What Is The Priority?
July 1, 2004 - Bill Pollard joined The ServiceMaster Company in 1977. During the following 25 years, he served at different times as chief executive officer and chairman of the board. Under his leadership, "Fortune" magazine named ServiceMaster the No. 1 service company among Fortune 500 companies. Pollard, who serves on the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, spoke at the Christian Executive Leadership Forum at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, April 30-May 2, in Asheville, N.C. Here he talks with "Decision" about his years in the workplace and how he made lifting up Jesus Christ his priority.
by Jim Dailey
Q: How did you come to faith in Christ?
A: My faith-journey started at age seven by my mother's knee. She stayed home from church on a Sunday evening, which was a rare occurrence. I was troubled by a conversation over the dinner table about the Lord's return—I didn't know where I would be if He came back that night.
My mother led me to the Lord that night in Chicago. I remember her reading John 3:16, which I had memorized in Sunday school. Then she turned to a very simple verse, "You are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Cf. Galatians 3:26). She said that was the step I needed to take, and I did so that night.
Q: How did your faith mature in the ensuing years?
A: I had the privilege of having Christian parents, but I went through some typical high-school years. I rebelled a little bit, but my parents were patient with me. I ended up at Wheaton College, in Illinois. My father died during my freshman year. I had to deal not only with the loss of my father, but also with worries about money. My mom had limited resources, so I immediately got my mind on earning a living.
At one point I even dropped out of school, but after six months I realized that although I needed to work, I had better get an education. So I went back to school, and I continued dating Judy, whom I had met in high school. We got married in my junior year. By the time I graduated, I had started my own decorating and painting company and had decided to go to Northwestern University Law School. When I graduated from law school, I sold my company and worked for a large law firm in Chicago. Then, after about five years of practicing law, several of us who had gone to Wheaton and law school together decided to open our own firm.
Q: You were obviously a very busy man, even at a young age. How did your faith influence your work?
A: The practice of law was becoming a jealous mistress in my life. It required long hours and a lot of hard work. One morning, after I had worked several months on a big acquisition, my wife found me on the bathroom floor—I had fainted. They rushed me to the hospital and found that I had a bleeding ulcer and needed surgery. I was in my mid-30s. This was God's way of saying, "Stop. What's going on in your life? How much time are you spending on your family and your spiritual life?" It was a time of forced reflection. God worked in my life over the next several months. The president of Wheaton College, Dr. Armerding, asked me to consider a position at the college. The partners in the law firm agreed to give me a leave of absence, and I made the decision to go to Wheaton College as their chief administrative officer. There was a significant reduction in income, and I was not practicing law as I had been trained to do, but it was clearly where God wanted me.
While I was there, I met Billy Graham for the first time. He was at a board meeting where I made a presentation. He said to me afterward, "That was a good presentation." He kept in contact with me, and many years later he asked me to serve on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
I also worked with the chairman and the president of ServiceMaster when Wheaton received a major estate gift. After my time at Wheaton was over, and I was prepared to go back to the practice of law, they asked me to consider a career at ServiceMaster, which I agreed to, and I continued there for the next 25 years. I served initially in senior officer positions, then twice as chief executive officer and also as chairman of the board.
Q: Integrating faith with work became a passion, didn't it?
A: Yes, God has provided many opportunities for me to integrate the claims of my faith with the demands of my work. In the marketplace you are confronted with a hostile world, one that is not always in tune with your faith perspective. But God is interested in what you do on Monday as well as what you do on Sunday. The issue is one of determining what is the priority of your life.
One particular experience helped me sort this out. Over the years I developed a close relationship with Peter Drucker, a leading management expert. I was visiting with him one day, seeking advice with respect to our business. I shared with him what I thought were the priorities I needed to consider. He reminded me very forcefully that the word "priority" came into the English language in the 14th century and was not pluralized until the 20th century. The issue, he said, was not the priorities but the priority—identify the most important thing and do it.
Later that evening, in my hotel room, I reflected on his advice. I turned to the Bible and was reading in Matthew when I came upon the verse "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33, KJV). It hit me. I realized that the priority of life must be "Is Christ in it?" Yes, Christ could be in my business life as well as in my family life and my church life. My work could be my ministry if I focused on integrating my faith with what I did in the marketplace, but the priority must always be "Is Christ in it?"
Q: How can the average person be "salt and light" in the workplace and communicate Christ?
A: The workplace is an environment where the way you live is under great scrutiny. So when you share your faith, if the integrity of your life corresponds with that, there is credibility. If it doesn't, there is a huge glitch. Our founder at ServiceMaster used to say, "I'm glad you're a Christian and coming to join us. I encourage you to share your faith. If anyone complains to me about it, I'll ask them if you are doing your job well. If you're doing a good job, it will give me a chance to share my faith with that person. If you're not doing a good job, you had better shut up!" He was that blunt about it.
Q: In other words, you can't be a lousy employee and expect that your faith will be credible?
A: That's absolutely true, and at the same time, you need to be transparent. You are going to make mistakes. At times you are going to have to ask for forgiveness. You are going to have to be a genuine person. It's not easy for us to be genuine, especially when one becomes a leader, because leaders aren't supposed to make mistakes. But genuineness is very important.
Q: How would you define evangelism in the workplace?
A: There is a role for proclaiming Christ. But if you herald the message and your life doesn't match, it won't work. As your leadership grows in a company, you have to be very careful not to use your position to impose your faith. For example, in meetings where we were discussing business issues, I would say that I needed to pray about it. I would often give a devotional thought and a reflection from the Bible. I would share what Christ meant to me and that He was the source of my hope. I never felt as if I was selling it. It's much better to sell it by what you do. I decided not to lead a Bible study at the company, because I didn't want people to feel like they had to be there. I would often attend, but just as a participant.
The marketplace provides a wonderful vehicle through which God can work. For me, business is a vehicle. I don't know what a Christian company is, but someday I am going to stand before my Lord and Savior, and I won't see any companies. I'll see only people. The Church is the only organization ordained by God. It's not in God's plan to preserve a business firm; it is in His plan to preserve the Church and to proclaim His message of salvation to a lost and needy world—including the marketplace. As Christians, we have to be inclusive, but not pluralistic. If you try to be all things to all people, you've lost the statement and truth of your faith.
Q: The Bible says that we should share our faith "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). How should we apply that in the workplace?
A: Many times in the marketplace it was best for me to identify myself as a follower of Jesus Christ. That immediately pointed people to the person of Jesus Christ; it didn't point them to a denomination or anything else. We advocated servant leadership in the company, and Jesus was the perfect example of that.
Over the years Harvard Business School has taught several case studies about ServiceMaster. They taught about the company not only because of our success in growing the business, but also because of our objectives, including to honor God in all we do. They would ask me to come and help teach the case study. I remember when one of the students asked, "Mr. Pollard, couldn't you get everything done without focusing on your first objective of honoring God in all you do?" I replied, "Well, no, we can't. Everyone needs to address what will they do with God. We shouldn't hide this question. I don't know what your faith is, but how do you decide how you want to treat people in the work environment? How you will give them dignity and worth? What will drive you to do that? I know what is driving me—it's my faith."