Plough: Tell us a little about the Bruderhof’s businesses.

John Rhodes: Community Playthings has been manufacturing wooden toys and school furniture since 1947. Forty years ago, it launched a line of therapeutic equipment for children with disabilities, now called Rifton Equipment. These two businesses provide a livelihood for most of the three thousand adults and children who live in the twenty-five Bruderhof communities worldwide. They support Bruderhof schools, outreach, and publishing, including Plough. And they make possible the Bruderhof’s humanitarian work, helping locally, responding to disasters, and contributing money or manpower to organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and Save the Children.

But what’s really unusual about these businesses is that while they sell into the marketplace, internally they’re run communally. There are no bosses or employees, and everyone gets the same pay: nothing. We see our work as our contribution to a life in which we share everything as the first Christians did.

Does that make for a truly Christian way of doing business?

No, it doesn’t. At least, that’s the answer my mentor and predecessor Tom Potts always gave. Tom came from a Philadelphia Quaker family and had run a steel business before joining the Bruderhof. People would ask him: “How do you run a Christian business?” Tom always answered, “We don’t. A Christian business is an oxymoron. When the kingdom of heaven comes to earth, there will be no money-making and no businesses.”

To an extent, we operate like every other company. We pick a market and find an unfulfilled need. We design a product to meet that need and market it in a way that costs us less than people are willing to pay.

The difference is the context behind the business: a life of brotherhood. These are brothers and sisters working together out of a common conviction – and having a lot of fun doing it!

Is this socialism?

Some might call it that, but I don’t believe in state control of the economy. The right question is, “What would the economics of love look like?” We try to live in such a way that our life answers that question.

Photograph copyright © Danny Burrows. Used with permission.

Meaningful Work for Everyone

So what’s it like to be a worker in this kind of business?

Most businesses seek to maximize income and minimize the number of employees. Our task is to find the right variety of work so that everyone can meaningfully contribute, as we make enough income to build up the community. In our workshops, there’s work for everyone, old or young, male or female, guest or long-time member, skilled or unskilled, disabled or able-bodied, whether you come expected or unannounced. You’re welcomed and there’s a place for you to work.

Everyone gets the same pay: nothing. 

While there’s no such thing as a Christian business, there is Christian work – or rather, work is a good part of being human. It would be presumptuous to say what the kingdom of God will be like, but I do believe that there will still be work. We will work to serve others. So work in the Bruderhof models the work of the future kingdom. Our work is an expression of the brotherly and sisterly community to which we’re called. Admittedly, putting a nut onto a bolt may not feel very meaningful. But if it’s done in the spirit of love, it takes on meaning.

In our workshops, you will see older folk doing physically easier work in a quieter area. We intentionally hang on to work that could be outsourced or automated, because when an eighty-year-old comes to the shop, she wants to put in a meaningful day’s work that actually supports the community’s mission.

The phrase “the tragedy of the commons,” referring to abuse or neglect of shared resources, is used to dismiss communal ways of living and working together. Is that a problem?

It’s a real problem. If everybody owns something, then nobody owns it, and things are not always cared for. But individual ownership has also produced bad fruits: as soon as you own something, you have to protect it, then you have inequality, envy, theft, and war.

Photograph by James Clarke. Used with permission.

One of the legitimate criticisms leveled at socialism is that when you remove private ownership, people are not motivated to work. Why should I put my best effort in if everyone gets paid the same in the end anyway? But in reality, money is a surprisingly poor motivator. A much stronger motivator is purpose. Motivation in our context doesn’t come from state mandates or financial self-interest – it comes from our calling to live in community.

Another motivator for people is status, right?

That might generally be true. But we’re not defined by the type of work we do. If your work has unequal pay, then it’s easier to think of some people as “more valuable.” But for us the person programming a computer is not of higher value than someone putting on a knob or driving in a screw.

Then there’s the question of bosses. Even in a fast-food restaurant, if you have a management position, you may not earn much more than the people flipping burgers, but you can at least boss them around. That’s something not really present with us.

Jesus says that the people of this world lord it over each other, but it should not be that way among us. If you walk into our workshop you will not very easily be able to tell who’s in charge. Yes, the work has to get done, but we’re in that together. If the person who was asked to be responsible for the shop were authoritarian or uncaring, we would find him another job. And that’s how we do our work everywhere in the community; things aren’t different just because this is the income-earning portion of our work.

The Community Comes First

Do the imperatives of the business ever clash with the needs of the community?

