Illuminated Giving

Oklahoma City
“It’s been banned; it’s been burned,” says Steve Green. “It’s been loved and hated. It’s the best-selling book of all time, the most-translated book of all time, and, I think, the most important book of all time.” He is referring, of course, to the Bible.

Green is president of Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of arts-and-crafts stores founded by his father, David. The Good Book informs his family’s business and inspires their philanthropy. It is also the centerpiece of their latest charitable project: the creation of the country’s first museum devoted to telling the story of how the Bible came to be, recounting its effects on the world, and relating its message.

The Greens own an unrivaled personal collection of Bibles, biblical manuscripts, and scriptural antiquities. When their museum opens, it will showcase a world-class collection with a strong non-sectarian emphasis. Among the items it will feature are fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the world’s oldest complete Bibles, exquisitely illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, and first editions of landmark Bibles.

In the meantime, a portion of the family’s collection is touring the world. On May 16, Steve Green unveiled “Passages,” an exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art that marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. After that, a portion focused on the Catholic contribution to the King James Bible will travel to the Vatican, where it will be a featured exhibit at the Braccio di Carlo Magno museum in St. Peter’s Square. Other sites for a “Passages” exhibition are currently being negotiated both stateside and abroad. The exhibit will go on a worldwide tour while the Green family continues to build a permanent museum dedicated to the Bible.

“Whether you believe or not,” Steve says, “the history of this book is a story to be told—people gave their lives for it. Our goal is to make the Bible more accessible than ever before.” This story, as told through the Greens’ collection, is breathtaking. “Passages” starts with the earliest Jewish scribes and moves on through the apostolic, patristic, and medieval ages. It examines the Renaissance and European Reformation and culminates with the English Reformation and the translation of the King James Bible.

“You would have to travel around the world to see single items that are on display here in Oklahoma City,” says Scott Carroll, a biblical scholar and the curator of the exhibition. He glances at the artifacts on display, eyes wide with awe, before continuing. “There are numerous items that you couldn’t see anywhere outside of Oklahoma City.”

Among its more than 300 notable artifacts are an unpublished fragment of Genesis from the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which contains the earliest known manuscript of the New Testament in Palestinian Aramaic; the Roseberry Rolle, a translation of the Psalms into Middle English that predates John Wycliffe’s English Bible by 40 years, as well as first editions of Coverdale, Tyndale, Geneva, and King James Bibles. The exhibit also includes a number of interactive features. St. Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate, appears as an animatronic figure. So too does William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament into English and was put to death by Henry VIII. Docents dressed in period costumes operate exact replicas of the Gutenberg and King James printing presses, and artists conduct live demonstration of scriptural adornment techniques.

“To know the story of how the Bible was transmitted and preserved is important,” says Carroll. “It didn’t simply drop from Mt. Sinai and end up in a motel drawer! It’s a story of sacrifice and loss of life, of people diligently copying texts, of teaching the story to generation after generation. That’s all part of the story of ‘Passages.’ If you are a person of culture, you must know about the Bible and how it came to be.”

“We believe in the Bible,” says Steve Green. “We live our lives according to the Bible. We believe it is the best instruction for man to live by, and we strive to do that ourselves.” The Bible is likewise at the heart of their business. “We strive to run our business according to biblical principles. As we apply the principles that we see in scripture, we believe that God blesses—and we have definitely been blessed.”

More Than a Hobby

The Green family traces those blessings to Altus, a small town in the dusty southwestern corner of Oklahoma. At age 16, David Green started working in the Altus five-and-dime. After serving briefly in the U.S. Air Force, he married Barbara and joined the fast-growing five-and-dime chain TG&Y, working his way up to area supervisor for Oklahoma City.

David loved retail and had a natural gift for moving merchandise. “I saw potential that TG&Y was not capturing,” he explained. He grew TG&Y’s pet department by selling 10-gallon fish tanks below wholesale price. The tanks were loss leaders. The stores more than made up for them on sales of fish, equipment, and accessories.

He also saw an opportunity to produce picture frames for the store’s craft department. With $600 in borrowed capital, David and a partner bought a frame chopper and materials. They enlisted their families in making the frames. David and Barbara’s children—Mart, Steve, and Darsee—earned 7¢ for each frame they assembled. Before long, they were struggling to keep up with orders.
In 1972, independent of TG&Y, David and his partner opened a 300-square-foot store for their frames and other craft supplies. Hobby Lobby struggled at first, but its product mix proved ideal for Christmas decorating. The little store finished the year with a small profit. From there, Hobby Lobby grew and grew. David bought out his partner in 1973, and in 1975, he opened a new store and resigned from TG&Y.

Today, Hobby Lobby is the nation’s largest privately held arts-and-crafts store, with 479 stores in 40 states and 18,000 employees. Sales top $2 billion annually. The company has a massive manufacturing and warehouse operation in Oklahoma City. And Hobby Lobby’s business model has proved resilient during the recession. “When economic times are bad, people tend to make and craft even more of their gifts, rather than buy them ready-made,” David writes.

There have been a few hiccups along the way. Cash sluiced around Oklahoma during the oil boom of the ’70s and early ’80s, and David admits that they got sucked in. “We had been born as an arts-and-crafts store, but now we were loading up [on] all kinds of upscale merchandise,” he recalls. “We were coasting high on a false sense of security.” When the price of oil collapsed, and Oklahoma’s economy with it, Hobby Lobby’s high-end goods stopped selling. The company lost $1 million in 1985.

“Dad would say he wasn’t sure how we were going to make it,” says Steve. “He would say that was the worst time and yet at the same time the best time, because he would say that that’s when he gave the business over to God and said, ‘I can’t make it. And if it’s going to make it, You are going to have to make it happen.’” The Greens re-focused on their core arts-and-crafts merchandise, secured financing, and ended the year in the black.

Working on Purpose

“I graduated high school and started working for my dad,” smiles Steve Green. “I still do.” Steve has worked in virtually every corner of Hobby Lobby. He mowed lawns, painted buildings, and unloaded trucks in high school. He worked as a liaison between stores and the corporate office. “I worked in buying,” he recalls, “I’ve been over our international department, legal department, accounting department, information systems department.” Steve ultimately worked all the way up the corporate ladder and is now president of Hobby Lobby. “I currently spend most of my time in the real estate department overseeing our growth and new store expansions.”

A deep sense of purpose animates Hobby Lobby. “My father was a son of a pastor,” says Steve, “so he was born in a Christian home, and most of his siblings went into the ministry.” The Greens see Hobby Lobby as a ministry of their own: first, in retail as a form of service; second, in the way the company treats its employees; and finally, in the way it employs its profits.

The Greens believe that they serve their customers by “offering an exceptional selection and value.” “We ask that all employees see themselves as servants,” David explains. “Our stores serve the customers. If everything is working as it should, the staff will feel honored and fulfilled, and the customers will be pleased.”

Hobby Lobby is also the Greens’ ministry to their employees. Like Chick-fil-A—another privately held company owned by evangelical Christians—Hobby Lobby closes on Sundays. That was not always the case. It wasn’t until 1998 that Hobby Lobby first experimented with Sunday closures in its three Nebraska stores. Then David had a revelation: “It was as if God was saying to me, ‘Oh . . . so if you’re blessed, you’re going to be obedient, but if the numbers don’t work out for you, maybe not?’” By 2000, all Hobby Lobby locations were closed on Sundays. “Our decisions are long-term,” Steve explains. “We believe that it has been good for our company. I think that it has attracted better employees, because they like the idea that they’re going to be able to get off on Sundays to worship and be with their families.”

Being privately held allows Hobby Lobby much greater flexibility to use company resources for philanthropic ends. “We are wholly owned by the family,” explains Steve. “We get together as a family and we make those decisions. If we want to close on Sundays, we can do that. There’s a lot of benefit in not having to worry about being a publicly traded company, dealing with the pressures created by the stock market.”

Family ownership also allows the Greens to minister directly from Hobby Lobby’s profits to support Christian and humanitarian ministries around the world. “If everybody agrees that we want to help support a particular ministry, we can do that.” The Greens don’t make a distinction between personal philanthropy and Hobby Lobby’s corporate philanthropy. “Most of the giving is done as a family through the business. We don’t have a separate family foundation. It’s a business decision that we make as a family.”

Sharing God’s word, Steve explains, is the common denominator in the Green family’s giving. “Most of our business decisions are long-term, so we bring that same thought to our charitable giving, which has led us in many cases to God’s word. Much of our giving has been spreading God’s word around the world through different ministries, and the Bible project happened to be a very good fit. There are other humanitarian things that we do as well, but what seems to be at the core of this is sharing God’s word and encouraging people to consider it.”

“It Just Fell into Our Lap”

At the moment, the Greens’ Bible collection and “Passages” are Steve’s top philanthropic priorities—so much so that he is devoting half of his time to them. But the Greens’ philanthropy extends to much more. For example, they support ministries that bring the gospel message to people who haven’t heard it. They support Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is seeking to make the full text of the Bible available in every language. (Although the narrative of “Passages” culminates with the King James Bible, it wraps up with a pitch for Wycliffe.) They also support OneHope, which, Steve says, “takes the four gospels, harmonizes them, puts all the stories in chronological order without repeating them, and distributes that to kids in 100 countries around the world.” Another ministry, Every Home for Christ, seeks to bring “a gospel message to every home in the world.”

The Greens likewise work to tell the story of evangelistic efforts. For instance, Mart Green has long been fascinated by the story of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, and three other young American missionaries. In 1956, they were murdered in Ecuador by the Waodani Indians—a tribe they were trying to reach with the Christian gospel. Saint and Elliot’s widows, Rachel and Elisabeth, continued their husbands’ work with the Waodani, eventually seeing widespread Christianization among the tribe. Mart founded a nonprofit film company, EthnoGraphic Media, which in 2006 released End of the Spear, a drama based on the lives and deaths of the young missionaries—and the reconciliation of Saint’s son Steve with his father’s Waodani killer.

The Greens have also been very active in supporting Christian colleges, but not necessarily on purpose. “I think some of that kind of just fell into our lap,” Steve explains. “The biggest one has been Oral Roberts University.” In 2007, the Tulsa-based university found itself embroiled in a nasty scandal involving personal and financial misconduct by its president and his wife. The Greens had no personal connection to ORU, Steve explains, “but from what we were reading in the papers, it looked like they were getting ready to close their doors. We hurt for that. We don’t need fewer institutions that are teaching on a biblical basis.” In 2008, the Greens gave $70 million to ORU, including over $50 million to retire its debt. Mart became chairman of the board and imposed a plan for financial recovery and governance reform.

Much of the Greens’ support for Christian higher education has been through property deals—$300 million worth of deals for 50 institutions, notes David. The family gave a $10.5 million facility to Liberty University for a law school, and made $5 million worth of renovations to a campus that they gave to Zion Bible College. In 2009, the Greens bought an idyllic 224-acre campus dotted with Romanesque revival buildings for C. S. Lewis College, a non-denominational Great Books college planning to open next year in Northfield, Massachusetts. Steve considers the property a bargain. Hobby Lobby will spend $6 million on its purchase and renovation; when they turn the deed over to C. S. Lewis College, it may be worth as much as $30 million.

“We’re involved in buying and giving real estate when we’re able to buy it at a very good price,” Steve explains. “That was an opportunity. It’s not been an intentional one, but it’s been, I think, one that God has directed us to.”

“One Thing Led to Another”

“My brother runs a Christian bookstore chain [Mardel, an affiliate of Hobby Lobby],” says Steve. “He commented many times that it would be neat to create a Bible museum. By the time an opportunity arose, the idea had been pretty thoroughly discussed in our family.”

When the moment came, it was in the form of a gospel of Luke, written in gold ink on purple vellum. “An opportunity presented itself at a very good price,” Steve says. The family that owned the artifact ended up changing its mind, but the Greens’ inquiry triggered interest in the world of biblical antiquities. “So we started looking for opportunities,” he continues, “and one thing led to another, and we have the collection we have today.”

The collection came together “at lightning speed”—in less than two years. “Our intent was not necessarily to do that,” Steve admits, “but as we started acquiring items, other items became available, word got out, and so people started presenting us with opportunities.” The Greens had an unlikely assist from the economy. “There were people who were struggling because of the economy and in need of cash,” Steve explains, “and they elected to sell a collection or a Bible.” Other collectors decided to sell because of the Greens’ vision for the museum. “I think there are some who might have been motivated to sell because we would share with them what we would love to do with the artifacts.”

The family worked closely with Scott Carroll, a biblical scholar with a long career of acquiring and studying ancient manuscripts. Steve Green joined Carroll on several acquisition trips, meeting dealers and attending auctions. “I tagged along and was just soaking in all the information Scott was sharing,” Steve says. “Then he would present the opportunities. We would discuss them, and I would decide to make the offers.”

