success stories

Posted September 20, 2003

A Success Story in Spirituality in the Business Community

By Joseph Kenny
Taken from Catholic News Service

Spiritually speaking, it can be pretty lonely in the business community.

Not so for members of the Aquinas Business Forum, a monthly breakfast gathering of St. Louis area business leaders seeking to find spirituality and vocation in their work.

When asked for an example of how the forum has helped him, John Stieven noted that he has a clearer sense of community service or, as he said, "giving back to the community rather than taking away."

A portfolio manager for A.G. Edwards Trust Co., Stieven said he recently joined a dozen other employees in delivering and installing spare air-conditioners in the homes of some South St. Louis residents.

His participation in the business forum gave him an awareness "that when opportunities to do something in the community present themselves, you need to step forward. You can't just let someone else do it," he told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

The business forum is sponsored by the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a graduate school of theology and ministry run by the Dominicans from a building on the campus of St. Louis University.

Among other things, the forum helps participants bring everyday business experience into dialogue with Scripture and the basics of Catholic social teaching and helps develop leadership skills that reflect Christian values and spiritual maturity.

The typical format includes prayer, Scripture reading and reflections, and discussion of a topic or case. The discussion generally cites the ethical or moral questions involved, character or virtues needed in the case, and what values may lead to making the right decision. It usually concludes by 9 a.m.

Stieven noted that the forum gives him a chance to "break out of my busy day to focus on better business practices."

It is easy to be distracted by news reports and "to get the idea that everyone is out there for themselves," said Stieven, a member of St. Catherine Laboure Parish in Sappington.

Stieven enjoys hearing from forum members who are not in typical business professions. He cited one individual who ministers in a prison and "brings a far more humanitarian point of view."

Ed Barnidge of The Kerry Group, an advertising and event marketing agency, agreed that the forum provides a feeling that "you're not out there by yourself. Other people have the same kind of problems. The bottom line, and what I get out of it, is that to act ethically in any walk of life you have to make courageous decisions."

He added that decision-making in business is no easy task. For example, he said, one company may choose to use cheap labor. Their competitor may choose to pay a living wage -- doing the right thing -- but that strategy becomes difficult to carry through.

In the last seven years, the forum has discussed a range of topics from company and employee loyalty to diversity in the workplace.

"Each issue has its own set of nuances -- black, white and gray areas. We try to identify principles to apply to each," said Barnidge, a member of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves.

Though the issues are not simple, "You have to stand up and be counted for what you believe," he said. On an issue such as executive overcompensation, for example, speaking out lets companies know that "what they are doing is seen and is against the values of a lot of people."

Before the business forum's founding, Barnidge and Dominican Father Charles Bouchard, president of Aquinas, wrote a column on ethics in the St. Louis Business Journal.

About 40 people showed up for the first business forum meeting, said Father Bouchard, who serves as the host or moderator. He has learned much about the complex nature of business decisions. Many business people are dedicated to living out their faith and appreciate the church's teachings, he added.

There is a growing interest in spirituality and religion in business, Father Bouchard noted. And U.S. Catholics can have a big impact on the way business is conducted, he said. The topic of treating employees well has come up a number of times, he said. "Good companies invest not only in machinery but people, too."

Aquinas Business Forum participant Jamie Cannon, a retired architect, said he is sorry it didn't exist years ago. "I don't belong to any group that meets on a regular basis that I value more than this experience. I've never missed a meeting except for when I've been out of town."

At a time when scandals at Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. make headlines, he said, "You realize the business community is ethically challenged . . . though it's not easy to know right from wrong in some cases."

Cannon, a Protestant, said he originally thought he'd be out of place in the Catholic group. But he said he has been welcomed and feels comfortable to add to the discussion. He also is honored to be in a group "loaded with really intelligent people who have no fear to take on any subject."