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Tales of Adventure Blog

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

 

Un-Famous at Seattle Pacific University

Matthew Overton

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A few weeks ago I was able to attend a gathering at Seattle Pacific University called UnFamous. It was a gathering of institutional leaders (seminaries, colleges, foundations), social enterprise practitioners, and other folks with varying degrees of interest in whether or not the church can serve as an effective vehicle/partner for social enterprise from a faith based perspective. It was a good use of time.

The gathering was something I had instigated because a local trust, the Murdock Trust, had offered out loud in front of me to host such a gathering. I called them up a while later and asked if they were serious about that offering. When they said they were, I acknowledged that I was not such a person to lead that gathering, but that I knew people who were and the ball started rolling. The ball eventually stopped in Seattle with a gathering of about 55 folks.

There were three main components to the gathering. Key partners listened to the overall conversations going on and gave plenary sessions (20-25 minutes) on what they were digesting. Practitioners of social enterprise delivered 10 minute Ted Talks about their particular expressions of social enterprise in the church. There were also break out groups on the last day where we tried to decide what the action points for this kind of movement needed to be going forward.

There are several things you should know about this gathering:

1.) It was one of the first of its kind and it signals that the conversation about social enterprise in the church is starting to gain traction. I do not recall a time I felt less isolated as a faith based practitioner of social enterprise than at this gathering. There are many Christian ministries that gather around helping people talk about faith and work, there are not a lot actually combining the two. This kind of work is well off the maps of many faith based institutions…and it shouldn’t be.

2.) It was diverse. We had a good representation of race, gender, socio-economic status. This produced respectful but intense conversations about a whole variety of topics. Some people in the room disagreed about the nature of reconciliation. There was some tension between various minority groups with one another. There were thick discussions about access to capital for minorities and divergent contexts when it comes to churches thinking about social enterprise. We even delved into reparations late one evening. Yet, despite all that difference (and I am sure there was much conversation that I was rightfully not privy to as a white dude) those conversations were done well, I think, in the spirit of the gospel. No one was treated as enemy, but truths were told. Good work was done.

3.) Secondary Diversity- There was also a clear sense of diversity in terms of economics and even defining social enterprise. A number of folks disagreed about what to call this kind of faith based work. Some called it “redemptive entrepreneurship”. Others called it, “Christian social enterprise”. Some folks felt that they didn’t want any sort of separate Christian terminology applied to social entrepreneurship at all. They simply felt that Christians need to simply engage the good work that God is doing in the world and that as long as it is good, why should we put our separate label on it. I share some of these same suspicions, but not all of them. We also had differing senses about what social enterprise even means. Is it for-profit, non-profit, etc? Must it be overtly social justice oriented or simply seeking the betterment of all with a justice bent?

4.) It was fruitful- As I mentioned earlier, people that do the work that I do often feel pretty isolated in their work. For the past 5 years I have often felt that while I knew others were out there doing similar work, I didn’t know exactly where they were. Many times I initiated conversations with various economic networks and foundations in the church, and even donors, and I found them to be confused by what I was talking about. The idea that you could do ministry and business as the same vehicle was foreign to them. So, while the diversity of the gathering produced some tension and loving conflict and while it felt a little all over the place at times, it did manage to connect previously isolated networks. This was liberating and exciting. It was thrilling to see the diverse expressions of social enterprise within the church.

5.) It was preliminary- To me, it felt like we need more of these gatherings. I think we need 5 or 6 of these a year around the United States for the next 5 years. I am not sure that mass gatherings (500-6,000) are what is needed in this kind of space. We need gatherings that feel more intimate and contextual/regional. I would think that we need to maintain a high degree of diversity, but we might need to gather around more focused ministry goals or regional areas where collaboration might lead to leveraged impact. We would especially need a greater number of true investors at these gathering and folks inside and outside the church. True leveraged impact through cooperative collaboration will not be possible without that kind of cross-pollination. Some of those important focus points.

5.) It reminded me how unique the Forge ministry is- One of the things that surprised me at this gathering and that continues to surprise me is that there are not many people who have intentionally combined ecclesial work with economics the way that I have through the Forge. I remain convinced that what I have done seems obvious and that there must be folks out there doing this similarly to us, but I haven’t found them yet. It’s also the fact that we are embedded inside a church (though we are a separate 501c3) that also makes us unique. This is not to say that our work is better or unique in that nature of the work itself. There are many teen job programs that at least have some foot in the marketplace. But, the context, intentionality, and focused theological reflection on our work are particularly unique so far.

