by Min-Dong Paul Lee, Winnie Fung, and Joey Fung
SINCE THE MID-1990s when the term was first coined at a missions conference, “Business as Mission” (BAM) has gained wide acceptance in mission circles and generated much excitement as the new paradigm of missions for the twenty-first century.
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SINCE THE MID-1990s when the term was first coined at a missions conference, “Business as Mission” (BAM) has gained wide acceptance in mission circles and generated much excitement as the new paradigm of missions for the twenty-first century. Proponents assert that BAM is a “calling to be prized” (Tunehag 2004, 9) and has “the highest potential for effecting sustainable, transformational, holistic kingdom impact to a hurting world” (Johnson 2009, 22).
Indeed, BAM offers a number of benefits in today’s context for mission, such as easier access to some countries where traditional mission work is not allowed (Yamamori 1993) and liberation from dependency on overseas financial support. Moreover, with recent rekindling of vocational theology that challenges the sacred-secular divide, there is a growing recognition of business as a legitimate vehicle and site of ministry among evangelicals (e.g., Stevens 2006; Nelson 2011; Grudem 2003; Volf 1991; Yamamori and Eldred 2003).
BAM, however, is not without its critics. Some caution that BAM entrepreneurs can become too immersed in a capitalistic mindset and promote capitalistic values and prosperity rather than biblical values and the gospel (Little 2014). Some also worry that the urgency of running a business may easily take front seat in BAM missionaries’ lives, while ‘ministry’ gets pushed to the sidelines.
In practice, while there are many successful examples of BAM, there are also some cases where BAM produced negative outcomes (Cuartas 2011). To be sure, proponents of BAM are aware of the challenges and recognize BAM as a very difficult mission strategy (Johnson 2009; Rundle and Steffen 2003). The goal of BAM organizations is to bring about holistic (i.e., spiritual, social, economic, and environmental) transformation of individuals and the communities that are involved. As such, it is an inherently multi-dimensional effort that requires a complex balancing act and solid theological grounding.
In this article, we attempt to outline some theological and practical guidelines for creating holistic and transformative BAM organizations. We first introduce a case study of a BAM that employs formerly trafficked women in India and how it brought about holistic transformation of individuals and of the community. We then discuss the vision of BAM as modeling after Christ’s missional act of incarnation. Finally, we comment on some of the practical considerations faced by BAM practitioners.
Freeset: A Case Study of a BAM Organization
Freeset is a fair trade business that offers alternative employment for women forced into the sex trade. Freeset is strategically located in Sonagachi, the largest red light district in Kolkata, India, and one of the largest red light districts in Asia. Within a few square miles, it contains several hundred multi-story brothels with more than ten thousand women working in the sex trade.
Many are trafficked from Bangladesh, Nepal, and rural India, while others are sold or forced into the trade due to abject poverty. Kerry and Annie Hilton, who founded Freeset in 2001, have a vision of seeing the ten thousand sex workers in their neighborhood empowered with a choice of leaving a profession they never chose in the first place. Freeset first started as a bag manufacturing business and hired twenty women. Currently, Freeset hires about two hundred women to make quality jute bags and organic cotton t-shirts that are exported to other countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
When the Hiltons moved from New Zealand to India in 1999, they signed their apartment lease during the day only to realize at night that the apartment was located next to a red light district. Instead of moving away from the community, however, the Hiltons decided to meet some of their neighbors.
As they got to know the women working in Sonagachi, they learned that quite a few were trafficked because of poverty, and they stayed in the sex trade because of a lack of alternate options. By opening a factory at the center of the red light district, the Hiltons offered an alternative employment opportunity to the women.
Lack of job opportunities is one of the most prominent causes of poverty around the world. The Hiltons recognized that building a sustainable BAM can provide much-needed job opportunities to the poor and the vulnerable, allow them the dignity of earning their own living instead of just receiving handouts, and enable them to gain valuable, transferable skills while on the job.
