Prayer and Profits

It is a Tuesday afternoon and the conference room at the Coakley & Williams Hotel Management Co. in Greenbelt is ready with a VCR, handouts and extra paper for jotting down notes. After exchanging pleasantries, promptly at noon, the half-dozen business owners and high-level executives settle themselves around the conference table, spreading brown-bag lunches out before them. They begin their meeting solemnly, by opening the channels of communication -- with the Most High.

"Lord, we thank you for this day and the glory of creation," says Ollie Thomas, owner of the Silver Spring-based Thomas House Coffee Service. "We pray that you nourish our bodies with this food and our spirit with your spirit. We pray that you would be in control, and that this meeting would honor and glorify you."

And the business owners say, "Amen."

This Tuesday, and every other Tuesday for six months, this group has gathered to discuss business expansion, personnel issues and how to lead their companies in a way that would be pleasing in the eyes of God.

It is a meeting of the Washington chapter of the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, a 22-year-old, nearly 2,000-member nonprofit organization that helps business owners run their companies in accordance with biblical tenets of leadership, compassion and faith.

It is an integration of what they do as businesspeople and who they are as disciples. With abiding faith as the medium, it is an invitation to involve God in the detail and substance of their lives beyond Sunday morning services.

The five men and one woman -- who head one-person start-ups as well as long-standing companies from Silver Spring to Chantilly -- pray for wisdom, pray for guidance, pray to learn God's answer about whether expansion of the Phoenix office is anointed for one company and whether single-colored tri-fold brochures are in keeping with the direction God has in mind for another.

With the profound troubles that face mankind around the world, it would seem that their prayers are trivial, beneath the province of a God of heaven and earth.

But that's what a lot of people do not understand, says Bobby Mitchell, co-founder, chairman of the board and interim president of the Atlanta-based FCCI. "It is in keeping with the teaching of the Scriptures. Jesus is interested in common people and their common problems. God has numbered every hair on your head and he cares about each one. If he cares about the hairs on your head, he certainly cares about the minutiae of your life."

So it is with a devoutness that is beyond cynicism and affectation, beyond self-conscious piety, that they begin the meeting. With the deliberateness of business leaders pondering weighty corporate issues, they embark on "Strategic Faith Planning."

Breaking Down the Walls
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In 1976, Bobby Mitchell was not into what he calls gross sin. He was "just a guy trying to earn a living and make his way." And, as an engineer and the new president of Atlanta-based Applied Ceramics, which makes high-tech ceramic products, that meant a focus on profit, on gaining prestige and personal plaudits.

Not corrupt goals, says Mitchell, 55, but the Bible teaches that you cannot serve two masters.

That year, Mitchell's mother gave him a copy of pastor Charles Sheldon's "In His Steps" for Christmas. Written in 1896 and reprinted extensively over the next hundred years, it is the devotional story of a group of townspeople who decide to make the question "What Would Jesus Do?" their guiding principle. WWJD has since spawned the popular movement with bracelets and necklaces and Ouija boards asking the same question. During the 2000 presidential campaign, it was the question Al Gore said he often asked himself when faced with a difficult decision.

For Mitchell, the book was ajolt of powerful insight.

"I had compartmentalized my life," he says. He attended church on Sundays and maybe a prayer meeting on Wednesday nights, but "the rest of the week, I was a full-on businessman." Business was in one compartment, faith was in another, his social life in another. "What I realized, the message that was coming through this book, was that a life that was committed to Christ . . . it would be faith in business, faith in social, faith would cut across all the different segments of my life."

Mitchell began meeting with three friends, businessmen, for Bible study and prayer. They felt a movement afoot, and two years later invited leaders from 70 area companies to map out a plan whereby they could bring their companies in line with Christian ideals. Twelve showed up, and nine committed to meet every other week. In 1980, that group became the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International. Today, there are more than 150 chapters nationally, and a plan for European expansion kicked off Jan. 1.