Last, here is the link to the “Ted” style talk that I delivered.

See you at the next gathering!!!

Transformation, Transmogrification, or Transfiguration?

Matthew Overton

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One of the things that has happened over the 5 years we have been running our Forge program is that we have gradually gathered around some values that matter to us. Values are often something people tend to confuse with ideals. Many people in the churches that I have worked in have tended to think of values as something along the lines of aspirations. They think about their church or organization and think about what they would like it to be one day. Values aren’t that.

Values are ideas and ethics that already exist within your organization. They are reflexive tendencies that shape the way you shape your programs and relationships within your community/organization. Along with your mission and vision, when clear, values tend to shape what you and your fellow supporters see as inside and outside the scope of who you are. They aren’t so much who you are or what you do, as they are the way you do what you do together. And I don’t think you can just sit down and write them down one day. They tend to emerge from the life of an organization/ministry over time. They emerge from actually doing what you do. I tend to find that we have tripped over a value when we make statements like, “That isn’t who we want to be.” Or, “That feels more like the way we want to go about doing this work.”

Well, it feels like in the last 1.5 years some clear values have started to emerge for our Forge ministry. We have lived enough life together to begin to name some of those values. Perhaps the most key value for us is that we believe that all human transformation happens at the pace of human relationships.

Our ministry has realized over time that our community has plenty of programs. We have lots and lots of places that kids can get services for different kinds of things. We have lots of places in our community where people can get better at things (sports, music, tech, etc.) And while programs do a lot of good, students are often left with the sense that they are a commodity in someone else’s self actualization. What I mean is that each coach, teacher, and minister wants to know that what they do each day as they get out of bed matters. I want to know that my youth ministry matters. The unfortunate side effect of this desire for me to feel like I have meaning is that it creates a temptation to want to make an impact on things and people. This can often reduce teenagers to cogs in our own personal quest for meaning. This is why a music teacher is offended when a kid in my church chooses in my chooses a humanitarian aid trip over music camp and questions her commitment to music. This is why a swim coach lets an athlete know, the moment they get out of the pool (after swimming a record time) that it wasn’t nearly their best. Christians are not (ideally) in the program business or even in the get to heaven business. At our core, we are in the rescue and transformation business.

When I think of why God exists in human relationship with people it is all about a giant, eons long, painstaking, and long suffering RESCUE OPERATION. The whole project of God on our behalf is an effort on the part of God to rescue and restore us. It is not about getting us to somewhere and apparently it isn’t about getting us right or perfect. If that were the case, none of us would be welcome in this project. So, what is it about? It’s about a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves.

So, the question then becomes how are humans rescued? How is it that we come to be changed and shaped? And what does it look like for us to imitate the shape and form of that rescue operation in our own ministries?

Well, I think Christian ministries can take 3 forms.

  1. Transmogrification Ministries

  2. Transformation Ministries

  3. Transfiguration Ministries

The first form of ministry that often happens in many places in our world, not least of which is the church, is transmogrification. My oldest child reads Calvin and Hobbes on a regular basis and one of my favorite cartoons is when Calvin makes a “Transmogrifier” out of a cardboard box. I had always thought it was a made up kid word until I looked it up. It turns out to be transmogrified means to be transformed, but in a kind of humorous, ridiculous, or bizarre way.

Many of our ministries, because they desire to make an impact, can turn people into odd Christian caricatures. They function as bizarre transmogrifiers. You have seen folks like this. People whose ministries or programs so desperately want to demonstrate transformation that they almost force it on people. The people become walking televangelists for this or that. They become so awkward that you begin to wonder if they believe their own story of transformation, or whether is it simply a kind of incantational mantra meant to hypnotize. Transmogrification is the sort of ministry where a quality ministry ideal goes into the machine and something along the lines of a Chinese knockoff product comes out. See below. It looks like what you wanted, but it really isn’t.

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Many Christian ministries produce people like this. Partially this happens because their ministry ideals are so desperately high. Partially this happens because they believe that their ministries exist to “produce” people at all…sometimes even on a mass scale. These are not the ministries we want to create.

