Putting Eternal Value Above Billions of Dollars Meet Founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby David Green
From picking cotton and starting a business in his garage to running a billion-dollar company, all with a passion for God, David Green has experienced first-hand the secret the Apostle Paul refers to in Philippians 4:12-13, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Not only does Green know that he can do all things through Jesus Christ the giver of everything, but Green also understands that life’s legacies are built by generously giving to others the way Christ does. In his new book, Giving It All Away… and Getting It All Back Again, Green shares how his legacy comes from passing down the “enduring values of faith, family, and openhanded living” to his children rather than passing down the monetary wealth of his company, Hobby Lobby.
Hobby Lobby has become the world’s largest arts-and-crafts retailer, employing thirty-two thousand people in more than seven hundred stores across forty-seven states. It currently gives away fifty percent of its profits to teaching God’s Word and saving man’s soul. “Those are the two things we put our eternal investments in. We think therein lies the answer to the problems in our country,” says Green. It is this belief system which prompted Green to open Museum of the Bible this November. The 430,000 square foot museum is the biggest of its kind, is one of the most technologically advanced museums in the world, and will house the largest private collection of Bible artifacts worldwide. The six-story building is located just two streets away from the U.S. Supreme Court where Hobby Lobby fought a historic battle for religious liberty.
When President Obama’s Federal Secretary of Health and Human Services appealed the Tenth Circuit Court’s pro-religious liberty decision on Hobby Lobby to the United States Supreme Court, Green fought and won. In the midst of the trial Green had “…the peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” [Philippians 4:7] Green explained further, “None of it shook me… This peace was the gift of God.” In addition to that victory, Neil Gorsuch, the judge who wrote the leading opinion on Hobby Lobby’s Tenth Circuit decision, has recently been nominated to the Supreme Court. Green believes this is a step for religious freedom. He notes, “Our nation faces unprecedented times in terms of leadership. Never have we been so divided politically. Whenever division raises its ugly head, you can bet the religion of self has taken center stage.” Risen caught up with Green to discuss living selflessly, stewarding resources, and passing down an “invisible legacy” to the next generation.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You grew up with humble beginnings, even stating you picked cotton in your youth. How old were you? Was this a typical job for kids during that time and what did the work entail?
David Green: I was about six years old. Even in the ‘50s, I would be picking cotton. My parents had six children. When I was little, my dad would take the six of us out there. That was one of the ways we could earn income. All of us would get jobs early on to help the family. Picking cotton was one of the first jobs I ever did. When we were out in the fields, there were more adults picking cotton than children. We wanted to help our family. Usually, that was the money we used to buy socks, underwear, and maybe some clothes. We got a lot of our clothes from our cousins in California. But I’m not complaining. I mean, God took care of us. He took care of all our needs. We didn’t have entitlements. You just earned what you got and that was a good thing.
RM: Where did your foundation of faith develop and what did faith look like in your life growing up?
DG: My dad pastored small churches. My father and mother were people who really lived the life of faith. They were very conservative. They had a tremendous amount of integrity. They loved to give. They loved to tithe. Back in the ‘40s, many people had farms and gardens. A lot of things were done by barter or trade. Sometimes tithes would go out and come in through the form of things out of people’s gardens. I would watch my mom and dad list these things, because they wanted to give tithes of their increase. Vegetables and things were part of their increase, so they would tally this, and pay tithes.
They didn’t do this because they were legalistic. They did this because they loved the Lord and knew God would bless them if they tithed. We saw God’s blessings, not in riches, but in other ways. The Bible says when you tithe; the windows of heaven open up. That’s a promise that God gives us. I see this as more than a promise of getting stuff or getting dollars for dollars. I see it in things that are greater. I see financial things as probably the least of the blessings you can get. My parents had a marriage that lasted ‘til death. They had children that served God and still serve God today. I see those as the greater blessings. Someone might say, they paid their tithes, but they are not rich. But God always supplied their needs. I think He gave them the things that were more valuable than dollars and cents. What’s really valuable?
