PROFILE | For 20 years, David Roth has helped others integrate work and faith through Workmatters
Founder of a nonprofit that helps people live out their faith through their work, Roth focused Workmatters efforts on creating practical, not theology-based, solutions for Christians in the workplace.
Published by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette | October 8, 2023
Click here to read the original article.
Copy by April Wallace | Photos by Caleb Grieger
In 2002, David Roth found himself sitting in church one Saturday morning for a leadership conference at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Tom Frase, associate pastor at Central, was announcing the formation of Workmatters, a nonprofit that helps people integrate faith and work. It hit on exactly the issues that David had been wrestling with, such as how to keep your relationship with God first in your life, over the responsibilities of work, and how to live out Christian values in the workplace.
“It was as if my whole adult life came together in that moment,” David Roth said. “Afterward, I said ‘I’d like to be a part of whatever this looks like.”
Workmatters started as a church ministry, but it was treated like a business from the beginning, Roth said. Rather than forming a committee to help manage it, they gave it a board of directors. For the 18 months that it was a part of the church, Roth served on that board and soon became its informal passion leader. The reason he chose to do that was somewhat selfish, he says now from the Workmatters offices in Rogers.
“I just sucked at faith and work,” Roth said. “I wanted to live my faith and be the same person at work as I was in my personal life. As I looked at people around me at church, at work and my friends, most Christians I knew were in the same situation: their faith was compartmentalized. It gave me tremendous passion around faith and work.”
Roth became the official leader of Workmatters when it transitioned out of Central United Methodist Church and into a faith-based, yet nondenominational, nonprofit organization in 2003. By now, Workmatters has reached more than 1 million people through its institute, classes, conference videos and action plans.
After serving as its president and CEO for 20 years, Roth is retiring from the post. Brandon Swoboda began as its new president and CEO on Monday . A public 20th anniversary celebration for Workmatters will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at Osage House in Cave Springs. Roth’s last day at Workmatters will be Dec. 31.
David was “obedient to the call that God placed on his heart to enter the non-profit world and lead Workmatters,” said Theresa Roth, his wife. “From a worldly perspective, it was a hard choice, but it was the right choice in God’s eyes. And that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Steve Blair, chairman of Workmatters board of director for nearly 10 years now, got deeply involved with the nonprofit because of Roth’s passion, having first heard David speak at events like “8 to 5,” an early morning speaker series and “Leader Cast.”
“He was very relatable,” Blair said. “I felt like (David) was like me, a professional trying to navigate doing business in a way that is honoring to God and other people. He was talking about things I was wrestling with. He appeared to be living out those things.”
Blair felt that Roth was authentic in what he was teaching others to process and got the sense that he had been there and done that. His relatability, professionalism and authentic manner made Steve want to meet him and volunteer, making the scope of Workmatters wider and more impactful.
For two decades now, it’s been David’s easy ability to connect with others that has spurred on that ever-increasing reach, Workmatters COO Ben Kirksey believes.
“With any cause-oriented endeavor, the leader has to be all-in on the mission and David embodies that through and through,” he said. “He has the remarkable ability — more than anyone I’ve ever met — to build instant rapport and credibility with executive leaders.”
Kirksey describes Roth’s demeanor as that of both a pastor and a peer, saying that it’s impossible to spend time with him and not leave inspired to think more deeply about how you can make a difference through your work.
ARKANSAN FARM BOY
David Roth was born in Little Rock and raised on a rice farm in Stuttgart with his two brothers. His parents, Jim and Jojo Roth, had met at the University of Arkansas, where his dad was captain of the Razorbacks in 1954. Not really a school-oriented person, young David initially found purpose in sports, playing basketball and baseball.
By the time he was old enough to have a job, he didn’t have to look far. His parents owned a clothing store in Harrison, where they were living by then. His dad had worked as a manager for JCPenney prior to that and the combination of experiences meant that David and his brothers all grew up in a sales environment at the store, named “Harrison House.” Day after day they handled the mopping, taking out the trash and washing windows and eventually sales jobs.