A second healthier version of Christian ministry is working for positive human transformation. This is the kind of work that takes hours and hours of relational time. It is the sort of ministry that is patient, loving, and long suffering. It does not exist to make me feel better or more charitable. It does not exist to give one a sense of accomplishment or meaning. It exists to benefit the other person. It does not treat them as an object to be transformed. It honors their agency and autonomy. I don’t believe these relationships are truly co-equal, but they should be highly mutual. In good transformational ministry both parties are transformed!

This sort of transformation requires another human being to engage. To push this back into the realm of the obviously theological, this is why God enters into the world. Human transformation cannot be accomplished, apparently, without flesh on flesh. Sacrifices must be made in order for transformation to happen. Somebody somewhere is going to have to give something up and lay something (probably themselves) down for the sake of the other. Blood. Sweat. Tears. They are going to have to enter into our suffering rather than simply offering empathy and sympathy.

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The simple truth (and it’s become one of our Forge values) is that human transformation requires human relationship. It’s not a program or a machine. This is why God must break into the world. We cannot expect human beings to pray a prayer or take a class and see transformation. We cannot expect to see a neighborhood or community transformed only because a rec center was built. Until human beings are willing to invest in human beings true transformation will never happen. It is long, slow, grinding work that is NEVER finished. No human being ever reaches a finish line because we are never completed creations of God.

But, the true jazz of human work and the gospel is transfiguration work. Transfiguration implies a kind of exalting or lifting up. One might say that transformational work leads to transfiguration. Transfigurational ministry happens when the countenance and spirit of a person to is lifted to a new summit. It’s byproducts are hope and joy. Utimately, gospel work is about transfiguration. It’s about painstaking transformations, slow positive human erosions and constructions supported by the scaffolding and spires of dozens of caring human beings, that eventually elevate another person to LIFE. Irenaeus was once purported to have said that “the glory of God was a human being fully alive.” Transfiguration is when we see someone come to life and the radiance and resonance of that moment is profound. So, how do we go about transfigurational ministry?

We don’t.

My experience in ministry tells me that transfiguration happens through God alone. Heck, I am not even sure I am really capable of transformation! I know we can’t produce transfiguration. But, the divine moment when you look at a student or human and recognize that something is completely transformed, is beyond our creative capacities. It is the exclusive product of divine action. It is wonderfully beyond our control and measurement. It emerges from unexpected places and unexpected moments and shocks us. It violates our sense of what we once thought was possible. Transformation is uncommon because it takes so much work, time, and energy. Transfiguration is miraculous because it is impossible until it happens.

In the ministries I run, we value doing the right ministry, the right way, at the right pace. We think that transformation is often something that happens over years and perhaps even over generations. It is work that is difficult and requires mutual relationship. It is not possible without the Spirit. It does not produce a Christian caricature, but the real McCoy that only God can see and draw out of each one of us. Every once in a while we see a true transfiguration and we give thanks and plod on.

It’s a wonderful calling.



5 Things Your Grant Writer Doesn't Do

Matthew Overton

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Part of the reason that I have been able to build the ministry enterprises that I have is because very early on I found funding by finding a grant writer. I asked her to write a post for me describing her experience as a grant writer. A good deal of that experience has been frustrating. She however is amazing. If you are going to fund a Kingdom based ministry enterprise you are going to need startup funding. I had no donors and my church couldn’t fund my startup. I needed grants and someone to write them given my schedule. You will need grants at some point. Learn what not to do.

Spoiler alert: This is not a positive post. After working with a number of new nonprofits as a grant writer, I have learned a thing or two about what it takes to grow a nonprofit and fund a dream. I want to tell you all the things you shouldn’t expect of a grant writer if you want to be successful in garnering funds to fulfill what I can only assume are brilliant plans and ideas!

 

But first, a little about me.

