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Faith and Work: An Exploratory Study of Religious Entrepreneurs

1
Department of Sociology, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97326, Waco, TX 76798, USA
2
Department of Management, Hankamer School of Business, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97326, Waco, TX 76798, USA
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2014, 5(3), 780-800; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel5030780
Received: 15 March 2014 / Revised: 26 June 2014 / Accepted: 30 July 2014 / Published: 14 August 2014

Abstract

The influence of religion on work has not been fully explored, and, in particular, the relationship between religion and entrepreneurship as a specific type of work. This study explores the link between entrepreneurial behavior and religion. The study finds that religion, for entrepreneurs, is highly individualized, leading to the initial impression that religion and work have no relationship. Upon closer inspection, however, the study finds that religion does shape entrepreneurial activity. Entrepreneurial activity is impacted by a need for the entrepreneurs to reinterpret their work in religious terms, ending the tension for them between faith and work.
Keywords: religion; work; family religion; work; family

1. Introduction

Religion impacts many different areas of a person’s life, such as family [1,2]; politics [3,4,5], and gender roles [6,7]. Though a few strong perspectives have emerged in the area of work and religion [8,9] this relationship has been marginalized by sociologists. Work is something that plays a central role in the everyday lives of people [10,11,12]. In American society today, the workplace is progressively consuming a greater proportion of people’s time [10], becoming more central to their identity 1 [12] and beginning to incorporate more life elements [10,13]. The influence of religion on work has not been fully explored by sociologists, however, and, in particular, the effect of religion on entrepreneurship as a specific type of work.
Entrepreneurial behavior as a particular kind of work has increased and can be seen as the driving force behind the capitalist system [14]. Scholars define an entrepreneur as someone who possesses a new enterprise, venture, or idea, and also assumes the accountability for the risk and outcome [15], or as someone who assembles resources (such as innovations, capital, knowledge) in order to transform them into economic goods [16]. Whereas research on entrepreneurial activity and religion has sociological beginnings in the works of Alexis Tocqueville [17] and Max Weber [18] in the late 19th and early 20th century, more recently, entrepreneurship researchers have explored specific links between religious beliefs and entrepreneurial behavior [19,20,21]. The findings have indicated that relationships between religion and entrepreneurship exist, but that these associations vary over time and social setting, and are not distinctly different from associations found among non-entrepreneurs [22,23]. Some of the more recent findings, however, also posit the idea that entrepreneurship is driven by a person’s values [24], particularly their internal values, such as their faith [25].
Since the new millennium, research on the relationship between religion and work has gained some consideration in sociology, but the specific relationship between entrepreneurialism and religion has received limited attention [26]. This paper is an initial sociological exploration of the relationship between entrepreneurial work and religion. The goal is to understand the link between religion and work for Christian entrepreneurs. The main research question driving this is “how do religious entrepreneurs see their faith in relation to their work?”
Through a series of interviews with Christian entrepreneurs, we found that, while on first glance religion appeared to have no bearing on the entrepreneurial behavior, upon closer examination there is a relationship between the entrepreneurs’ work and faith. In large measure, our sample of Christian entrepreneurs was not conventionally religious, but they did report high religious salience. We argue that this is reflective of the contemporary trend of religious individualism as articulated by Bellah et al. [27] and more recently by Madsen [28]. We found that the entrepreneurs, when questioned about their faith and the role it plays in their work, articulate a relationship in which their faith frames their entrepreneurial activity. The entrepreneurs described a tension that existed between their previous jobs and their faith due to conflicting values. In setting up their own businesses they strove to create a work environment which focused upon reflecting and incorporating these values. The entrepreneurial activity is shaped by the need of these entrepreneurs to reinterpret their work in religious terms, ending the tension for them between faith and work.

2. Literature Review

2.1. Religion in Society

By the 20th century, religion was seen by sociologists, secularization theorists in particular, as on the way to its demise [29,30]. Secularization theorists’ expectations included the declining importance of religion on social life, the diminishing strength of religious organizations, and waning religious commitment [31]. Though secularization theory played a considerable role in the sociology of religion [32], by the end of the 20th century, the continued presence and influence of religion had to be accounted for. Events throughout the world, such as the rise of fundamentalism, showed that religion continued to play a role in the lives of people [33]. Religion was not only shown to still be around, but, in fact, showed evidence of resiliency, and even vitality and growth in America [34,35,36,37]. Bellah and others [34,38] argued that while religion remained in the 21st century, its effective meaning had changed significantly, leading to more of a personalized, individualized form.

2.2. Individualized Religion

Individualism is a key component of American life. Bellah et al. [27] described individualism as a cultural tradition in the United States (with roots tracing back to the U.K. (see [39]), which has a subtle but deep influence on individual decisions and institutional practices. In particular expressive individualism emphasizes the “deeper cultivation of the self” ([27], p. 33). Bellah found that ideas of individualism revolved around ideals of good character and images of the good life. A general individualist American goal then is to live the good life by increasing individual well-being unhindered by the dictates of community tradition or religious authority.
While Bellah et al. argued that religious traditions were independent of individualism, the pervasive influence of individualism has affected religion as well, and scholars have found a strong and growing individualistic element within American religion [1]. For example, young adults in the U.S. no longer feel that religion is something they need to strive to conform with, but something that should instead support them [40]. For these young Americans religion represents an interchangeable set of beliefs and practices that conforms to their sense of self-expression rather than a tradition to which they conform. The rise of the person as an individual decision maker and the emphasis on choice are also important; authority now rests within the individual [41], and they are free to choose what to believe based upon what satisfies them.
Individualism has influenced religion in that people now exert individual choice and autonomy within religion [28,42], leading to a more personalized religion and religious identity [43]. Identity forms around “self styles, personal religious worlds” ([43], p. 55), not around a set of timeless ideals and divinely-inspired commandments. Wuthnow [41] concluded that religion becomes more about individual personal beliefs instead of teachings and symbols. Thus, the influence of individualism has led to a highly privatized, personal, expressive mode of religion in American society [28,38,44,45,46].
Scholars also draw attention to the non-institutional spaces and expressions of religion, sometimes described as “everyday religion” [42,47,48]. These scholars have found that there is now an “elevation of individual autonomy over institutional authority” ([47], p. 7). People are beginning to make a “distinction between the ‘church’ and ‘religion’, emphasizing that religion is really what mattered to them” ([42], p. 6). Religion does not have to be held within the boundaries of organizations and institutions; instead, individuals redefine religion in various ways that transform congregations or become new religious forms with different cultural boundaries [9,49]. For example, Hout and Fischer [50] found that an increasing number of Americans have become disenfranchised with organized religion, and formally identify with ‘no religion’, although remaining privately religious. Other studies have shown that a personalized sense of religion and spirituality characterize even individuals participating in religious organizations [51,52,53].

2.3. Religion and Work

The theoretical connection between religion and work has been an interest of sociologists since the inception of sociology as a discipline [54]. Weber [18] argued that modern capitalism was a system with inherent values rooted in Protestantism, including self-discipline, asceticism and rationality, collectively described as the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) [55,56]. Though Weber attributed the origins of capitalism and its success to Protestantism, he claimed that “the people filled with the spirit of capitalism today tend to be indifferent, if not hostile to the church” ([18], p. 70). Weber foreshadowed that those who partake in the economic realm would eventually no longer need religion. However, certain studies demonstrate that people do not see work and religion as completely distinct spheres [8,11,57,58,59]. Recent studies on the growing incorporation of spirituality into the workplace further reinforce this argument [10,60,61].
Miller [8,59], in particular, has examined the role of faith in the workplace, finding that “in growing numbers business people are embarking on a quest to integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work” and that “leading compartmentalized lives is no longer a viable strategy for life or for work” ([8], p. 301). Indeed, many business people experience a Sunday-Monday gap, where Sunday morning worship holds no relevance for the Monday workplace [8,57,62]. As people attempt to find a balance between work and other areas of their life, faith and work have begun to coexist in the same sphere [10]. As the movement to bring spirituality into the workplace grows, the “borders between the religious and the economic realms have become increasingly porous” ([60], p. 163).
The movement to bring faith back into the workplace has taken part largely outside of the religious organizations [8,10]. The problem, Miller finds, is that many people do not have the language or the means of expressing the way in which they are integrating their faith and their work. When people are asked about their ‘religion’ in reference to their work, they shy away to avoid being sorted into the ‘religious group’. Participants in the Faith at Work movement reject typical either/or categorization attempting to rise above these labels placed on the movement [8].

2.4. Entrepreneurial Behavior and Religion

The above studies explain how faith is being brought into the workplace, how people are bridging the gap between work and religion, and how these two are no longer separate realms. Because entrepreneurial behavior can be seen as the driving force behind the capitalist system [14], when exploring the world of work within this system one must include entrepreneurial behavior.
Lindsay’s [60] study of evangelical elites is the closest sociological account of how faith impacts entrepreneurial activity. Lindsay found that Evangelicals, in particular, have brought their faith and work together, and that faith even drove some of these elites’ business decisions. Paradoxically, these elites for the most part are not active in institutionalized religion, despite being highly religious personally. Thus, while at first glance it may appear that they are not religious by traditional measures (church attendance and participation), they are religious on more personal measures (religious salience, prayer, bible reading).
Altogether, when we look at studies on elite entrepreneurs, such as Lindsay [60], or studies on the growing movement of integrating faith and work [8,10,57,59] we find there is some type of relationship between a person’s work and their faith. Thus, it would follow that a person’s religion would have some impact on their entrepreneurial behavior.