Kevin Campbell grew up with David and really knows him well, calling him a genuine person.
“There is no act with him,” Campbell said. “Mostly, he is a natural born leader. Always has been.”
Roth chose to attend the University of Arkansas, where he worked through college as a dishwasher at a fraternity — a “humbling experience” — and at a print shop, which had him doing plenty of manual labor. But he had lost that purposeful feeling since he wasn’t playing sports any longer. He got it back four years later after having earned a marketing degree and went to work.
“When I got my first job post-graduation, I felt like ‘Wow, I have skills that are providing value,'” Roth said. He realized he liked to work. “It really was the beginning of the whole journey of finding some purpose in work. The same way I found purpose in high school sports, I found it again through my career.”
His earliest professional roles were in buying for Mass Merchandisers Inc., work that brought him back home to Harrison. When Roth decided he didn’t want to live there for the rest of his life, he accepted an offer with McKesson’s as a Director of Alternate Sourcing. It began a three year stint in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights that turned out to be a growth opportunity. He loved it.
But Roth’s next career move was impactful in more ways than one. When he moved to Atlanta to work in the consulting and sales division for American Software, David met Theresa, who worked in the same division.
“He was professional, knowledgeable, outgoing, kind, not to mention good looking too,” Theresa Roth said.
The two remained business associates for a couple of years before they began dating and since they already knew each other, they didn’t have those awkward get-to-know you conversations. Their first date, Theresa said, was like spending time with a good friend — a marathon of a date, actually. They went to church together, jogged along the river, threw frisbees, walked around Piedmont Park and then watched a college basketball game.
Theresa had gone through a traumatic experience in her life and though she hadn’t shared it with many people by then, she opened up to David. She told him that her first husband was killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut in 1983.
“David listened intently, showed me great empathy and even cried with me,” Theresa Roth said. “That was profound to me and that’s when I began to fall in love with him. He loved me, not in spite of the hardships I’d been through, but because of what I’d been through and admired my courage.”
Their first date was February 10, they were engaged on the Fourth of July and they married in Eureka Springs on October 5 that same year.
“When you know it’s right, you know it’s right,” David Roth said.
Theresa had fallen in love with Eureka when they visited his family in Harrison. Since the two shared a love of the outdoors, they honeymooned in Banff and Lake Louise, Canada, where they could enjoy hiking, cycling, rafting, the breathtaking scenery and each other.
A couple years into their marriage, they had their first son, Dylan, and later Tyler, and have always prioritized a weekly date night to get away from the stresses of work and focus on each other. By the time the Workmatters opportunity presented itself, it was a decision considered by the whole family.
HARD AT WORK
In 1998, at 41 years old, David Roth was a senior vice president of marketing for a globally traded supply chain management company in Maryland. They had had a good run the past few years to that point, with their stocks going from $6 a share to more than $100, but once they missed two earnings estimates in a row, everything changed. Stock plummeted and Roth was fired.
“It was my first experience, in adult life, at feeling like I had failed at something,” Roth said. “It really was a life changing experience.”
Until that moment, Roth had always said that his priorities were God, family and work, but taking work out of the equation gave him the sudden realization that he’d had those priorities out of order.
“I realized it was the opposite,” he said. “It was all about work, family and God when I needed him. I felt humbled and called to make changes.”
David and Theresa decided they would move, either back to Georgia or to Arkansas. When J.B. Hunt made Roth an offer, they followed that back to Northwest Arkansas and got involved with Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville where, Roth said, his faith began to take off in ways it hadn’t before. That growth was supplemented by being surrounded with exceptional Christian leaders at J.B. Hunt. It made for a crucial part of learning what faith and work could look like when integrated thoughtfully.
“I made a case study of watching (Hunts’) leaders, John Roberts, the CEO; Shelley Simpson and Nick Hobbs,” Roth said. “I observed how they handled things, when they had difficult communications; I’d watch them in restaurants with prospective clients when they were close to (making) a sale. They weren’t perfect but they had Christian values to play out. They were trying to live it.”