 

I got started writing grants on accident. I was driving with a friend and her aunt to go back-to-school shopping when her aunt handed me some paperwork from the front seat. She said, “How are you at editing?” Editing had been a great skill of mine and I loved writing, so as a 14 year old, I took a stab at it and edited my first grant on the way to Ross Dress For Less. Overwhelmed by the fact that this grant kept asking the same question over and over, I asked for some advice. I’ll never forget her words from the driver’s seat, “You have to repeat yourself so many times! That’s basically the heart of a great grant...repeating yourself better every time.” She was a parent on the PTO and was looking for funding to replace a lot of equipment in the dated elementary school. Because of her dedication and relentless efforts for this project, she was successful. From this experience, I learned the countless hours required to retell a story six different ways and convey the same overall message in a way that grant boards want to give you funds. I also learned the amount of energy the head of a nonprofit has to be willing to put into a dream to bring it to fruition. Six months after that car ride she was awarded $120,000. I was so impressed and felt so invested in her project that I spent my summer earning community  service hours assisting her with completing her projects around the school.

 

Flash forward a couple decades. I have now written and been awarded over $150,000 in grants for new nonprofits. I also bankrolled my entire undergraduate education and much of my master’s degree by writing educational grants for myself. I have aided former students in writing private scholarship grants and have been awarded $15,000 in this realm. It would be easy to give you a long list of positive things which I have learned from grant writing: patience, vocabulary, communication skills, gratitude. However, while there is a wealth of value in these skills, I think there is even more worth in telling you all the things which you should not expect of a grant writer (i.e. all the things your grant writer is NOT). If you are looking to hire some help in funding your dream, heed my advice and know the following:

 

1. Your grant writer is not your secretary

Do not expect the grant writer to send follow up emails about grants you have applied for, ask for scores after rejections, call and inquire about what needs to be done to improve the application, etc. Your grant writer has one job: Write your grants. Your grant writer is a storyteller, not a detective. They are working by the hour. If you want them to do these extra tasks, expect to pay them for their services.

 

2. Your grant writer is not a consultant.

Time is money. Time should also be respected. They are making their living by writing for you. Unless you are explicitly paying them for consulting fees, you cannot expect them to bestow their wealth of knowledge and experience on you for free. It is like asking your friend who leases a chair at a salon to cut your hair for free. It is like asking your friend who works extremely hard and is qualified to be compensated for their time, for the inside hook up. It is insulting. If you want your grant writers time and attention, pay for it.

 

3. It is not your grant writer’s job to be the face of your organization.

If you want a large grant foundation to invest in you, you have to set up meetings with granters. You have to go to their office and give your elevator pitch. You have to be willing to beat down the door for years at a time, brag about all the great work you are doing, and have the guts to go back even when they say no the first, second, or third time. A granting organization WILL want to talk to the director or person in charge of programs before granting funding. If you do not have time for them, you do not have time for their money.

 

4. A grant writer cannot fulfill pipe dreams.

If you want to be the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, or even make a difference in your community, you have to put in work. You have to give your life to follow after that vision. If you have no short term vision, but only a long range multi-million dollar dream, you probably are not going to get that far. Grant boards want to fund projects that make sense and have a story. You cannot jump from square one to building Rome in a day. Your first grants will not be for six figures. They will likely be for less than five figures. They will fund smaller projects or the purchasing of equipment. Maybe by year three you’ll be touching on five or six figures. Regardless, you have to WORK that dream. Don’t quit your daydream, but be realistic. Building a nonprofit is a lot like building a business. Ask the founders of any modern company if they worked 9-5 and built an empire. I guarantee the answer is no. A grant writer is only as strong as the nonprofit leadership that stands behind them. If you want to build the dream, you have to wake up every day and lay the pipe.

 

5. Leave your pride at the door
If you’re not willing to ask your friends and family to buy into your nonprofit, you don’t want it bad enough. The majority of nonprofit organizations I have worked with are backed at the core by the people who saw their dream first and believed in it. In many of these circumstances, it is friends and family. It is friends of friends. It is colleagues (cause, yes, many nonprofit directors still work a full time job!). It is church members. It is the business down the street that heard how awesome your nonprofit is and is looking for a worthwhile tax write-off. A well-funded nonprofit is a thoughtful and intentional network of people all dying to tell each other about the awesome work the nonprofit is doing. All of these little and big donations add up to incredible matching funds. They enable you to go to a large grant foundation and say, “Look at all the people who believe in us! This is why you should believe in us and fund our work too!” If you are too prideful or too afraid to ask your friends and family to back your dream, do not expect strangers to give you time for an elevator pitch.

