Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 12:51 pm
On the first Thursday of May each year, hundreds of business and community leaders from across Wisconsin pack the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee for an early morning event focused on one specific purpose: prayer.
The Governor’s Prayer Breakfast is a long standing tradition for the state. Held annually on the National Day of Prayer, the event dates back to the late 1960s when Warren Knowles served as governor, and gained in popularity when former governor Tommy Thompson took office in the late 1980s.
Now, over 45 years since its inception, the event annually attracts almost 1,000 attendees who gather for a morning of prayer and reflection, and to hear from notable speakers, including Gov. Scott Walker himself. An outspoken Christian, Walker has attended the breakfast for the past eight years as governor and for the eight years before that as Milwaukee County executive.
“There’s a spiritual part to everyone, some recognize it some don’t, and some like to use it more than others in life and in business,” said John Fisco, Jr., the chairman of the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast committee. “We think the inspiration they can get from talking about it with others, and listening to others talk about it, makes an impact on each individual that attends.”
Fisco is also the publisher of the Christian Courier newspaper, the longest running Christian-based newspaper in the U.S., and the event’s organizer for the past 30 years.
But despite its Christian roots, the event is open to people of any faith, denomination or creed, and annually draws a diverse crowd. To the majority of attendees, Fisco said, the breakfast is more about “business than it is about church.”
“It’s not an evangelistic rally, it’s not a crusade of churches or anything like that – not at all… it serves to bring the awareness of the business community’s faith to the public,” he said.
Statistically speaking, a 2014 religious landscape study published by the Pew Research Center shows the religious composition of Wisconsin adults as 71 percent Christian, four percent non-Christian (with Judaism and Islam as the largest groups in that category) and the remaining 25 percent as unaffiliated with a religion. It also indicates that 44 percent of Wisconsin adults who were surveyed see religion as “very important” in their lives – the highest ranking on a scale from “very important” to “don’t know.”
The data shows there is a large population of people of faith throughout the state, and inevitably, this population is present throughout its workforce.
And for many members of this faith-based business community – employers, entrepreneurs, managers, and c-suite executives alike – religion doesn’t just exist within the confines of a church, synagogue, mosque or worship space. Instead, it continuously intersects with other aspects of their life, including work.
Faith guiding leaders
For many religious business leaders, faith doesn’t get checked at the door when they enter their workplace as their beliefs are as much a part of their professional lives as they are their personal lives. And when business leaders bring their faith into the workplace, faith-based values naturally become their guide to operating a company – from interacting with employees to handling finances.
Patrick Booth, president of Racine-based CCB Technology, said his Christian faith helps him maintain his integrity as a leader, which sometimes means turning down unethical business deals even if they could financially benefit the company, he said.
He often prays about major business decisions and the company’s wellbeing, and trusts in God to inform his leadership abilities at work and at home, he said.
CCB Technology, which originally sold discounted IT solutions exclusively to nonprofit organizations, was founded in 1991 by Booth’s parents. They had instilled Christian-based values into both their home and their business, he said, and 27 years later, Booth leads the IT services company using those same philosophies.
“This is what I have chosen, and I’m not saying my path is for anybody else, but I can share how it has helped me to not lose who I am as a person, because it’s easy to get consumed by money, it’s easy to get consumed by power.”
There is even a Bible verse hung on the wall at CCB that serves as a reminder of the company’s founding values: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” – Proverbs 3:5-6
As Muslim business owners, Bushra and Hashim Zaibak make sure they operate their business in close alignment with the values of their faith. The husband and wife team own Milwaukee-based Hayat Pharmacy, which operates 11, soon to be 15, locations strategically located in underserved areas throughout the city. Hayat offers services such as free delivery and in-home or on-site pharmacist consultations to provide, what Bushra calls, the “VIP experience” for their patients – some of whom are refugees and are unfamiliar with the country’s health care system.
“It is super important for us to make sure that that population in particular is taken care of because they do frequently tend to be overlooked,” she said. “Religiously, it’s important for us to know that there is no one person who is better than another based on race, ethnicity or religion. The best among us are those who are best in character, and it’s our responsibility to give back and make sure that those in our community are receiving the care they deserve. When they’re in need, it’s important for us to be there.”