2.5. Religion Shaping Entrepreneurial Activity

Wuthnow [11] explained that people’s economic commitments are embedded in moral frameworks. Some people engage in conscious effort and struggle in order to bring these two realms of the spiritual and the economic together seamlessly. For this type of person the realms are reconciled on very individual terms. The individual’s views are “highly idiosyncratic, influenced more by the individual’s personal expression and multiple religious languages they were exposed to then by particular creeds or doctrines” ([11], p. 306). Thus individualized religion allows for these realms to be combined, though still with effort on the individual’s part.
When looking at religion for white, upper middle class, Americans today, Madsen [28] concluded that American religion is driven by a sense of choice and self-fulfillment. It is a religion of individualism, not proscribed but chosen [28]. The connection with the sacred that a person chooses will be based upon what pleases and fulfills the individual, thus demonstrating how deeply ingrained individualism and the importance of self-expression is in religion today. Madsen also pointed out that because individuals choose their religion, it is something that is very valid and salient for them, leading them to place significant effort into their religion.
In Lamont’s [12] study of white, upper middle class professionals, she found that work occupied a central role in their lives. These workers (as opposed to blue collar workers) do not live for “after work” but instead “work is a means by which they develop, express and evaluate themselves” ([12], p. 33) and is a key part of their identity. The concept of self-identity has been covered extensively in the field of social psychology, with one focus on the social construction of self-identity [63]. Within this field the ideas of role expectations, identity and identity salience help us to understand Lamont’s findings. Individuals occupy multiple positions within society at any given time and with all of these positions come particular roles and expectations. These roles and expectations, when carried out over time, create a sense of self-identity for the individual [64]. Due to the multiple positions that an individual holds at once, there can be conflicting roles and expectations. This leads to the idea of identity salience. Research has demonstrated that a person’s multiple identities are ordered in a salience hierarchy [65]. As individuals become more committed to a given role, both with their time and energy, this role will gain salience and be a stronger factor in guiding their actions and decisions. Thus in Lamont’s findings, the identity of ‘worker’ was very salient for the white collar interviewees studied. As the individual’s identity is more tied to their work, it is also important for the person’s work to reflect and align with their values, particularly if the person has a strong religious identity with very salient values. If the two realms of religion and economics do not align, this could cause the person tension due to their values and identities not aligning and perhaps even contrasting. The person must, therefore, find a way to have their work accurately reflect and align with their values.
The individualization of religion allows individuals to personalize their religion and also to choose how religion will function in their lives. Individuals can choose to carry out or practice their religion by emphasizing certain values that are salient to them. An area such as work can, through individualized religion, be a place in which individuals practice their faith. This allows for individuals to reinterpret areas of their lives, such as work, through their religion.
When a person has the opportunity to create a new work environment, and they have experienced tension between the economic and the religious realms in the past, they will choose to create a new workplace which will be shaped by their individualized faith, by the values that are salient to them and seen as reflecting their religion. Research has also found that an entrepreneur’s value system and their beliefs can have a strong impact on their business decisions, culture and mission and other outcomes for the business [66,67,68,69]. Thus, through individualization of religion, the entrepreneur is able to choose what their faith will look like and how it is practiced, thereby allowing for the entrepreneurs to reinterpret their work through their religion and ultimately aligning the realms of economics and religion in their lives.
In order to examine the idea that religion is incorporated into entrepreneurial activity, this study asks: how do religious entrepreneurs see their faith in relation to their work? Through interviews with Christian entrepreneurs, we explore the relationship of faith to the entrepreneur’s work, looking specifically at if and how religion impacts entrepreneurial activity.

3. Methodology

To gather data for this study the lead author conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with entrepreneurs in Colorado, each lasting approximately one hour. Interviews allowed for the “participant’s perspective on events” [70] to be discovered, making it an ideal data collection method for this project. The goal of these interviews was to understand if and how participants connect faith and entrepreneurial behavior, and whether their religious community influenced this connection. Interview questions focused on the motivations for the entrepreneurial endeavor, core personal and social values, religious involvement, and beliefs associated with their activity or business. Each interview took place at a public location which was convenient for the participant. The interviews were digitally recorded (with the participant’s consent), accompanied by written notes based on any extra observations or non-verbal cues that were noticed during the interview. Interviews were then transcribed and analyzed using qualitative analysis software. In the analysis process the interviews were explored for main themes. These themes were developed in the vein of grounded theory. While the researchers were aware of some previous literature on the subject, the interviews were read through without any pre-existing codes, thus, allowing for new themes to emerge that may have been missed with using pre-existing codes. Once the themes were developed, the interviews were again read through to code for the specific themes and develop the findings.