Utmost and Teen Athletics: Leveraging Impact

Matthew Overton

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This last Spring, a friend of mine for about 8 years had a unique window of opportunity open up in their life. They no longer wanted to teach at a school that they were working at due to the unhealthy leadership culture that they had experienced and needed to move on. For 20 years they had been dreaming of an alternative kind of sports league where low income students were no longer priced out of sport, where teens were taught character and ethics rather than individual aggrandizement, and where student could be engaged with healthy Christian witness and the gospel itself.

The problem at the time was that I was scheduled to go on sabbatical in just six weeks. We had a few conversations (probably too few!) and I met with my board. In just 4 weeks we raised 40K in funds (eventually 55k) and built a class-A weight and strength training facility in the back of one of our church buildings. We chose to do weights because although we wanted to work with sports teams, there was no way to build a sustainable sports model without hundreds of thousands in investment or donors. I also needed to be able to replace my friends teaching salary in a very short period of time.

We are 10 weeks into the program starting and we have 62 students participating. We have also replaced our program directors former salary in that time.

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Every time I tell this story, I get lots of questions so let me just do this in bullets.

  1. Who is your coach/how did you find this person?- Our director/head coach at Utmost Athletics is a former D-1 softball coach. He is seminary trained but decided that full time ministry was not for him…and yet that is what he is now doing just through different means. He was tired on the unhealth of D-1 sports and so he stepped away from that. He is well versed in strength training and has connections to the D-1 strength training community.

  2. How does this connect with your overall Forge program/youth ministry?- Well, both models require adult student mentorship and engage life skills coaching. Instead of working for our landscape company or another job in the community, these students pay a fee to participate in a healthy sliding scale strength program. They are allowed to get it at low cost in exchange for participation in life development.

  3. What donor/church/grant support is required to make this run?- Basically none. We needed capital to get started, but it is already self sustaining. We may need donors or grants to expand to other chapters a few years down the line, but right now the revenue that the program generates makes it self-sustaining. The unspoken beauty of this is that all students pay something.

  4. What sets this apart from other weight or fitness programs?- Several things. The first is coaching ratio. All the high schoolers have a 1-4 or 1-5 coaching ratio which is much better than they would get in a normal high school gym. The program is also different because of its atmosphere. It is HIGHLY encouraging and functions as a team. People greet one another (required), they ask a life question, they cheer each other on, and develop community over occasional meals. It also is the opposite of other weight programs in the sense that it’s emphasis is on slow and healthy development of strength rather than machismo. While there are “max days” and lots of cheering, the atmosphere is not about “more, more, more”. You might consider it the opposite of the mental image cross fit. Technique is HEAVILY emphasized. Last, they talk alot about character development. Each session coaches more than the body. It is designed to coach the heart and soul as well.

  5. Who are the students?- They are from all kinds of backgrounds. We wanted a program with mixed socio economics because at the Forge (the umbrella organization) we feel that students need to cross pollinate more frequently across economic zones. We also know that to have programs that are sustainable you need programs that tap into the broad spectrum of economics. We have a significant number of college age young adults as well as high school students. We also have a small but growing crop of middle schoolers who focus on other exercises.

  6. What is your role in this program?- My role is to provide theological reflection on the program and development support. The Forge takes care of all grant writing tasks, donor communication, strategic planning, and book keeping. This way, our program director is free to focus on what he is good at and we have massively increased the startup efficiencies of a new ministry.

  7. Is it all honey and gravy or have their been challenges?- There are massive challenges! The main one has been alignment. Although the program director and I knew each other fairly well, we did not have a lot of time to make sure we were talking about the same things when we agreed to partner. Basic questions about the gospel and mentoring are still getting sorted out. We are having to spend loads of time in a room with others to make sure that we have programmatic alignment. We are also working through decisions about whether all weight students MUST participate in the overall program or whether a certain percentage can just be “customers” who might enter the ministry side at a later time. Second, we are struggling to figure out how to properly train the coaches as both mentors and as coaches. It’s a lot to ask given that they are in the gym 3 times a week for 1.25 hours. That is a BIG volunteer time commitment.

  8. Why Did you Do This?- Over the last year or so I have been reading a lot about the concept of leveraged impact in the social enterprise world. Stanford has been leading the way in this kind of work. Read some of their stuff here. My sense was that I could spend years growing the core ministry of the Forge, or I could leverage our way to greater impact by partnering creatively with other like minded non-profits. Utmost Athletics was one of those non-profits. We made the leap this fall from about 25 students to 75 students. While I am not remotely all about numbers I do want to leverage greater ministry impact and increase the efficient startup of redemptive enterprises. I also did this because I was acutely aware of the need/potential of youth sports. It is both a huge outreach area as well as a massive economic engine. It’s also pretty much an idol. Don’t believe me? Read this.

