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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.

 

Filtering by Category: Launching

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.

How do I Fund My Philanthropic/Social Enterprise Idea?

Matthew Overton

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Fairly frequently these days, people from different places will reach out to me as they are trying to launch their local social enterprise or missional idea. Some people want to make profit as a for profit. Some people are simply launching a charity. Others want to generate net profit, but run as a non profit simply by directing their profits back into the mission of the overall organization. What many of them struggle with is trying to raise the initial funds to get started.

When I began my landscaping company and my non profit I had no idea where the money would come from. I didn't even know how much money I would need. What I did know was that our mission was worth doing and that I was called to do this work. I have learned a lot in the last few years on how to get up and running. Over the past 3 years I have raised about 125k in funding for my organization and I have done that while working a full time job and doing my enterprise on the side.Here is how you might get started.

1.) Your Personal Funds- I know you don't have any, but bear with me. When I started my own enterprise I had to put up about 5k of my own funds. Later I invested much more than that. Your funds matter because unless you are willing to risk for this enterprise you are starting you may not have an idea that is worth pursuing in earnest. Second, when you risk, others believe that their risk might be worth while. You cannot expect others to sacrifice what they have earned if you are not willing to do so yourself. Watch it here though! You do not want to be the only one risking for your idea and if you have means you do not want to fund your idea to the point that it becomes to reliant upon you or your funding stream. That kind of dependency can lead your organization and mission to fold if you step out of the frame or if your personal funding picture should change in some significant way.

2.) Friend Funds- No matter what you do, you are probably going to need to raise funds from those around you. They might be friends or they might be folks that come out of the woodwork as they hear about your ideas. They might also be folks on your board or team that you have assembled. I have been struck at how often folks have emerged with dollars when they have heard about what we are doing. I have also had to learn to make a pitch and ask. This has been a difficult task for me as I don't love talking about money and cannot stand asking for it, but if the mission is good, I will do what I have to in order to forward it. Again, this is a great test for the quality of your idea. If folks aren't interested in funding it then it might not have what it takes to move forward.

3. Grants- You will definitely have to mine local foundation and granting agencies. Just do some Google research and talk, talk, talk to folks about what you are up to. There are loads of sources of funding that your network of folks knows about that you don't. For profits can sometimes get loans from foundations or important advice from them about funding. They can also connect you with people who know the industry that you are about to launch into. Don't underestimate the value of such advice and connection points!!!! Just don't expect those foundations to perpetually fund your dream. They often want to see if you have a plan and have what it takes to hang around for a few years on your own. Their funding will only last a couple of years, so they want to know that you can sustain yourself without their perpetual help.

4. Awards-  Along the way I have won three awards for our work with Mowtown and the Forge. Periodically you just come across these things. Some of the awards are small (1-3k), but some might be larger (5-20k). I also won these awards as a for profit.  I had to pay taxes on those awards, but it was still very much worth it.  They are a nice boost to your bottom line and another sign that you might be headed in the right direction.

5. Denominational SourcesI work in the church world, so I have some connections through institutional networks. I found funding though my local region as well as through a national source that is seeking to launch new ministries around the nation. Sometimes these gifts will require various forms of reporting and accountability that might seem bureaucratic, but there is no source of revenue that has no accountability or strings attached to it.

6. Private Investment- Admittedly, this is the area that I know the least about. My enterprise was built with my own money and a few awards. I was able to do this because my particular industry (lawn care and landscaping) has a fairly low barrier to entry. But, if your idea is larger or more expensive to get off the ground you might need to take out a loan or seek out investors who are going to want return on their cash investment. It's possible that they may take a lower rate of return than is normal based on the fact that your project is socially engaged.

All I can say is that this is going to be a lot of work.  Don't expect anyone to make this thing happen for you. It's going to take some sweat to make this work! I mean that in terms of sweat of your brow as well as anxious sweating it out as you figure out how to fund the next turn in the road. Blessings as you dream and launch!

New Article in Faith and Leadership at Duke....

Matthew Overton

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.

A Fish Out of Water...

Matthew Overton

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.

Bootstrapping, Cheat Codes, and Missional Entrepreneurship

Matthew Overton

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We are at this tricky spot as a venture where we don't quite have enough hours/funds to pay a full time employee, but we almost need one in order to keep up with business and to continue to help business expand.  I have been running this landscaping company while working a full time job with a high burnout rate for the last year.  It hasn't been easy.

So a few weeks ago I phoned and met with a couple of friends to talk about how we might fund this project further.  I had to figure out whether I needed for profit investment or non profit grant funding and how to get it.  It was urgent because I have a sense that if I have to work the current model for another 2 years let's say, I might just implode.  It is high energy. The basic answer I got back from my friends was that I need to work my model until it runs smoothly and shines.  Whether for profit or non profit, no one really wants to fund an experimental venture.  They want to come in when there is significant proof of viability.  They told me that I would have to bootstrap until my model sang.