Sampling Method

For the purposes of this project, we defined entrepreneurial behavior as including starting an enterprise, but also including an individual’s ability to recognize opportunities, proclivity to take risks, and an impulse to act innovatively [71,72]. In the traditional sense, Sullivan and Sheffrin [15] define an entrepreneur as someone who has possession of a new enterprise, venture or idea and also assumes the accountability for the risk and outcome. An entrepreneur assembles resources (such as innovations, capital, knowledge) in order to transform them into economic goods [16]. An example of this type of entrepreneur is the small business owner such as a restaurant proprietor. This individual decides to begin the restaurant due to their culinary artistic ideas or skills, or a new notion of a good dining experience; if successful, this endeavor generates income and hopefully a profit for the owner. Other examples in this area of small business owners include real estate agents, coffee shop owners, book or magazine company owners, as well as those who have begun “spin-off” organizations due to new innovations.
Although entrepreneurship within existing large organizations also fit this expansive definition, our interest is in the behavior and motivations of individual actors or innovators. A subset of these individuals are not primarily motivated by the potential of monetary profit, but rather the potential accruements in social value [73]. This has been described in the literature as ‘social entrepreneurship’, where a person uses their resources to address social problems [74]. These entrepreneurs see a problem in society and organize, create, and manage a venture in order to promote social change. In essence, they use entrepreneurial action to fix it. An example of this type of entrepreneur is someone who creates a charter school. This person sees a problem at the school their child is currently attending (whether this is poor teaching or content etc.), and then organizes and effectively manages the process of beginning a new charter school. Other examples in this category include authors, musicians, daycare owners and micro-financing company owners.
Participants were selected through snowball sampling. We began with two participants who were Christian entrepreneurs and had been part of a previous project with a member of the research team. The previous research project looked at why people were attracted to and attended megachurches. From this project, the researcher had an existing relationship with the two participants, and knew that they were Christian entrepreneurs. The research team began by interviewing these two participants and then asked them for recommendations on others who were Christians and also demonstrated entrepreneurial behavior. From these initial interviews, the research team was able to employ the snowball sampling technique. After the completion of each interview, the interviewee was asked if they could recommend any other Christian entrepreneurs. By not restricting our sample to only business owners, we examine a broader spectrum of risk taking behavior, innovation, and creativity, all of which are important parts of entrepreneurial activity. The sample consisted of 21 entrepreneurs total from a variety of religious backgrounds as well as a range of ages. Because the goal of the study was to explore the link between religion and entrepreneurship, we did not control for whether the business was ‘successful’ or not, but instead used only the parameters of being Christian and an entrepreneur. It is important to note however that those who were included in the sample had partaken in their entrepreneurial activity for at least a year, thus, demonstrating some sort of success or feasibility. For further details on the sample composition, see Table 1.
We drew our sample of entrepreneurs from two cities. Eleven entrepreneurs were from the metropolitan area of Denver, Colorado. Denver (the metropolitan area) is a fast growing, large city of about 2.8 million people, which averaged a population growth rate of 1.9% from 1999 to 2009, mainly due to the in-migration of highly educated workers from other states [75]. Denver is also one of the most popular places for the relocation of highly skilled and educated workers who are moving to metropolitan areas [76], thus, making it an ideal setting to study innovation and creation. In addition we interviewed ten entrepreneurs from Fort Collins, Colorado. Fort Collins, 90 miles to the north of Denver is a university town of approximately 120,000. It is a good contrast to Denver because it has not experienced the same in migration of high skilled workers.
Table 1. Entrepreneur Sample.
Table 1. Entrepreneur Sample.
First NameJobAgeReligious Denomination
KoriDay Care Provider45Missouri Synod Lutheran
BenReal Estate Agent36Lutheran
BarkerWriter74Assembly of God
KarlRestaurant Owner52Catholic
MargaretRestaurant Owner48Non-Denominational
JamesPacking Company Owner43Non-Denominational
SarahFlower Shop Owner39Catholic
JohnDiet/Exercise Company Owner42 Non-Denominational
MikeLawyer49Episcopal
SethCamp Owner56Pentecostal
Gary Day Camp Director62Lutheran
MaryChildren’s Center Owner41Methodist
MarvinPool Company Owner36Baptist
CarreyPool Company Owner36Baptist
ArthurOrthodontist61Methodist
KyleChristian Musician25Non-Denominational
PamScrapbooking Company Owner29Catholic
JanePhotographer/Portrait Studio Owner26Presbyterian
BrianProperty Management Company Owner28Lutheran
JayFinancial Planner56Assembly of God
RandyCar Repair Shop Owner43Baptist
MarkRestaurant Owner48Non-Denominational

4. Findings

The following section will describe the main themes. The first main theme illustrates the individualizing of faith from organized religion to personal values. The next main theme was the idea of resolving the tension between faith and work by starting a business. The last main theme was how the entrepreneurs created or structured their new work environments. This is demonstrated through the three subthemes of putting family first, demonstrating good character and helping others. These findings describe the link between religion and entrepreneurship for the participants in the study.