The Matryoshka Haus: A Community of Innovation

Matthew Overton

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About a year ago I was made aware of a group of folks working on solving social problems together as a human network. The place was called Matryoshka. If you don't know what a Matryoshka is, its a Russian nesting doll. On two different legs of my trip to the U.K. I was able to meet with folks from Matryoshka to better understand who they are and what they are doing. Let's start with the basics.

Matryoshka is a community that began with the work of a woman named Shannon Hopkins. Creatively working in the U.K. she created a pub initiative that helped fight human trafficking and a creative arts project called, "Doxology". She learned she had a knack for this kind of social impact work and that she was adept at gathering others who were interested in this kind of work as well. Overt time a community began to develop of people who were skilled at collaboratively working on engaging social problems in area.

Today, Matryoshka is housed in its own space in the Canary wharf area of London. They have a co-working space that includes folks inside and outside Matryoshka's direct network. Many of these folks are engaged with Christian faith, but others are not. That characteristic is not considered a necessity to solving pressing issues. What is clear to me is that their faith does inform both the work that they do and the way that they gather in intentional community. Matryoshka uses this co-working model to sustain part of its operations, but the majority of their sustainability comes from what they produce.

Matryoshka has begun to develop tools to help non-profits create solutions to intractable social problems and to figure out how to better measure the impact of their work. They sell these tools to organizations throughout the U.K. and the U.S. as well.

There are a number of organizations that are designing tools to help faith based organizations ideate and innovate, but what makes Matryoshka unique is that the people that design their tools are people who are on the ground and have experience practicing social innovation. They are actually engaged in the work on the ground.

Many folks who are beginning to design tools in the U.S. have not themselves actually built any social change organizations or enterprises. It is far more likely that they are able to design tools because they have the time to do so (afforded by their institution) and access to larger institutional funding. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I often wish that practitioners of innovation were the ones designing tools rather than exclusively research institutions or large ministry companies. My own sense is that if practitioners were at least more heavily involved in the design process and testing process that significantly different tools and ideation processes might be developed.

My hope is that research institutions will begin to creatively partner with those that are doing the innovation work to generate ideas and gatherings that might help other individuals do similar kinds of work more effectively. Social innovators who are on the ground take a ton of risk and invest loads of blood, sweat, and tears in their work and they should have a seat at the table to share their expertise when they can. They not only have a clearer sense of what is possible, but also are the embodiement of the passion and ethos that is required to make this kind of work happen. That spirit, or elan, is not something that is reproducible and I am not sure that it is possible to do this kind of work without it. Last, its worth noting that in Matryoshka's early days it was Christian institutions that pulled funding away from their trafficking initiative because it overemphasized social justice. It is important to understand that many Christian practitioners of social innovation are seeking to avoid the church and have often been burned by it. One of the reasons that I think involving and funding practitioners matters is that generally speaking Christian companies and learning institutions are generally not very good at finding, reaching, and involving these sorts of outsiders.

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For Youth Ministry Innovators, the hope is that we can begin to utilize some of the tools that Matryoshka has designed as we work with churches and youth ministries that are seeking to impact their localized communities through the work of their churches. I also hope we can be a helpful conversation partner with Matryoshka to help them reflect theologically on the work that they are doing.

Regardless of what happens, they are doing amazing Kingdom work.  They work collaboratively on problems that each of them faces, they have common gatherings and meals together, and they have a well developed sense of their values:

-They believe that social innovation is a tangible expression of God's Kingdom.

-All people are designed to do good work.

-Hospitality is critical and their community is shaped by the radical welcome of God in Christ.

-Christian Social Innovation is a particular kind of innovation that is guided by the life and work of Jesus.

-The process of innovation involves critical discernment, imagintion, creation, and inspiring future expressions of Kingdom work in others.

Matryoshka is a fabulous organization and one of the most unique expressions of the gospel that I have ever seen. We hope to continue to partner with them in some way moving forward.

