Oikos: Toward a Theology of Work

A TLC interview with Charlton T. Quaile, founder and owner of Chimneys Plus

By Michael Cover.

This interview is part of a series exploring a theology of work rooted in the home. Its title is inspired by the Greek word “oikos,” the roots of the English words “home” and “economy.”

TLC: Charlie, let’s start off with a brief introduction to your career.

Quaile: Well, it’s pretty simple. For the past 32 years my wife and I have owned and operated a niche home improvement company. We currently employ about 20 people.

TLC: The context of this series focuses on the intersection of work, faith, and home. The topic of faith and work has been growing amongst Christians in the last few years. Can you get us started with some of your journey.

Quaile: Well, my understanding of what it means to be a Christian and running a business has certainly evolved over the years. The first struggles with what it means to be Christian and have employees surfaced early on when I had an employee that held me hostage with his belligerent behavior. I was totally ill-prepared to give healthy direction. I thought everyone, if given patience and kindness, would respond with respect and goodwill. Not true. I felt like a failure not being able to reach him. I took way too long to fire him but I learned some important lessons. The biggest lesson may be that I am responsible for the culture.

TLC: Could you elaborate on what it means to build a work culture?

Quaile: One of the exercises that is helpful in establishing faith at work is identifying core values, identifying what is real in our heart as believers and then making it known to all the stakeholders. I began identifying employee behaviors that drew warning flags and then the core value that was being offended. I did some reverse engineering. My faith, my experiences, my personality all informed my core values. As a business we use these values during the hiring process, for employee coaching, and if necessary, during the firing process.

TLC: I’m curious, what are your company’s core values?

Quaile: Well, I’ve been told that we should not have too many. We have four, which are honesty, excellence, teamwork, and a servant heart.

TLC: I can definitely see how identifying those values and applying them to real life can really be instructive. Let’s shift the discussion to the tension between making money and demonstrating the love of Christ to you employees and customers.

Quaile: Personally, I have failed many times at this balance. The good news is that vulnerability, as a leader, is critical to a Christ-honoring culture and therefore repentance and forgiveness get deeply woven into the fabric of the workplace.

On the subject of money and profit — you don’t have a business without both, you just have a hobby. I have wrestled over the years with deep fears connected to business survival and the lack of money. I don’t think of myself as being motivated by money as much as I am motivated by not dying.

Years ago I remember reading an article about North Carolina’s Historic Biltmore House. The CEO of this family business said, “We don’t do historical restoration to make money, we make money so that we can do historical restoration.” That was an “aha,” hearing the clarity of purpose  both about money and the vision behind the business. I remember asking myself “how does this thinking apply to being a Christian business owner?” I figured it sounds something like this: “I don’t demonstrate care in order to make money, I make money so that I can demonstrate care.”

I don’t demonstrate care in order to make money, I make money so that I can demonstrate care.”

TLC: Charlie, tell us what else you think of as part of being a Christian in the workplace.

Quaile: Much more recently I have reflected on the awesome responsibility it is to have hard-working people who choose to work at this business 40 to 50 hours every week, week after week. That’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears working at this business. That’s more waking time that my team members have in my care than really any other activity.

I have been reflecting a lot on Psalm 127:1 which says, “Unless the Lord builds the house those that build labor in vain.” I often work way too hard only to find out that my labor is in vain. So I am super motivated to understand what it means to let the Lord build the house. I figure if he’s building the house and we are on the job site with him building, then we ought to get glimpses of God at work in our midst. So a big part of my job as a Christian leader is to call attention to those moments when I see God caring, God being excellent, God not being in a hurry yet being very efficient.

I call this type of observation “windows in the workplace.” I am anticipating God’s presence and then pause to direct attention to that window of opportunity where God is visible to us. It’s hard to put my finger on it but when he shows up, I know it.

It often means that we have to know what these people are facing when they go home at night, like sick family members, car accidents, graduations, funerals, fears and uncertainty about COVID-19. I also know that when we have our daily 7 a.m. meeting they bring much of their personal lives to work also.

TLC: Wow, there’s a lot there. With that talk about windows, you’ve got me thinking about icons. As we wrap this conversation up I have been reflecting on the word oikos which is the Greek word for “household/home” from which we get the English “economy”. What ideas do you have regarding this angle as we ponder work and faith?

Quaile: I do appreciate you giving me an oikos heads up in a previous conversation because it has given me a chance to explore the idea. I am reminded of a meeting of my company’s board of advisors several years ago. These are Christian men and women who help hold me accountable to living out my faith in our business. One gentleman made a huge impact on my thinking when he suggested that our most important KPI (“key performance indicator”) should be “how does working here impact my team member’s family?” In other words, How does life in their home improve because they work here where God is on the job?

So perhaps oikos, the true measure of a company’s strength is not business profits but impact on families and communities —  i.e. the home, marriages, children, education and opportunity, financial stability, etc. Now, that is exciting. All too often we are inclined to look at employees as a means to achieve a profitable business. More than ever I see this business as a stewardship impacting the home.

This reminds me of how I am to be held accountable to my family for the impact that my commitment to work has in my home. As business owners we can sometimes spend way too much time for way too little return. I think I would have made different decisions if I had not been so infatuated by business activity rather than real positive impact on the home.

For more about Charlie’s business Chimneys Plus, and the way his values translate in practical terms, see chimneysplusgutters.com.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Cover is associate professor of theology at Marquette University. Charlie Quaile is his father-in-law.


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