Many times we’ve taken a direction with our business that was not a good business decision but was a good community decision. For example, in the early days of Community Playthings we distributed via hundreds of school supply dealers, offering them discounts. It was like adding five hundred sales people to our team.

A decade or so after the business started, it was overheating. We were six months behind fulfilling orders. The business was pushing the community. And there was pushback: after talking it through in a meeting, the community decided that Tom, my predecessor, needed to slow the business down. This was difficult; growth is business’s natural evolution. And at that time we badly needed the money that these orders were bringing in.

Any normal business would hire more people, build more factories, and ride the crest of that wave. But we don’t hire workers. From a business standpoint, the worst thing we could do would be to drop the dealers’ discounts. Tom told me it was the most difficult business decision he ever had to make. But he did it at the request of the community. The business took a big hit, but it also recovered, and grew in a way that served the community’s needs rather than sucking the life from it.

This is one way we fight against mammon, the power of money. We seek efficiency in our shops, but there is a limit. When we bump up against this limit, we decrease the demand on those who are working. We skip a catalog mailing, drop products, or raise prices.

The Bruderhof community places a high value on spontaneity and being led by the Spirit. Does that ever conflict with good business planning?

We’ve repeatedly run into the issue of too much organization. A business needs order, but if we are inwardly dead then this order becomes pure bureaucratic organization and takes on a life of its own, squashing the sense of fraternity in our work and ruling our life.

Money is a surprisingly poor motivator.

Most people who are responsible for a business have control over two important things: human resources and financial resources. I had control over neither of those things. If the community decides that my operations manager is needed for mission work abroad, he goes and I have to figure it out. And I can’t go out and hire anybody else. By the same token, I can’t fire anyone either. If there’s a problem, a change of assignment may be necessary, but we’re still committed to living and working together. So if there’s anything between us personally, we have to work it out.

Or I may go to the community and say we’d like to purchase a piece of equipment. The community may say, well, there’s been a cyclone in Bangladesh and we just gave away a chunk of money, so not this year. And we say OK.

Often, if we have a big order to fill, members who normally do other work – on the farm, in the medical clinic, or for Plough – will come help out in the factory. Other times, say if there’s a harvest to get in or a neighborhood event to support, everyone working in the shop will leave to do that. And sometimes the whole community knocks off to have a picnic or play softball. At times like that, it can look like it’s going to be tough to get the work done. But this keeps the business from becoming a money-making machine that gobbles up all the community’s energy.

How does work – life balance play out in the community context?

There are strong community norms about keeping work in its place. We go home at five o’clock. Parents will drop their work if there’s a school event. And nobody brings a laptop home to catch up on email while the kids are home.

Too often people compartmentalize. Their work life is here and their family there, their religious life one way and their social life another. But everything we do is one fabric. I’m living the brotherly life whether I’m in the shop, at home, or in the school. The work in the business is not so important that I have to drag it into everything else I do.

We say whatever is good for the community will be good for the business. And this is important because money has a power of its own. You can’t serve God and money. So we’re serving God and utilizing money; the money must always be subservient to the cause for which we live.

Interacting with Capitalism

Is there any conflict between this internal culture and the need to survive in the marketplace?

Of course; we’re living in a capitalistic environment. Still, we try to bring the best of our approach to life into that environment, rather than letting it shape us. So, for example, in our sales work we don’t put people on the road much. We want to be together, and we don’t want fathers and mothers to be away from their children as a regular part of their job. So that means basically we work with phones and digital communication.

Whatever is good for the community will be good for the business.

It’s not in most Bruderhof members’ social skill set to convince people to part with their money. But they are comfortable relating with people. The markets we’re in, education and health care, are largely about children. We love children, and have lots of them in our communities. Our toys were designed by fathers and mothers making things for their own kids.

When our folks talk to people on the phone, they talk to them as human beings, not as potential customers. We may run into a mom who has had to fight all her life for her child with disabilities, so she may start out instinctively combative. We listen. Pretty soon she realizes that we’re actually on her side. These are universal principles of how people should treat each other. Other people aren’t always motivated by money either. We connect with people in a way that affirms their dignity and humanity, and then the money takes care of itself.

In our capitalist economy, technology allows fewer workers to be more productive. How do you deal with that dynamic?

We look at its inner effect. We have to balance efficiency with meeting the work requirements of the community. A guest can walk into our shop and be productive after a few minutes of training and doesn’t need to be intimidated by some complex machine. We’re slow to automate a process.

