Duke Divinity allowed me to write an article on the most basic steps of launching a church based social enterprise. It is extremely broad and general, but I hope it might be of some help to others. The journey has been inordinately more complicated and challenging than one article can get to, but I think it's pretty good. Enjoy! You can read it here.
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.
A few months ago I wrote an article for Duke's Faith and Leadership journal on "Why I Started a Social Enterprise." I think it turned out pretty well, but one of the more frustrating aspects was the fact that it was limited to about 1,000 words. The difficulty is that whenever I sit down and think about how my journey into trying to do ministry through social enterprise started, I am floored by all the little and big factors that brought this about. One of the key features of it all has been this compelling sense that I "had to do this." I have encountered it many times along the way, but it him me pretty hard a few months back.
I was on a plan back from New York and I had purchased Michael Punke's book, "The Revenant". One of the key characters in the book is the young Jim Bridger. Bridger is of course one of the early trapper, explorer, trailblazers of American history and folk lore. But, in the book he is a young man paddling a ferry boat post to post on the Mississippi river. Part way through the book, the author seeks to describe Bridger's "call" to go west into the frontier and it struck me. It seemed to capture everything I have felt over the last few years.
"The frontier for Bridger became an aching presence that he could feel, but could not define, a magnetic force pulling him inexorably toward something that he had heard about, but never seen. A preacher on a swaybacked mule rode Bridger's ferry one day. He asked Bridger if he knew God's mission for him in life. Without pause Bridger answered, "Go to the Rockies." The preacher was elated, urging the boy to consider missionary work with the savages. Bridger had no interest in bringing Jesus to the Indians, but the conversation stuck with him. The boy had come to believe that going west was more than just a fancy for someplace new. He came to see it as a part of his soul, a missing piece that could only be made whole on some far-off mountain or plain."
Ministry has often felt like Jim Bridger's ferry ride to me. It has been something that I have enjoyed and felt called to, but there has always been something missing. I think the problem has often been that ministry has not lent itself to enough innovation and exploration for me. There has been too much that is stayed and defined about it. Part of what social enterprise has offered me is a kind of new frontier. Many people along the way have sounded to me rather like the frontier preacher. They have wanted to do things that seem outmoded, counterproductive, awkward, and even outright hurtful in order to maintain the institution of the church. It's not that I have no interest in carrying Jesus, it's that I am not always sure that I have liked the ways and means and even the Jesus that others have articulated for me to carry forth. These kinds of experiences have often felt stifling to me. It's one of the reasons that I haven't wanted to become a head of staff at a church. The role doesn't allow enough risk or innovation. The articulated frameworks of the church feel a bit like a ferry ride. Post to post. Over and over again along the same route. I realized pretty quickly that was going to be difficult for me over the years. I love Jesus and the church, but I need space to do something stupid.
For me, like Bridger, freedom of movement has always been a premium. Even in my outdoors experiences I have rarely enjoyed doing the same hike twice. I need frontier space. Social Enterprise has offered that in a way that I could not have imagined. I never wanted the stress of entrepreneurship. My Dad was an entrepreneur and it never seemed to fall his way. At least part of why I went into ministry was that it was stable, if I am honest with myself. But, I have never like doing the same thing the same way, twice.
Christian Social Enterprise is for me, more than a fancy. It is as clear a mission as Bridger's, "Go to the Rockies." It is not a passing fancy or something new. It feels like a westward movement and like a puzzle piece in my soul has descended into place from out of the cosmos. It's exciting, though every once in a while I do envision the bear attack from the movie the Revenant and it gives me pause.
This past Sunday I was asked to share with my congregation for the first time about my social enterprise. There are many people at church that know that we run a landscaping company and also a number who know that we also do mentoring and life skills coaching. But, many of those people didn't understand the whole picture of both Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and The Columbia Future Forge until this Sunday. I had been reluctant to share about the project until I knew it was viable and because I don't like talking about myself in front of people generally.
What was interesting was that after the service a gentleman came up to me to offer his help. He was totally excited. He let me know that he had 35 years in of a career in turf management and that his forte was teaching landscape courses in how to manage various kinds of grasses for home lawns and even golf courses. He offered to teach my workers, when we were ready, on how to manage turf better. It was a remarkable conversation on a number of levels.
During the presentation to the church, one of the things that I highlighted was the idea that Social Enterprise allows the church to mobilize a whole bunch of acquired professional expertise. It actually allows us to use the gifts and talents of many of our congregants in ways we had never conceived of. I have said many times that one of the things that social enterprise has taught me is that there are a whole bunch of people in our churches who are struggling to connect their unique gifts and honed skills with Kingdom work. We only generally allow them to do this within a really narrow bandwidth of roles:
-Can they speak?
-Can they play music?
-Do they have accounting skills?
-Are they good with children and youth?
-Do they have leadership gifts?
If you look at that list it is pretty short (and I am sure I have missed a bunch), but it is also incredibly non-specific. This is what struck me as I reflected on a conversation with a guy with "35 years of turf grass experience". Our modern economy, however, is highly specific.
Part of what social enterprise offers the American church is the ability to engage specific gifts. In economics there is a concept called economic specialization. Essentially it argues that each economy (I think this would apply to individuals as well) must specialize over time in order to increase its efficiency. One country might become really good at making cars while another will have to focus on more agrarian advances. The idea is that if they don't make those choices they will be out competed by those that do. Some specialize because of certain resources they have while others because of certain human resource capabilities or global location. A country or individual then can use the excess of that one specialized item to trade for other things.
Over time this trend toward efficiency and specialization has radically changed our economy. This is why for instance that someone cannot expect to have an easy career road with a generic degree or no college/tech degree at all. The modern economy has specialized to such a degree that general skills are less and less rewarded. There are some significant downsides to this of course, but it is simply a reality.
I remember being struck at my university when I started in my forestry major that we had about 60 freshman in our program and they offered 15 different focus areas for the major within the college of science! How could you have 15 narrow tracks for just 60 people?! It's this kind of specificity that presents a problem for churches. While I had thought about the ways that social enterprise can mobilize gifts, the problem of economic specialization had never dawned on my until this past Sunday when an individual with a highly specific set of gifts suddenly engaged with me.
Churches, because they have been asked to be stewards of our whole culture have often had to remain non-specialized institutions. We are responsible for every stage of life! Just look at the average seminary education. I had to take History, Exegesis, Pastoral Care and Counseling, 2 languages, Theology, Polity, Worship, etc. etc. etc. There were so many areas we had to cover for such a broad role that by the time I had finished seminary I had only been able to actually take 2 specific courses on individual books of the Bible. That seems highly counter intuitive to me for someone training to be a minister. Each one of those areas is a focus area in and of itself. But, because the church is expected to be and do so many things we had to take just a little bit of everything. The biblical texts don't really help us in some ways either.
Typically when Christians think about giftings and talents, we tend to think non-specifically as well. When one thinks of Paul in 1st Corinthians 12 we are thinking about a Body of Christ image that in Paul's mind contains 100-200 parts that are nameable. Well, even the most basic modern assessment would regard such a metaphor for anatomy as highly simplistic. The human body contains 206-270 bones alone depending on life stage. We haven't even touched on the complexity of each system within the body from muscles, to hormones, to digestion, etc.!
The church is geared to thinking of the Body of Christ the same way. We look out in our church for gifts of leadership, finance, hospitality, etc. but we fail to realize that the people in our pews and chairs are actually HIGHLY specialized subsets of each of those groups. We need ministries that can actually mobilize those highly specified gifts.