Wealth is your family, it’s your health. Those are the things God can really bless you with. He does bless you with a lot of different things when you tithe. In the Bible, He even says try me and see. So that’s what I grew up on. They loved the Lord. They went beyond just paying their tithes. They were givers in missions and things of that nature. That really affected me when I was growing up. If your mother and father put God first and tithe, it really makes a big statement to you. It tells you that they believe the Bible, because the Bible says it will bless you. And the Bible tells you to put God first.
RM: Did your parents have specific daily routines or traditions that helped your family stay focused on the “eternal” rather than the “temporal?” What routines and traditions did you use with your own family and which ones did you add to your parent’s invisible legacy?
DG: When I was growing up, my mother and father would read us Bible stories at night. For their own routines, they read the scriptures often and they were in prayer often. I’d hear them praying and reading in the middle of the night. And not just in the middle of the night. Often. They were very faithful. We knew what was important to them, and that’s why the six of us children all serve the Lord. We really saw it being done in an honest, true, and faithful way. One of the things my wife and I did in our family, that our kids would see us do, was tithe. In the early years when they would make a little money, we taught our own children to tithe. We were also very good about getting our kids involved in every area of the church that we could; summer camps, church camps, and Bible schools. They never asked on Sunday or Wednesday if we were going to church, because that’s just what we did. Going to church isn’t what gets you into heaven, it’s about your relationship with Jesus, but going to church is a good habit. If that’s a habit, it shows what’s important to us. Every time the church doors are open, you have to make a decision. It’s really easy when you don’t have to make a decision because of habit.
My wife, Barbara, was very faithful in the things she would do at church like leading the youth, teaching Sunday school, and leading the choir. She led the choir for free, so they wouldn’t need paid help. She did this for over twenty years. We were very involved in the church. Our kids saw that serving God and coming together in worship was very important for us. Also our family, which I call Gen One and Gen Two [generation one and two], spent weekend after weekend coming together putting together a document that we have. It’s a formalized document that explains our mission, our vision, and our values. The thirty-five of us get together every month as a family and go over this document. If someone is out of town, that’s fine, but the ones that can make it come. We want to make sure we have something to pass down that’s not money, our invisible legacy. The invisible legacy is that wealth is more than money. It’s a good marriage. It’s a family that serves God.
I see financial things as probably the least of the blessings you can get.
RM: In addition to your parents, one of the mentors you had growing up was a man you call Texas Tyler. Can you tell me about that time in your early career and what he taught you?
DG: He was the manager of the first retail store I ever worked for. In fact, he talked about adopting me because I came from such a poor, poor background. But he really took to me and he really came alongside of me. We called him T. Texas Tyler. That was his nickname. He was very good to spend so much time with me. I was a junior in high school when I first started working at McLellan’s Five and Dime Store. He spent a lot of time with me, and this was very important for me to get me to where I just fell in love with retail. I knew very early on that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. He was a Christian, but I got more strength in my Christian living from home. He was more influential in getting me started in my career.
RM: From McLellan’s, you became one of the youngest managers at TG&Y [Tomlinson, Gosselin, and Young Five and Dime Variety Store] and started Hobby Lobby [formerly known as Greco Products] in your garage? How did those experiences shape you as a young businessman?
DG: I was about nineteen. These three individuals had dime stores and they all came together as one five and dime store. I left McLellan’s and started running their store when I was very young. In the early ‘60s, TG&Y was adding stores like crazy and McLellan’s wasn’t. I wanted to become a store manager, so that’s why I moved to TG&Y, which is where I worked for thirteen years. It seemed like everyone wanted to get out there and start their own store. Well, maybe that’s just how I felt. But I saw TG&Y do a lot of wrong things, and I saw them do a lot of right things. You know, they finally went out of business because they did so many things wrong. In the mid-eighties, they closed their doors. I would see their mistakes and learn from them. For instance, I had a department that had a lot of arts and crafts in them. I saw that this department could really become a store of its own. But obviously, I didn’t have enough money to open up a Hobby Lobby store. Sometimes you have to have a means to an end. Our means to an end was during that period of time, there was a little fad where ladies would take these real small picture frames together in a group of about four or five and put them together on a wall. It would be like windmills or old barns. The smallest frame was one inch by one and a half [inch] canvas size.
