Volume 5 Number 1
by Chris Hays
David Miller came to the M.Div. program after a long business career, and when he graduated in 1998, he had a vision for an organization that would help people and companies make sense of their duties to their businesses and to their God.
“Most people spend more time at work than anywhere else, certainly than at church,” Miller says. “Well, let’s see—is God interested in this?”
In his introductory Hebrew class, Miller had been struck by the word avodah. It means work, service, and worship, all wrapped up in one.
A friend in market research offered to do a pro bono study to test reaction to the name. It was a great name, she concluded, but not one he should use. “You’re going to spend all your time explaining to people what it means,” she said.
Two years later, that’s exactly what he does, and the Avodah Institute is slowly taking shape as Miller simultaneously works on a Ph.D in social ethics. From an office in downtown Princeton, he is laying the foundation for a “virtual institute”—one that does not have a large staff but convenes special seminars when there is demand or a pressing issue. He can even envision a day when a concerned company might hire the institute to function as a theologically informed consulting firm to study a proposal from both business and biblical perspectives.
So far, Miller has assembled a board of trustees that includes the CEO of The ServiceMaster Company and the president of PepsiCo, Inc., and although he is the only staff member, Avodah’s web site (www.avodahinstitute.com) was recently named a “Hot Site” by USA Today. Last spring he brought thirty executives to Princeton for a seminar on business ethics with PTS professor Max Stackhouse and a professor from Harvard Business School.
“We put ’em in a room, stirred it up, closed the door, and saw what happened,“ Miller says.
What happened was a moving interfaith discussion that helped the attendees think through the intersection of business and faith in areas as various as the purpose of wealth and domestic-partner benefits.
The issues are many. “Some [business leaders] feel a real tension in the Sunday-Monday gap,” Miller notes. “Some feel guilt, some feel estranged.”
He sees it as a challenge to find a way to talk about ethics without turning off non-Christians and those who are weary of the Christian Right, yet also to make it clear that the institute takes faith seriously and comes from a particular tradition.
Often, of course, no explaining is necessary.
“A lot of people get really excited when they hear what we’re doing,” Miller says. “They get excited just that someone’s paying attention.”
After graduating from Bucknell in 1979, Miller, now forty-three, worked for IBM for eight years, then went into banking, eventually working his way into a partnership in a small private bank in London. “Pastors never talked about my world,” he explains. “If anything, it was a negative example.”
But as Miller points out, work is one of humankind’s divinely mandated purposes from the beginning of creation.
“Businesses are no more fallen and dysfunctional than the church,” he says. “There are churches that pay poorly and work people too hard, and there are good businesses that treat their employees very well.”
Miller believes that ministers and congregations need to discuss business just as much as businesses need to discuss ethics. To that end, he also hopes to connect with churches and seminaries through Avodah.
In the future, he may have an opportunity to spread the word directly by teaching. Surprised to be accepted into the Ph.D program, Miller will be spending a few more years at Princeton with his wife of twenty-one years, Karen. They traded a London townhouse for a spot in Tennent Hall.
Miller emphasizes that he is not trying to construct a stand-alone “workplace theology,” but rather to affirm work’s fundamental place within any theology.
The task of influencing the mainstream, he acknowledges, is a huge one.
“It’s impossible,” he says. “That’s what’s exciting about it.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary