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From the Boardroom to the Pulpit

Max Phillips' change in professions is part of his plan to give back.

Mike Ralston remembers sitting in an airport more than a decade ago and asking co-worker Max Phillips: “What would you be doing, if you weren’t working for the phone company?”

“It wasn’t the answer I was expecting,” Ralston said. “Max said without hesitation: ‘I’d be a Lutheran minister.’ ”

Today, he is.

On July 1, the day after Phillips retired as head of Iowa and South Dakota operations for Qwest Communications, Iowa’s largest provider of telephone service, he stepped into a new career as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Bouton. He went from overseeing 3,000 workers who provide service for more than a million telephone lines to running a rural church with 165 members and a nursing home in Perry that has about 75 occupants.

It was an unconventional move, but no more so than much of Phillips’ career.

In fact, the 54-year-old describes his life as a series of fortuitous accidents that are evidence of a larger plan.

How else do you explain the meanderings of a boy who was born on a farm near Bouton, attended middle school in Dubuque, high school and college in Florida, and then moved back to Iowa in 1978 to finish at Iowa State University, which he never did.

Instead, during the year that he waited to regain status as an Iowa resident, Phillips took a job as a service representative for Northwestern Bell and began volunteering at a campus ministry at Drake University, where he met a pharmacy student, whom he later married.

Phillips’ career took off, and he didn’t return to college for more than a decade as he moved from customer service to sales and marketing, then to public policy and then to operations.

In 2000, he was named regional president for Iowa by the phone company, which by then belonged to Qwest.

Phillips survived and thrived as the telecommunications industry went through a period of sometimes brutal change. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing well beyond 2000, technology reshaped what had been a comfortable monopoly into one of the most competitive industries of the early 21st century.

MBA, divinity degrees are tools for next job

When Phillips eventually did return to school as a part-time student, it was to earn an executive MBA degree from the University of Iowa in 1997 and a divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 2006.

The two degrees might seem a bit incongruous, but to Phillips they made perfect sense.

By 2000, he was already forming his own plan.

He wanted to give back, and he figured the best way to do that was by learning as much as he could about business and about theology, because the more he knew, the more impact he could have.

It all fit together, he said, because the phone company was the type of business where “if the market itself thrived, that was good for business.”

“There was always encouragement to be involved in the community,” Phillips said.

And he was.

Phillips served three terms as mayor of Bouton and four on the Woodward-Granger school board, including 10 years as board president. He served on a variety of industry boards, was president of the Iowa Business Council and is currently a member of the state board of education.

Part of what made Phillips a good leader at the phone company was the way he treated people and “his approach to leaving no stone unturned,” said Ralston, who is now chief executive of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.

“He likes to expose people to different things” to give them the chance to see things from different perspectives, Ralston said.

It was a good strategy, because the more workers knew about the new technology that was driving the phone industry, the easier it was to make changes that kept the traditional service competitive with start-ups.

“I don’t know anybody quite like Max,” said the Rev. Richard Osslund, a now-retired Lutheran minister who served as a mentor during Phillips’ divinity training.

“He’s an extremely bright individual, a farm kid who knows how to work and did it.”

“I was amazed at how he managed time,” Osslund said. Between being a corporate executive, attending divinity school, and serving on local boards, “he was also a very involved dad,” Osslund said.

Faith journey delivers Phillips to his people

One of the attractions for Phillips about his new job is the sense of being rooted in the area where he grew up, Osslund said.

His mother was born on the farm near Bouton where he spent his early years. While the family moved around because his father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a meat inspector, they always considered Bouton home.

The Dallas County town has fewer than 150 residents, but today Phillips’ family, his brother’s family and his parents all live nearby.

You can call that coincidence, but Phillips sees it as part of a plan, the result of separate family members’ faith journeys.

A key point in his own journey was his decision in the late 1970s to work with college students at Trinity Lutheran Church in the Drake area. That affiliation, which continued for more than 20 years, eventually led to Phillips becoming a lay minister at Bouton’s Christ Lutheran Church when the part-time minister who had served the church was transferred in 2000.

It was either step in or see the church closed, Osslund said. “He didn’t want to do something second rate, so he went out and got the education and the background that he needed.”

Phillips had not planned to retire from Qwest until 2012, when he turns 55. But after the company was acquired by Louisiana-based CenturyLink last winter, he was asked to move to Minneapolis and take on more responsibility. Rather than do that, he took early retirement in July.

The change allowed him to become a full-time minister, which was good because the congregation of the Bouton Lutheran church has nearly tripled since he began serving it as a lay minister in 2000.

In addition to ministering to a growing congregation, Phillips has agreed to take over the administration of the Perry Lutheran Home, which had been largely leaderless since the nonprofit that owned it cut it loose a decade ago. Without back office support and vision, the home began to deteriorate.

The home’s directors originally asked Phillips to be a consultant. “But they needed to change the home’s culture, and consultants can’t change culture,” Phillips said.

Once he decided to leave Qwest, he agreed to manage the home and provide the vision and administrative skills that it needed.

As he does with every job, Phillips studied the situation, then dug in and began making changes. He got people from his church and other churches in the area to volunteer at the home. Instead of just entertaining residents, he got them involved in more meaningful activities, such as wrapping bandages for mission work.

“Listening and communication are important,” he said. “It’s the same with a church as with any business. Real leadership is having interaction with people. … It is always about the people. If people know you care, they will work a lot harder.”

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