Donor Profile: Jim Lauerman
Glorifying God in Business—and All of Life
by Rick Matt
In fall 2012, when the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute (FSI) relaunched its Friday Nights @ the Institute series of occasional talks on engaging biblically with culture, the first program offered was titled “Called to Serve: A Christian in Business,” featuring long-time Seminary friend and supporter Jim Lauerman. During FSI’s spring 2013 Francis A. Schaeffer Lectures, which focused on a biblical view of work and vocation, Jim offered a breakout session on a similar topic. Jim’s experience with living out the gospel in the often less-than-receptive business world made him eminently qualified to speak on this theme.
Over the course of a 35-year career, Jim has owned an aviation flight school and served in leadership roles in the aviation insurance industry, including as executive vice president, then president, of Avemco, the nation’s only direct insurer of privately owned aircraft. Jim retired from Avemco in 2012, and he and his wife, Wanda, returned from the company’s base in Frederick, Maryland, to their roots in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. He left behind a company significantly changed by the application of biblical principles in its business practices—even though, he says, many employed there would not consider themselves Christians—and came home to take up a new challenge: volunteering his time to help students at Covenant Seminary and others in the community understand and apply the same principles to make their lives and workplaces stronger, more fruitful, and more honoring to the Lord. Jim recently shared some of his story with us.
See a video Q&A with Jim.
Listen to Jim’s “Called to Serve” talk.
Q. You mention in talks at the Seminary that you became a Christian later in life. Can you elaborate a bit for us on how that came about?
A. When I was young, my parents took me to Sunday school at a United Church of Christ church, but I considered it all pretty much a joke. I wasn’t a complete atheist, but I really wasn’t interested in Christ at all. Basically existence just seemed absurd to me. Later, after a failed marriage, a failed business, and problems with alcohol, I found myself asking all the “Why?” questions about life and wondering, “What’s the point?” If there wasn’t any, then I should just kill myself—but I didn’t have the guts for that. I was searching for something. Then, at a college class reunion—the only one I ever went to!—I met up with an old fraternity brother. He was bright, full of life; there was something very different about him. He visited me after my divorce from my first wife and tried to share Christ with me, but I still wasn’t very open to that. He suggested that I read the book of Ecclesiastes—which I did, and found myself saying, “This is true!” It started me thinking.
My conversion actually took place as a result of watching The 700 Club on television. As a former political science major, I was drawn in by a discussion they had one day about the Middle East, and I kept watching. Then they had a chapel service at a prison and the preacher was talking about being free from the prison of sin. That really resonated with me. I prayed to Christ that day and soon after started attending an Assemblies of God church in Troy, Illinois—which is where I eventually met my wife, Wanda. But something was still missing. We were both hungry for the Lord and felt that Christianity had to be more than just a ticket to heaven. It had to be about all of life or it was about nothing.
I had heard of a man named Francis Schaeffer—on The 700 Club again!—and read his Complete Works. What he said, his whole-life approach to Christianity, just rang so true to me. By this time we were at a nondenominational church in St. Louis County, Missouri, and I asked my pastor about Schaeffer. He mentioned the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary and suggested I check it out. So I did. I took a class on Christianity and Contemporary Culture—with Professor Jerram Barrs [professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute]—which fleshed out what I had read in Schaeffer’s works in amazingly practical ways. I told Wanda, “We need to be here!” So we both took some classes, and I ended up working on what was then called a Master of Arts in General Theological Studies (MAGTS). This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We’ve been of a Reformed mindset ever since.
Q. So the Schaeffer influence on your thinking has been pretty profound?
A. Yes, definitely. In fact, there was a Schaeffer connection of sorts even earlier in my life. When I graduated from high school in the late 1960s, I went to Europe with my family. I wasn’t a Christian then, but we had some knowledge of the Schaeffers through their social and political activities. In Switzerland, my parents went to visit L’Abri—but I didn’t go; I just wasn’t interested. I found out later that Jerram Barrs had actually been there around that time or not long before. Later, in 1995 or so, when I was taking classes at Covenant, there was an opening for an administrative director for FSI. I was interested and talked with the Seminary administration about the possibility of doing it. I decided not to in large part because I really felt called to business. I love it, I’m good at it, and I felt that’s where I needed to be.
Q. How did your interest in aviation and your career in aviation insurance come about?
A. Well, planes are just cool! I grew up near Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, so I’d always had an interest in the drama of flying. In college my goal was to become a constitutional lawyer, but I ended up in the Navy as a result of the draft lottery. I wanted to pursue aviation—flying jets and such—but they told me that after 18 months of officer candidate and preflight training that I’d end up flying missions in Vietnam. That was a very unpopular war; there wasn’t any real support for it. So I ended up joining as an enlisted anti-submarine warfare operator instead. I spent more than 1,000 hours in P2s and P3s flying over the ocean looking for Russian submarines. I obtained my private pilot’s license at a civilian flight school while in the Navy.
As for the rest, I eventually bought a small flight school based in Alton, Illinois. It never really was profitable. I loved flying and teaching people to fly, but I loved eating more, so after eight years I sold it. Around that time there happened to be an opening with Avemco, insuring light aircraft. That looked like a good opportunity to help people and have a steady job, so I took it. I liked it and did well at it. I enjoyed being a leader.