The fad came up overnight and there was no company making them. So myself and a guy I knew named Pico said, “Hey, why don’t we just make those and we will start our business just doing that?” Neither one of us had any money, so we went out and borrowed six hundred dollars from the bank. We bought a chopper that made these moldings, and we started making these frames in our garage. My sons were seven and nine. We paid Mart and Steve seven cents apiece to glue the frames together. My wife worked five years for nothing because we were small and didn’t have a lot of money. That’s how we started in 1970. By 1972, we thought we had enough money to open our first Hobby Lobby. It was only about five thousand dollars worth of inventory that we could buy and put in our first store. Our first store was only 300 sq. ft. which is about the size of a small living room.
RM: Hobby Lobby came close to bankruptcy during the ‘80’s oil bust, but by the late ‘90’s, the business had become immensely successful. In your book, Giving It All Away… and Getting It All Back Again, you said that success came with a “sense of concern and burden that pressed down on me and became nearly oppressive.” Tell me more about that night when you were praying about this in your backyard and what the Lord taught you?
DG: One of the biggest times in our lives was when the bank looked like it was going to foreclose on us in the ‘80’s. God brought us out of it, but then all of a sudden, our company was worth billions of dollars in the ‘90’s. I was being advised by Christians, but I still couldn’t sleep at night. We had these Christian people who helped with estate planning, and what they wanted me to do was to take this company and give it to my kids. Then my kids could take it and give it to their kids. You know, that’s just the normal way people do it in the world. I just couldn’t sleep at night. I’ve got good kids and good grandkids, but this didn’t seem right to me since we started out saying this business belongs to God.
We want to make sure we have something to pass down that’s not money; our invisible legacy. The invisible legacy is that wealth is more than money. It’s a good marriage. It’s a family that serves God.
In the backyard, I’ll never forget, God said to me, “I wonder if the Jones family owns this business you got.” And I said, “Well, I couldn’t be giving it to my kids if the Jones family owns it.” Then God said, “Well, you’re telling me I own it. So you’re held to a different standard.” In other words, He was telling me I have nothing to give my kids because He owns it. The Bible says God owns it. He’s the one that gives us the breath we breathe. If we have talents, He gave ‘em to us. Whatever we have, we got from God. So I tell people it’s radical to say you own something. God owns everything. It’s easy to say that as a businessman, but then on the other hand, what does it really look like if God owns it?
I had already given my kids some stocks, because I’d been advised to, even though I had already told my kids it belongs to God. But I had to go back to them and say, “Will you sign off on this, and I’ll sign off, that we will never touch this company? It belongs to God and we will only be the stewards of it.” And they did. And my grandkids had to sign off too, because they were in my kids’ wills. All my family signed off that this company belongs to God. It was kind of like these advisors were saying our business was like a tree that grows out into the branches of our family, because there are thirty-five of us now with the great grandkids. I could foresee that if you own part of Hobby Lobby, then you have something coming, and it owes you. But since no one owns us, and we have all signed off, it’s a different paradigm. The business owes no one anything in the family, but the family owes the ministry. The business is the ministry. We owe it. It doesn’t owe us. So that really let me sleep at night.