The organization, which holds regular regional conferences and workshops and features a library of audio and video instruction, also has "I-7" prayer teams, each consisting of seven members who pray for seven days on individual requests (whom to hire, whom to fire, whether to give raises or tithe company profits).

But doesn't a ministry for the marketplace seem a concept in violation of itself? Doesn't the free market worship golden idols: acquisition, greed, consumption, covetousness? Jesus told his disciples that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

For Mitchell, "the Bible really teaches that we are to be wholly committed to God. That's where the word 'integrity' comes from. An integer is whole and complete. The call of FCCI is for somebody to use the things they have been gifted with to God's glory. And if they happen to be president of a company, to use that company as a platform for ministry."

For the FCCI devout, faith engages and proselytizes, seeks to bring you into the fold. It is a faith that finds no separation between work and grocery shopping and being interviewed by a reporter, and God. Even from his office at Applied Ceramics, Mitchell is in the pulpit.

"There's a Bible verse that says if you trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding and acknowledge him in all your ways, then He will direct your path," Mitchell says. "That's Proverbs 3:5-6. So if you want God to direct your path -- say, as a reporter for The Washington Post -- He says, 'Okay, Lonnae, trust me. Lean not to your understanding and acknowledge me in all your ways. I'm going to direct your path.' If you want God's direction, that's what you need to get it."

Coming to Christ

Gary Williams, the 49-year-old owner of Coakley & Williams, began the Washington chapter of FCCI six months ago, but found God in 1980 while working his way up in the family hotel management business. Before that, he partied. He spent weekends at discos and bars. He drank whiskey and bourbon, a lot of beer. He smoked pot. He lived with a woman. He didn't go to church.

"I was 28, in and out of relationships, things were going sour in my current relationship, and basically I was saying to myself, there's got to be more," Williams says. "I had a nice job, a beautiful girlfriend, a nice car, I owned my own house. As far as the world was concerned, I had everything going for me, but it felt like something was missing. I looked over my shelf and saw the Bible and said maybe there's some answers there."

Williams says he felt "the spirit." He asked his girlfriend to move out. Then he says he helped bring her to a belief in Christ and married her. In 1996 he bought the company from his dad and his dad's partner and continued his work as a Christian business leader.

In 1995, after his brother sent him information about FCCI, he attended a conference. He got busy but always intended to explore the organization further. In 2000, he attended another conference and joined. Last summer he invited seven Washington-area FCCI members to lunch, and they formed the new chapter.

FCCI membership is geared toward business owners and high-level executives who are able to set policy without fear or reprisal or adverse job action. Religious discrimination in the workplace is illegal, so while members say they sometimes pray or counsel employees, they say they do not force their beliefs on them or discriminate in the hiring of nonbelievers or believers of a different faith.

Still, they say the workplace can be a chance to help others grow spiritually.

For someone like Phil Marchetti, who runs a one-man computer consulting business out of his Burtonsville home, his witnessing to clients offers both potential and peril. "I've had somebody say they don't want to talk about it, but I haven't had anybody fire me," he says.

Marchetti, 53, says he takes his cues from the conversation. "Maybe they might say my son just died, or they've had some tragedy or 9-11, it's like a door opening," he says.

Sometimes people are receptive and sometimes "they get very defensive. They turn cold and say, 'I don't want to discuss this kind of thing.' I just say okay, maybe another time." While he has never lost a client due to his beliefs, sometimes their reactions sting: "It's rejection. Nobody likes rejection."

Williams says he gives spiritual advice only when sought out. Ten years ago, he settled with a disgruntled employee who complained about his sharing Bible verses, among other grievances.

His office is the only place he displays symbols of his faith. There is the watercolor picture of Christ looking over Jerusalem and, after Sept. 11, a verse from the 27th Psalm: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?"

Each member of FCCI decides for himself how he will fit faith into business.

"I don't look upon my firm as a Christian company," says Bruce M. Scott, 66, CEO of Scott-Long Construction, a Chantilly-based business with 75 employees and annual revenue of $40 million. The Tuesday meeting is his first. He says he joined to tap into where God is. "It just happens that the three current stockholders are Christians and run the business using Christian precepts." Scott has been a practicing Christian since 1974, and says his former partner, Henry Long, whom he bought out in 1994, is also a longtime believer.