I think part of what Christian Social Enterprise forces/allows the church to do is create very specific missional ministries that require highly specific sets of skills. This is a good thing. To be sure, it's a bit of a guess as to what ministry might mobilize best the unique people in our churches. But, I am unclear as to what other way a man in my church with 35 years of turf grass experience would be able to stand up and say, "Here I am Lord, send me", than with the specific ministry that I accidentally created. The nature of social enterprise and the necessity to compete in the actual marketplace with the built in effeciencies of that market forces the creation of specific ministries that require specific gifts. The end result of that is an opportunity to engage the Body of Christ in meaningful Kindgom work in ways that we never could have controlled or conceived. I think that is pretty cool.
This is what I like to refer to as "Ecto 1". It reminds me of the Ghostbusters rig in the movie except rather than keeping the spirit containment unit in the basement of the building, we just mounted it on our truck. It's also my SECOND pickup truck. I don't know how this happened. I grew up two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in surfing country. And while I was born in Virginia, I was not born in pickup country. Some people have called it "Dorothy" from the movie Twister. Others say it looks like a Portland food cart version of a Breaking Bad episode. To me, Ecto 1 is a sign of everything that is awesome about social enterprise and the church. It is a symbol of friendship, fellowship, and shared passions.
Ecto 1 is simply a watering truck on a converted F-250 pickup truck.
About 9 months ago our Downtown Business Association recruited Mowtown to water their downtown flower baskets. They hang them every year in the downtown area in order to beautify the local business district. They had a truck, with a built in watering apparatus, and all we needed to do was supply the workers and a bid. They had also worked with teens and young adults to water the baskets previously. So, we leapt at the opportunity. But, that's when things got a bit more complicated.
For various reasons, our local city didn't want Mowtown to rent the truck. They also didn't want to sell us their old 1970's Dodge Pickup. And this is where things got awesome.
Several of my team members stepped in. First, they went out and looked for pickup trucks. They went to local auctions and online. Eventually they found a truck they liked and when they told the owner what we were up to he knocked the price down substantially. But, that is where the real work began.
These guys spent hours thinking about the best designs. They purchased a tank and mounted on an aluminum reinforced palate so that when the watering season is over we can pull the tank right out of the truck. I consulted with friends who are engineers about pickup size, and water shifting, and baffles. Next they put in a pump, mounted a light on top, consulted with the city about stripping the old truck for watering tools. They fixed up the actual truck which needed some significant work. It had holes in the pickup bed and needed a new bumper.
All along I had to proceed in faith in this because I know nothing about cars. I can change oil, tires, spark plugs, batteries, and filters, but I don't. Ever. I loathe working on cars. I know how to do some things, but I don't really "get" cars. But, because these guys on my team care about students and about this idea that we all have been working on they laid out for this idea in terms of money, time, and passion.
A few weeks ago I went over to one of their houses to borrow their dump truck (yes they have one at home) and there was Ecto-1. I couldn't believe it. I honestly felt like crying the next day in worship because I was so thankful for friends like these. I know they enjoyed doing it, but I don't like when people help me out usually. I am pretty independent. It was humbling to say the least.
My point in all of this is simply to say the social enterprise requires a bunch of risk and trust. It also requires community. As much as I have wanted to test a model that proves to someone else that they could do this on their own too, I have had to realize that this is a group process. It takes way more than just my passion to get something like this off the ground. It takes the gifts of others too. I continue to learn that lesson in spades.
But, this is why the church matters. The church is a bucket of ages, stages of life, gifts, talents, treasures, and passion like no other that I know. It has a built in ethic to lay one's life down for the sake of the world. As I continue to argue and believe, it is one of the best vehicles I know to engage social enterprise.
This morning at 4 a.m. an 18 year old student and a hard working American who emigrated from Central America are out watering baskets in our downtown. We are helping them economically, they are forging unusual community together, our downtown is being beautified, we are making some profit, and my church community is more engaged than it was a year ago. It's the best missional idea I have ever had.
If Christian Social Enterprise is wrong, I don't want to be right.
