Faith in Action – Episode 5

Bobby  St.John – Faith in Finance


Richard: Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast to discuss how faith affects the way we live and work today.

Faith and finance have never been easy bedfellows, ever since Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, yet Christians are at work in the city as much as in the hospital wards and the food banks. However, amid the newspaper headlines of bankers rigging interest rates, dodging tax, and receiving enormous bonuses, it might be hard to see the hand of God at work.

With me to explore the role of faith in finance is Bobby St. John, a banker with over 30 years of experience. He now works as a partner at Centrus Advisors in London. Bobby, thank you for joining me. Why does finance have such a bad reputation?

Bobby: One of the reasons it has a bad reputation is that bankers are seen as rapacious, they’re very well-paid, generally, and I think there’s an element of envy within that, but I think, too, that a number of problems that we’ve suffered globally have resulted from banks misbehaving. And so, we’ve had for the last, really since 2008 – since the financial crisis, we have had a series of issues that have been dealt with and series of measures that have had to have been taken in order to get the economies back on their feet, and a lot of it has been around conduct and the behavior of banks, and a lot of that poor behavior has cost banks very heavily in terms of mis-selling and in terms of manipulating markets. So, I think, in many ways, some of the bad press that bankers have got is justified.

One thing that, in my view, pervaded the financial markets increasingly during the early 2000s was greed, and there was increasingly a chase for personal gain, and that started right from the very bottom and went right to the very top, and I think a lot of that was at the heart of what went wrong.


Richard: The gospel’s been described as good news for the poor. Is finance good news for the poor, or is it mainly good news for the rich?

Bobby: It certainly should be good news for the poor because finance has a great ability to assist with the poor, not only in the simple and obvious distribution of wealth, but in addition, it has the ability to start enterprise and finance enterprise, which ultimately leads to both wealth creation. I don’t mean that in a bad sense, but in the sense of engaging or encouraging ventures to start up, which become good, can become employers, employers can then provide for a large number of employees, and hence, wealth gets distributed that way. So, actually, financiers do have an important part to play, in my view, in ensuring that capital is made available in a whole variety of different ways to encourage both the growth of enterprise and, ultimately, the distribution of wealth.


Richard: Are there a lot of Christians that work in finance?

Bobby: A surprising number, and some of those are very explicit. I mean, you know absolutely that, you know, there are Christians within the workplace. I think there is very much, too, a silent minority, if I could call it that, where there are a lot of people who I think are very sympathetic towards Christianity, many have actually a strong faith, but they’re slightly reticent about their faith, or are, find it a little bit difficult, perhaps in, perhaps maybe it’s, in many cases, a slightly intimidating environment in which to show your faith. So, I think there are plenty of believers out there. Not all of them are immediately obvious.


Richard: How have you found expressing faith in the various firms you’ve worked?

Bobby: I have to be honest, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge in a couple of respects, I think, in particular for me. The first is, I am by no means a natural evangelist, so consequently, sharing my faith does not come that easily, and I can think of a number of colleagues who’ve been Christians who are brilliant and have the ability to have very easy and open conversations very quickly, and I have great admiration for those. Sadly, that is not a great gift of mine.

The other challenge, which I guess faces all of us as Christians, is our behavior. We are under scrutiny the minute that you are known to have a Christian faith. The eyes of everyone are on you and watching you for your behavior, how you react to things, what you say, what you don’t say. I’m very conscious that, standing up for your faith, a lot is about your behavior. It’s dangerous because it’s very easy to fail.


Richard: Why are you Christian, Bobby?

Bobby: I’m a Christian primarily because of a school friend of mine called Nicky Gumbel. The two of us were in the same year at school. We did a lot together. We were very good friends. We saw each other on the holiday, and the holidays, we shared girlfriends, we went to parties together, and so on and so forth. At the end of our time at school, we went to different universities, Nicky to Cambridge, I went to Exeter University, and about halfway through our time at university, I’d heard Nicky had gone god squad, and I remember my first reaction was, what a shame, because he always seemed to be a perfectly normal, nice, likeable sort of guy who liked sports and all the things that blokes like to do, and I thought, what a waste that he had sort of gone off the rails.