4.1. Individualized Faith

Religion for the Entrepreneur, on the surface, was unconventional; common characteristics of religiosity, church attendance and participation, were largely missing from the lives of these Christian entrepreneurs. On this count, Weber’s prediction of the separation of religion and capitalism in the future seems evident. However, this hides the rich texture of how faith is expressed and understood in the lives of these entrepreneurs. Through our interviews, a specific understanding of religion emerged. Religion for these entrepreneurs is individualized and personalized. It is a mixture of religious values which they feel are key to living a fulfilling life. Religion to them is not adhering to conventional religious behaviors, but focuses around a system of values which the person learned from their religion growing up. Religion becomes about living out these key values, as opposed to following conventional religious behaviors.
All of the entrepreneurs in this sample grew up in religious homes, going to church every Sunday and having open dialogue about their faith in their home. The entrepreneurs describe the main messages from their faith while growing up as valuing family, demonstrating character, and helping others. The idea of bringing their faith into every part of their life was also a key point. While all but two of the entrepreneurs in the sample no longer attend church on a weekly basis, they still hold strong to these main values. They describe their religion as following a specific understanding of the priority of family, good character, and service. They attribute these values to the religion of their upbringing. This is best exemplified in the quote by Gary, a 62 year old day camp director when asked about his religion:
Religion is not about going to church, or following what someone tells you to do. It is about following the values of your faith, the values that you grew up with as a kid in church, and about really applying these to your life (interview data).
As demonstrated by Gary, the dialogue around religion when interviewing entrepreneurs was almost always put in terms of ‘my faith’ signifying the individual quality that it held. Interviewees explained how they understood their faith in terms of values but did not speak in broader terms about religion. There were no references to membership or participation in a wider religious group, or fulfilling a religious mission. Religion is not talked about in conventional terms (such as church, the bible, or God), but instead is given through the respondent’s own rendition of their faith. For these entrepreneurs, religion has become detached from its institutional moorings and now focuses instead around values.
The following story exemplifies the way in which the entrepreneurs take the religion that they grew up with and individualize it. Mary grew up going to a Lutheran church every Sunday morning with her family. Along with attending church, going to Sunday school and a variety of other weekly church activities the family would also pray before meals, have weekly devotions together and often talk about God. Mary describes her religious upbringing as one which gave her a sense of belonging and security. God and religion were part of her everyday life. As Mary grew older and moved away from her family she eventually stopped going to church. Mary explains:
I stopped going to church not because I lost any of my faith, but because my life just became too busy for it. There wasn’t time for everything and I felt as though going to church wasn’t the only way or time that I could express my faith. My faith is part of my life everyday, in all the things that I do. My faith is what guides me and helps me make decisions. My faith is expressed every time I make a decision for my family or business, or help someone, it is not limited to being expressed at church—it is bigger than that (interview data).
This idea of moving away from conventional religious behaviors and practices is a common theme among the entrepreneurs interviewed. Though all of the entrepreneurs grew up going to church weekly with their families, only two remain attending church on a regular basis. The other entrepreneurs however do not attribute their lack of conventional religious practices to any loss of faith, but rather to a different way of incorporating and practicing their faith in their lives. The entrepreneurs all claim that their faith plays a large role in everything they do, in their actions, their relationships and their decisions. As Margaret says,
My faith is what guides everything else in my life, it is a part of everything that I do, and not going to church doesn’t change that. I know what values are important, and what needs to be a focus in my life, my faith tells me this, I don’t need to go to church to learn how to do this or to make it possible (interview data).
Though many of the responses linking faith and work seem to reflect general values, the values of these Christian entrepreneurs are actually driven by a religious framework. To these entrepreneurs their values express their religion, and the need to focus on these values in their daily life is driven by faith.

4.2. Resolving the Tension

In speaking with the entrepreneurs, every person conveyed the notion that in starting their own business they carry their faith and the values that came with it into their work life. The entrepreneurs wanted their work world to reflect their faith, to be interpreted through their faith. As Sarah, a 39 year old flower shop owner states, summarizing what many of the entrepreneurs echoed:
What is important is that I get to live the kind of lifestyle that I want, one that emphasizes my family and my faith. One that I don’t have to constantly be searching for me to find these things and make time for them, but one that emphasizes them. I want my faith to show in my work (interview data).
Respondents claimed they felt a disjoint between their faith and the lifestyle that they were leading in their previous jobs. They told us that their former work was smothering values that were key to their faith, and unbalancing their priorities, thus making them unhappy or unsettled. The workplace was creating a tension for the entrepreneurs between their work identity and its values, and their faith and its values. As Jane, the owner of a portrait studio states,
There was this constant tension before between my faith and work, everything else in my life revolved around work before starting this business, now work revolves around all the important things. Starting a business allowed me to build work around my faith, and the values that come with this. Now the two don’t conflict (interview data).
Arthur, an elderly orthodontist echoes this thought as he describes the atmosphere in his old office as somewhere in which, “everyone gets wrapped up in trying to be the best that they can, and trying to achieve as much as they can”, and this in turn “leads us too far from what we really should be focusing on, our faith” (interview data). The respondents felt as though in their previous jobs they were being pulled between workplace values and their faith. These two seemed incompatible for respondents, and formed tension. The entrepreneurs described their jobs as creating an environment in which it was difficult to adhere to their faith. They felt the need to create a new environment in which their faith values were affirmed and emphasized in doing their business.

4.3. Entrepreneurial Behavior within a Religious Framework

In creating new working environments, the entrepreneurs found a way to resolve the previous tension that existed between work and faith. The new environments focused around the values of family, being a good person, and helping others. The entrepreneurs describe these three values as central to their faith. By following these values (which have a religious origin), the entrepreneurs feel as though they are living out their faith. These were also the values that the entrepreneurs felt as being in conflict with their previous jobs and hindering their ability to carry out their faith there. As the entrepreneurs create new work environments, they reinterpret their work in a way that aligns it with their religious values. Work is reinterpreted in religious terms. The following three sections demonstrate how the entrepreneurs create new work environments, or frame their entrepreneurial activity within a framework based upon their religious values.