This is the first in a 4 part series that I am writing for Duke Divinity's Faith and Leadership Journal about the intersection of the church and social enterprise. The first article that you can find HERE, is answering the question of, "Why did you start a Christian social enterprise?" I wrote two versions. One was a bit more detailed in terms of my thinking about why I did all of this work. The second, this one, was more about emotionally why I did it. Duke wanted the second one.
I came across this article the other day looking at how the Pope just bought a laundromat for the homeless in the Vatican. What is so cool about this is that my high school students have been working on something like this for the past 2.5 years. Our only problem is that our pockets are as deep as the Vatican's.
Basically, 2.5 years ago I scrapped my morning Sunday school program in favor of trying something truly different. I wanted to increase student engagement, but more importantly I wanted them to make a missional impact on our community while they were learning about Jesus. I wanted them to feel like owners and participants in their discipleship rather than simply observers and recipients.
The process started with us reading segments of the book, "Toxic Charity". Then we interviewed people from different non-profits including our local schools. In the end, we decided that what we wanted to do was to try and help our local middle school. This resulted about 2 months ago in our first "Haircut and Laundry Night". We coordinated with a local beauty academy that was next to a laundromat and offered a night when families could come for extremely low cost haircuts and free laundry.
While our student turnout was great, nobody else came. The students handled all the setup, did posters, they brought $80 in quarters, and made cocoa. They were excited. But, nobody showed up. In the end that was okay. We had prepped them for two weeks with the idea that we were keeping a loose grip on this. God might let us know that we were doing the wrong thing or that we were doing it in the wrong way. We told them to stay patient and see what happens, and they did. So, in many ways it was an amazing learning experience for everyone and the disappointment level was fairly low. We think we need to advertise it better and do it on a different night at a different time. So, we are giving it another shot here at the end of the month.
Anyway, when I was sent (by three different people in my church!) this article about the Pope I couldn't help but laugh. One of our students, Emma, who has now been off at college for a year has been continually hammering me with the idea that what we really need to do is buy a laundromat. She refuses to let me let this idea die! It is spectacular and in some ways it is that kind of passion and energy that I want to release in my students. If only 10 of my students were so passionate about the work and teaching of Jesus as to be pounding the table like Emma, I would know we were doing the right things in our ministry.
Having said all that, I read the article and wondered a couple of things based on my work in social enterprise. I am just going to list them as bullet questions in order to save us all time.
1. While it's nice the Pope bought a laundromat, doesn't he own a whole city? In other words, let's do some more of this!!!
2. Why doesn't the Pope buy several of these and make them religious centers in some way, places where learning and socializing can take place too! Though the article seems to imply this trajectory a bit.
3. What if the Pope made them NOT free? I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but what if they were free for the homeless and low cost for others? At least they would be more self-sustaining that way. Maybe set a goal of 60% papal funding and 40% funded by profit?
4. What if the Pope didn't allow the Catholic church to own these? Give them to low income folks who show desire to own their own businesses. Budding entrepreneurs who need a shot! Give them a low cost lease on the space and allow them to reap the profit on the stipulation that the homeless get laundry done for free? It doubles down on impact. Pair them up with small business owners to collaborate.
Right now the model for charity almost always is dependent on the deep pockets of the church, other givers, or grants. Part of me always wonders in this situation whether the church and the philanthropist always does this sort of thing in order to create dependency on our institutions. We create ministries that are dependent on us because it makes us feel good and propagates our institutional identity. I don't want to push that too hard, but I think there is some truth there. For instance, the article states that Whirlpool donated the equipment. I am willing to bet that these are state of the art laundry machines. My guess is that in 3 years time they will begin breaking and you will have equipment that is incredibly expensive to fix. Whirlpool will probably agree to send repair people out for the first couple of years, but after that they won't want to sustain that initiative. So, the Vatican will be left with a really expensive laundromat that was not built efficiently because it didn't have to be. This is why the marketplace can be helpful.
