In order to give you a perspective on how I came to investigate this entire area of work and faith it is important for you to understand a little of my own journey.
I was raised in an upper middle class family in the South. I was the only boy among five children. My dad was a successful businessman in the toy industry. He began his career owning and operating a toy store and was probably one of the first pioneers to use television to sell products in the last 1950s during the Christmas season. His program was 30-minutes long and featured many of the new toys during the Christmas season. He would direct people to the store. Today, we call these infomercials.
Later, he became president of a toys and hobbies distributorship. In 1966 they sold 2 million yoyos and were known for the introduction of a little known airplane part called “The Slinky.”
I was very active in sports growing up and my dad was a great encourager in this area. When I was eleven I began to play golf and became a very good junior golfer. By the time I was fourteen years old I had broken 70 three times and by sixteen I had had three hole-in-ones. However, when I was fourteen my dad was killed in an airplane crash. Our family had always been a church-going family, but knew little of the concept of walking in a personal relationship with God.
This accident ultimately led my Mom to a more intimate relationship with God as a result of a miraculous encounter one night when God spoke to her in an audible voice, “Trust me Lillian”. She was at the point of a breakdown resulting from the loss of my father.
Over the next several years, my goals were focused on playing golf for a living. I received a golf scholarship to the University of South Carolina. When I finished school, I turned pro only to become frustrated with my inability to get to a level to play professionally. This frustration ultimately led me to ask questions about my purpose in life. This quest would lead me to investigate God’s purpose for my life. A few months later through the influence of my mom and a pastor I became a Christian in 1974.
As the years went by I decided that golf was no longer the profession I felt God wanted me to be in. I made a career change into the workplace of sales and marketing. After being in various sales careers for six years, I ultimately found myself longing to grow more in the Lord and serve Him more. I was involved in starting a church with two other men and we were seeking to be used of God. This led me to begin thinking about whether I was “really sold out” for God and whether I needed to go to seminary. “Perhaps I was really called to be a pastor,” I thought to myself.
I decided to take a leave of absence from my job and went to a three month Bible study course held in California. This school was associated with churches around the country and made the students aware of needs of local churches throughout the country. I decided to move to Atlanta to serve as an assistant pastor only to have the position removed after three months. This led me back to the business world and in hindsight, I see that it was the hand of God. I ultimately learned that I was never cut out out to be a pastor or in “vocational ministry”. I was designed to be in business. But, I could not help but think of myself as a “second-class” Christian who was not quite sold out to the purposes of God. I don’t know that anyone was saying this to me, but it was more implied by the culture.
For the next fourteen years, I would invest my life in business as a Christian seeking to reflect Christ in my world. I began an ad agency in 1984 and was able to serve many high profile clients like American Express, Steinway Pianos, Peachtree Software, and many national Christian organizations. Our work would receive many international marketing awards. I felt I was a good Christian business person who gave more than ten percent of my income to the church, shared my faith with others, and was considered a model Christian among my peers. But there was another side to me that was not totally evident to myself at the time. I struggled with my marriage relationship and discovered a real focus on building financial security. I had some underlying control issues that surfaced from time to time through anger. We had been in marriage counseling most of my married life.
In 1994, my world fell apart. I had made enough money to retire if I had wanted to at the age of 44. I was playing golf about three times a week. We had a home on the golf course. I had a life that many would have longed for. My walk with God was “adequate” in my eyes and did not see that I was much different than any other Christian businessperson I knew. Then one day my wife of fourteen years announced she wanted to separate. This would lead to a divorce three years later. Investments of more than $500,000 disintegrated over a period of a few months. And 80% of my business was lost during the same period along with clients who failed to pay bills of more than $140,000. My world quickly changed from having a successful small business and family, to having no family, little money and a shell of a business. I was devastated.
I recall having heard stories of other business people in the past that had gone through difficult times. I always looked at them with a judgmental attitude thinking they made unwise choices and reaped from those choices. But my problems did not stem from unwise choices. At least they didn’t appear that way to me. I was forced to find answers. I was in enough pain that I had to find answers. And so, for the next two years I would seek answers. I questioned what I had done wrong and why God allowed this to happen to me.
The first year of this “seeking journey” a man came into my life that would provide one piece of the puzzle. I worked on issues related to my character and myself. The next year the same would be true. Another man would come into my life that would provide insights into what God was trying to accomplish in my life. Finally, two years into the process I was sent an audiotape from a man named Gunnar Olson. He was the founder of the International Christian Chamber of Commerce. In that tape he talked about a phenomenon going on in the world he called the “Joseph Process.” He described many in business who went through great trials as part of a calling by God to be a Joseph in their day. This peaked my interest so much that I learned that Gunnar Olson was going to be in Washington, D.C. a month later to host their international conference. Gunnar was from Sweden.