4.3.1. Putting Family First

Making family a priority was overwhelmingly the most important goal to the sample of entrepreneurs when asked about how they brought their faith into their new workplace. The topic of family, including making time for them and placing them as a priority, was described as a religious value in every interview, usually multiple times. This finding is best reflected in the explanation given by James, a 43 year old packing company owner:
How did I incorporate my faith in my work? I had to do what is most important to my faith, prioritizing and provide for my family. I needed to find something that would allow my family to come first. I couldn’t miss any more important moments because of work. I am not here to make money, I am here to take care of my family. However, my family needs to be provided for, so I need a job that would understand that and make them the priority (interview data).
Essentially, the goal for these entrepreneurs is to make their work revolve around their family. While sounding like a generic value that almost any parents would want, for these entrepreneurs, the importance of family comes from their faith. Seth states a common sentiment among the entrepreneurs:
I learned from growing up in church just how important family is. God put our families there to love us, to be our support, and in return we need to put them first in our lives, and be with them (interview data).
Working, for these entrepreneurs, created a conflict. They had to choose either to spend time away from their family at work, or to stay home with no means of supporting them. The goal or the value of spending time with their family, informed by their faith, is driving their work choices and decisions, leading them to start a business in which they can be with their family. This sounds contradictory at first, since entrepreneurs are busier when they begin a business. However, for many of the entrepreneurs, beginning a business means that they can work alongside their family members, or at least set the hours around other important family time. Karl, a 52 year old restaurant owner with his wife explains:
I wanted something that I could do with my wife, something that I could be with her and share with her every day. I felt like we barely saw each other before, and now we work alongside each other every day (interview data).
Karl goes on later to further explain:
My faith means loving my family, being close to them and sharing our lives together. I couldn’t do this when we barely saw each other. Now we get to share everything, even our work (interview data).
Ben, a former police officer turned real estate agent explains how by switching jobs he was able to prioritize family time, and how his faith tells him that this is important:
I also don’t do any business on Sundays. I think that this just tells people that I need this time for myself, my faith and my family. Instead of hurting my business, I think that this makes them respect me more…Bringing my faith to my work means bringing me to my family, and being there to have quality family time with them. To support them and guide them, which is why God put me here (interview data).

4.3.2. Demonstrating Good Character

While family is the dominant value for these entrepreneurs, and their number one priority, having a good, strong character was also a very important value, stated in every interview. Many of the respondents described how in their previous jobs they were not able to show their character, or had no autonomy to make decisions based upon their character. Being a person who is of good character and being able to show this, and lead with it in their work is a large part of the entrepreneur demonstrating their faith. Mike, a lawyer who began his own firm, claims:
A person can’t just be religious, and a good person on Sunday, they need to do this all the time, and not secretly be doing this, but constantly lead with this type of character (interview data).
Mike thus demonstrates how the entrepreneur’s faith drives them to not only have a strong character but use this in every aspect of their life, including work. Marvin, a pool company owner who is 36, also explains how he is able to incorporate his character into this new job, and how this is different than at his previous job:
I strive to be an honest, hardworking, trustworthy person, a person of strong, good character; therefore all of my business dealings are honest, hardworking and trustworthy. Every decision I make, every labor task I do is grounded in these. At my old job I had these traits, but my work wasn’t based on them, now it is (interview data).
Again, while being a good person is not a religious value in itself, these entrepreneurs are speaking from a very specific reference point, one which comes from their religious upbringing. Marvin explains later in his interview that “we as Christians need to emulate Jesus; that is what I was taught growing up, we need to be a kind, caring, honest person” (interview data). Many of the entrepreneurs echoed this understanding of being a good person as tied to being like Jesus. Thus, being a good person goes beyond humanist ideas and refers back to a specific Christian understanding of ‘good character’. Their religion is informing this value, and inspiring them to show it in all parts of their life, including their work.
In showing their character, and incorporating it into their business decisions and their work environment, the entrepreneurs feel as though they are not only practicing their own faith, but also reflecting this to others. They are bringing their faith into every part of their life, into everything that they do, thus reinterpreting their work through their faith. Mark, another successful restaurant owner, 48 years old, explains that people like his restaurant and employees enjoy working there because:
My faith comes through in the way that I relate to people. I mean not that I am preaching to them or anything, but the character that I show. I think that my faith makes me a strong, reliable person, and others see those characteristics. I think that it’s reflected in how I treat my staff members and deal with issues that arise (interview data).
Again, this example reflects the goal of the entrepreneur, to carry out their personal faith and their values into each part of their life, including their work. Mark wants to show others his character, because this is an affirmation of his faith. Instead of simply telling others about his faith, he wants others to see it through his character. Again, this points to individualized religion.
The way in which these entrepreneurs create a new work environment not only allows them to carry out and practice their faith as well as to reflect their faith and values to others. By reinterpreting their work through their faith, they believe they are practicing their faith with their work and conveying their faith to others. The entrepreneurs here use their character and their values as a base to build their business upon. They believe that this is what will draw others to their business. The entrepreneurs interviewed want to be genuine, good people, and have their businesses based upon this trait. By displaying their values to their customers, they are conveying what they stand for and who they are. This satisfies them and they believe that it builds their business. Jay, a 56 year old financial advisor explains:
Well I try to show people my faith, not because I want to convert them or anything but because I want them to know what I am all about. I want to show them what is important to me and what ideals I hold. I think that a lot of times this adds substance to the person that others see me as. If I am strong in my faith then they know how I am going to treat them (interview data).

