church, and if we’re going to have any impact on this culture around us, we’ve got to get that back.

 

Ray: That is a really, really powerful thing to consider that you’re bringing to our attention, Hugh. And Hugh, before we go any further, would you just share with our audience if they’re intrigued by what they’re hearing from you, how can they learn more about you and the Institute?

 

Hugh: Yeah, you can go to our website. We’ve got all sorts of things there. We do a blog five days a week that we send out like six o’clock in the morning to encourage you to think about things – it’s only like 500-600 words long – to encourage about thinking about what you can possibly add to your work that day. We’ve got articles; we’ve got books you can download. our website is www.tifwe.org, or if you just Google “faith, work, and economics,” our website will usually come up.

 

Ray: Thank you very much. That’s great. We’ll cover that one more time before at the end of our time together. So, Hugh, what I’d like to do, this has been great so far. You’ve shared with us a little bit about some of those things that you learned early on, what kind of inspired you to birth the Institute here and so forth. So you deal a lot with Christian business leaders, right? This is really your world on a daily basis. So our audience is comprised of, you know, business owners, presidents, CEOs, managers, really the full gamut. But what we really love to do here at Bottom Line Faith is to do just that; it’s to give our listeners practical bottom line counsel and advice and best practices of how they can live out their faith. So let’s, let’s transition a little bit here. As you talk and work with Christian leaders in the marketplace, what’s some of the advice that you try to share with them, to help them also understand this great realization that what they can do is really help mankind flourish and to bring about the kingdom? What’s some advice and counsel you like to pass along?

 

Hugh: I say, one of the first things I do when I’m talking to a group or talking to someone one-on-one is I also do this. I’ll say, “Take a piece of paper and a pencil, and I want you to think about what you did yesterday, I want you to write down what percentage of it was secular and what percent of what you did yesterday was spiritual.” And then typically, if I’m in a group, I’ll go and ask four or five people, or if I’m with an individual, I’ll ask them and they’ll tell me, you know, 50-50 or 25-50 or I was at a school one time, and a girl said, “Well, I did my Bible study in my dorm yesterday, so I gave myself 75% spiritual yesterday, 25% secular.” And then I’ll read to them out of the book of Corinthians, where Paul tells the Corinthians, “Whatever you eat, or drink, whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God.” And I say, “Now, how do you justify what you just wrote down, that some of the stuff you do is for the glory of God and some of it doesn’t really matter with that text?”

And they can’t. As a matter of fact, one of the things I show people, oftentimes if you go to the Hebrew language in the Old Testament, there’s not a word for spiritual there. Is it because they just weren’t spiritual people? Of course not. It’s because they had no need to separate spiritual from secular. To them, everything was spiritual. And if that’s the starting place for us as Christians, particularly as business people, to understand that everything we do from the day, from the moment we get up to the moment we go to bed, is spiritual, and we have to see it that way. I believe that this spiritual-secular divide that we’ve falsely created, this dichotomy that we’ve falsely put in place is probably the besetting sin of the church in the 21st century. Because what happens is we think, well, that’s secular. And that’s not necessarily means that bad; it just means that God doesn’t care about it. So then what we do is we embrace a whole different set of norms when we begin to think about “how do I live in that non-spiritual world that God doesn’t care about?” And we’ve got to get that thinking out of our minds completely. So that’s, that’s probably if I can say one thing to business person, that’s where I always start.

 

Ray: I love it. That’s really powerful. And so in, in this passing along, this training, this equipping, and we’re not about throwing stones or, you know, throwing dirt here, you know. I once heard every time you throw dirt, you lose ground. So we’re not here to be negative. But who do you find it more challenging to communicate this message to? church leaders who are maybe entrenched in a certain mindset or worldview, or marketplace leaders? Who do you think has a harder time grasping this truth that you’re sharing with us?

 

Hugh: You know, it differs from time to time. But as a group, it’s pretty much church leaders, because they haven’t been taught to think this way at seminary. And unfortunately, it’s fascinating, because when I ran the seminary, after about two weeks, I went to my wife. I said, “You know, there’s something really different here than any other job I’ve ever done, and I can’t figure out what it is.” And finally, it dawned on me; it’s that in my old job, I worked with non-Christians all the time. In fact, the majority of people I worked with are non-Christians. And this new job, I never, ever even talked to someone who wasn’t a Christian, I kind of enter the Christian bubble. And I think one of the problems with the church, we’ve got this kind of Christian bubble, and we don’t think about how we interact with the outside world on an ongoing basis. I think that adds to some of the confusion around this idea about faith and work, and particularly the secular-spiritual divide. It’s interesting; I’ve asked pastors, you know, the same question about, you know, write down what percent.