“We don’t consider ourselves collectors,” he adds. “That’s not our nature as a family. It was more of the purpose that we had and the vision for the museum. A collector may have a little different mindset from what we might have; for us, it was the opportunities that presented themselves.”

“A Museum, Not a Ministry”

“Passages” is a prelude. After it closes in Oklahoma City in October, a selection of the exhibit will be displayed in the Vatican City. “Passages” will tour major cities for the next few years while the Greens’ ultimate goal—a museum of the Bible—comes to life. “‘Passages’ is a way for us to be able to start telling our story while we’re waiting for that permanent museum,” Steve Green explains.

That museum is perhaps as ambitious a project as the collection it will house. “We want to be a resource where the story of the Bible can be told in a very scholarly way that will also create an interest in the Bible,” Steve says. Like “Passages,” the museum is planned to be interactive, “attracting a wide spectrum of people, from children to scholars.”

It is not, however, planned to be evangelistic—at least not directly. “It’s a museum, not a ministry,” he adds. “But if we do the museum right, it will minister to people as a byproduct. I think it’ll be evangelistic in the sense that the evidence is very compelling that this book is unlike any book out there.” Even so, the museum will be deliberately non-sectarian. “Passages” includes artifacts from the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions; significantly, it will make a prominent stop at a museum in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The eventual Bible museum will feature, among other things, the world’s largest private collection of Jewish scrolls (including Torahs that survived the Spanish Inquisition and the Shoah) and items that document the contribution of Jews and Roman Catholics to the King James Bible. “The idea of it being non-sectarian was really a decision based on the history of the Bible,” Green explains. “We didn’t make that decision. That decision was made because the history runs through the traditions of Judaism and Catholicism and Protestantism.”

The museum will also allow the Greens to expand beyond the story told in “Passages,” with its culminating focus on the King James Bible. One of Steve’s favorite artifacts in the collection is a Bible published by Robert Aitken in 1782—“the first and only Bible commissioned by the U.S. Congress,” he explains. The Aitken Bibles were commissioned by Congress in response to the shortage of Bibles from Britain during the American Revolution. “It gives the picture of the environment of the founding of this country,” Steve says, “and I think that today there’s probably a different picture viewed, but this is a way of going back and seeing maybe what the attitude at the time might have been.”

In keeping with its scholarly ambitions, the museum will house a research program: the Green Scholars Initiative. The initiative will allow undergraduates to collaborate with leading researchers to study and publish items in the collection that have not yet received scholarly attention. “This,” Steve concludes, “is a way of getting some of that information out quicker and at the same time mentoring students to have a love for the scholarly work—and it may give them a passion to pursue that opportunity as a vocation.”

“This Place Is Like a Tree”

Steve Green is currently scouting sites for the Bible museum in three cities: Washington, New York, and Dallas. (Washington would have the highest attendance, he says, but that is not the only factor in the decision.) With “Passages” touring and his hands full with planning for the museum, Steve does not envision any other big philanthropic projects soon.

He grins. “But we may wake up and read the paper and feel we need to get involved in a project.” One thing is certain: the Greens will continue to do both business and philanthropy as a family.

Steve and his wife, Jackie, have six children. Mart has four. Following in their father’s footsteps, Steve’s two adult children work for family enterprises: one for Hobby Lobby and one for the Green Collection. Not all family members are obliged to join the business, of course. “If they feel this is not what their calling is and they want to go do something else, then they’re free to do that. But if this is what they feel their calling is, as I did, we want to provide the opportunity.”

The next generation is also learning to participate in the family’s giving. “They don’t vote necessarily on the bigger family decisions,” Steve says, “but they are able to have a little bit that they are directing themselves, to give them a sense of the decision-making that the family goes through.” For example, some of the third-generation family members are supporting Christian orphanages overseas.

Ultimately, the Greens view Hobby Lobby, and the philanthropy it makes possible, as a work of long-term stewardship and investment. “If you want to work here, you’re welcome,” David Green tells his kids and grandkids. “But you’ll only get what you earn. This place is like a tree that can bear fruit if it’s taken care of. In the final analysis, it doesn’t belong to you, or even to Mom and me; it belongs to God. We all have to give it our best attention so that the tree stays strong and healthy for decades to come.”

His words call to mind those of another David, some 3,000 years ago. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,” sings King David in Psalm 1. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”


This article was originally published in Philanthropy‘s Summer 2011 issue.