The year leading up to this meeting was a year in which I had begun studying the scriptures to find out what God said about adversity, faith and work. I had begun studying the life of Esau, who despised his birthright for porridge and how this man seemed to even represent those in the workplace who did not understand their true calling to the workplace. I studied the life of Joseph and how God used his adversity to lead him to an ultimate calling in his own life, but through much testing and trial.
During this time I launched a magazine called Christians In Business, only to have it die after one issue due to lack of funding. I lost $50,000 in the venture. That would be yet another lesson in this pilgrimage of learning to walk with God in the workplace amidst great trials. By the time I flew to Washington to meet Gunnar I had more than three hundred pages of material written on the subject of walking with God in the marketplace. I was also studying the life of Esau and how his life often represents many of us in the workplace. His life was a life of self-gratification, despising his own birthright for porridge. Men and women today are despising their workplace calling for what their work lives can bring them materially.
When I walked into the suite with Gunnar and fellow board member James Lockett, he invited me to sit down. He asked me to tell my story. For the next few minutes, I recounted my story in every gory detail. When I finished he looked at James and began to chuckle. At that moment I did not know whether to stand up and leave, or smack both guys! I could not believe their response. They immediately apologized and said, “We are not trying to be rude to you, we have simply heard this story so often that it is uncanny to us.” “Be assured, my friend, you are one of God’s Josephs He has called.” At that moment, life began to take on a whole new perspective. For the next few minutes, Gunnar pulled out a napkin and began to draw two diagrams that became the centerpiece of understanding for me regarding what I was going through.
As I returned home the next day I realized that the two years leading up to this encounter were not merely two bad years, but preparation for something God had in mind for my life, even though I had made mistakes that I was deeply sorrowful over. An encounter I had just 30-days earlier now made sense to me. Some of the pieces of this puzzle were now beginning to form a picture.
I mentioned earlier that God had brought a man into my life who discipled me in areas where I had never been trained. I was discovering many new spiritual truths about myself and Christians in the workplace. I came to identify with the struggles of Esau and Joseph in their desire to understand their own birthrights. I began to write about these discoveries to help other workplace believers understand their own callings through business.
One morning on a weekend getaway in the mountains, my friend looked at me and said, "Do you know the meaning of 'Omar'?" Omar is my first name. My real name is Omar Smallwood Hillman III. Dr. Smallwood was the doctor who delivered my grandfather. No one, not even my mother, knew the origin of "Omar." They put the "O" and the "S" together to call me "Os." “You need to know the meaning of 'Omar’” said my friend. It has something to do with your future."
Startled by his assertion, that night I looked up the name of "Omar" on a computer program. Here is what I found: “Arabic for ‘first son’ and ‘disciple,’ Hebrew for ‘gifted speaker’, and German for ‘famous’. Rooted in the Middle East, this name is rarely used in the West. Omar was the grandson of Esau.” These were the chiefs among Esau's descendants: The sons of Eliphaz the firstborn of Esau: Chiefs Teman, Omar, Zepho, Kenaz (Genesis 36:15).
I was shocked! I had just completed 300 pages of material on the relationship of Christians in the workplace to the life of Esau. My friend quickly concluded that God had called me to free Christian men and women from the "Esau life." And He had allowed me to receive a name that related to the person of Esau. It was the closest thing to a burning bush experience I'd ever had. Could the Lord be this personal with us?
A few months later I had lunch with Larry Burkett, the president of a ministry called Christian Financial Concepts, now Crown Ministries. Larry had written a great deal about Christian business practices and had created a workshop called Business by the Book that had been developed many years earlier. I met with Larry to share with him my observations about what seemed to be an extraordinary trend of new grassroots marketplace ministry groups birthing throughout the country. He was not aware of the trend but asked if I might invite some of the major marketplace ministries to a roundtable discussion for the purpose of comparing notes.
I agreed to host a gathering with his help and invited the top four or five ministries that I was aware of to a roundtable discussion. These were groups like CBMC, Full Gospel Businessmen, Fellowship of Companies for Christ, etc. I sent a fax invitation to the heads of these groups and they, to my surprise, agreed to meet. As the days went by, I began to get requests from others whom I had not sent invitations asking if they could attend this meeting. By the time the meeting was held, more than fifty-five people showed up representing forty-five different organizations throughout the U.S. And, to my shock, Larry Burkett had to cancel due to a conflict in his schedule. I was left to host the meeting.
It was at this meeting that we learned from so many other groups that God was doing something new among those in the workplace and He was allowing ministries to be raised up to serve those in the workplace. This became the birth of two distinct ministries -- Marketplace Leaders, an equipping ministry designed to help men and women fulfill their calling in their life and work and the International Coalition of Workplace Ministries (ICWM), an organization designed to cast the vision of the faith and work movement by building alliances among workplace believers, workplace ministries and pastors and church leaders.
Since that 1997 meeting God has taken me out of the country several times and confirmed this call upon my life. In 2000 I spoke in five different countries about the faith and work move of God among men and women. He has connected me with leaders within this movement throughout the world. I have seen this movement grow at an alarming pace and can say first-hand that God is raising up an army for His purposes in these last days. Ten years ago we could identify less than twenty-five formal marketplace ministry groups. Today, we have identified more than 1,000 formalized national or international groups – and they are growing each day.
