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The Ministry of Business

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from the magazine

The Ministry of Business

Hobby Lobby’s founding family has become a force in Christian philanthropy. Spring 2021
The Social Order
Economy, finance, and budgets

The great wealth transfer has begun. In the next two to three decades, baby boomers, the wealthiest generation in American history, will pass down an estimated $68 trillion to their children and grandchildren. Baby-boomer philanthropy is flourishing, but only rarely do donors focus their efforts on reversing society’s moral and spiritual ills. Among the notable exceptions are David Green and his family, founders of the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts stores. Green has invested billions in national and international nonprofits to help the downtrodden, while engendering three generations eager to bestow on others the wealth that might have been theirs.

With uncommon solidarity, the Green family speaks with one voice, loyal to one another and to their collective vision. While their personal paths may diverge, they are united against what they see as a cultural nihilism that discards the lessons of the past and the Judeo-Christian institutions that undergird them. And all agree that the embodiment of the moral compass that guides them is David Green.

In 1985, David and Barbara Green had just opened their 12th Hobby Lobby store when the oil boom in Oklahoma went bust and the state’s economy went south. The Greens had struggled for 15 years to expand their Oklahoma-based stores into a profitable chain, and now they feared losing it all. In private, Green prayed for God’s help and wondered, Job-like, what he had done to deserve this punishment. “I prayed just about every day, saying, ‘God, what have I done wrong?’ ”

After several weeks of prayer, it came to him. His sin was pride. During his company’s rise to success, he had taken God’s favor for granted. No longer: from then on, he decided, Hobby Lobby would belong to God; he, David Green, was merely the conduit of God’s will. His attitude toward life and business changed forever.

Today, with assets estimated at $7.8 billion (before the coronavirus shutdowns), Green has become one of the world’s richest men. After tithing—an obligation that he fulfills punctiliously—he allots 50 percent of the company’s profits to Christian projects in the U.S. and around the world. And he goes a step further by planning to perpetuate his philanthropy. If his heirs sell the company, 90 percent of the proceeds will go to spreading the Gospel. “We have one life,” Green says. “At the end of your days, it’s going to have to have eternal value, because almost everything else is temporal.”

It must be noted, however, that for his nearly 40,000 employees and their families, the “temporal” is everything. Green understands the rules of the marketplace. Hobby Lobby is a good place to work. Like most other successful businesses, it is a meritocracy. If an employee is honest and hardworking, he or she can move up. And the perks are substantial: paid vacations and personal time, family health benefits, including medical and dental insurance and prescription drugs, 401(k)s matched by the company, life insurance, disability, and a self-imposed minimum wage of $15.70 for full-time workers. While Green’s beliefs subtly suffuse the workplace, they become visible in his effort to sanctify time. Unlike most variety shops, Hobby Lobby stores close at 8 PM, and they forgo millions of dollars in revenues in order to remain closed on Sundays. Green hopes to encourage family time and worship, but the bottom line is that his employees have time off that they can spend as they wish. Green’s Christian ministry is neither hidden nor imposed.

Little in David Green’s childhood suggested such an ascent to fortune, though the principles on which he has predicated his life were apparent early on. As the second son of an itinerant Pentecostal pastor, he moved with his family throughout the Deep South during the 1940s, an era of both natural disasters and social and political upheaval. He saw himself as the “black sheep” among a high-achieving brood of five siblings, all serious students bound for the ministry; he was painfully shy, with no interest in book learning. Yet his mother, a tent-revivalist preacher who had brought his father to Christ, believed that her younger son had something special. Her religious faith became his moral lodestar. Surviving on the generosity of his parents’ parishioners, David and his siblings worked in the school cafeteria in exchange for meals, and on weekends picked cotton, while their classmates played sports and went to parties.

In David’s third year of high school, the family moved from Ranger, Texas, to Altus, Oklahoma, where, thanks to a high school work-study program, he found partial escape from the classroom regimen. After mornings in school, he earned class credit for his afternoons working as a stock boy in the local five-and-dime—a somewhat heretical choice, by family lights.

That experience hit him like a “thunderbolt,” he says. “Retail was such a joyous contrast to the rest of my life. I had finally found something I was good at. Whenever I came to work, things were bustling. . . . It was a great atmosphere.” He loved the smell of roasting nuts and the bins of candy corn and coconut bonbons. And he loved being a stock boy, organizing, sorting, and keeping track of the merchandise. When asked to decorate the front window, he saw it as “a painter’s canvas with all the possibilities in the world.”