This was a hard word to receive in some ways. Bootstrapping your venture when you are 24 is one thing. Doing it when you are 36, have two kids, and are already working a job that is 60 hours/week is another.  Most mornings I am up at about 4:15 working on writing or the business. I often finish the day with a few emails or bids for jobs to customers.  If I could eat Ramen and work on this stuff in an apartment 12 years ago it would have been a bit easier I think.  But, in a lot of ways the answer I received about funding was something I already knew.  There are no shortcuts in starting a good business.

When I was 11 my good friend J.P. got a new device for his Nintendo called the Game Genie. It was this crazy thing that allowed you to plug in cheat codes to any game that you had. You could add lives, weapons, etc. etc. etc. until Kingdom come.  It described itself as a "Video Game Enhancer". It was anything but.  What I quickly learned was that short cutting the game did two things.  First, I tired of all the games quickly. Since there was no challenge they made the video games boring in a hurry. You never had to earn anything through game play. Second, the more I cheated the worse I became at the games. I loved playing sports games on my Nintendo, but what I discovered was that after using the Game Genie I was worse at those games. My friends would beat me when we played once I had used the Genie. I had gotten sloppy and learned bad habits because I had been using shortcuts.  This lesson is true for any startup social entrepreneurship.

If I had started with a 100K grant instead of 15K of my own money, this whole venture would have been hopeless. Part of the success of what I am doing IS the fact that I have had to learn it all myself. I had to learn to use the tools, how to walk into a local business and sell my idea, learn how to fix my equipment, learn how to make jobs more efficient, learn what the life skills trainings look like and so on. And most importantly, I have had to learn exactly what the work is that my employees are doing. If I hadn't done all those reeking filthy runs to the dump with wet leaves and rotten grass myself how would I know what to pay my crews?  I also wouldn't have had the relational time with our first 5-6 students to feel out what we need to be training them on in terms of life and faith.  What are their strength points that need to be honed further? What are the weak points that need to be addressed?  The point is that every little bit of learning as you bootstrap is exactly what you need. I think the best sorts of things in life are built one bloody step at a time.  It is the recipe for all things good.

My hope is that we will either get enough business that I can bring someone on full time or that we can get some small funding in the near future.  Yet, as much as I want to move onto that second phase where I can hand chunks of this business off, I also can see why understanding my operation and working my operation without any cheat codes or short cuts really matters. I am prayerfully gauging whether it might just be critical for me to bootstrap this thing for a bit longer. For now, I had better get outside and pray while I am swapping the wheels on my Honda lawn mower. The drive system isn't engaging and I have no idea why. Did I mention that I am not REALLY mechanical?

 

Blessings on your innovations, risks, and adventures! May you follow the Kingdom as it unfolds before you!

Upper Left Part #2- How to Launch a Missional Entrepreneurship

Matthew Overton

In my last post on this a few weeks ago I wrote about how the Northwest is a pretty good incubator for social entrepreneurship. I also said that I would write a follow up post on how one might go about launching a social entrepreneurship out of a church.  That would be this post.

I cannot possibly contain all the steps and hurdles that I have cleared and fallen over along the way. All I want to do here is speak to the formation of the idea and how to execute on it in the most basic terms.  My hope is that this can be a blessing to folks who are trying to figure out how to fund their own youth ministry budgets or even just fund their own jobs in some churches around the United States. More on demographics, dollars, and youth ministry in a bit.

STEP 1- Inventory Yourself

Okay, so this might be the hardest and most spiritual part of the whole process.  My sense is that a few things have to happen here.  First, you need to have done enough spiritual reflection that you know yourself.  I don't think MOST people who engage in social entrepreneurship are going to be able to build a social entrepreneurship out of something they know nothing about (like a pay as you go restaurant). You either need something you know or something that a whole bunch of people in your church community know better than you. You need to know what your own gifts, talents, and passions are as well. Do you Myers Briggs again. Reflect on your own missionary journey. What aspects of serving Jesus and the world light you up in a way that nothing else does? What thing would you be willing to sacrifice blood, sweat, and tears for?  If you don't know these things about yourself it is going to be a lost cause.  If I didn't love my idea and have some roots in it there is no way that I would be willing to wake up at 4 a.m. to work on it and smell like old grass and manure when I go to my church job. You better know the field and be willing to go to the cross for it.

STEP 2- Embed Yourself-

You will also need to be embedded somewhere for a while.  I don't necessarily mean geographically, but that probably will be important. Essentially we are talking about good missional principles here. In order for us to sense God's call to engage a particular group of people or neighborhood or issue we are going to need to sit with it for a while. Like a GOOD missionary we will need to reflect on the issue, know the people, know their longings, and know the place that we are about to interact with before we can even get an inkling as to what God might be calling us to do in that place. You want to make sure that you love the place/problem enough that you aren't engaging it from a place of pity, but from a place of understanding. You want to build your entrepreneurship by taking advantage of the strengths of a place rather than its weaknesses. The best kind of justice is not enacted from pity but from mutual love and  mutual exchange. Learn more about this concept here.