 

Dave Odom and Duke: Listening as Aid to Innovation

Matthew Overton

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As I promised about a week and a half ago I am going to do some writing on key conversations that I have had along the road as I have taken my sabbatical this summer. All of these conversations relate to doing ministry in new and innovative ways and often specifically to Christian Social Enterprise, however a number of them have been around theology and principles of good leadership as well. The first key conversation that I had was with Dave Odom. And while I am going to tell you a bit about Dave, I am really writing a post on why good listening is critical for quality innovation.

Dave is the director of an organization that is connected with both Duke Divinity school and Duke University. A few years back I was told that I should speak with Dave regarding my work and he has been one of the most important conversations partners I have had. I had no idea what his institution was and really knew very little of Duke other than what state it was in, they have a great basketball team, and I had heard good things about their Divinity school. Faith and Leadership is primarily funded by the Lily Endowment in Indiana. Lilly, if you don’t know it, funds a myriad of faith projects around the United States. Chances are, if your regional Christian University or Seminary is funding a new research project or an experimental ministry initiative, there is Lilly money backing it up. My sabbatical is completely funded by Lilly through Christian Theological Seminary’s Clergy Renewal program. It is an amazing program that I only found out existed a couple of years ago. You can look into applying for it here.

Anyway, Faith and Leadership’s main job is to help develop the leaders of Christian institutions. They have done this primarily through an EXCELLENT online publication called, Faith and Leadership, but also by hosting gatherings and trainings for leaders. Faith and Leadership is one of the best places at keeping its fingers on the pulse what is happening in the American church and much of the network that I have been able to create has come from my connection and conversation with Duke and F and L. It tries to process what is happening and distill it so that other institutions and their leaders might learn from those that are practicing leadership in new or healthy ways.

Dave sees part of his role as helping a conversation about institutions and leaders move forward. He finds people doing things differently and pays attention to both what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why they are doing it.  He almost serves as a kind of coach for those who are trying to lead their institutions in new directions, but his single best trait that I think is critical for both his role and anyone engaging in innovation is that he listens well.  Everyone I talk to who knows Dave thinks the world of him and specifically his ability to listen well and digest conversations with individuals and groups and sense what is happening precisely when the group feels overwhelmed by their experience. He is really good a listening to what people are saying and making sense of it. Imagine that you are in a room with a blindfold on wrestling with an octopus that has managed to tie itself in a Gordian knot. Dave is the guy who kind of calms you down and gives you some advice on which tentacles you might pull first.

Often I think that people who do innovative work will tend to have a lot of ideas and a lot of passion, though not always. Speaking for myself I can say that I am sometimes flooded with so many ideas and run at such a pace that it is difficult for me to collect, reflect, and analyze what is happening. I often wonder how much of what I see in my ministry is real and how much of it is a kind of projected passionate hope. I long to make sure that what I am building is something that is of substance because I have seen so many ministries that are a bit like the Wizard of Oz. They sound good from the outside, but they are actually mostly a green curtain, some hydrogen, and a little person pulling levers. Dave helps those that he comes in contact with calmly and reflectively process what they are actually doing and why it might matter.

For instance, one of my conversations with Dave recently revolved around what this new role of ministry might mean for my role at my church. My great desire is NOT to leave my congregational role. I would like to find a way to remain embedded at my local Northwest church as I engage this kind of new calling. Partially this is because I remain dedicated to the idea that the ideas that I have had would not have come had I not been embedded in a local church and community and listened well to what was going on there. Specifically, I would like to continue to be a youth pastor. The question is how to structure and fund all of that! I can’t expect my church to make all of this run!  As I met with Dave in Durham, North Carolina Dave sat patiently listening to me process all of this. We filled a giant white board with the complex web of organization that I have created between church and enterprise and he gave me some advice that I simply couldn’t see. One of my jobs is going to be to actually help my congregation see that it is possible to be a different kind of minister, that they can have a minister who preaches and cares for them, but is radically engaged in the local community. Sure I need to figure out my structure and staffing going forward. It is a complex wheel with A LOT of moving parts, but Dave felt that part wasn’t actually that complicated. He had seen worse, which was strangely comforting.  What Dave saw as the most important piece of my work as a practical matter and on a personal level was that I want to do this work in a church and not as a para-church kind of ministry.  My congregation can’t see what this new ministerial role and congregational future look like.  I need to help them do this.  I am not totally sure what it looks like to complete this task, but I know that Dave is right that this is a key part of what I need to do going forward.