As part of that obligation, the company will often go the extra mile to help their patients attain a medication or service that is not covered by insurance. Using money pooled together by its employees, Hayat recently waived the cost of cancer treatment medication that a patient needed but could not afford.
Without the guidance of their Islamic faith, Hashim said, their business would focus more on profitability, and not so much on people.
“Faith adds that extra value,” He said. “It’s not all about what goes on in this life but what goes on in this life and in the here after.”
And the Zaibaks’ are not only guided by their Islamic morals. They are also required to apply its rules to their business. For example, most chain pharmacies sell alcohol or cigarettes, but Hayat does not to sell those items due to Islam’s rules against it.
Even more challenging has been the rule against paying or gaining interest – on loans, on lines of credit, on car payments, anything that involves borrowing or lending. So for each new pharmacy they have opened since launching the company in 2011, the Zaibaks have had to rely on outside investors, business partnerships, and saving, rather than taking out a traditional loan from a bank.
This rule hasn’t exactly made things easy, especially when the business was first getting off the ground, but it’s part of the call to live an ethical and “Godly” life within their means, and its kept their company debt-free, they said.
“I want to continue to have Hayat Pharmacy help the community and keep serving the underserved, but if I have a lot of interest to pay, can I stay in business?” Hashim said. “So, I think by us avoiding interest, it actually put us on the right path and makes us stronger financially.”
Similar faith-driven reminders are a common site at Milwaukee-based Miller’s Carpets and Miller Management. As a member of the Orthodox Jewish faith, owner Todd Miller does not stray from the religion’s code of law to operate his construction, retail and property management businesses.
“In my world, I call my rabbi before I call my lawyer,” he said.
The bookshelf in his office is filled with resources — some secular, but mostly Jewish — that he references when making decisions or seeking guidance on what his faith deems as moral or lawful. Fastened to each doorway throughout the building is a mezuzah, a small decorative case containing a scroll inscribed with a Hebrew blessing that is to be recited daily and kept where an Orthodox Jew sleeps and lives, he said. For Miller, his business is how he lives, so he has applied the ritual to his work place.
With a strict observance of the Sabbath and biblical holidays, Miller does not work — and cannot technically “benefit” from his business — from Friday night through Saturday, and on 21 days throughout the Hebrew calendar. As a business owner, he relies on a partnership with a Gentile, or someone not of the Jewish faith, to operate the company and be legally responsible for it on those days.
“You live your life through this code of conduct… and our intent is to be honorable and admirable, and to be held accountable, within a framework of vision for everybody you see.”
A giant banner reading, “Give thanks to God, our families and our customers” is on full display in front Lakeland Supply Inc.’s corporate headquarters, located along Highway 16 in Pewaukee. The sign is hard to miss for people driving by.
The message changes every few months — the previous one said “Can’t Sleep? Try counting your blessings” — but it always relates to faith, which is one of the company’s mantras and is literally written into its mission and values statement.
“It’s not really what we do, but it’s who we are,” said Vince Schmidt, president at Lakeland Supply. “Our faith is what guides us and reminds us that we are most importantly in the business of serving others. The rest will come if we approach our business with that as our main goal.”
As part of its faith practice, all meetings at the Pewaukee-based packaging company start with prayer, often for employees who are sick or dealing with life’s challenges, Schmidt says. Lakeland also donates frequently to charities throughout the community that share similar values.
Schmidt said practicing faith on a corporate level has enhanced the business, and although its important to the company’s mission, Lakeland employees are not required to hold the same beliefs or even practice a faith at all.
“We understand that this is a deeply personal issue and we would never take issue with an employee that believes differently than we do,” he said. “With this understanding, people are free to explore faith without fear of being judged or ostracized.”
Milwaukee-based Wenthe-Davidson Engineering Co. has built a similar faith-based culture for its employees. It may not have faith officially included in its mission statement, but like Lakeland, meetings and company functions begin with prayer.
Earlier this year, the company replaced its employee assistance program with a chaplain who provides counseling on personal or professional issues.
The chaplain is available for the company’s 250 employees on-site once a week during all three shifts, and by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He offers guidance on a wide range of issues including marriage, divorce, parenthood, death and dying, mental health, conflict resolution and layoff and termination issues.
