DEARBORN, Mich. (RNS) For the first time in its long history, Thrivent Financial is not just for Lutherans. The 111-year-old financial services firm began taking applications this month from all Christians.
“We feel like we’re being called to serve more people,” said Dick Moeller, chairman of the board.
The change from “Thrivent Financial for Lutherans” to just “Thrivent Financial” was not a simple response to declining membership in the Lutheran church, Moeller said, although that factor was discussed during the lengthy transition talks.
It’s more about having a long-term strategy to share the company’s Christian business principles with more people, he said.
“It will open many, many new doors for us in terms of our ability to expand and help our members and communities,” he said.
The U.S. has three main Lutheran denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The ELCA, the largest of the three with 3.9 million members in the U.S., reported a drop in weekly attendance of 26 percent from 2003 to 2011.
CEO Brad Hewitt told the 1,600 members at the regional meeting at the Henry Ford Museum that while Thrivent traces its corporate roots to the turn of the 20th century, its history goes back to the 16th century and the founder of Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther.
Luther drafted a document in 1523 called the “Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest of the Entire Assembly at Leisnig,” which established rules about pooling resources to help people in need.
“The phrase he used consistently was, ‘This is done for the honor of God and the love of fellow Christians,’” Hewitt said, adding that Thrivent was formed by Lutheran immigrants for the same basic purpose.
Moeller said the company chose to use the Apostles’ Creed — a statement of Christian belief dating back to the 4th century — as the determining factor in whether a person is eligible to join Thrivent.
“As a fraternal society we have an application process. People have to apply. And as part of that they attest to believing in the Apostles’ Creed,” he said.
He and Marie Uhrich, senior vice president of communications, said that, in meeting with members over the last 18 months as the changes were proposed, many told them they wanted their relatives who were Christians but not Lutherans to be able to benefit from Thrivent’s insurance policies and financial services.
Randy Boushek, chief financial officer, said Thrivent’s core values as a company contribute “indirectly, but not insignificantly” to Thrivent’s financial success with less fraud, litigation and other costs often associated with major corporations.
In another example of its financial practices, Hewitt’s compensation in 2012 was 1/25th that of the $92 million paid to Jim Cracchio, CEO of the slightly larger Minneapolis firm Ameriprise Financial, according to a recent report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In 2012, Hewitt earned a base salary of just over $808,000. His bonus and other incentive compensation was $1.54 million.
Thrivent’s shareholders are its members, Boushek said. Anyone who has a life insurance policy or an investment with the company is an owner. “(That) means that we can and do manage our business for long-term success, not short-term results,” he said.
It also means Thrivent, which ranks 325th on the Fortune 500 list with $90.4 billion in assets under management, has been able to stash away a “big rainy-day fund” of $7 billion.
“Wall Street doesn’t like rainy-day funds because it tends to be a drag on earnings,” Boushek said, but Thrivent’s surplus helped it grow during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.
“When other companies were selling assets at distressed prices to raise cash, we were buying,” he said.
Hewitt said Thrivent “changed our brand … so that we could welcome more Christians into our organization. We are not just for Lutherans anymore, but we are an organization of Christians.”
(David Yonke is the editor of Toledo Faith & Values.)
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