4.3.3. Helping Others

Along with family and character, another very common value was helping others. Again, every interviewee described this value as a part of their faith, a part they felt was missing or suppressed in their past job. The entrepreneurs express the common sentiment about their previous jobs that the work was “centered around them and the idea of making money and doing whatever possible to get ahead” (interview data). Kori best expresses the common sentiment as she explains “that is not why we are here. God put us here to care for and love one another, not use them to get ahead” (interview data). The idea of having a job that centers around serving others is built upon the Christian values of empathy, compassion and love. These emphases were part of the religious upbringing of these entrepreneurs, and now represent a key value in their faith. The lack of this value in their previous jobs was part of the motivation to create a new working environment. New jobs that focus on helping others reflected how these entrepreneurs reinterpreted work through their faith.
As Margaret, wife of Karl, and co-owner of a restaurant states when asked about how they decided to start a restaurant, “we wanted to do something that would let us care for people, and we thought, well there is no better way to care for people than to feed them.” Kori, a 45 year old daycare provider, also touches on the idea of wanting to help as she explains:
Young kids need good role models, they need someone who will be there, who really cares for them, will take care of them and also teach them valuable lessons, which is exactly what I get to do every day now (interview data).
John, a 42 year old exercise/diet company owner describes it as “helping people to find their spirit” in his line of work. He states:
People come in here everyday, and they feel bad about themselves, they need someone to help them physically, but more than that they need someone to see them, someone to love on them, and that is what the company and I are all about. We help them (interview data).
Again, while these appear to be values that are not based in religion, the understanding of these values for these entrepreneurs are rooted in their faith. They are helping others because “helping others is the best way to show our faith, to really carry it out each day in our lives” (interview data).
Marvin and his wife, Carrey, both 36, owners of a pool management company best express this idea of helping others through their work. Over the past nine years Marvin and Carrey have owned the company and have hired many different high school and college students for the summer. Carrey explains that her faith shows in how she works with and handles this group each summer, claiming that “we are like a family. We treat our staff well and actually care for them, as opposed to just using them” (interview data).
Margaret and Karl, owners of a popular breakfast restaurant for six years also reflect the idea of helping others through their business and its policies. Margaret explains:
We will do almost anything to keep it so that people feel loved, almost to the detriment of the business sometimes. We want to help our staff, not only make a profit (interview data).
The way that these businesses are organized is not only based upon what is most efficient or profitable, but what reflects the values of their founders. One can see the difference in this example between the instrumental attitude towards work, and work that is inspired by a person’s faith. Marvin and Carrey and Margaret and Karl see the goal of their work not simply as making money, but as helping, loving and serving people. This purpose can be traced back to their faith, and their need to exhibit their faith in each part of their life. The business and its policies are driven by their personal faith.
As the above section demonstrates, the entrepreneurs have created a work environment that they feel solves the disjoint that they perceive between their faith and the values it advocates and their previous work. The entrepreneurs are striving to achieve the lifestyle that reflects their faith. The respondents choose to create a job or business that allows them to interpret their work through their faith. Thus, everything that they do in the work environment reflects their faith. This then resolves the tension that had previously existed between work and faith for these entrepreneurs.