On that canvas, he discovered something else: he had an innate sense of what people wanted and how to entice them to buy it. And his love affair with the five-and-dime tendered another gift: Barbara Turner, his wife of 59 years. Much like his mother, Barbara believed in him. She and David were married in 1961, she at 17 and he at 19.

With newfound confidence, Green shot for the moon, becoming a manager two years later at a store in a similar retail chain. It was a small shop, with only a handful of employees, but it gave him a chance to show his stuff. Still, when he boasted to his mother that he was the company’s youngest manager, she countered: “But what have you done for the Lord lately?” She had a way of getting to the crux of things.

In 1970, David and Barbara took a leap of faith. With $600 borrowed from a local bank, they started their own business, hoping to catch the then-new fad of miniature picture frames. From the beginning, it was a family affair, with Barbara and their two young sons, Mart and Steven, gluing together odd lots of wood in the kitchen and soon, as orders grew, moving to the garage, with baby girl Darcee in tow. Not only did Barbara make the frames with the help of the boys; she also delivered them herself to small mom-and-pop craft stores. “She is the reason we are here today,” Green says, “because it could not have happened without her free help. . . . There was no money to pay anyone.”

With Barbara running the business from home, it would take two years for it to prove viable and five years for David to quit his job, taking a 50 percent pay cut and devoting himself to the family enterprise. The Greens opened their first Hobby Lobby store in 1972, near some small shops and self-service laundries in downtown Oklahoma City. It was a meager 600 square feet, including the manufacturing space and the retail store.

Today, at 78, Green is chairman of eight affiliated companies as well as CEO of Hobby Lobby. Each Hobby Lobby store encompasses approximately 60,000 square feet. “It’s not exactly a lobby, is it? It’s more like a football field,” he concedes.

Green has been called the “modest billionaire,” but one shouldn’t be fooled by his mild manner and powder-gray suits. He’s smart, impatient, intense, and decisive. Six days a week, he sits in the 5.5-million-square-foot headquarters of Hobby Lobby in metropolitan Oklahoma City—a behemoth complex that encompasses manufacturing, printing, warehouses, and corporate offices employing some 30,000 people. He himself still spends four-fifths of his time on merchandising “because that is what I love.” The remainder is devoted to purchasing and to mentoring new managers, which he regards as particularly crucial. “If it weren’t for the personal attention from my bosses, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Because Hobby Lobby is a family-owned company, the Greens are not accountable to stockholders. They are thus free to run their businesses according to “biblical principles,” which Green sums up in the venerable phrase “do unto others as you would be done by,” and to invest philanthropically in international Christian projects. Consonant with Christian tenets, the Greens see themselves as “servants” of their employees and their customers and, by the same token, as servants of God.

In many ways, the ambience of the stores re-creates the joy that Green felt in retail as a boy in high school. “In our stores, we have absolutely nothing that you need, so it’s a fun time.” The shopping experience is everything, providing cleanliness, order, light, space, background music (mostly Gospel), and service.

The shy adolescent boy still lives in the nigh-octogenarian. Green shuns the limelight, preferring to leave the talking to his sons, Mart and Steven, dubbed by the family “Gen II.” He relies on them to carry his legacy forward, defining “success” as “not what you [yourself] can do, but what the generation that follows can do without you.”

Mart is the firstborn. He exudes energy, whether talking about business or philanthropy. An animated speaker, he conjures the image of a revivalist tent preacher. Clearly, he has his grandmother’s ardor. He went into the business at 19, with a short hiatus in a local college after graduating high school. David Green calls Mart his “lion,” a “natural leader.”

Mart spent 34 years running a division of Hobby Lobby called Mardel, an educational Christian book, craft, and print-supply company for churches, schools, and families. In 2015, he transferred the reins to a younger man and, having developed an interest in the family’s philanthropic arm, began traveling to Asia and Africa seeking projects and meeting with like-minded souls. Today, in his mid-fifties, he spends all his time as the firm’s director of ministries: the national and international projects, 99 percent of them Christian, that the family deems worthy of investment. Most of the support goes to eight specific “missions,” he says, adding that they also support local secular projects with the remaining 1 percent.

By the end of 2010, the Greens had reached their goal of adding 25 stores a year, with the total approaching 500. “Then,” Mart reports, “we had another big challenge, which brought our family back together again”: the Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the Obama administration. Declining to sign on to the act’s provision requiring employers to cover four of the 16 contraceptive mandates—those that would dislodge already-implanted embryos—the Greens were on the verge of losing over $1 million a day in punitive fees.

