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.