Sunday, November 23, 2008

Focus on the Families' layoff raises biblical questions


Two news events this past week raise serious questions about how ethically Christians and non-Christians alike will muddle through these tough economic times. They also make me wonder whether when it's over in a few years anyone will be able to tell the difference between the Christians' responses and the secular world's responses to the current turmoil.

Case in point #1: By flying into Washington, D.C., on private jets and displaying uncommon opulence at the very moment they were begging for a government bailout, the leaders of the Big 3 Automakers looked like spoiled children whining for ice cream after being served a huge dinner and large pieces of cake for dessert. 

Their PR staffs blew it by not advising those fat-cat corporate execs to drive their smallest, most fuel-efficient models to the nation's capital and proclaim every mile along the way their commitments to cutting the blubber from their own budgets as well as to energy conservation. 

Instead Detroit's automakers looked like a bunch of greedy pigs gathering at the feeding trough. They looked unwilling to make the changes necessary for their bloated, debt-ridden businesses to survive.

Case in point #2: Focus on the Family announced that after "looking at October trends and talking to donors who are not in a position where they can give", it was cutting 202 jobs now to prepare for the shortfall later. On the surface the announcement sounded like good business sense. Had I not attended Focus' 25th anniversary several years ago in its fabulously opulent, new, palatial facilities in Colorado Springs, CO, I might not have stumbled so quickly on the announcement. 

Let's re-frame Focus' announcement another way: The supposed family-oriented Focus on the Family ministry is going to lay off 149 workers (and rid itself of 53 vacant positions) to balance its books quickly while creating financial hardships for the 149 or so families impacted by the decision. With unemployment escalating, people's nest-eggs shrinking, and property values declining, what person in his or her right mind believes all 149 people will find new jobs quickly? Won't Focus' actions negatively impact not only the 149 people involved but also their families, including spouses, children and maybe even grandchildren?

With the ill winds of economic problems blowing across our country and around the world right now, expect other Christian organizations, denominational agencies, and even churches during the next year or two to follow Focus' lead.

I can't help but wonder whether anyone at Focus stopped and said, "Hey guys, let's look for some creative, biblical solutions here, like maybe all 1,150 of us, including James Dobson and the other top execs, taking a 20-percent pay cut so our fellow Christians will not have to face the economic hurricane alone out there."

In times like these, Christians may need to go back and re-read the Bible, starting with the Book of Acts. When the chips were down and persecution rampant, Acts reports that the early church "had everything in common" (see Acts 2:43-47).  No where can I find a passage that says when the going got tough, the early church threw nearly one-sixth of its members overboard so the rest of them could continue to eat well and live lavishly.

Too often today the church--especially in its business practices--reflects too much the world's culture.  Making money and the things money will buy has become far too important for churches and church organizations than they should be. Focus on the Family has grown its ministry based on challenging the world's standards and assumptions on many important issues; today that organization needs to look in its own mirrors.

After living for far too many years like people with heads in the sand, Detroit's pitiful jet-led campaign into Washington, D.C., could be expected. Buying first-class, round-trip tickets on American's Airlines next time won't undue the damage their stupidity has cost them. But at least those executives can plead ignorance of any ethical handbook for operating their business.

Churches including para-church organizations, on the other hand, can't plead the same ignorance. The Bible is supposed to be their moral compass. That book makes very clear many ethical matters, including how one is to treat fellow believers especially in difficult times.

When prosperity returns, will anyone be able to tell the Christians from their mortal enemies, the secularists? I sure hope so, but without radical solutions and actions no distinction may be apparent.

14 comments:

Bart Barber said...

Dear Bro. Louis,

Just shortly ago I heard about a church in our county who had initiated a significant round of layoffs. I wonder whether there is a relationship between (to borrow the words of Greenspan) the "irrational exuberance" of some churches in the way of staff expansion that makes this sort of thing inevitable. That is, if a church hires to a level at which the church can only sustain itself if it enjoys substantial fiscal growth, layoffs are inevitable if anything goes wrong, right?