In September 2012, initiating a case that would be tossed back and forth between local and federal courts for nearly two years, Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma against the enforcement of the four contraceptive requirements, based on the Religious Freedom of Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In December 2012, the case was sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, and three months later, the court handed the Greens their first victory, ruling that Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was a “person” with religious freedom and ordering the government to stop the enforcement of the contraception rule. The Greens were granted a preliminary injunction, and the case was sent back to the District Court in Oklahoma. In September 2013, the District Court appealed to the Supreme Court.

As their case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc., moved up the docket, the family caucused. “Sometimes,” says Mart, “like where we want to open a new store, family votes can split 60/40. This time it was 100/0, because the sacredness of every life hit us to the core. We simply believe that life begins at conception.”

In a landmark decision, Justice Samuel Alito delivered the Supreme Court decision on June 30, 2014. Joined by Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, it ruled that “closely held” for-profit corporations could be considered “persons” under the law and pointed to a 1993 federal statute that exempted any covered health-care entity from engaging in “certain activities related to abortion.” Further, the Court argued that federal courts should not answer religious questions because they would, in effect, be deciding whether certain beliefs are flawed, and that “companies would face a competitive disadvantage in retaining and attracting skilled workers.” It was a 5–4 vote.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act, striking a blow for religious freedom. (CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES)

Based on the HHS model for nonprofit corporations with religious objections, the court explained that the RFRA requires the government to use the “least restrictive means.” The ruling paved the way for other “closely held” corporations and nonprofit religious groups to gain hearings from the Court. In July 2020, the Court granted the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international congregation of Roman Catholic women, the right to deny contraceptive coverage on the same grounds as Hobby Lobby.

The dissent, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, claimed that no precedent existed for a corporation “to qualify as a ‘person’ capable of exercising religion” and contested the notion that the government should assume the cost of the unmet needs of those already insured. “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” Ginsburg wrote.

Conservative and pro-life groups hailed the ruling as a victory for religious liberty; pro-choice and civil liberties groups saw it as discriminatory against women. Political divisions about the issues involved in the case endure.

If Mart is his father’s “lion,” Mart’s brother, Steven, is his “lamb.” A younger version of his father, down to the soft voice, modest air, and low-key style of dress, Steven, who, like Mart, came into the business at 19, doesn’t relish talk. He’s a procedural kind of guy: patient, a deep thinker, yet precise and dogged in getting things done. As with his father, his modesty belies mastery.

“The Museum of the Bible, the family’s stunning monument to scripture, opened in Washington in 2017.”

Steven’s prime role is his chairmanship of the board of the Museum of the Bible, the family’s stunning monument to scripture that opened in Washington in 2017. Using a phrase that seems a family in-joke, he says: “I feel that God tricked us into this. We were going to put a Bible Museum in Dallas.” That plan didn’t pan out, and meantime the family’s collection of ancient Jewish and Christian artifacts continued to grow, along with a sense of responsibility, since, as Steven puts it, “the Bible isn’t taught in the schools.” Washington seemed a good location to “re-educate America about this book.” Encouraging interfaith understanding in its exhibitions, the museum also offers a Bible curriculum that teaches students the history, narrative, and influence of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Greens remain the museum’s prime supporters and have already contributed $500 million to the project.

Today, Steven spends three-quarters of his time working on the museum: open for almost three years, it still needs lots of work “to get the word out”—and, one might add, to deal with such embarrassments as the recent definitive disclosure that all the Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the museum’s collection were the work of highly sophisticated forgers. The Greens had unwittingly purchased illegally procured and fake artifacts. “I trusted the wrong people,” Steven admits.

As president of the company, Steven Green spends the remaining quarter of his time assessing and approving all real estate for store openings. “We’re adding 40 to 50 a year,” he says, “and there are still opportunities in California, Oregon, and Washington” before meeting the family’s limit of 1,400 stores. “As we move closer, we’ll begin to slow down. Now we’re looking at investing our profits in other venues, such as mutual funds. That’s how we’ll grow even more profits so we can do more in the way of ministry. But we are big on accountability, making sure they are on the right path, just as we are in our retail stores.”

Mostly by default, Steven is the family IT guy. “We have 70,000 products in our warehouse and with the help of a computer program, which closely follows inventory in each store, I know every day how much I have of everything.”

How does he measure the commitment of “Gen III”—his and Mart’s children—to the company’s future? So far, he says, they have signed on, adding, in a reference to the no-longer British royals, “we don’t want any Harry or Meghans in our midst.”