It set the trajectory for what would come next.
The conversation between David and Theresa about his growing involvement in Workmatters was that if it ever left the church, David would want to be more deeply involved. His vision was for it to not be centered in theology, but in practical solutions for the average worker.
In August of 2003, Roth was asked to make a presentation to Central United Methodist’s leadership on the prospect of it being taken out of the church and made into a national nonprofit. At that stage, there weren’t even 10 faith and work nonprofits in the country. Roth saw it as an innovative idea to bridge the gap between faith and work.
David was feeling the nudge to leave his job at J.B. Hunt, but decided to place the decision on the vote. If the church voted yes, he would leave the industry and join the nonprofit full time. They voted 30-0 in favor of Workmatters going out on its own. As David walked out of the meeting and the elevator doors closed behind him, he thought, “Oh God, what have I done.” Two days later he walked into John Roberts office to officially resign.
“There were so many God-things that were going on over the course of several months that pointed to David leading Workmatters,” Theresa Roth said. They prayed and discussed what it would mean for their family. “Ultimately, there were so many God-things that pointed to his decision to take on this new role that we felt we’d be disobedient to God’s prompting if he didn’t do this.”
By October, David Roth was the founder of a nonprofit. It had no money, but he had a big vision.
MAN ON A MISSION
As with so many nonprofit organizations, fundraising was a challenge in the earliest days of Workmatters. David and Theresa committed to giving it six months of their time before focusing larger efforts on funding. It was also a family affair. While David was sitting in a cramped office laying the groundwork and their sons stamped fundraising letters and stuffed sacks for events, Theresa wore many different hats in the 15 years she spent working there. She was, at various times, marketing leader, finance leader, event coordinator and Roth’s personal counselor when he came home with the ups and downs of making it work.
Among the best advice Roth received in Workmatters’ infancy was from friend and executive coach Steve Graves, who encouraged him to simply start by setting roots deep within the regional community.
“He told me, ‘You can change the world from Northwest Arkansas,” Roth recalls. In its first 10 years, David did just that, getting closely connected with Walmart and its vendor community, Tyson and J.B. Hunt, the very companies that had national and global connections.
As people got involved with Workmatters, they often asked Roth what the personal goal was supposed to be. Did he want them to pray in a meeting or share the gospel with someone in the next cubicle over? Perhaps those could be options, but most importantly Roth wanted each person to devise their own ways of “working with excellence … for the Lord.” Many of their teachings begin with the individual, coaching them on the impact of the choice of words they say and decisions they make on the way that they do their work. Then after identifying an area for improvement, they come up with an action plan to address it.
“When you equip the leader, you will see transformation in every sphere that leader touches — the workplace, home, community,” Ben Kirksey, COO, said. “Work is the place where we have an incredible opportunity to shape the quality of life of those around us. Workmatters is equipping leaders to find this kind of purpose and vision in their work and that will transform our community.”
At the start of Workmatters second decade, Roth set what he calls a BHAG, a big hairy audacious goal, “something so big we couldn’t take credit for it because it would take God’s hand to make it happen,” he said. They wanted to recruit 1 million leaders in 10,000 companies by the year 2025 and gave themselves eight years to work toward it. They made the goal in 4 years.
One of the things Roth is most proud of in his time at Workmatters is recruiting good people to further the nonprofit’s impact.
When Steve Blair approached him with three pages of notes for how to strengthen their events, Roth challenged him to volunteer, emcee events and serve on the board. As a busy professional who has a family, Steve knew he had to be careful not to overcommit, but choosing this nonprofit was not a hard choice, since the organization also focuses on how to be a good parent and good spouse. Having Roth as a leader was inspiring for him, too.
“He set out to help people bridge and integrate their faith with their work and their family (as a) total human being,” Blair said. “He set out to help a lot of people do that and of all the people I know, he’s the best example I’ve seen of someone who’s actually done it.
“He’s an incredible father, loving spouse, strong leader and has a deep, deep personal faith … he’s a role model for me and thousands of others.”