I would, however, part company with you with regard to Focus on the Family, simply because I believe that you have made an unwarranted logical equivocation. Focus on the Family is not a church. The church in Acts did not, apparently, take care of everyone in Jerusalem. But for those who were a covenanted part of the family of believers, their fellow believers saw to their needs.

Employees at Focus are just that, employees. I think that you stand on solid ground when you pose the question of how Christians ought to relate to their employees in difficult financial times, and I find your words to be poignant and prophetic that far along the journey. It is when you argue Acts as a biblical foundation for answering that, different, question that I take respectable issue with the line of reasoning.

LOUIS MOORE said...

Bro. Bart,

Thanks for your insight.

Focus is a para-church organization. As such it is like denominational agencies—quasi-church (in some ways behaving like churches but still proclaiming that it is not). I doubt that it employs just anybody. Surely it only employees Christians, and evangelical ones at that.

My key point is about Focus role modeling for others, especially churches. Many will say, "Well, if Focus can lay off workers, we can (or should), too. I wish Focus has taken a bold stand that would have modeled better Christian compassion and values.

I don't believe churches, church organizations, denominations, or para-church groups ought to operate by the world's standards but rather by the Word of God.

I appreciate your comments. Let's see what others say.

Louis

ML said...

What the heck is a Christian community if it is not a church?
Tourists?

Lance said...

Louis:

Enjoyed the article.

One question: How much are the salaries of Focus's leaders?

I don't know the answer to that, but I'm hoping that in spite of their positions (esp. Dobson's), they earn a modest salary.

I'm thinking that they publicize this information. Do you know how to find out?

In other words, is it safe to assume that they make a lot more than the average Focus worker?

LOUIS MOORE said...

Lance,

I don't know how much the salaries are at Focus. I am familiar with some denominational salary structures, which are traditional businesslike in nature, meaning the higher up the ladder you go the higher the salaries. If you find out, let me know.

Thanks for stopping by.

Louis

Lance said...

Thanks.

Just googled this (for what that's worth) and several sites report that Dobson has not drawn a salary from Focus for 30 years.

He lives off of book royalties, apparently. Now, is he generous with that income? I don't know, but apparently there is no cut in pay for him to take.

LOUIS MOORE said...

Lance,

Thanks for checking out that fact and getting back to me.

Considering how many books Dr. Dobson has written and how well most of them sell (including through Focus' outlets), he's smart to take royalties. A salary would probably be less. I would have thought he would do the opposite—donate the royalties to Focus and then take a flat salary.

By the way, the beautiful bookstore at Focus in Colorado Springs is fabulous. All Dobson and Focus releases! And Focus does a great job promoting his books, too.

Thanks again.

Louis

Anonymous said...

Is it really such a far fetched idea of American churches being unbiblical in it's Christian walk when the same church pretty much twisted Scripture to "ordain" slavery? How much more can the same American church overlook relatively minor infractions in comparison?

37stories said...

IT's America. What's the beef with Focus. You do what you need to do or you do what the government tells you do. Either way, you give it your best shot and hope God approves. Lighten up.

Dee said...

I agree with you Louis. Here is a missed opportunity to do the right thing and rise above the normal and "good business".

DAN said...

Sounds like a pretty decent idea, and of course we all have our own conviction on how church money should be spent. I do believe it a terrible indictment against us when people are hurting and we find ourselves too overextended to be of any service.

Deal 1 said...

When I was in business and question practices of so called Christian business owners, many times I would hear, "Yeah, Denise, I am a Christian too, but this is business". I never understood how they could separate the two.
Deal 1
Birmingham

Robin said...

If you want to find out how much the top people at Focus on the Family make go to Guidestar (http://www.guidestar.org/).

Sign up for a free account and click on their most recent 990. All nonprofits have to post this info.

Anonymous said...

If you want to find out how much the top employees make at Focus on the Family go to...

#1. Guidestar (http://www.guidestar.org/)

#2. Sign up for a free account

#3. Search for Focus on the Family

#4. Click on their 990 and scroll down

All nonprofits have to have this information available to the public