And guess what their answer always is? It’s 100% spiritual. But then if you ask them, “Well, how about a business owner in your congregation?” “Oh, he’s probably 25% spiritual and 75% secular. So they still have this spiritual-secular separation, it’s just they don’t see it in their job; they see it in other people’s jobs. And I think that’s the piece we really have to get back to is get everybody on the same page and say, “Okay, we’re gonna start with the place of understanding that Scripture teaches us there is nothing that’s secular.

 

Ray: Great stuff. As you started this organization, what’s been the biggest mistake or thing that you would look back? I’m not a fan of saying “live in regrets,” because God uses everything for His glory if we’ll allow it. But as you look back, as you’ve started this organization, and as you’ve been building it and taking it truly national, what would you do different or what mistake would you want to go back and correct? And this is a great teaching moment for our audience.

Hugh: I think the biggest mistake we had early on was not really having a big enough vision. Our vision was too small, interestingly enough, I had a guy tell me probably at the end of the first year, he said, if your vision is so small that you can do it in a lifetime, it’s too small; it needs to be bigger. And so we’ve actually expanded our vision, and we want to take this message of faith, work, and economics, not just to the people in the United States, but to people all over the world. And once we start praying about that, God has opened tremendous doors. Our economist – we have a Ph.D. economist, Anne Bradley, that works for us. She just got back from a big conference in Brazil. I was invited just last month to go and do a 5,000 person conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Our theologian, Art Lindsley, just got back from Geneva, Switzerland, and spoke to church pastors and leaders from all over the world. Once we really said, “God, we don’t want to restrict what you want to do,” things have just taken off like crazy. So you never restrict what’s thank God might want to do with you, or your situation, or your business, or your company, because he has plans that go way past anything you possibly can imagine.

 

Ray: We see that a lot, right? You know, we got limited vision and limited eyes, you know. It says in Zachariah 4, “Do not despise the day of humble beginnings.” And so you had this vision. And now look, just a short number of years later, God literally is using your organization on a global basis. And that’s, that’s good. I’m going to repeat that. Just I wrote that down. You said that if your vision is so small that you can do it in a lifetime, it’s probably too small a vision. Thank you.

 

Hugh: That’s right.

 

Ray: And that is a great, great word. What do you think is the best business or leadership advice that you can recall being given? Who gave it to you and what was it?

 

Hugh: Actually, the best advice I’ve gotten, it really came out of a book, and the guy who wrote the book has become a friend of mine and his name is Os Guinness, he wrote about 20 years ago; he wrote a book called The Call. And he said in that book, our primary calling is to become disciples of Christ. And that’s for all of us; that’s our primary calling. Then he goes on and says that each of us can have four secondary callings, and the secondary callings, this is where the rubber meets the road. This is what we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. But those secondary callings are our call to the family, our call to the church, our call to community, and our call to vocation. And he goes on to explain that through a life, all the work you do, paid and unpaid, really is going to take place in those four arenas and that we need to see our life as integrated and we’re doing all those things to bring glory to Christ. We’re doing all those things to bring flourishing to the people we touch in those four communities, and that it’s okay as we go through seasons of our life, for the amount of time we spend in those different areas to expand and contract. In fact, that’s natural, and we shouldn’t be upset about that. We always have to remember; we’re always called to do work in all four of those areas. That’s what a unified, that’s what a wholehearted life looks like as a Christian disciple.

 

Ray: It’s the full gospel, right? It is the full gospel.

 

Hugh: Absolutely, absolutely.

 

Ray: I love it. I love it. Well, Hugh, gosh, we’re getting near the end. I only have time for just a couple more questions. And I don’t know about for you, but the time has flown by for me, and I’m sure it has for our listeners as well. Maybe we can have you back at some point, but what I want to real quickly ask you is where do you see this whole movement going? And I know that’s a big question. But this whole issue around faith, work, and economics and the integration, it’s come a long way in the last decade. Where do you see it going from here?

