An interview with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, part I: “Who wants a start-up church?”

timthumbKatherine Leary Alsdorf is co-author with Timothy Keller of Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012). She came to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City in 2002 to establish the Center for Faith and Work to help people nurture a meaningful integration between their faith and their professional work. Prior to this ministry role at Redeemer, she spent 20 years in the high tech industry. In California, she served as CEO of Pensare, an online management education company, and CEO of One Touch Systems, a hardware/software products company. Before that, she was President of Private Satellite Network, a satellite services company in New York City. She also worked in various consulting, sales, and marketing roles, primarily in the technology sector. Katherine received an MBA from The Darden School, University of Virginia, and a BA in Psychology and Education from Wittenberg University. She became a Christian mid-career in NYC through the ministries of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and has taken seminary classes at Regent College in Vancouver. She has been a core member of the Theology of Work Project.

David W. Gill: Tell us a little about your background and how you wound up in business leadership?

Katherine Leary Alsdorf: I was born and raised in New Jersey – just like my parents. Eager for adventure, I picked a college as far away as my folks would let me go – Wittenburg University, which was right on the 12 hour drive limit. After college I was an elementary school teacher in central New Jersey for two years. For years there had been nothing I wanted to do more than teach kids. But a summer job as a research assistant in an aerospace economics firm opened up the horizons of the bigger world. I could either spend the rest of my life in the classroom or I could go learn about NASA and the space program and all these interesting things that were going on at the time. So after two years I left teaching and took a very lowly entry position in a consulting firm based in Princeton, New Jersey.

Gill: Did that take you to California right away?

Alsdorf: Yes I ended up in California a year later with that same company, eventually managing a large project for the space shuttle program. I did that a number of years before I decided that I needed to get an advanced degree in either engineering or business. The MBA won out and I ended up going back to the east coast to The Darden School at the University of Virginia. Afterwards I moved to New York to join a tech start-up called Private Satellite Network. I ended up as President of that company through the unfortunate circumstance of the company President/CEO learning he had a brain tumor. He asked me to take over. It was one of those life-changing events that threw me into the leadership role. I was a brand-new Christian, so I was learning to be a president at the same time I attempted to learn how to be a Christian.

A work colleague invited me to Redeemer Presbyterian Church around 1989. She was part of the early church planting team before Redeemer was even launched and kept nagging me about the subject of faith. My reaction was that I didn’t want to go to any church — let alone a start-up church. “I’m in a start-up company; who needs a start-up church?” I was a slow responder to those invitations but in the end I was hounded into the kingdom.

Gill: How long did this period of early nurture as a Christian at Redeemer and as a young CEO at Private Satellite Network last?

Alsdorf: Just a few years, but it was a powerful experience. But then the company was sold and I went off to Luxembourg for a year as a consultant, helping a start-up there. That time was a bit of a spiritual desert. I came back to New York and looked for the next role, but after nine months or so I was off to Silicon Valley for the next job. I went out there to do sales and marketing for a tech company called One Touch Systems and eventually became their CEO. In 2000 I left One Touch to become COO of Pensare and three months into that I was asked to take over as CEO.

Gill: Then in 2002 you moved back to New York City to start the Center for Faith at Work at Redeemer. Would you say that from the very beginning, in the early 90s, your understanding of Christian discipleship included your work and calling?

Alsdorf: Yes, I don’t know that I would have been enticed by a faith that didn’t embrace the whole of life.

If I was looking for something at all, it was something that comprehensively gave meaning to life. I was a single woman whose life was 90% wrapped up in my work. If Christianity had not embraced the huge portion of our life which is work, I can’t imagine that I would have responded in any way whatsoever.

Gill: Could you point to any way the Christian faith affected or enriched your view of what leadership is all about while you were a CEO?

Alsdorf: I remember vividly one friend’s insight that was really helpful. I really had never pictured myself in the number one slot in an organization. I thought I would be very comfortable as a number two. So when I got that first request to move into the president role, my response was that I never wanted to be in this kind of a leadership position. But one of my friends at Redeemer said, “who wants a leader who wants to be the leader?” God puts the person in a leadership role that he needs to have there at the time and actually it’s better if you’re not doing it for your own gain but you’re doing it for God’s gain. That was pivotal to me – and it has affected how I’ve viewed leadership from that point on. God has his reasons for putting people in place whether it’s the head of a church or a secular business. It’s a part of being faithful to step up and persevere into that role.

Gill: Many would say the key distinguishing feature of leadership as a Christian is the idea of servant leadership. Did you read Robert Greenleaf’s book or hear that phrase much?

Alsdorf: As a woman, servant leadership was a very concerning idea for me. I didn’t have a lot of theological depth at that point but I had become a career woman at a time in history when women were often relegated to serving coffee and other demeaning roles. And the idea of “serving” in that culture made me uncomfortable and nervous. So I really felt like I had to push into “what does serving as a leader mean for a woman that doesn’t put her into a stereotypical role that would actually get in the way of the call to leadership?”

Gill: People sometimes emphasize only the side that says “the true leader is a servant to others” and underplay the other side that “the true servant leads.” It is important to serve by stepping up and providing leadership.

Alsdorf: The picture that was helpful to me came from my teaching experience. When you’re leading in a classroom, you’re drawing the best out of every student you have. I could relate that to my job as the leader of a business – drawing the best out of everyone there. As we work better as a team, the result becomes greater than just the sum of the individual parts.

David Gill: What other influences were deepening your understanding of the theology of work as well as management and leadership in general?

Katherine Leary Alsdorf: I did read Peter Drucker and my business school experience at Darden was extraordinary preparation for leading in Silicon Valley. Theologically I felt like I was in a bit of a desert until I discovered Regent College in Vancouver BC. At Regent I was once again drinking from the well and it was an incredible refreshment. I continued to go to their spring and summer schools for the next four or five years and was just extremely nurtured in the course of that education.

When Redeemer invited me back to New York to start a faith and work ministry I had Tim Keller’s sermons and my Regent experiences. But I was feeling very in need of more resources. Tim had written a few unpublished white papers on the gospel and culture. As I went through his footnotes I discovered Dorothy Sayers . . . Abraham Kuyper . . . I read some of what you’d written on Jacques Ellul . . . I started to hit a lot of the Reformed thinkers like Al Wolters, Paul Marshall, Lee Hardy. Calvin College was one of the few sources of real meaty writing that I found as I was looking.

Thanks to Wolters, I started to look at the intrinsic structure and even goodness of a vocation or profession and distinguishing that from the actual direction the practice of that profession was going. For example you could look at the core values of justice in the legal profession and see how God’s work of justice could be done there. But then you could see some damaging directions of the profession, creating an overly-litigious society. So this became a model for us: where is God at work in this vocation or profession? What aspects would God want to see redeemed?

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this interview!

 

Special thanks to David Gill and the Mockler Center. Originally published in the Mockler Memo, March 2014 (www.mockler.org) and reprinted from the Theology of Work Project website.

© 2014 Mockler Memo

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