Now the company stock is in our names, but we signed off that we will never profit from the value of the company, only from what we earn. We don’t have money to pass down. We have opportunities to pass down. We have opportunities to earn a salary. Why should they get something they didn’t earn? You know people ask me, “How do your grandkids feel about that? They aren’t getting anything?” I say, “It’s not about what they think. It’s what I think, and I would be very disappointed if I had a grandson or granddaughter that thinks they should get something they didn’t earn.” Now, I’m going to leave my grandkids something [soft tone] you know. But it’s not so much that it would allow them not to work. I love them. It’s not like you go from being billionaires to nothing. So I say, “Here’s some money, but it is not enough that you don’t have to work for the rest of your life. You still need to earn something.” I say, “If I lost one son, because of the wealth of Hobby Lobby, then I would rather not have had Hobby Lobby at all.” If you are a family member, and you want to work for Hobby Lobby, you are welcome to come, but you get what you earn. If God calls you to work for other parts of our ministry, fine. But you still get what you earn. For me, we are stewards, not owners. From a stewardship standpoint, there’s nothing negative about being stewards instead of owners. But as owners, there are a thousand what-ifs. What if this kid won’t work hard because he’s got all this ownership? What if one kid gets divorced? There are a million what-ifs. There could be a million different problems that come up. With stewardship, it is one hundred percent good. All we did was find what the Bible says. The Bible says we don’t own. We say, fine, we won’t touch it.
RM: What do you mean when you say “God calls us first to work?” And how do you feel about the concept of retirement?
DG: I tell people, my kids, my grandkids, and my great grandkids that the Bible says whatever your hands find to do, do the best you can as unto the Lord. The word, whatever, means whatever. Sometimes the culture today is more concerned about what they are going to do than how they are going to something. The Bible says it’s more important how you do it than what you do. It’s in the obedience of doing “whatever,” maybe even flipping hamburgers. In that obedience is when God moves you to where He wants you in life. Man doesn’t promote you, God does. God uses man, but it is really God in your obedience. You may not come out of high school or college knowing where you are going to be. Sure you want to try to get the job you really want, but at the same time, work. Go out there and do your very, very best. Be the best you can. We are a craft store, and we want to do the very best we can as unto the Lord.
As far as retirement, life is more than just your pleasure. Sure we need time and rest. That’s fine. But I don’t see anything in the Bible about retirement. As long as I can do something to expand this company, to do more of what we do in terms of ministry, then why would I not do that? Yes, someone else could do it. But how am I going to feel about myself when there are still people that may or may not make it into heaven? A lot of this depends on the decisions that I make. So why would I say I’ve got everything I want, now I’m going to start resting? I think we should do as much as we can, for as long as we can, to bring as many people to know Christ as we possibly can. Now that may be in a different position. It may mean that I’m not working at Hobby Lobby and I’m helping the homeless down at a city rescue mission. But somehow, somewhere, it seems like all of us ought to be doing something that has some eternity to it. If we’re not doing anything that has eternity in it, then what’s the use? What’s the purpose for our lives if we are not directly or indirectly bringing people to know Christ? I want to spend my entire life either directly or indirectly bringing people to know Christ.
We don’t have money to pass down. We have opportunities to pass down. We have opportunities to earn a salary.
RM: Because of the Supreme Court trial over those four life-terminating pills, the mainstream press labels Hobby Lobby “anti-women.” But in your book, you talk about the single moms you employ and how your own female family members work in leadership roles for the company. You even have female chaplains and a female CIO [Chief Information Officer]. How do you debunk this anti-women label when you are dealing with the critics?
DG: If they are anti-Christian, you can’t. Just the other day, the five mainstream media outlets, that are not conservative, brought up Hobby Lobby and said we were like ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. They compared us to them in how we treated women. But they never ever say that we pay for sixteen different prescriptions to prevent pregnancy. They never ever say that. They never say we pay $15.70 as our minimum wage for working women. Do you realize that we pay a lady that starts tomorrow about $20,000 a year more than minimum wage for a 40 hour week? So how many of those pills could she buy with that $20,000 dollars? It’s like they are saying, we are the ones controlling their lives. If they want to buy one of the pills, which I hope they don’t, we’re paying them $20,000 more than what we have to if we paid minimum wage. Compare minimum wage, which is $7.25 [in Oklahoma], to the $15.70 that we pay. We pay for about seventy percent of our employee’s health insurance. Also, here at the corporate office, where we have 5,000 employees, we have a health clinic. In that clinic, we even have an MRI machine. We are doing everything we can for employees. The clinic helps with women’s health care. It’s free if you have our insurance and it’s a very small cost if you don’t have our insurance. We are there for all of us, men, women, and everyone who’s employed by Hobby Lobby. That’s where I go for my healthcare. That’s just one of the things we do for the women. So why does the press make it seem like we are causing deaths of women? They are going to go there and make others hate us for what we believe. There is nothing we can do. They are going to find every little thing they can do to come against us. That’s just the way it is.
