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.