Gen III, of whom there are ten, see the business and philanthropy from a different perspective. “I can’t take credit for building the business,” says Mart’s son Tyler, 33, who admits that he’s had a hard time “fitting in” and has “spent the last 20 years thinking about it.” A pivotal experience came at age 13, when he accompanied his father to a Bible dedication in Ivory Coast (West Africa). “I found myself immersed in this experience of a whole village, a community of people coming together to celebrate, and feeling compassion toward their thirst to understand,” Tyler says. Every summer thereafter, he went on a mission sponsored by an organization called “One Hope” to offer children around the world access to scripture.

These missions, he says, were a “gift” that awakened him to the reality that not everyone had his opportunities in life. “And then you kind of have to wrestle with the fairness of that—the goodness of that.”

Tutored by his grandfather in business, Tyler learned to see no distinction between the secular and the sacred. “I get the power of business, and the strategic attention to [the larger] culture and how it impacts productivity—the whole person,” he says. But, remembering his experience in Ivory Coast, he adds: “My heart is in community development, and whatever structures, opportunities, and programs that help push that forward.”

Tyler’s Gen III cousins, Lauren and Michael McAfee, are full of energy. Cool and confident, except for fleeting giggles tickled by irony, they are thirtysomethings who seem to love each other and their family without reservation. Lauren is Steven Green’s daughter. Michael met her in Sunday school and then again in college. They both worked at the Museum of the Bible for several years but came back home to Oklahoma City to get doctorates, simultaneously, in theology and ethics, with minors in leadership. “It’s where religion and public institutions meet,” explains Michael. Biblical quotations slip off their tongues, punctuating almost every point they make.

As Gen III matures and Gen IV comes along afterward, what does the future hold for Hobby Lobby? Even without a crystal ball, David Green feels that he knows the answer. If his descendants sell it, “They can have the fruit, but they can’t have the tree. You can’t sell the business and sit on a yacht. This [business] belongs to God.”

Green’s foresight measures idealism against the frailty of human nature, including his own. Trust, he implies, is not enough. Many families of wealth and good intentions have seen both their vision and their money dwindle with the passing of each generation, caught in the winds of contemporary concerns. Green anchors the future in the only immutable source of wisdom he knows. The family’s personal philanthropy reflects its belief that economic independence, personal responsibility, and commitment to family and community are inextricably tied to Christian scripture.

The family has generally chosen anonymity in its giving, but the most public of its educational efforts was giving $70 million to save Oral Roberts University from bankruptcy in 2007. The university’s mission statement is to “educate the whole person, intellectually, physically, and spiritually.” The school offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in nursing, business, education—religious and secular, technology and science, and engineering. In keeping with the Greens’ educational aims and their desire to aid the poor, ORU offers online degrees and scholarships for those in financial need.

Internationally, the Greens invest in programs that seek to eliminate poverty by teaching skills and religious scripture in North and South America, Eurasia, and Africa. One Hope, the organization to which Tyler attributes his awareness of economic disparities, addresses the needs of children and youth in 44 countries, combining classes in practical health and hygiene with education in scripture. Another effort is Every Home for Christ, which, in 130 countries, trains local leaders and equips churches to reach the impoverished with the Gospel message. An army of 770,000 volunteers go from home to home to inform residents of the programs in their local churches.

In Africa, in the tradition of nineteenth-century philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller and Perry Miller, the Greens espouse a partnership between black gold (oil) and God as a means of transforming villages by teaching workers the skills to drill and profit from oil while educating them in Christian scripture.

The Greens also support Philos, an American evangelical nonprofit dedicated to enlightening students, academics, historians, and journalists to the complex interplay between religion, society, and politics in the Middle East. Philos offers American Christian college students with leadership potential a trip to Israel, seeking to connect them with their Christian roots in the Jewish homeland. Philos hopes that these students will go on to pastor churches, lead businesses, and become leaders in other spheres of life.

In essence, the Greens have invested billions to promote behavior that reflects the broad variety of religious giving in America—education, skills and job training, volunteerism, moral commitment to family and community, interfaith understanding, and financial generosity. They have become the driving philanthropic force within the evangelical community, and their leadership has served as a lodestar for others. Far from the madding crowds of urban America, they want nothing for themselves but the satisfaction of educating the poor and offering hope through scripture. In the world of contemporary philanthropy, the Green family remains a breed apart.

Top Photo: David Green launched Hobby Lobby in 1972, building it into a nearly $8 billion business. (ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

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