Freeset recognizes that the task is more than just providing a job and ensuring a certain level of financial stability. The needs of the women are broader and deeper. Most of the women have fewer than five years of formal education, and they do not have basic literacy skills or financial literacy skills. Therefore, as part of the three-month training that all employees receive, the women are taught basic life skills such as budgeting, opening a bank account, creating a savings plan, and literacy education.
One-on-one and group counseling are provided during the training period to allow the women to work through their trauma and any emotional or mental health problems, while recognizing that such a journey to healing and restoration is long and requires the grace and power of the ultimate Healer and Restorer. In 2011, Freeset also established a non-profit unit within the company called Tamar in order to provide more professional care for the women. Tamar specializes in caring for the physical, social, psychological, and spiritual needs of the women, while creating a safe environment for the women to share their concerns.
The Hiltons began Freeset with a vision of creating “communities of people who commit to following Jesus together by living in the same neighborhoods and sharing the journey of learning to love God, each other and our neighbors” (Roemhildt et al. 2013, 29). As such, the staff and volunteers at Freeset are very intentional in being part of the Freeset community. Many staff and volunteers live on the second floor above the factory in Sonagachi. They share equal responsibility in the upkeep of the factory. Although they are foreigners who moved to Kolkata, they identify with the women.
Women at Freeset often refer to others working at Freeset as ‘Paribara’ (a Bengali word for family). At Freeset, the women do not just work together as co-workers; they also laugh, celebrate, cry, and mourn together as friends and fellow sojourners. For many of the women, the community becomes an alternative family where they feel valued and where they belong.
For the last fifteen years, Freeset has made a significant impact on the lives of the women and the community in multiple areas—economic, social, spiritual, and even environmental. Based on our examination of Freeset’s practice and missiological research, we developed a theological framework that can form the backbone of BAM organizations.
Incarnational BAM: Modeling after Christ
Incarnation is the missional act of Christ, the second person of the Triune God, becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14). Incarnation is central to understanding God’s work of salvation (Saint Athanasius 2011). C. S. Lewis even called the incarnation of Christ “the grand miracle” that is at the center of every other miracle (Lewis 2001, 173). As much as it is a deep theological truth, it also teaches us the way God engages the world. After all, incarnation is God’s chosen method of entering, engaging, and redeeming the world.
How can the BAM community embrace and live out this theological framework of incarnational ministry? We highlight four core elements of incarnational theology that are directly relevant to BAM.
First, incarnation is an act of love. As Athanasius reminds us, Christ came and became a human being “out of sheer love for us.” Incarnate mission must begin with love for the people who bear God’s image. The Hiltons may have moved to Sonagachi by accident, but they made an intentional decision to stay and develop relationships with people in the neighborhood. The Hiltons choose to love the women as their neighbors and try “to make a difference that would bring real freedom for these women” (Freeset 2015). This foundational mission shapes every aspect of the running of the organization.
Second, incarnation manifests in humility (Phil. 2:6-8). Missiologists Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers (1986) write that a significant fact about the incarnation is that Jesus came as a learner. He did not come as an expert who had already figured out the context and the needs of the people. Instead, he was immersed in and learned about the culture, and he paid attention to the needs of the people. Likewise, the primary stance of BAM should be that of a humble learner. The Hiltons began Freeset as a result of listening to the women’s needs.
Today, the women are encouraged to voice their opinions and help shape key business and ministry decisions. The women who have worked at Freeset for a good length of time and are further along in the healing and restoration process are empowered to do community outreach and be the face and voice of Freeset. The staff at Freeset is always ready to listen and learn from the people and community they serve and work alongside.
Third, incarnation occurs in the context of a community. Jesus was born into a family in a first-century Jewish neighborhood and became a full member of that community. Jesus’ public ministry included the creation of an alternative community into which he called his disciples, asking his disciples to follow him, eat with him, live with him, and serve with him. That community became a catalyst for the transformation of surrounding communities. Ultimately, Jesus’ incarnational ministry culminates in the creation of a community that transcends all boundaries through his life, death, and resurrection (Eph. 2:14-22).