But Eric Burling, CEO of the Chadds Ford, Pa.-based Son Systems, a technology consulting business, sees it a little differently. "I was directed in 1983 to start this business," Burling says, "so I consider this the Lord's business."

Burling, who had been a human resources analyst for Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, said God spoke to him over months with instructions: Move to Philadelphia and begin a computer business. He did that in 1984 with only the profit from selling his home and the trust that "God would raise up my business." This began a "walk of faith where we trusted everything we had in God's hand."

Today, he says, after a $70,000 investment, Son Systems brings in between $1.5 million and 2 million in revenue per year.

Communion of Commerce
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Tuesday's meeting is about strategy. About setting business goals. And it is about sitting still long enough to hear God's instruction.

At about 12:30, while the members munch on chips and subs, Williams begins the video "Strategic Faith Planning." It's like any other corporate video except the milquetoast speaker in the dated blue suit periodically instructs viewers, "If you'll open your Bibles . . ." As in "open your Bibles to Matthew Chapter 16, Verse 21," which the speaker says illustrates the folly of Peter planning without the sanction of God. "Get behind me, Satan!" he quotes from the Scripture, "you are a stumbling block to me."

Around the conference table, Bibles -- frayed and dog-eared, highlighted in red with notes in the margins -- are turned to chapter and verse.

It's "hard-hitting stuff," says Ollie Thomas. "I can't serve both God and money. It's tough, I'm so used to presumptive planning and wishful thinking -- I did XYZ last year, I'll do that plus A next year."

Except the lesson for today is that business owners need to be open to new and surprising directions in which God might be prepared to take their companies.

For example, Burling is contemplating taking on a business partner. He has been leery of partnerships, but after watching today's video, he muses "perhaps God was saying, don't let the past restrict you from the future."

After more discussion, they go around the table to hear prayer requests.

Robyn C. Hatton, 50, of Burtonsville, a homemaker with a master of divinity degree who home-schools her four children, is trying to get a faith-based educational consulting business off the ground.

She holds up a yellow brochure. "This is my first little tri-fold brochure," she says. "I'm looking for the right direction to aim in. I want to get in [God's] jet stream." She asks the group to pray that God guide her.

There are nods and murmurs of assent.

Thomas asks that the members pray for him to get more quality control in his daily operations and that he implement that in the training of his employees.

Gary Williams simply asks the group to support him as he honors God in his business and serves his employees.

After Sept. 11, Coakley & Williams was hit hard. The firm manages 23 hotels in eight states. After the terrorist attacks, business plummeted. Williams faced a decision: Should he lay off some of his 20 employees? He prayed. FCCI members prayed. Then he decided that though it might hurt him financially, he would not let anybody go. Since the decision, he has picked up three new contracts. "Unless there's another 9/11," he says, "it looks like this is going to be a pretty good year." God answers prayer, he says.

Other requests are made, and around the table, they pray, each for the other.

"Lord, we thank you that your word is true," says Hatton. We thank you for Ollie and "pray for the training of his employees."

"Lord, we praise you for this day and this opportunity to share your word," says Thomas, "and we pray for Phil, that he be able to model you in his contacts with others . . ."

Williams prays for Hatton, that her tri-fold brochures be pleasing in His sight. And he prays "for the reporter and for the news leaders at The Washington Post that you would guide them. Help her in her writing of the story, work in her heart and spirit to find the right words. We honor her, Lord, and we pray for Juana in getting a good picture. She's taken enough of them . . ."

As the members leave, Marchetti wants to tell a story about a business call he paid to a wealthy client's home. Afterward, he felt one of the answers he gave her was incomplete, and he called the next day to tell her he'd come back out and instruct her further at no additional charge. "It's hard to say if she was appreciative, but it didn't matter," he says. "I am doing it because it's the right thing."