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Faculty Profile: Vander Plaats stresses a vision of the kingdom in his business classes

By Sally Jongsma

Gary Vander Plaats

Gary Vander Plaats

Business Professor Gary Vander Plaats, the recipient of the 2004 John Calvin Award, says he takes great pleasure in making difficult topics simple. It’s just one of the things that drew him to teaching. While working on his M.B.A., he was introduced to teaching as a teaching assistant. Later, as a C.P.A. with a young and growing family, he taught evening courses to help make ends meet. But perhaps one of his biggest motivations was to do for others what his professors—Henry De Groot, Bob Hilbelink, and John Visser, former and current colleagues in the Dordt College business department—had done for him: give direction to his life.

A person’s impact may not always show right away, he says, using himself as an example. It wasn’t until he began teaching at a school from another faith tradition, bumping against ideas that didn’t stack up to what he’d been taught, that he began to think more carefully about what he believed. In Vander Plaats’ recollection, it was that college’s implied notion that a good Christian should give up all he had and give it to the poor that troubled him.

“From my Reformed outlook I believed that Christian business people need to work for the poor but they do that by staying in business and running a good business,” he says. That’s the message he wants to convey to his students, the Kuyperian notion that every square inch, including business, is fertile ground in which Christians should be working.

Vander Plaats says that not all Christians, even all Reformed Christians, agree on what a Christian approach to business means in detail, but his overarching goal is that his students catch a vision of the kingdom of God and begin to understand what stewardship is all about. Christians need to be in business, he says, because it is rightly claimed by a sovereign God who reigns over all.

Vander Plaats believes that economic growth is good and profitability is necessary, but that finance is only a tool to a bigger end. Accumulation of personal or stockholder wealth is not the goal for the Christian business person; it is being a faithful steward of the gifts God has given for the service of his creation.

At the beginning of his finance class, Vander Plaats highlights that important distinction by critiquing the presuppositions of the author of the textbook, posing in their place his own set of presuppositions based on his Reformed Christian understanding of God’s sovereignty over all of creation. He contrasts a secular motivation of profit maximization with the Christian’s call to glorify God, to use his gifts in a stewardly manner, and to love (serve) one’s neighbor.

Those who nominated Vander Plaats say that he has made an impact on his students just as his professors made on him. “He would make you think about your life and how to use your gifts,” one person wrote. Another said, “Vander Plaats frequently used a quote from Martin Luther that I still remember from my sophomore year, ‘Work is worship.’”

Vander Plaats is passionate in his beliefs and shares them outside of his Dordt College classroom, too. He regularly teaches business classes in developing countries for Christian organizations such as World Vision. He’s been to China, South Africa, and around the world to do so. The experiences only benefit his teaching, he believes.

About the award, Vander Plaats says there are many people on campus who deserve this award. He believes it is relatively easy to stress the notion of service in his business classroom, easier than it might be in some other disciplines.

“I feel uncomfortable about being singled out,” he says. “It goes contrary to the notion of community and the fact that we are the body of Christ. We all have our contributions to make whether it is teaching, maintaining the campus, or keeping technology running.” He accepts it for all of those others as well.