In 1997, Avemco was acquired by HCC Insurance Holdings, Inc. I was given the option of moving to Maryland or losing my job—so Wanda and I went to Maryland, which meant I never finished the degree I was working on at Covenant. But the Lord’s hand was in this, because when I got to Maryland, the company was in a bit of a mess and the top folks asked me for my thoughts on how things should be run. I gave them my ideas but didn’t hear anything back for a while. Then they gave me a major promotion to executive vice president and the huge task of basically rebuilding the company from the ground up.
Q. And this is where you were able to apply some of the biblical principles and Schaefferian ideas you had been learning about at Covenant?
A. Yes. One of the last classes I had before moving to Maryland was called A Biblical View of Work, Poverty, and Welfare. It was taught by Dr. David Jones and was, I believe, only offered that one time. One of our guest speakers was the now late Ben Edwards III, who was the CEO of then A. G. Edwards & Sons and well known for his Christian beliefs and business practices. One thing he said stuck with me and became a prime motivator for me. He said that people generally don’t link Sunday with the rest of the week; they leave their faith at church and don’t see the larger vision of how God’s redemptive purpose applies to all of life. He noted that most people—including, unfortunately, most pastors—don’t have a clue about how to approach this. That’s one reason why after I retired I wanted to come back here and be involved with the Seminary again—to help get this message across in some way. That class greatly affected my thinking about all of this.
As for applying these ideas at Avemco, I had to be careful in how I went about it. In most companies these days, you can’t talk openly about Christianity. So I tried to emphasize Christian principles without being too overt. One way I did this was to give a Christmas message in which I referred to 1 Corinthians 12, in which Paul speaks about the church as being one body with many members—but I applied that idea to the company by trying to get folks to see it as an organism with many vital parts that all must work well together, rather than as an organization. That distinction is important. I’ve never liked the term “organizational manager;” I prefer “leader.” You manage things; you lead people. And a company is made up of people, all of whom—whether they are believers or not—are made in the image of God and therefore have intrinsic value. And their work has value, whether they are emptying wastebaskets or directing board meetings. The trick is to create an environment that will foster that sense of value, promote individual ownership of work, and encourage growth and creativity—while also keeping in mind that we’re all still sinners and still make mistakes. There will always be a need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Another aspect of this is the concept of servant-leadership. Most companies are run on the Darwinian, hierarchical, top-down model of leadership, but the biblical way is a bottom-up, servant-leader model. My goal was to try to make our company vision and principles as clear and unequivocal as possible, and then push authority and responsibility as far down in the company as possible. Employees love the empowerment this gives them, though those in the top levels don’t always appreciate it as much. It’s a rarity in the business world. But that responsibility—and having leaders who understand the servant aspect of leading—helps motivate people.
One other thing we did that had a tremendous impact was to focus on loss prevention rather than just reacting to claims when they came in. We were unique in that we dealt directly with the people we insured—there was no middleman. So we had these established relationships that enabled us to see patterns of behavior over time, and we discovered that aviation accidents or problems don’t happen so much because of someone’s lack of knowledge but because of what they care about. If you care about the wrong thing at the wrong time—such as getting somewhere quickly without regard for important safety concerns—then you’re more likely to have a problem. So we decided we had a moral obligation to help our clients understand this and help them care about the right things at the right time so they could enjoy the beauty of flying and avoid some of the bad things that can happen. There was often resistance to this approach, but when we started focusing our efforts this way, our loss ratio improved. We made the culture of the company more about saving lives—which tended to attract more people who cared about that, which was good for business.
The point here is not “what a great thing we did at Avemco,” but rather that it doesn’t matter what business you’re in—you can always be looking for some way to push back against the effects of sin in the world and find the redemptive aspect of what you’re doing. We’ve all been put here to glorify God, whatever our work may be.
Q. So you and Wanda decided to move back to St. Louis so that you could again be involved with the Seminary through volunteering your time. What is your goal in this?
A. Pastors need to be aware of the challenges that people in their congregations—many of whom are businesspeople—are facing as they try to live out their faith during the week. If I can help future pastors and other ministry leaders have a better sense of the “all of life” aspect of our faith, and if I can help business leaders find the redemptive purpose in their work, then I’m fulfilling what I believe to be my calling. I’m involved with Covenant because the Seminary is theologically faithful and lives that faith out in positive, practical, real-world ways. Business is often denigrated in our culture, but when it is done to Christ’s glory it can be a powerful instrument for the gospel. Covenant gets that!
It’s All About Impact: A Personal Note From Jim and Wanda Lauerman
We sold our home, moved across the country, and with our remaining years, want to support the training the next generation of leaders for the church and help believers find the redemptive purpose in their work.
We strongly believe that the future of Christ’s church is our best investment and that Covenant Seminary provides the best training for those committed to a lifetime of ministry. Thus, we continue to give our time and resources to this work and have included Covenant in our estate plans to provide for future gospel leaders. Will you join us in supporting the Seminary this way?
With the hope of heaven Christ has given us, we desire to thank our King by leaving a legacy to help our “spiritual children,” and to ensure that mission for those who come after us, until he comes again. We pray that this effort brings glory to Christ.
Rick Matt is associate director of print communications at Covenant Seminary. A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Covenant magazine.