 

Hugh: Well I’ll tell you, Ray, I think I’ve got a big answer for you. I believe God is laying foundations for another reformation. This October will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, which actually was a catalyst that started the Reformation. But even if you go look at the history behind that, you’ll see that even before that event, maybe 100 years before that, then God was laying the foundation, things were taking place, things like the invention of the printing press, things like translations of the Gospels, into German, into English, into a common language, I believe the same thing is happening now. I believe God is using the faith and work movement to lay a foundation for great revival that he’s gonna bring to his church: a new reformation. And I pray that we all live long enough to see that happen.

 

Ray: That’s no small vision that God’s given. And I frankly, I wholeheartedly agree. I recently read a quote from Billy Graham himself, that he believed that the next great awakening was going to occur in the marketplace, and so I tell folks, “Hey, you may not believe me, but I think you might want to listen to Billy Graham.”

 

Hugh: I think you’re right.

 

Ray: Oh, fantastic. Well, Hugh, we are down to our very last question. As I talked with you before we went on the air, this is what I like to call my 4:23 question. So folks, if you’re a regular listener, you know what we’re about to ask, and you know the importance of this question. But if you’re a first-time listener here at Bottom Line Faith, we call this our 4:23 question because it’s based out of Proverbs 4:23, where Solomon, who the Bible calls the wisest man who ever lived, he said this. He said that “Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” And so folks, there are some biblical scholars who believe that these may have been among Solomon’s last words. And so in your mind’s eye, if you could imagine, he’s gathered his family, his friends, his loved ones around, and he’s having a conversation, and he’s saying, “Hey, I’m giving you all this wisdom; I’ve given you all these incredible principles to live by. Now, I’m going to tell you the most important thing: above all else, guard your heart.” So Hugh, let’s just pretend that we know the day and the hour that the Lord is going to call you home, and you’re at the end of your time this side of eternity, but you have a chance to gather together your family, your friends, and your loved ones, finished the sentence: above all else…

 

Hugh: God has called you to do two things. The first thing he’s called you to do is fill the earth with God’s redeemed images. The second thing he’s called you to do is to subdue the earth to make the earth a place for God’s people and all of his creation to flourish. Everything you do in every minute of your life from here on, make sure it aligns with those two things.

 

Ray: That is powerful, powerful advice.

 

Hugh: And that’s out of Genesis 1:28

 

Ray: Straight out of Genesis 1:28. “Fill the earth,” right?

 

Hugh: With God’s redeemed images. That’s right. He had to change it a little bit from what it was. He told Adam and Eve to fill it with the images; we’re called to fill it with redeemed images.

 

Ray: I love it. I love it. Well, folks, wow. I promised you at the front of the show that we would be on a wild ride today. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but folks, you probably now understand that you have been learning from and hearing from one of the thought leaders, one of the leading edge experts, if you will, in this whole space of faith and work. And of course, as he has shared with us, economics, and the integration thereof. We have been talking with Hugh Welchel, the executive director at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. Hugh, one more time, tell our audience here, how can they learn more about you and the Institute? Where can we find out about you?

 

Hugh: Yes, just go to our website www.tifwe.org.

 

Ray: That’s awesome. Folks, I hope you’ll check them out at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. Hugh, thank you so much, my friend. What a great time this has been today. You’ve been a blessing to me, friend.

 

Hugh: It’s been a joy. Thank you for having me.

 

Ray: Hopefully you’ll come back because I’m sure you’re gonna be hearing a whole lot more and teaching a whole lot more in the coming months and years. Will you come back again on Bottom Line Faith?

 

Hugh: Absolutely.

 

Ray: And we’ve got that on recording, so now it’s a promise you’ve made for all of eternity. Well, folks, I am your host, Ray Hilbert, here at Bottom Line Faith and if this is new to you, please check us out at bottomlinefaith.org. And if you are a Christ-follower and you are a business owner, you’re running an organization or a company, and you’d like to learn more about what that looks like in a form on a regular basis to be involved with other Christ-followers in a peer group, check out truthatwork.org. We are the sponsoring ministry here at Bottom Line Faith. Until next time, this is Ray Hilbert saying so long, God bless, and we’ll see you soon.
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