One of the lynch pin values that has emerged for me around Christian Social Enterprise and innovation in general is that if the church ever wishes to honor its gospel calling to love its neighbor and participate in God’s Kingdom activity, we are going to have to develop our listening skills. I sense that one of the reasons that the churches in our nation have failed to address so many social issues that require love and help is that they have not adequately listened to their neighbors. Sometimes we avoid listening on purpose. To listen well is to engage with a problem and that is scary. Other times we have listened to God’s call, but not necessarily to the unspoken wants and hopes of those we seek to serve. We don’t know what they need or value. We don’t know what they long for. There are times where we also have not listened to the critique or advice of those that are our partners in Kingdom work. One of the key things that matters in innovative Kingdom work is listening to the criticisms of those around you. The only way that your model works is to test it and the only way to test something well is to be able to admit where it falters and fails. Too often we shield ourselves from the critical voices around us who actually might make us better.

My great fear in doing the work that I am doing (practicing social enterprise, writing about innovation, and coaching others on how to launch businesses in their own contexts) is that ultimately what might happen is that this becomes the next vehicle to “quality” ministry. But, if that vehicle is not paired with adequate listening in our contexts and loving reflection toward our neighbors then we will simply be launching a thousand innovative ships with massive holes in their hulls.

Sabbatical 2018

Matthew Overton

Torridon Scotland.jpg

I haven't written in a while because I have been on a sabbatical around the U.S. and in the U.K. Mainly I am relaxing with family and writing here and there as well as exploring new places and old places that feel like home. But, part of what I have also been doing is meeting with some folks from different institutions who are interested in Christian Social Enterprise and the work that I have been doing with my team in Washington.

Over the coming weeks I plan on writing a number of posts about those conversations and some growing thoughts that I have been having. Below I am going to list the folks that I am meeting with and lay out some of what I plan on posting about in relation to them. There will also be a couple of guest posts that I have requested.

1. Dave Odom- Dave is the director of the Duke's Faith and Leadership initiatives at Duke University. That initiative is funded by the Lilly Endowment. Dave's main job, as I understand it, is to help improve institutional leadership of every kind in the North American church. He is really good at listening and grabbing ahold of what is at work in new developments in the American church.

2. Abigail Visco Rusert- Abigail is the Director for the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is heavily involved with new youth ministry projects at the seminary.

3. Jonny Baker- Jonny was/is a big figure in the Emerging Church movement in the U.K. He is currently directing the training program for the Church Missionary Society that is training pioneering leaders in the U.K. I am rarely excited to meet with someone. I started reading Jonny's blogs and looking at his stuff related to Proost back in 2002 and am always impressed with his work.

4. Greg Jones- Greg is kind of leadership guru. He has lead Duke Divinity and most recently was the Executive Vice President and Provost of Baylor University. He is helping to coach me in how to build this crazy thing that I have started.

5. Steve Chalke- Steve is the head of one of the largest non-profits (Oasis) in the United Kingdom. He is an amazing speaker and author. I think he is the Rob Bell of the U.K. (love it or hate it is up to you) and many American Christians have no idea who he is. I want to explore with him how he has kept so many missional ministries connected to a local church.

6. Church of Scotland- I hope to meet with some folks from the "Go For It" initiative about their work. I love the Church of Scotland having worked in Scotland doing missionary work for a brief time. I would love to help them with unleashing the idea of social enterprise in the Church of Scotland.

7. Homeboy Industries- This opportunity hasn't been set up yet, but I am trying to meet up with someone from their business end of operations to understand how they have strung together their organization. It would be amazing to get a chance to speak with them. I also have never been to Homeboy despite having Father Boyle come and speak at our church. I am hoping to get a feel not just for the business side of things, but for the atmosphere of the place. We will see!

8. Matryoshka Haus- I don't even know how to describe this community except to say that it is a co-working space in that sustains itself by designing tools for non-profits to better measure the impact of their ministries. They are also really good with design thinking in the startup process. I am hopeful that I can help them in some small way to think theologically (as a practitioner) about how they design their tools.

 

Hopefully, something in this mix interests you! It's been exciting so far. I almost (ALMOST) can't wait to get back to work!