If a regular business owner bought that laundromat on regular margins, they would have bought the most durable machines at the lowest cost. They might even have started with used machines. The priority would have not been on a flashy sort of space that is ultimately unsustainable without major benevolences. If the goal is clean laundry for the homeless over the long term then we need to think about building something that can sustain that work over the long term.
I want us to create ministries that do good Kingdom work, but that empower those engaged in them. I want ministries that do not rely fully on charitable dollars. I want ministries that serve our neighbor, but not by putting us in a place of power as giver. There needs to be an element of mutual marketplace exchange that does not rob the recipient of their dignity. I don't think its bad to engage the marketplace in this way. I am not against charity, but too often we underestimate its unsustainability and the power dynamics involved. Who knows, maybe the Pope will like this post and lease Emma her laundromat?!
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to judge a graduate level social enterprise competition at Seattle Pacific University here in the Pacific Northwest. The contest was a group based contest in which students pitched a social enterprise to an audience of business people with the idea of getting funding to launch. Each group begins with a quick 7 minuted pitch on their idea, their team, their impact, and their needed funding. They are then evaluated through individual conversation with the judges. It was a phenomenal experience and it was wonderful to be invited, though I did feel out of place at times being a judge of such a contest.
Most of the people in the room were true blue business folks. Some had worked for Disney and Microsoft. The woman next to me had left a lucrative tech career to found her own social enterprise creating special L.E.D. lights for children wanting to read during the night hours so that literacy rates would go up. When it came time to introduce myself, part of me wanted to chuckle. I was the only person in the room who was in full time ordained ministry as far as I could tell. My social enterprise felt remarkably humble and my business experience felt absent.
I own a small landscaping company that employs about 6 people in my local community. It is paired with another mentoring program that imparts life skills and faith principles to a total of 12 teens from our area. We are unique in that we are building this model not apart from a church, but largely connected to one even though we are independent in terms of our legal structures. At times I only understood about 60% of the terminology being thrown around the room as I have no formal business training. My business is run off of my awareness of human nature, my experience of my father's businesses as a child, and a passion to make an impact.
But, this is my third social enterprise gathering that I have gone to and about the 5th venue that I have been to where I have discussed the intersection of faith and business. I am learning some important things I think about this world.
1. Passion- When we went around and asked each group about their particular idea or product, one of the first questions that I asked them was, "Tell me why you are passionate about this?" Launching any venture (social enterprise or not) is going to require some suffering and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. What struck me was how few of them had prepared for that question. I regard passion for the idea at stake as critical. Suffering is a central part of the Christian story and several of the students gave me remarkably corporate answers. One said, "Well I have worked in several non-profits and now I would like to start my own." There were two students in particular who had immediate connection to their idea and it was clear that they had some real drive to actually tackle the problem. Now I know that these were hypothetical projects, but I think that any church or school that is teaching entrepreneurship needs to be teaching its students some kind of spiritual formation process for discerning what it is they are willing to struggle for before they go launching something. Otherwise social enterprise will become just another career path. If the Christian story gives something to enterprise it's the notion of finding something so beloved that it is worth dying for. Christian Social Enterprise needs to connect to that story and harness that sort of passion for the good.
2. Graduate Students and Every Day Folks are Key- In several of the programs I have attneded I have been exposed to theology students, business undergrads, and everyday folks trying to launch. My experience has been that graduate students with life under their belts are best. Theology folks have tended to be very idealistic about their ideas and about human nature in the marketplace. The undergrads don't feel the sufficient fear of having to move out into the real world just yet. It's the everyday folks and the grad students seem to be most ready to launch. The everyday folks have had the time and lived experience to discern what their passions are. The grad students are at the last possible stage of education (more or less) and know they have to launch. Many of them also have had some career exposure prior to their degree. I was impressed at Seattle Pacific that their ideas seemed big, but doable. I think if we want to engage theological reflection with the business world, schools that have theology departments and graduate business departments will be key. Of course, they will need to work together and that may be quite a challenge.