RM: You say that one of the reasons God gives us businesses is to influence the culture. I’d like to touch on your decision last fall to endorse then presidential candidate, Donald Trump. What made you decide to go public with your decision rather than just cast your vote privately and avoid costly repercussions?
DG: I came out publically, which is not normal for me. I don’t normally get involved publically with politics. It wasn’t until such times that the government told me, “You can’t run your business how it is or you pay $1.3 million per day in fines.” The Supreme Court tried to tell me and others how to run our businesses totally against conscience, that is, to pay for someone’s drugs that could take life. It was like I had to get involved. So I came out for Senator Marco Rubio. I came out verbally against then presidential candidate, Donald Trump, because I thought that he was a bully. I thought that he was going to teach our kids that if you want to be a billionaire, like him, or become president, be a bully or make fun of someone’s face. I was one hundred percent against him. I was for Senator Rubio. And I said that publically. Then it came down to two people. One of them would put a Supreme Court judge in there that would force me to buy someone’s pill for an abortion. The other one wouldn’t. So I voted for President Trump. That was the better of two choices. I became “for Trump,” not that I support everything he does. If we would have had Senator Hillary Clinton [as President], I’m pretty sure the five to four vote in our Supreme Court trial would have gone the other way for religious liberties, not just in a case like ours, but all religious liberties. It’s just like when we had to sue the government. There are a lot of times God tests us. I think when we are tested is when God blesses us. If we are trying to bless ourselves because we are doing things we know are not right, I’m not sure how many of His blessings we are going to get. We were not going to pay for someone’s pill that would give them an abortion. We could have lost the company [from the government fines]. I think it’s when we pass those kinds of tests, the ones that cost us, and could cost us, those are the reasons that God blesses us like He does.
RM: It appears that President Trump is surrounding himself with well-respected Christians like Rev. Franklin Graham, Dr. Alveda King, and Dr. Ben Carson. Do you know anything about President Trump’s decisions to do this or any decisions he has made to follow Christ?
DG: I got to talk to him, and he said, “I’m Presbyterian.” And I said, “You know, it’s not about your denomination. It’s about your relationship with Christ.” Then I asked him if he had accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. He said he had. Then I told him, “There’s no way you are going to make America great again without God. Only God can make us great again.” I said what I wanted to say. There are other people saying what they want to say to him, not that I count for anything. It is true he is surrounding himself with several different Christians that I know. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders. So I’m praying for him. I don’t know if I moved the dial for him, but there are a lot of good people he is talking to. Vice President, Mike Pence is a great, great guy. So we just pray that President Trump will seek the Lord in the decisions that he makes.
RM: While we are on the topic of Washington D.C., let’s talk about Museum of the Bible. Your son, Steve, began the collection of Bible artifacts. Did this start out as a hobby, pardon the pun, or was the intent always to start a museum?