STEP 3- Build a Team-

Anyone with half a brain can tell you that in the era of wikinomics, you don't have all the information you need in you or in your church. And you never will.  You are going to need to put together a group of folks who have the skills you need to get this idea off the ground. My team was filled with small business owners and folks who were interested in mentoring teenagers.  I needed folks who understood business. But, I also created a whole web of folks electronically that I could go to for key conversations. I had non-profit folks. I had folks who worked in justice in the third world. I had folks who knew the local school districts and people in them.  The strangest questions will come up along the way and you are going to need strange answers. Make sure you build a team first.

STEP 4- Formulate a Vision Together-

Your Team is never going to be able to move forward with a new idea if they aren't on the same page. They need to share your passion and heart and it is going to take a while to help them do this. We are still working on ours over a year into starting.  Your startup needs to answer five basic questions before it will go.

     1. What is the clear picture of our future together? (Vision)

     2.  Why do we exist? (Mission/Purpose)

     3.  What will we do to accomplish that? (Program)

     4.  What won't we compromise over? (Values)

     5.  How will we measure success? (Metrics)

These question will be critical because without them, your team won't know if they are doing their job and won't have a sense of where they are headed or how they should be heading there! This process serves as a phenomenal filter that helps you decide what you do and don't want to do as an entrepreneurship. Certain things will fit with your organization and certain things won't. Certain people will fit on your team and certain people won't. You won't know how to make those choices without doing this work. It may take a long while and it won't totally ever be finished. IT IS WORTH EVERY MINUTE YOU SPEND ON IT.

STEP 5- Have a Meeting with Law and Tax Folks

At some point you are going to need to have a sit down with some legal and tax folks. They are going to keep you legal and also help you think about how to structure your organization in the ways that are most helpful for you to create change quickly and effectively. Social impact is great, but it will never be as effective if you are wrangling with state labor laws you weren't aware of!  These folks might be a part of your core team or maybe not. A human resources person might not be bad either. They helped me create an employee handbook and understand a bunch about employees and benefits.

STEP 6- Pitch It To Your Church

At some point you are going to have to sell your church on this thing. It probably will come way earlier in the process than this. Here is how this step works:

     A.  Bring your head of staff in the loop early if you have one. You need this person in the loop and it might be the most important pitch you make!

     B.  You need to know whether your church understands why social entrepreneurship needs to happen in the American church. They may not even realize that the church as we know it is dying under their feet. What you are pitching might sound like a trip to Mars. That isn't their fault, but it is your job to solve.  I understood intuitively why social entrepreneurship needed to happen in the American church, but I had to explain it to my board of elders.  Thankfully, I am really good at explaining macro concepts in clear and concise ways.

     C. You are going to need a business plan of two years. I had NEVER even seen a business plan before I borrowed one and adapted it. It was hard, but I did it with the help (build a team!) of my brother in law.

     D.  You will also need an F.A.Q. document. Mine asked and answered 40 questions. You will need to anticipate the fear this will strike in your church. People might wonder if you are leaving. They might wonder if this is just a money making scheme. They might wonder if you are going to blow up their beloved youth group. The will wonder how much of your time and their money is this going to cost them.  (Don't freak out though, they might also wonder how they can jump on board!)  Anticipate the fear based questions and don't react. Welcome those questions. They are going to help you refine your idea even further and will help you increase your social impact. These people in that room are going to share this idea! So, it is critical that you nail this pitch because they are going to be your early ambassadors. You need not just their blessing, but their buy in. If they can't see the vision this thing will blow up in your face down the road.  Heck, maybe invite one of them onto your team!?

STEP 7- Pray and Buckle Up

This thing is going to be a crazy ride of ups and downs. Remember when I mentioned finding something that is worth your blood, sweat, and tears? It will be filled with that, so you better steel yourself.  Prayer under-girds all of this. I pray for the right leaders to show up. I pray for ways forward. I pray that the social mission stays in front of me. I pray that God helps me find financial solutions that I can't see yet. I pray that my equipment doesn't break. I pray that I will be ready to shut this thing down if my wife and family decided they hate it. I pray that God spreads this vision like wild fire throughout the American church so that we can engage the world where God wants us to. And I pray that as it spreads that God helps us to do it with integrity and transparency. There is a lot of potential danger in business plus church.

I pray that God blesses you as you dream and launch. This enterprise has been the greatest blessing in my 16 years of ministry. I have never felt more like an evangelist. It is exhaustingly good news. May you and I proclaim it in ways that do the most good for God's Kingdom.