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Business trumps spirit; heart and soul is lost


The church is a business,” insists Tom, talking about a recent vestry meeting in which he shocked his fellow Episcopalians by treating it so. “You can’t pretend the money’s just going to appear by miracle. As for dipping into the endowment … ”

Our friends are nodding agreement, shoring up his pragmatism. I’m thinking about loaves and fishes and sweet honey from a rock, seas parting and water fermenting to a fine wine.

Once I asked, at the annual meeting of an idealistic nonprofit, whether we were practicing socially conscious investment. The pink faded instantly from the crumpled cheeks of the accountant who’d managed the portfolio for decades. “It’s just not wise, honey,” she told me, and finished with asperity: “We’d lose money that way.”

In America, business trumps spirit every time. We’ve even managed to commodify Sept. 11, starting with the New York investment consultants who immediately produced a commercial of white candles, lit one by one with quiet reverence, to restore our faith in capital. Now stores of every kind sell red-white-and-blue memorabilia, and shopping itself has been pronounced a declaration of patriotism.

I’m old enough to -- well, I’m old enough to start a sentence that way. I’m 40, which isn’t ancient, yet I remember when churches, hospitals and schools weren’t businesses. Getting sick felt a whole lot more comfortable when you could cherish at least the illusion that decisions would be made on the basis of your health, and not their bottom line.

After grad school I worked seven years at St. Louis University, catching the end of that golden period before universities took on corporate-style management. Fr. Edward J. Drummond, a kindly, wizened Jesuit who’d once been university president, had suffered a series of strokes, losing the ability to speak logically. He’d wander around the familiar campus, stopping in each office, and as soon as Fr. Drummie appeared in the doorway, secretaries set aside their typing to chat with him. My editor once sat patiently for an hour and a half while Father regaled him. After he left, beaming and waving, Rich burst into my office waving his notebook. “I think I’ve got it!” he said. “If you take every third word … ”

We laughed, but it was gentle laughter, the kind you reserve for a beloved uncle. Nobody ever came round to ask why Rich was spending so much time chatting when he had a paper to put out. And the paper always got out. We did an immense amount of work in those days, none of it grudging. Yet we found time to adopt a young Jesuit’s dog after he got kicked out of the dorm, and we played tennis ball with the pup several times a day. We kept a futon in the storage room in case anybody had cramps or needed a nap. We kept the priorities human.

Now, this university, like all others, is self-consciously corporate. It’s still a decent place, filled with dedicated people. But the air is different, and so is the management structure, layered with overseers and plagued by budgetary “measures.” Recently there was a spate of downsizing.

My editor had worked at St. Louis University for years, too. In the end, plagued by scleroderma and a wife with severe mental illness, he slowed to a standstill, unable to meet the daily grind of deadlines. He didn’t get downsized, or demeaned. Instead, they found him a project -- write a book about the history of the university -- and let him set the pace. It wasn’t a businesslike arrangement at all; he should have been let go. They could have found a young person with twice the energy for half the money. Rich could have gotten a job running a carwash or something, used the family’s savings to pay the medical bills, chalked it up to business as usual.

Except, he’d given his life to the place.

It’s a funny thing: The more our churches and hospitals and universities run like businesses, the less inclined anybody is to pour out their time, heart and sweat to help them continue.

Business can’t measure the human heart and soul.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@riverfronttimes.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003