DG: You know, sometimes I say, “God gives us a flashlight with poor batteries, so you can’t see that far.” He doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen ten years from now. He doesn’t plot it out for you. In the case of the museum, we had no intent when we started to do what we’re doing. God just led us one day at a time. We thought we had a chance to buy some antiquities at a good price. We thought we would buy them and donate them to someone someday that wanted to put them in a museum. Then we found some more. And we found some more. This goes back to me telling you that I know that I’m anointed to do what I do. It’s because of things like this. We know that we are supposed to be doing what we are doing here with the Museum of the Bible. God’s leading us. I’m not a pastor. I’m a merchant, but I’m still called to do what I’m doing. Our family was purchasing these things, with Steve as the leader, and finally, we said, “We are supposed to be the ones, not to gives these to someone else to do a museum. We are supposed to be the ones to do it.” We are not doing this by ourselves. We are out raising money. We want everybody that loves this book [the Bible] Catholics, Protestants, Jews, to present this book. We want to present this book that we love. We are not trying to be a denomination. If you love it, no matter what denomination you are, you can be a part of putting out this book. Then let the book speak for itself. We aren’t going to try to speak for the book. We are going to say, “Here’s the Bible, here’s where it came from, here’s the history.” There are three main floors. There’s the history floor. There’s the narrative floor which talks about Genesis, from the beginning to the end. It’s not a story. It’s a lot of stories. Then there’s the impact floor, this is all facts. It’s not trying to proselytize. We are just letting the public know the impact that the Bible has had on the world.
I think we should do as much as we can, for as long as we can, to bring as many people to know Christ as we possibly can.
RM: The Museum of the Bible’s mission is simply to invite people of every creed and color to engage in the Bible. There are eight floors total, including a five hundred seat theater. I get goose bumps watching the flyover video. What would you say are your favorite exhibits in Museum of the Bible?
DG: [Laughter] While you have me, well, I like the ones that are back from the first and second centuries. They’re papyrus. They are words that are put on pressed leaves. First, they started on cuneiform, which is stone. We have some of that. Then it went to more like pressed leaves. We have some of that. Then it went to the printed page. So I like all the old stuff. To be honest with you, I spend ninety-nine percent of my time at Hobby Lobby. Thank God I have Steve.
RM: You talk often about how our country was founded on biblical principles. This is even a big part of your family’s Museum of the Bible. Do you consider giving to certain political causes an “eternal investment?” Why or why not?
DG: No, we normally don’t. If I think something is very, very critical, I might. Like for me, it was very critical to have a Supreme Court that would allow me to have my religious liberties. I think what I could help with more is to get people back to God’s Word. That’s why I’m spending money on the Bible. If you go back to Hobby Lobby or The Green Family, you will find that ninety percent plus is for two things, God’s Word and man’s soul. So those are the two things we put our eternal investments in. We think therein lies the answer to the problems in our country. We think the answers to these problems are in God’s Word. That’s why our museum is in Washington D.C., and is three blocks from the Capitol.
We want to hopefully affect our world with God’s Word. We think He left us directions, a book of directions. It works in our marriage. It works in our families. It works in our businesses. It works in our cities. And I think it will work in our country. We think it is so important that we put our lives, our dollars and cents, into the Word and telling people the Good News of Jesus Christ so that lives will be changed for eternity. We can go with this life doing stuff that has nothing to do with eternity. We think about it. We think about it often. We want something at the end of our day that will affect things two thousand years from now. For instance, when we give to feeding children, we always make sure we tell them something eternal. Because if we feed them and we don’t tell them about Christ, that’s only temporary. It’s good, but it could be better.
My wife sat on [the board of] the city rescue mission for twenty years. We took in the homeless, but she was also involved in telling them the Good News of Christ and bringing them to know the Lord. Very little investments go toward political things. But I will invest in something or people that I think could swing a situation where they are going to protect religious liberties. That’s why we have partnered with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and are involved with the ADF [Alliance Defending Freedom]. They’re out there fighting for our freedoms.
RM: Through it all, the ups and downs of the company, the Supreme Court trial of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which could have cost you your company and possible job losses for 30,000 employees, how did you find peace during these times?
DG: I did have peace, even when we thought we could lose our company. My wife, Barbara, will tell you the same thing. Now when it first came out that I would have to pay $1.3 million in fines per day, I couldn’t sleep at night. But then two things happened. Barbara and I said, “We only have one decision to make. Right or wrong. Black or white. It’s in God’s hands.” The other thing was prayer, our prayers, and the prayers other people prayed for us. So I tell people, “It’s because of the prayers people were praying that we had peace. It’s because of you. It was because of prayer.” We felt their prayers.
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