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How to develop a Christian mind in business school

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School of Business“Why are you going to business school?” my friend asked, with some concern, “It seems like such a waste of your time. Why not study history or philosophy or the Great Books or something you’d enjoy.”

It was a good question. I was committing myself to spending two years going to school full-time (while working full-time) to get a degree in a subject—business administration—in which I didn’t feel particularly passionate. But I felt that God was calling me to go to B-school. So I went.

Living in northern Virginia I was fortunate to have several excellent MBA programs to choose from so I applied to a local, private Catholic university. Although I’m an Evangelical (a Southern Baptist, to be exact), I figured attending a Catholic school would help teach me to integrate business with my faith. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I soon discovered was that in this “Catholic” school Christ could be found on the crucifix above the doorways but would be found nowhere in the curriculum. None of the professors ever expressed a specifically Christian viewpoint and some grew rather uncomfortable when I or my classmates would do so.

Just as in non-Christian colleges, the prevailing impression at this Catholic school was that secular neutrality was the only legitimate norm. The result was that expressing an opinion that resembled that of, say, a Catholic bishop, was often considered offensive. For instance, in a class on non-profit marketing the adjunct instructor was shocked when I expressed the opinion that Planned Parenthood was the epitome of corporate evil and was not, as she had assured us, a model for marketing excellence.

I suspect my experience is not uncommon. While there are still some schools that subscribe to the idea of Christian scholarship, they have become exceedingly rare. In most schools—particularly in most business schools—the assumption is that the topics of study are “religiously neutral.” What does God have to do with finance? What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem?

Quite a lot actually. In fact, there is almost nothing about business administration that is religiously neutral. Yet every year thousands of Christians enter and exit B-School without learning how to “think Christianly” about their education or vocation. With so few direct resources available to them in business school, how should they go about developing a “Christian mind”?

I graduated from my MBA program five years ago this month and have thought about that question ever since. While I certainly don’t have all the answers and it would take a book-length treatment to adequately cover the topic, I wanted to explore the issue in a series of blog posts. In this series we’ll consider a variety of topics, including what you really get out of such programs, what it means to develop a “Christian mind”, and how can we learn to engage in Business Administration from a Biblical worldview.

But before we move on to how to think Christianly in business school, we should first discuss how to think Christianly about the decision to go (or not go) to b-school.

For many Christians—particularly my fellow evangelicals—the concept of thinking Christianly about decision-making is reduced to a simply-stated yet deeply confused question: “Does God have a specific plan for my life?”

The answers is yes—and no. Yes, God has a specific plan for our lives. But no, God doesn’t expect us to discern his secret, hidden-from-us will before we make a decision about the direction of our life. As pastor and theologian Kevin DeYoung explains,

God does have a specific plan for our lives, but it is not one that He expects us to figure out before we make a decision. I’m not saying God won’t help you make decisions (it’s called wisdom). I’m not saying God doesn’t care about your future. I’m not saying that God isn’t directing your path and in control amidst the chaos of your life. I believe in providence with all my heart. What I am saying is that we should stop thinking of God’s will like a corn maze, or a tightrope, or a bulls-eye, or a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

DeYoung adds that the better way is the biblical way: “Seek first the kingdom of God and then trust that He will take care of your needs, even before we know what they are and where we’re going.”

In making the decision about business school we should pray for guidance and seek counsel from wise Christians. But God leaves the decision to our judgment.

Reasons Why Business School Might Be the Right Choice

There are dozens of reasons why people should go to b-school. But here are three that I believe top the list:

You need a degree for career advancement – According to the signaling model of education, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student. In competitive market environments—such as the corporate business world—where your resume provides the primary, if not the only, signal to an employer about your knowledge and skills, an MBA serves as a powerful signal. Whether you actually know anything about finance or marketing, the fact that you successfully completed business school signals that you should have at least a working knowledge of those subjects. As economist Bryan Caplan explains, “In the signaling story, what matters is how much education you have compared to competing workers.” The more signals about your knowledge and skills that you can provide for employers the better it can help your career.

You need the particular skill-set that business school can provide – In my next post I’ll explain exactly what the skill-set is that an MBA really provides and why it matters for Christians. Knowing what business school really teaches can help you know whether the skills will truly be useful for your vocational purposes.

You believe b-school is part of your educational or vocational calling – “What practical use are you going to get out of having an MBA,” my wife asked me, before, during, and after I completed business school. My answer was always the same, “I have no idea. But the Lord knows.” I felt a particular calling to get my MBA even though I didn’t know what use it would be in my career. A strong conviction—even if only vaguely understood—can sometimes be the best reason.