5. Conclusions

This paper explores the relationship that exists between religion and entrepreneurial behavior. Based on interviews with 21 Christian entrepreneurs in Colorado, we find that religion does influence entrepreneurial activity. These entrepreneurs in their previous jobs felt a tension between their work and their faith and how their identity was reflected. Through their entrepreneurial behavior they are able to align their faith and their work, resolving the tension between these two. The entrepreneurs created new working environments based upon and reflecting the values (family, good character, and helping others) that they saw as the manifestation of their faith. The individualized nature of religion for these entrepreneurs allowed for them to bring their faith into this new environment and reinterpret their work through their faith.
We argue that studies up to this point on religion and entrepreneurial activity have not taken into account the changing nature of religion due to the effects of individualism; therefore the relationship between entrepreneurial activity and religion is not fully understood and perhaps overlooked. As religion becomes more personalized [38,40,43], privatized [44,45,46] and moves away from the institution form [42,47,50], the way religion is measured and how it interacts with entrepreneurial behavior must also shift and be re-examined. As Miller [8] found, individuals are not only unsure with how to integrate their faith and their work, they are unsure how to talk about it. Respondents in our sample do not want to be labeled or categorized. A new framework is needed to understand this relationship. While there are a few frameworks with which to understand the Faith at Work movement [8,54], this study focuses specifically on the relationship between entrepreneurial behavior and religion.
In looking at how religion is defined by the entrepreneurs in this study we found that they understand their faith as more of a “system of important values” as opposed to a ‘religion’, reflecting the impact of individualism on religion noted by others [40,42]. While the entrepreneur is still ‘religious’, it is more of a non-institutional, autonomous religion in which they are the center. Similar to other findings, these entrepreneurs no longer follow the guidelines of a religious institution [42,47]. They exercise more choice in how they practice their religion, and what form this takes (hence low religious attendance and participation). As found by Sikkink (1998), religion for these entrepreneurs is ‘self-styled’, focused around them and their needs.
We note that just because an individual does not show ‘traditional’ examples of orthopraxy does not necessarily mean that individualization of religion is unorthodox. An emerging body of literature argues that our assumptions of orthodox religiosity are very American and very Protestant [77], thus, religion as practiced by Christian entrepreneurs appears to some as inferior and problematic. As we have shown, just because an entrepreneur does not go to church does not necessitate a change in their beliefs, or even necessarily indicate anything about their beliefs. Our grounded theory approach to this study helped illuminate the problem in the sociology of religion of asserting orthodoxy based on practices from one religious tradition in one region and one particular era. We find that American Christian entrepreneurs view themselves as consistent models of their faith despite minimal participation in a faith community.
The need for these entrepreneurs to create congruency between their work (their main identity) and their religion shaped their entrepreneurial behavior. Though the realms of religion and work are often thought of as being separate, and even antagonistic towards one another, these entrepreneurs intentionally brought them together in order to resolve the tension that existed between them, and to align their identities. Bringing values into one’s work is not unique to these Christian entrepreneurs. David Brooks, in his book Bobos in Paradise [78] explained how there is a new class of workers which combine both bourgeoisie and bohemian values. Thus, these workers have found a way to make their work lives compatible with their bohemian values, and thus have created a new type of work ethic. Richard Florida [76] also discovered a group of workers which are longing for personal fulfillment and self-expression terming them the ‘creative class.’ This group wants to bring in their values, and desire pleasure and happiness into their work.
While the need to bring values into work has been found in other instances, this study looked specifically at the intertwining of religious values and the workplace among Christian entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurialism for religious people is a self-expression on religious terms. Starting a business that reflects their values is a drive towards authenticity within their own faith, creating a congruent identity between their work and faith. In order to have their faith be authentic to them, they need it to be present in all parts of their life, including their work. Entrepreneurialism then allows them to make their work reflect their religious values, and to reinterpret work in religious terms.
These conclusions are limited to this sample of white, upper middle class, Christian entrepreneurs. We do not know if this holds true for all Christian entrepreneurs. Future research testing the ideas presented here on a larger scale is needed. We also can only posit from this study the link between Christianity and white, upper middle class entrepreneurs. There may be a different mechanism that takes place between entrepreneurs of racial minority groups and social classes and religion. Other studies focusing on these groups specifically are needed.
These preliminary conclusions regarding Christian entrepreneurs also are limited by the lack of comparisons with other entrepreneurs of different faiths and with those with no particular faith tradition. Research exploring faith traditions and values has demonstrated differences in the priorities of values across religious traditions [79]. More specifically, research is necessary to examine if the prioritization of the values of family, character, and service are unique to Christian entrepreneurs or if these are characteristics of entrepreneurs broadly. If these values or their importance are somewhat unique to Christians, future research could explore how these values are influenced by different Christian traditions or specific beliefs. If these values are not unique to Christian entrepreneurs then research could explore the extent to which these values are influenced by culture or specific personal characteristics.
An additional direction for future research stemming from this study pertains to religious congregations. Congregations are a prominent part of the American landscape and do more than pass on religious knowledge. They are an important source of civic engagement [37] and artistic activity [80]. The relevance of congregations to individual’s occupational choices is far less understood. This raises empirical questions worth exploring, especially given the absence of congregational involvement among our interviewees. Do congregations motivate or sustain entrepreneurship for others? Is entrepreneurial activity a push or pull factor leading people away from congregations? Research into the relationship between religion and entrepreneurial behavior represents a valuable step forward in the attempt to understanding the place of religion in contemporary American society.

Acknowledgements

This project was made possible through the Jack Shand Research Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The lead author conducted this research while supported by the National Science Foundation Grant #0925907. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. A Special thanks to Kevin Dougherty for his help on this paper.

Author Contributions

Jenna Griebel Rogers collected and analyzed the data and drafted the manuscript. Jerry Z. Park advised Jenna Griebel Rogers on the initial conceptual framing of the project, and directed her funding initiative for the data collection. Jerry Z. Park also reviewed and commented on several drafts of the manuscript. Mitchell J. Neubert provided expertise in shaping the literature review and was the primary investigator on a grant supporting this work.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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  • 1For the upper-middle class, white collar professionals.
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