The Beatitudes of Business

A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for this service: Ephesians 4: 15-16, 25-32, Matthew 5: 1-10

When Geoffrey Brown and colleagues established the enterprise at St Martin’s in 1987, they did it in a spirit of ‘Never waste a good crisis.’ By that I mean they knew St Martin’s needed to take some fairly drastic steps to secure its ministry, mission and maintenance costs, which were fast heading over a cliff. But that became the pretext for creating an experiment in hope that sought to discover and model what healthy commercial life might look like. In a mixture of management and theological speak they sought to unite efficiency and integrity. Efficiency is doing the thing right, to maximise profits and achieve goals; integrity is doing the right thing. Just as for Christians the centre of faith is the conviction that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, so for the founders of our limited company the centre of their vision was that the enterprise united efficiency, doing the thing right, and integrity, doing the right thing.

What they saw in developing commercial operations was not just an income stream to shore up St Martin’s listing balance sheet, but an opportunity to make St Martin’s an example with political and economic significance to add to the social and cultural reputation of its homeless and classical music programmes. So after thirty years we’re gathering to celebrate the way their dreams have come true.

What do I mean by political and economic significance? Well, in 1925 Fredrick Lewis Donaldson preached a sermon at Westminster Abbey in which he referred to seven social sins. Mahatma Gandhi took up this list and published it later the same year. Those sins are wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, and politics without principle. Ninety years later I’m not sure many of us would alter the list too much. But it’s one thing to list the problems; it’s another to build institutions and organisations to address those problems. That’s what I believe the founders of SMITFL were seeking to do. They wanted to make a political and economic difference, not by saying to everyone else ‘This is how you’re wrong,’ but by saying to themselves, ‘We’re going to make our boldest effort to do the right thing, and to do it right.’

To honour them and to seek to crystallise what the company is all about, I want tonight to elucidate what I suggest we might think of as the Beatitudes of Business. Near the beginning of his ministry Jesus articulated eight expressions of what the kingdom of God entailed. The sentiments of his charter have been called the most important words spoken by the most important person that ever lived. In the spirit of that charter, which we’ve just heard read tonight, I want to set before you eight expressions of what I believe we’ve learned in our commercial enterprise over the last thirty years and what we now seek to practise as our attempt to respond to the seven social sins. These Beatitudes of Business are written not from the point of view of the leaders, the customers, or the beneficiaries of the company, but from that of its employees. What should it be like to work for our limited company? Here goes.

Blessed are those who are needed, for they will find purpose in serving. Setting up the company was an act of humility, because it recognised that if St Martin’s was to survive, let alone flourish, it needed the energy and skill of people who were not part of its congregation, and in many cases not Christians. But there’s a great power in saying ‘I need you.’ Most of us thrive on being needed, and are longing to serve if it’s in a worthy cause.

Blessed are those who are involved, for they will discover joy in teamwork. If we need to set up a room for an event or usher for a classical concert, we need to know precisely what expectations are in order not to be set up to fail. But if we’ve had some say in working out what makes a good event, then we feel an entirely different level of engagement, and we share the joy if it goes well. Like a football team that wins a game, at the end we high-five and know the wonder of the word ‘together.’

Blessed are those who are noticed, for they will bring forth surprising gifts. We often use the word inclusion, but what really matters is being seen. Being seen means others perceiving our real talents, which may not immediately be closely related to the task we’ve been hired to fulfil. But every team grows from ‘what must this team achieve?’ to ‘what can only this team achieve?’ That’s the journey from good to great.

Blessed are those who are rewarded, for they will create a culture of gratitude. I am so proud that all members of our staff now receive at least the London Living Wage. It’s a statement that if our organisation is about promoting beauty, truth and goodness externally then these things must also be present internally. If we each know people have gone the extra mile for us, we’re motivated to go the extra mile for others.

Blessed are those who are listened to, for they will foster a love of learning. I remember a Muslim leader telling me, ‘We exist for two things: knowledge and mercy.’ When things go well, we ask one another, ‘What was the secret?’ When they go badly, we say, ‘What would we do differently?’ If you have the courage to ask someone a question you don’t already know the answer to, you’re telling that person they matter, and that you need them to become a better person yourself.

Blessed are those who are given space to grow, for they will find out what they were put on this earth to be. It’s always a great question to ask someone, ‘How have you grown in the last year?’ An organisation that just tells people what to do is using them as servants or worse. An organisation that’s helping people reach their potential is genuinely enjoying them. To grow means to surprise others and yourself. Growth is the reward for giving people space to discover who they really are.

Blessed are those who are challenged, for they will reveal what they’re really made of. To be challenged means to be placed in situations where the adrenalin runs faster because we’ve never done it before, but also to be held accountable for standards below which we shouldn’t fall. When we say ‘Bring your A game to work,’ we’re saying if you want to learn, discover, grow, and find purpose, you’re not going to do it by taking the easy option.

Finally, Blessed are those who are trusted, for they will become leaders themselves. When Christopher Wren walked unrecognised among the craftsmen working on St Paul’s Cathedral, he asked one labourer ‘What are you doing?’ and the workman replied, ‘I’m cutting stone.’ Later he asked another the same question, and the man said, ‘I’m building the house of God.’ If you’re trusted, you come to realise this is yours as much as it’s anybody’s. You’ve gone from being an employee to being a leader yourself.

When Jesus uttered the Beatitudes he was saying to his disciples, ‘It’s not enough to have faith; you have to make your life and the life of your community a living example of what the Holy Spirit can do.’ That’s what Geoffrey and his companions said in 1987: ‘It’s not enough for St Martin’s to have faith, or even to turn that faith into action by walking with people in crisis and making sounds for the angels to hear; we must make our community a living example of what the Holy Spirit can do.’ And here we are, thirty years later, to celebrate, not our achievement, but a task well worth attempting; not our success, but the ways the Holy Spirit has breathed through our faithful experiments.

You’ll find the grave of Christopher Wren in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s no great towering memorial. Only these words: ‘If you are searching for his monument, look around.’ We could the say the same of Geoffrey Brown, and those who with him revolutionised St Martin’s, and whose ideas will one day, I pray revolutionise the church: if you are searching for their monument, look around.