As discussed earlier, Freeset’s primary objective is to create an alternative community “where Jesus is the master” (to use the words of one of the women who works at Freeset). Such an alternative community cannot fail to have an impact on its surrounding, wider community. The Hiltons believe that “a community learning what it means to be transformed begins to have the courage to participate in the transformation of the wider community” (Roemhildt et al. 2013, 33).
For example, the physical presence of a Christian business inside a red light district necessarily prompts questions as to why it is there, questions that will be pondered by other women, customers of commercial sex, pimps and brothel owners alike. By helping women in Freeset gain freedom and restoration, the business also impacts the women’s families, especially the women’s daughters, who may otherwise have gone on the same path of being trafficked. As the women’s families are being affected, so too are the wider communities or villages from where they come.
Finally, incarnation is inherently paradoxical. The core theology of incarnation is the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully human. John writes, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4); yet he became one of us. Incarnational mission is about immersing into a new culture and fully being the Church, the Body of Christ, in that context. Thus, Paul Hiebert (1995, 371) argued that “Christ remained fully God even when he became fully human. Missionaries, too, are to reflect this. They are both socio-cultural insiders and outsiders.” Likewise, BAM should hold this paradox at its core. A BAM organization can have significant impact only when it is fully business and fully mission. In the final section, we address some practical considerations that stem from these four principles.
First, understand the comparative advantage of the community. An entrepreneur who goes into a new market with a pre-conceived plan for business (e.g., what product to produce, how to produce it, and how to market it) is likely to fail. Entrepreneurship should always begin with listening to and understanding the market. Given that the purpose of BAM is not just about business transactions, but also life transformation, BAM entrepreneurs have all the more reason to begin with listening in humility.
BAM practitioners need to observe and learn from the local community what comparative advantage it possesses—namely, what skillsets people in that community have, what natural resources or physical endowments that community makes use of, and what cultural, economic, and political factors are at play in order to decide what products or services to produce and how best to produce and market the products.
Second, focus on the mission when making key decisions such as hiring, promoting, and firing. Freeset’s primary purpose is to give a choice and freedom to the women. Most business decisions stem from that objective. For example, Freeset does not hire based on skills or experiences. They hire “on the basis of a need to be free” (Pitts et al. 2014). Freeset decides its factory locations based not on rent or convenience, but on the proximity and ease of access to the community where trafficked women lived.
For the Hiltons, starting and running the business is certainly an act of love. At the same time, however, Freeset must be a sustainable business. It must set and maintain a high-quality standard for their products and employee conduct. If an employee is always late to work and cannot sew a bag properly because she is still struggling with alcoholism, then Freeset would make the tough decision of suspending the employee until she is capable of working again. But while the woman is suspended from work, Freeset continues to support her through counseling and treatment. This is an example where grace and truth are practiced at the same time, with the good of the employee and the wider community in mind.
Third, set fair and competitive wages. Setting fair and competitive prices and wages can allow the business to be profitable and sustainable, while at the same time contribute to the well-being of the employees. However, determining what the appropriate wage is can be challenging. It is important to first find out both the cost of living in the community and the market wage for comparable jobs.
Freeset pays a wage that is generous (slightly above the market wage) but not overly generous (so that the business can be self-sustaining without having to rely on outside donations). During the three-month training period, Freeset pays a portion of the wage even though the trainees are not yet working in the factory. This allows the women working at Freeset to see themselves as being valued as a productive member of society. Moreover, paying employees slightly above-market wages can lead to greater employee satisfaction and hence higher productivity and retention, which in turn will benefit the business in the long run.
