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Business Philanthropy Shining Lights

Full Circle

After rising the ranks of business success, Lisa Payne’s journey of generosity led her back to her hometown roots

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Growing up, Lisa Payne’s life was confined to the small town of Lampeter, Penn., a suburb of Lancaster. She left the bubble of Amish country for college, which led to a 10-year stint in investment banking and onto a notable career in business. Though now retired, she still serves on the board of several large corporations, including Masco Corporation, JCPenney, and Rockwell Automation. But success came with a cost. It wasn’t until later in life that she began learning what true joy and generosity looks like.

Small-town life was filled with close-knit community and family dinners. Both her mother’s and father’s families were born and raised within 10 miles of Lampeter. She spent Sundays at her great grandmother’s farm. Holidays were split between lunch with one side of the family and dinner with the other. “I thought this is how everyone lived,” she said. “I loved every minute of it.”

She got mixed messages about faith and generosity from her parents. In her hardworking father, she saw “faithful generosity.” He tithed off the $70,000 salary he made as general manager of a local watch factory. He supported missionaries in Africa, and he volunteered at their conservative, evangelical church as an elder, worship leader, and Sunday school teacher.

But her mother was the opposite, Lisa said. “She never felt we had enough money, was often angry at how much time Dad spent at church, and she disagreed with his tithing.”

That led to a shaky foundation of faith. Lisa excelled in school, earning a full academic scholarship to Elizabethtown College and breaking out of her “comfortable Christian life” for the first time. New friends began to challenge her on the validity of Scripture and the Gospel. “I was not prepared,” she said. She played the “Sunday Christian” role, but “a crack began to occur in my Christian armor.”

After Elizabethtown, she headed to Duke University for an M.B.A. and followed the money into investment banking at Goldman Sachs. “I’d never been exposed to the kind of wealth that could be gained in such a short period of time,” she said. “For me, it was intoxicating.” And she was good at it. “Looking back, it was easy to link my identity with my success in business,” she said. Her career became her god.

All the while, she continued to tithe, justifying her pursuit of money by comparing her giving to that of her peers.

After she and her husband began having children, they decided the demands of investment banking weren’t conducive to raising a family. Lisa left Goldman Sachs and moved to Detroit, Mich., to become CFO of the public real estate company The Taubman Company, where she worked for almost 20 years.

“It was hard to leave the money, but the CFO job would provide a good living, a balanced lifestyle,” she said. “Little did I know God had opened the door for the perfect job for me.”

She helped transition the “patriarchal company” into a “high-performing public real estate investment trust.” Stock rose from $10 to $80 during her tenure, she said. “Years later, as I reflect on my success in my career, it’s so clear that God had his hand in all my decisions, even though I didn’t realize it or acknowledge Him at the time.”

Three years after moving to Michigan, Lisa’s marriage ended and she raised two daughters as a single, working mom. She continued her “Sunday Christian” faith until her daughters pushed her to find a different church. It was there that she says she found apologetics, delved into the Bible and prayer, and became part of a community of like-minded believers. “After 25 years of escaping the evangelical world of my childhood, God brought me back home,” she said.

A few years later, she found out about Generous Giving from a friend and businessman, Tony Cimmarrusti. The Generous Giving conference challenged her assumptions. She heard the testimony of a business owner who capped his income at $150,000. “He could have bought a private plane, a second home,” she remembered thinking, “but the joy that emanated from this guy filled the room, because of what they were doing with God’s money.”

That sparked a deep dive into what the Bible teaches about money. She hosted a Women Doing Well, Inspiring Generous Joy conference and a Journey of Generosity retreat for successful women in Detroit. She realized “the wealth I’ve accumulated over my career is all God’s money.”

She shared her story at the 2019 Generous Giving conference, and said her journey of generosity is ongoing—she’s still seeking God about what that looks like on the ground level. One aha moment for her: “God has wired me to care about certain things. If I give my time, talents, and treasures in line with how He wired me, my giving doesn’t feel sacrificial—it fulfills my purpose.”

She has narrowed that purpose down to three things: evangelism, economic empowerment for those in extreme poverty, and fighting against human trafficking. “Now I am able to say yes to things and no to others.”

Interestingly, Lisa’s “generosity journey” has led her back to her hometown roots—the faithful generosity of her father and the hospitality of her great grandmother. As an empty nester, she sold her large home in Detroit and bought a property that was less expensive but also large enough to gather family. Her motivation, she said, wasn’t to show off her wealth, the way it may have been in the past. Instead, it was to have a place to draw family members from around the country, to give them a gathering place. The way her grandparents used to do. “It’s a place to experience the love of family.”

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Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.