Reasons Why Business School Might Be the Wrong Choice

While there are dozens of good reasons to go to b-school, there are hundreds of reasons why should shouldn’t. Here are a few:

You want to learn about a particular subject but don’t really need the degree – If you want to learn about accounting or finance or organizational behavior than sign up for a class on accounting or finance or organizational behavior at your local community college. (Most b-school programs don’t require prerequisite knowledge of a subject, so the classes are often the same as what you’d find at the undergraduate level.) An MBA is a generalist degree, which means you’ll usually only take one or two classes on a particular subject. If you only want to learn accounting then it’s probably advisable to get an undergraduate or graduate certificate in accounting rather than an MBA.

You want to be an entrepreneur — Over the years I’ve started and owned two small businesses (a small, regional newspaper; a consulting firm) and worked for an Internet startup. While some of the knowledge I acquired in b-school would have been helpful on those projects, it wouldn’t have been sufficient. Being an entrepreneur is a lot like being a writer. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you want to be an entrepreneur, then start a business. In both fields there is no substitute for hands-on experience.

You don’t know what else to do with your life and b-school seems like the best option — If you’re thinking that getting a MA in literature is too impractical and three years of law school is too much of a commitment, you might be considering b-school as a shorter, more practical option. Save yourself the misery (and the student loan debt) and skip grad school altogether.

You have to go into long-term debt to pay for school — You’re not likely to find anyone who will pay you a living wage to learn about analytic philosophy or eighteenth-century French literature. But with reasonable effort you can likely find someone to pay you to learn about business. Rather than going into debt to study the subject, work full-time and save money to pay for b-school. By the time you have the money saved up you may realize you don’t need the degree after all.

Ultimately, the question of whether you should go to b-school is a matter of stewardship. Completing an MBA will require a substantial amount of your gifts and resources, including time, energy, and money. But the program can potentially add a lifetime of value by honing your gifts and improving the quality and quantity of the resources you have available to further the work of God’s Kingdom.

In summary: Pray, seek sound counsel, use the discernment the Lord gives you, and then choose wisely.

Tomorrow we’ll consider what business school really teaches and why it matters for developing a Christian mind.

Addendum:

An additional word for working adults thinking about b-school: If you’re wondering how you can work full-time, go to school (part/full-time), spend time with your family, and have time for yourself let me assure you: You can’t.

Something has to give, and that first something should be your leisure activities. You’ll have less time for yourself, but that is the trade-off you should be willing to make since you are the one with the most to gain from the education. Think of school and study as your new hobbies because you likely won’t have time for much else.

The second area to sacrifice is your GPA. If you have to decide between spending more time with your family or more time tweaking a class presentation, choose your spouse and kids. In a few years, it won’t matter to anyone—including you—that you graduated with a 3.4 rather than 3.9. But it will matter to your family that you weren’t there for them. (I can’t remember what my final GPA was and in five years no one has ever asked me.)

Unfortunately, between class and studying you already won’t be there for them—at least not as much as you or they will want. You need to make that clear to your family before you begin the program that it will require a sacrifice on their part. If they can’t agree to that then you should seriously consider putting off school. (I failed to learn this lesson and began a PhD program soon after getting my MBA. I lasted only a semester before realizing it was too much of a commitment for myself and my family.)

The one area where you shouldn’t sacrifice is your work. Normally I’d argue that family should come before work, but in this case I believe it’s reversed. Don’t cheat your employer. You can’t learn to be a model of integrity as a Christian business leader while spending your employer’s time working on school projects. Be a model for yourself so that you can later be a model for others.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

Comments

  • Gary Lindblad

    Joe, I enjoyed reading your blog post. I agree with you that business schools and MBA programs at most religiously-oriented universities differ little from their public university and secular counterparts. The faculty I have met over a twenty plus year period in MBA education are nearly interchangeable between public, private, and many religious affiliated schools. After managing and leading MBA programs at four public research university business schools in the US and Canada, I recently made the move to The Crowell School of Business at Biola University. I can assure you that our Business as Ministry approach puts our Christian faith at the center of our classroom, where purpose, calling, and service to God and society meets business practice and excellence. This kind of business education may not be for everyone, but everyone in society benefits when business is done in a Christ-like way. Thank you for your blogging, and keep it up!
    Gary Lindblad
    Dean, Crowell School of Business
    Biola University