Fourth, care for the whole person. It is important for BAM organizations to pay attention to and address the emotional and psychological needs of their workers, especially if they are serving vulnerable populations. For example, Freeset employs formerly trafficked women, most of whom have experienced assault, coercion, and threats, as well as sexual, physical, and psychological abuses. The resulting trauma leads to a wide range of mental health concerns, including depression, substance use, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The women’s emotional condition or use of maladaptive coping mechanisms can impact their work negatively.
As such, BAM organizations need to take into account the mental health needs of their workers and provide appropriate psychological support services to allow them to flourish psychologically and spiritually. Moreover, it is important to consider the broader and deeper social needs of the people who are working in that community. Freeset, for example, sees that there is a need for childcare service for the women working in the factory, and a need for helping the children of the women get formal schooling once they get older. Therefore, Freeset initiated child sponsorship programs to support the children of their employees to go to school.
Fifth, strive for high-quality products. In order for the business to be sustainable, the BAM organization needs to produce products that customers are willing to pay for. From the beginning, the Hiltons recognized the importance of consistent quality for Freeset to be competitive in the export market. They had the vision that anything Freeset produces should be recognizable as a Freeset product even without a Freeset tag.
When they first started the business, most of the women they hired did not have sewing skills or could barely use a pair of scissors. They responded by providing intensive training for the women and implementing a strict system of quality control. They did not compromise quality for quantity, and the average daily output was fewer than two bags in the early days (they now produce approximately one thousand bags a day). They also recognized that not everyone can sew. Thus, they created alternative job options (e.g., mixing paint or cutting fabric for t-shirt making) to accommodate women of varying levels of skills. This allowed the hiring of women with lower skills without sacrificing the quality of the finished product.
Finally, have a robust theology of work. It is important to remember that BAM organizations are not just investing in workers and preparing them for a livelihood. Instead, they are investing in persons created in the image of God and preparing them to live out a full and abundant life in relationship with their Creator. As such, it is important to have a robust theology of work and to instill it as the organization’s culture in order to help people see all work as God’s work and to see work as part of worship. There should be no sacred-secular divide in the workplace.
Missiologists Alan and Debra Hirsch (2010, 234) argue that “if incarnation is the most profound way that God engaged the world, then we, his people, must follow his footsteps.” Creating an incarnational BAM, however, is not easy. The Hiltons were very intentional in their approach and experienced many trials and errors. They maintained a clear strategic focus, which was the freedom of women through offering them alternative jobs in a competitive business.
This act of love became the foundation of their business and shaped their business decisions and practices. In achieving that objective, Freeset continues to maintain the paradox of being fully business and fully ministry at the same time. It is a business in that it manufactures jute bags and organic cotton t-shirts for export. Just as any other for-profit business, it strives to maintain high quality, efficiency, and competitiveness. It is also fully a ministry that prioritizes holistic freedom of all the women. There can sometimes be conflicts and real tensions between these two objectives.
In order to be one hundred percent business and one hundred percent mission, Freeset created Freeset Trust, which is funded by the profits of the business unit. Money from Freeset Trust goes to the non-profit arm of the company, Tamar, the sole mission of which is meeting the social, physical, and spiritual needs of the women. Although Freeset still has shortcomings, the leadership continues to approach the business with humility and an open mind. They are willing to learn from the women in the community and to adapt. Through it all, they are building a redemptive community of faith and healing where the paradox of the strengths and shortcomings of business coexist with the generous, gracious, and sacrificial love of Christ.
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. . . .
Min-Dong Paul Lee, PhD, serves as an associate professor and the Norris A. Aldeen Chair of Business at Wheaton College. His research interests are business as mission and corporate social responsibility.
Winnie Fung, PhD, is an assistant professor of Economics at Wheaton College. Her research and teaching interests are in development economics.
Joey Fung, PhD, is an assistant professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her research interests lie in ethnic minority mental health, culture, and psychopathology.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 118-127. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are the defining characteristics of a BAM that distinguish it from other businesses?
2. Tension is difficult to navigate. What can BAM entrepreneurs do to navigate the tension of being fully business and fully ministry at the same time?