During this season there was a distance between my daughter and myself. However, in 1998 God spoke to me through a man in Minneapolis and told me God was going to turn “the daughter’s heart to the father’s heart.” He told me that my daughter had been in a difficult place for many years but that was about to change. He said God was going to bring her home. My daughter was living with her mom. However, over the next twelve months God did a miraculous thing in my nineteen year old daughter’s life. She got radically saved. We were reconciled as father and daughter and she came home to live with me for twelve months. It was a time of healing and relationship building after years of emotional distance. She is now my greatest ally, daughter and sister in the Lord and Now works in our ministry. God has gifted her as a writer as well. In our 2008 international conference she received a prophetic word that she would “inherit her dad’s mantle.”
In March of 2001 the Lord allowed me to sell one piece of property that did not get taken in the crisis. The property was sold commercially for six times what I paid for it and allowed us to wipe out all of our debts. We are totally debt free today in our personal lives and business life. We own our home and car without debt and we have paid all the past debts that were incurred in the crisis. We see that God has honored our obedience beyond what we deserve. Just as Joseph had 7 years of prosperity and 7 years of famine, God allowed us to walk through a period of seven years of adversity. It was during this season we learned our greatest spiritual lessons and our workplace ministry was birthed.
In 1998 I was seeking breakthroughs in my situation. I began a fast in the fall of 1998. I continued to fast until I felt I got the breakthrough I was looking for. Finally, on day 40 of the fast, I attended a conference and a man from South Africa read a word of prophecy in the gathering that was meant for me. God met me at that moment. During that event I spent time with my friend Bradley and asked him to pray for me. I was still questioning whether God wanted to raise up the Christians in Business magazine. During our prayer time the Lord spoke to Bradley. “He is not going to raise this magazine up. But He is going to raise something up that will almost seem insignificant in your eyes.”
That month the Lord prompted me to begin writing a daily devotional that I called Marketplace Meditations that incorporated a scripture verse with an application to my work life. Each day for nine months, I wrote one devotional and sent it to friends and associates. I often thought this was something insignificant I was doing. However, soon the number of people receiving it were 200. Then, a friend who was the CEO of Goshen.net, later to be known as Crosswalk.com asked if he could host it on his website. It began growing at 500 new subscribers a month. I began receiving letters from around the world expressing their gratitude and the impact the messages were having on them.
By far the most common comment, even today, is “I cannot tell you how often you speak to the exact situation I am dealing with.” I can only say that the Holy Spirit is using my brokenness and life experiences to help others in an area where there are few resources. By January 2004 it was going to more than 75,000 individuals each day and growing at a rate of 1500 new subscribers a month. By 2010 the number of subscribers reached 190,000.
During this journey, God began to connect me with prayer intercessors. I began to discover the importance of having men and women who have a greater level of commitment to prayer stand with me in my work life. After all, if we really believe God calls us to our work, why should we not have others support us in our God-given calling – even if it is to make money for the Kingdom of God? On one occasion I had an intercessor visit my office after reading my testimony in a newsletter from Larry Burkett’s ministry. She came to my office and prayed with one of my staff while I was out of town. During her prayer she began to describe three men in detail. Not realizing who she was praying for, my staff member revealed to tee intercessor that she was describing the three men in the office in great detail. One of those was myself. I made an appointment with her the next week and she became a key intercessor in our ministry for several years.
Today, God is calling His people to pray and it is even penetrating those in the workplace.
Expansion of the Movement
In July of 2002 I was contacted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They had begun a new division called New Ventures. The purpose of New Ventures was to identify emerging movements in the body of Christ and to come along side those who were the key leaders in those movements to help them. They considered 54 ministries and narrowed it down to 12. They finally selected four ministry areas to being their focus. Our ministry was one of those. We met together that summer and concluded we should co-host an event as the first effort to work together. That even was the His Presence in the Workplace conference held in March 2003. More than 270 workplace leaders, pastors, and non-profit workplace ministries came together to discover what God was doing in the faith and work movement. Billy Graham and Franklin Graham have recognized a move of God is taking place in the workplace today and want to give support to this growing move of God. The March conference was a major event that gave the movement a rocket boost into the mainstream body of Christ.
During this season I was also invited by Dr. Peter Wagner to join his Wagner Leadership Institute to teach and to teach at his LifeWorks seminars held across the country.
In conclusion, I believe God is moving among men and women in the workplace as never before. Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God, in February 2001 stated that he had never seen the activity of God more among workplace believers than what he sees today.
God is calling each of us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Himself. He is calling us to deeper levels of prayer. He is desiring to reveal His love and power in our daily experience, not just on Sunday. He wants to give those of us in the marketplace a strategy for success that is different from the world’s standard. It is a higher standard.
Let us walk together in discovering this high calling.