I didn’t think much more about that until I bumped into him at a 21st birthday party of a mutual friend, and there was Nicky. It confirmed my worst fears when I found him sitting on the staircase of this rather grand house where the party was being held in his dinner jacket, wanting to hand out Christian tracts, and it confirmed all my worst fears. He looked very morose at the time that I thought, oh, dear, Nicky really has completely gone off the rails, and what a waste of a good man.

I then thought nothing more of that until I met him when I came to London. We both came to London. He started to train for the bar. I joined a bank called Schroders, and I was quite intrigued, though, what had happened, because it was odd that he would have made a complete change. I was a little bit interested to know exactly what it was. So, anyway, to cut a long story short, we started meeting reasonably regularly. Nicky then took me to a church in the city called St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and there was a preacher there, the rector there was somebody called Dick Lucas, a very able and very powerful man. I started to get into the lunchtime services, and after I guess a few months, I listened to a talk where I suddenly understood the meaning of the cross, and I’d not really kind of got it before at all until somebody told the story of Barabbas, and with Barabbas being released as the convict who quite clearly had committed bad crimes. He the guilty one, had been let free, and Christ was crucified instead, and suddenly, I realized that I was Barabbas, and the penny dropped, and at that moment, I felt very irritated because I knew a decision had to be made. And I prevaricated for a little bit longer until finally Nicky cornered me one day, and we knelt down together and I made a prayer of commitment.


Richard: Bobby, thank you for sharing that. Stephen Green wrote a book called Serving God, Serving Mammon. Would you say that it’s possible to do both?

Bobby: There is a tension. I’m very conscious of that. That is, as I think Jesus pointed out very clearly in the gospels, that you can serve one or the other, and the pull and the magnetism of financial reward in the city is particularly extreme, I think. Putting that in perspective can be difficult, and I think there is a pull on the one hand from your Christian faith and the call of Jesus, and on the other hand, the call of the world, Mammon, the call to be in the world and not of the world. The challenges for a Christian in the City are perhaps, well, they’re certainly as great, maybe even greater, than they are in other walks of life.


Richard: When you give money away, should we be looking to maximize the returns on that charity as we look to in business or in finance, or is that a different sort of enterprise?

Bobby: I guess there are sort of two aspects to it. One is that we should give freely and generously and joyfully. How that money’s actually put to work, that’s a very hard one, isn’t it, and I know a lot of charities are quite concerned to make sure that every pound counts, but actually, when you look at charity accounts, you find that a lot of money is spent on fundraising itself, and a lot is spent on administration. Actually, the final pound or the final element of the pound that gets to the end consumer or to the end need is quite modest.


Richard: Does the Bible have anything to say on how much is too much for executive pay, or should it be left to the market?

Bobby: I don’t think, I don’t think the Bible does ever say that there is a level that is too much. By all accounts, Solomon was the richest man in history, certainly that’s often been quoted. We don’t quite know what his wealth was, but on a comparative basis, he was obviously hugely wealthy. I think the issue really is is what you do with it and how you behave with it. If you give it away, then it doesn’t really matter how much you have. I always liked C.S. Lewis’s yardstick for giving. What he says is that you should look around colleagues and people in similar circumstances to you, and if your giving does not in any way impinge on your lifestyle, you’re probably giving away too little, and I think that probably applies whether you earn 100 pounds a week or a million pounds a week. I think if you are fortunate enough to be hugely blessed financially, then you should be giving away huge amounts of money as well. I think it’s very difficult to restrict the amount that is paid, although there should be good governance around that, boards and directors and shareholders should call boards to account, and I think there are certainly some excesses in the way that some people have been rewarded, actually in many cases, effectively for failure. But I think it’s actually the individual who is accountable for what they do with those resources that they’ve been given.


Richard: Bobby, thank you so much.

Bobby: Not at all, pleasure.