3. Let's Not Forget the Ordinary- One of the things that has floored me at these kinds of competitions is that people always have these massive ideas about what to launch. Everything must massively scale! Everything must have massive impact! Everything must disrupt whole industries! I have heard ideas for upcycling coffee grounds, recycling used diapers by the thousands of tons, solar projects for churches, etc. etc. etc. One of the things that I think gets missed in all of this desire to do good and "innovate" is just injecting the good into existing ordinary marketplaces. There is a very thin line between ME wanting to impact on a big scale and a kind narcissism and that is worth keeping in mind. We cannot underestimate our culture's love of humanistic self actualization. The simplicity of the landscaping company that we run is that we have broken into an existing ordinary marketplace by offering customers an augmented service. All we do is excellent landscaping and make a social impact while we do it. I often hear frustration from the folks that host these events that not many of the folks that attend them actually launch! I think perhaps if we coached people on just disrupting ordinary local industries they might do so. Find something you are good at and offer it to the public with greater social value and people will prefer to buy your services over your competitor as long as the service is excellent and you can show them the impact in some way.
4. Be Patient and Consider the Good- One of my concerns for social enterprise programs is that they don't take the time to teach about the importance of time and immersion. Too many of these programs are concerned with launching or creating a great idea! The problem with that is that many people who innovate, tend to innovate in an area that they have immersed themselves in for some time. Either in a particular community or in a particular field of interest. Their innovation tends to be around the edges of some place that they have been embedded. To me, to focus on embedding is to live out the doctrine of the Incarnation. When our primary goal is ideating and producing, it will tend to produce ideas that we are not fully connected to and that probably will not be as effective at serving the common good. We need to work on ideas that we know and care about in places that we know and care about. We need to fully consider the good of the idea we are working on rather than just whether it is a "good idea". I think that we can improve on this at most of our Christian social incubators and accelerators.
One of the blessings of doing ministry through social enterprise is that an ethically performed exchange of goods and services places the "giver" and the recipient on equal footing. I received this note from a customer a few weeks ago and was elated to receive it. We had provided a high quality and prompt service. In this case the customer was overjoyed to have snow removed from their driveway after a solid snow storm and ice storm. I was able to spend several hours working with my students which was relational time well spent. We talked about life, a bit about faith, and a good amount about hard work. I get to do ministry, the customer has a service provided that also impacts their local community, the student grows and develops in faith and life. It is an equal exchange.
This way of doing things seems so much more preferable to the unequal exchanges in many of our charitable works in our community. In many of those systems, Group A has all the power, dollars, and say-so and often does something "good" that the recipient doesn't even want or necessarily need. The recipient is often further incentivized to keep their mouth shut because they don't want to appear rude to the giver and they may be able to make use of SOME part of what the giver is peddling. But, the exchange is always unequal. One party controls the whole situation. I think many of us know this is how we do charity work and it makes the giver feel wonderful, but often steals dignity from the recipient. It is unhealthy and the same unequal exchange can be seen in other areas of the church's life as well.
In our church ministries, youth and adult, we often disempower those we serve unintentionally. One group has all the cards. They are the minister, or the discipler, or something else. There is very little mutuality. The recipient is often supposed to sit and receive what is being taught. This, not surprisingly, can create environments where people don't feel motivated to pursue their faith for themselves. They become dependent on the model or the individual providing the spiritual good and services (for lack of a better term). We can do better.
My point is that we need to find ways to even our exchanges a bit more. We need ministries and spaces where giver and recipient are on more equal footing. Our social enterprise (The Columbia Future Forge and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care) empowers students who are involved, robs little dignity from the person buying the services, and brings adults (as mentors or crew bosses) and students together as co-workers rather than as givers and receivers. It's pretty cool.
Last, one of the best things about engaging economics and faith is that I am discovering that to provide a good or service that is high quality and prompt is a kind of service. It blesses the customer when they pull in their driveway. That is important ministry and one that the church needs to validate more frequently. Ministry and Business need not be two seperate categories all the time.