Photograph copyright © Danny Burrows. Used with permission.

Technology often tends to work against community. For example, once we had to dig a ditch about a hundred feet long between two buildings. One person could have easily dug that ditch with a backhoe in an hour. Instead we got twenty-five brothers with shovels and picks. It probably took us twice as long, but it was a great communal experience and we enjoyed being together. Wendell Berry talks about demanding circumstances, how technology often removes the demand and makes our lives more convenient, which works against our character and makes us flabby. Obviously, we have to find the right balance; it’s not that we don’t use technology, but we try to use it judiciously.

In recent years the world’s biggest companies have also discovered the business value of “community” and “teamwork” in getting the most out of their employees. Is there any difference between what you’re describing and the management practices of a Silicon Valley firm?

Teamwork used as a business principle is an artificial thing. We work together because we love one another and enjoy being together. It’s more than teamwork: it’s a relationship with brothers and sisters. And because of this, working through conflicts is vital. If two people are having a disagreement, the work will stop until it is resolved because the relationship is more important.

We reject the idea of planned obsolescence.

What really breaks down relationships is backbiting. Being upfront is the best way to form deeper friendships. And in all these things, living rightly ends up being better for the business too: tensions reduce productivity; you end up with hard feelings and turf wars, and everything goes down the drain.

A friend who’s a business owner once told me that the Bruderhof combines the best aspects of socialism – equality, brotherhood, meaningful work for all – with the best aspects of capitalism, especially entrepreneurship, creativity, and strong work ethic.

People are creative by nature. When they are freed from workplace tensions and from worry about money, they are free to be who they are. For example, even in your area of a production workshop, you can be creative in terms of making improvements or changes.

If all the work is meaningful, then blossoming doesn’t mean climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, we’re ambitious to serve. How can I make more of a contribution? There are hundreds of different tasks, and work and hobbies outside the businesses as well. There’s always opportunity to learn more, not selfishly but so one can better contribute and serve. That fosters creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit.

What Is Money Good For?

The Bruderhof’s businesses are successful. What challenges does that pose?

One of the challenges of running a community business is that it may do too well. Many monastic orders have struggled with this. Success can pose a challenge to our inner life. We may become wasteful, selfish, or start accumulating things for ourselves. We may get proud because we think this is all our own accomplishment. We may depend less on God. It’s very important that we thank God every day for providing us with this daily bread. Gratitude helps us avoid some of the inner dangers of too much income.

A major question is what to do with the income. The money doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to God and we have to use it for his purposes. If we use it to feather our own nest, that is a sin. We’ve chosen voluntary poverty and don’t want to accumulate goods for ourselves. So we don’t actually keep a lot of cash on hand unless we’re building up a reserve for a major project, like the purchase of property for a new community. In general, when we have extra funds, we give them away.

Yes, earning money in the market economy is to some extent a compromise. If this starts affecting our community’s life, we have to recognize these things early enough and take steps against them. Because of our fallen nature, there will always be some tendency toward selfishness. But we recognize that as the enemy and so we’re constantly on guard to help one another stay true to that vision.

A few years ago in the woodshop, an older brother named Josef Stängl approached me with a piece of wood he’d pulled from the trash. He handed it to me and said, “Eberhard [Arnold, the Bruderhof’s cofounder] would never have allowed this to be thrown away.” The wood had a defect; someone had decided it would take too much work to repair. From an economic viewpoint, the wood belonged in the bin. The time it would take to make the wood useable would have “cost” more than replacing it with a better piece of wood. But Josef was also right. He had an attitude of stewardship for the things of the earth. What attitude were we passing on to the next generation by throwing away this wood? Not that every piece of wood can be salvaged, but so much of what is produced in the world today is disposable, even by design. We reject that idea of planned obsolescence. Our products typically last for decades, even with heavy use in a daycare setting.

What role does faith play in your business planning?

It’s remarkable that these businesses have lasted for almost seventy years. We see that as a gift from God, not the result of our own planning and accomplishments. It often seemed like we just fumbled through and made decisions that turned out well, though we really didn’t know if they would. But if we always take the attitude that what’s best for the community and for people’s souls will ultimately be best for the business, God will take care of us. We trust in that and pray every day for our daily bread. We feel that the life that has been laid before us comes straight out of the New Testament, the words and life of Jesus. We have trust that if we keep to that course and help one another, we don’t need to worry about the future.

Interview by Peter Mommsen on May 1, 2019.