“All the work that is done at a company is through people,” said president and CEO Fred Anderson. “We seem to maintain and take very good care of our machines, but why wouldn’t we take care of our biggest investment, which is our people. Being a person of faith, I asked ‘what would God want us to do,’ and this seemed like a natural stretch.”
Employees at Wenthe-Davidson are not required to use the chaplain, but the resource is there for anyone who needs it, Anderson said. Last month, the chaplain had 653 contacts and 95 scheduled sessions with employees, he said, and since offering the service, employees seem less stressed and more open to sharing personal struggles with one another.
Strength in numbers
Anderson, who is a Christian, said he got the idea to hire the chaplain from a fellow business executive he met through the Alpha Bible Study.
The prayer group for Christian business leaders was started in 2013 by Alan Petelinsek, CEO of Sussex-based Power Test Inc., and has grown to include over 80 men who meet once a month to study scripture and discuss strategies for running a company ethically and in accord with Christian values.
Petelinsek said the group is a support system and a resource for those who choose to rely on faith and morality to operate a company.
“We’re all trying to do things that would honor God,” he said. “We’re there to help each other make those decisions… If you’re trying to honor Christ through your business decisions and your life, that’s what we aspire to be as leaders, and we’re there to call each other out if we’re falling short.”
And among these leaders of faith, there is growing desire to be more open about their faith within a professional setting, said Paul Neuberger, president of Greenfield-based insurance agency The Starr Group.
Because of this “spiritual thirst,” he recently created a prayer group similar to that of Alpha Bible Study, called C-Suite for Christ. It will be a space for Christian CEOs, owners, presidents, CFOs, and executives to pray together, connect on a spiritual level, and discuss faith as it relates to their professional lives, he said.
“There are so many men and women of faith that don’t know how to express their faith because they’re so public,” he said. “I don’t want business owners to think that these are conversations that have to be done at church or on the sidelines,” he said.
The first C-Suite for Christ meeting isn’t until Dec. 12, but interest from the business community has already soared. Neuberger received verbal confirmations from over 40 people over the six months he spent developing the idea and pitching it to people in his network. After Neuberger publicly announced the group via LinkedIn in early October, 60 additional people reached out expressing interest. As of early November, the post had been viewed 16,000 times.
Religious tolerance and accommodation in recent years has become a hot button topic throughout the business world.
Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, and that includes “refusing to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs or practices unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship,” according to the EEOC.
Brillion-based Ariens Co. faced a lawsuit earlier this year after it was accused of wrongly revoking the prayer rights of its Muslim employees. It had fired seven Muslim employees in 2016 for taking unscheduled prayer breaks, which came after the company altered its policy regarding prayer.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says the new policy means the employees are not able to pray “when the prayers must be made according to Islamic beliefs.”
CAIR trains companies around the country to effectively accommodate Muslim employees and to better understand their religious obligations.
“(Muslim) employees are always trying to find ways to make it easy for these companies,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the group’s Minnesota chapter. “Prayer times can be worked into their schedule. What we’ve noticed is if the company knows exactly what the prayer schedule is, they can usually accommodate it and it’s not usually a problem.”
Creating a corporate culture that is tolerant and inclusive of all religions should start with the company’s leadership, said Chris Rowland, global diversity officer at Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup.
“If you look at some of the global trends with changing demographics, with immigration and individuals choosing to work in environment where they feel comfortable, this is a trend that is not going away, so organizations have to be intentional about it and think differently than the traditional ways they’ve supported their workforce in the past,” he said.
As a global company, Manpower has been recognized for its ethical business practices, which includes accommodating the religious needs of its diverse employee base. Upon joining the company, employees receive a handbook with information on how to reserve a conference room to use as a prayer space, requesting time off for religious holidays and respect for religious customs.
Rowland said promoting a culture that not only accepts, but also celebrates, the differences of employees can add value to an organization and play a role in attracting talent.
“The recognition and celebration of those differences is key,” he said. “You’re not bringing your full self if you’re conforming when you’re within the walls of the organization, so being able to have a voice is the actual value of diversity and inclusion.”