The next generation of leaders wrestles almost daily in colleges with the toughest issues facing our culture.
For many, college was only about preparing for a life of business, not a place we ever considered revisiting. Yet a growing number of our peers are wondering how they can invest their life experiences from within ivy-covered buildings. They end up impacting the lives of thousands of students – students such as one young man who was attending Yale when he met David Miller, then a professor and the executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. This young man, a smart student and a talented golfer with a great heart and solid character, sought out David as a mentor, and David’s investment in this young man’s life was priceless. David was just helping him connect the dots in life. After all, David’s spent much of his own life connecting dots, and his second-half career has become an extension of that process.
“My personal mission statement is to help leaders, current or future, integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work,” David says. “That’s what I do. I do it through teaching in and outside the classroom. I do it through my research and writing, and … I also do a lot of advisory and consulting work.” David, who now is director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, sees teaching as the perfect second-half platform. He has Ivy League credibility, an opportunity to influence some of the country’s brightest future leaders and, through the Avodah Institute he co-founded in 1999, the freedom to work with business leaders who are living out the theology he studies and teaches. Like so many people featured in this book, David never expected to end up where he is. He got there only by hearing God’s call, moving him from being an investment banker to professor. His quest, however, was and is to connect the dots between Sunday and Monday.
You see, David started out as the same sort of intellectually gifted student that he often sees in his classroom, and he had hard questions about his faith. His mother held fast to what he respectfully saw as a “simple” and unquestioning faith, while his father, a “genius” and a scientist, struggled to believe in anything he couldn’t fully intellectually comprehend.
David, whose early career took him on IBM’s fast track and then, at age 29, to the London office of States Street Bank & Trust as managing director of the bank’s European operations, wrestled with understanding the relationship between his deep faith and life in the marketplace. While he was in England, David and his wife, Karen, ended up in a small fellowship group led by the renowned pastor and theologian John Stott, who helped David see that it’s “theologically sound to have hard tough questions.” “If God is really who God says He is, and if Christ is really who He said He is, I don’t need to be afraid of the hard questions,” David says. “In fact, I should embrace them and run with them.”
David embraces them and encourages his students to do so, as well, something he says greatly appeals to them because so many have never been given intellectual permission to do so. Many of them, in fact, are steered well clear of integrating their faith with their academic or professional lives. Stott also helped feed David’s curiosity about the theology of work. Stott teaches “the ultimate centrality of Jesus,” David says, and that means, “if you accept theproposition of who Jesus said He was then your life is irrevocably changed and how you live your life matters. In all walks of life, whether you are an investment banker, a ditch digger, a CEO, or a secretary, your faith matters.” This was freeing for David, because it allowed him to see his work in banking as his ministry and his calling. And that’s why his return to academia seemed so out of the blue. David and Karen were in a sweet spot in life. He loved his career in banking. And Karen, who earned degrees from Lehigh, Georgetown and Harvard Law, had established herself as a bright legal mind, both as a practitioner and as a professor.
“We were at a stage of life where we couldn’t have been happier, quite frankly,” David says. “Karen and I were both professionally satisfied.” Then came an unexplainable “tugging” at his heart. “Why would God take me out of that very zone that I thrived in and enjoyed?” David wondered. It took about 18 months, but with the help of Karen and other friends, David confirmed this wasn’t some “mid-life wanderlust.” So he and Karen returned to the United States. He earned a master’s degree in divinity and a Ph.D. in ethics,
both at Princeton Theological Seminary and all with a burning question at the heart of his studies: What did Jesus, the Bible and all the great thinkers in church history have to say about life in the marketplace? As it turned out, plenty, and that’s what David teaches to students, business leaders and anyone else who’s interested, both through his work as a professor and through the Avodah Institute. Today he’s helping leaders find the freedom to integrate their faith into their everyday decisions by using language that’s winsome, persuasive and attractive. “You live a healthier, more successful career and life if you put your faith first and then figure out how to connect the dots,” he says. “But the question from students is, ‘Does it work? If I do this am I just setting myself up to be a wimp, and a pushover? Am I going to be able to get ahead in a business that rewards cutthroat behavior?’ ”
To help allay the question of utility, David usually invites CEOs who take their faith seriously to talk frankly to students about the decisions they’ve made – the good and bad ones – and what role their faith played. “As they look back over the arc of a multi-decade career,” David says, “what’s the report card? Resoundingly, they all say trying to live out their faith was the smartest thing they ever did. They usually will say it was the times when they didn’t or when they compromised that ended up being the mistakes.” David is careful not to promote a view that integrating one’s faith in the workplace automatically leads to success, but he wants his students to see the benefits – sometimes internal and, yes, sometimes financial – to integrating one’s faith in one’s work. The hardest place, however, to live out one’s faith sometimes is much more personal. In fact, one of his toughest challenges was when Karen’s career as an attorney and law professor was cut short more than a decade ago after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She and David had to wrestle with all the complex questions that came with that change in their lives and, as David puts it, “I’d be kidding if I said it was a smooth, linear process.”
“Karen getting MS is not a blessing,” he says, “it’s a horrible thing, and I sure wish she didn’t have it. I’d do anything to take it myself so she didn’t have to have it, so I wouldn’t call it a blessing. What I would say, profoundly, is that we’ve felt the love and presence of God more deeply in our marriage.” Karen is finding new ways to direct her heart and intellect, while also working full-time at the job of resisting the progression of her disease. They have learned that callings take many shapes, and God is present through them all, helping to connect the dots and fulfill His purpose through our lives.