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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.

 

Accompanying Young Adults by Engaging Economics

Matthew Overton

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I have written a good bit about side effects in doing ministry through social enterprise. I think risking doing anything innovatively causes all sorts of new things to bubble to the surface of an organization or relationship. You often thing you are doing one thing, but you are really doing another.

One of the unintended side effects, or unexpected outcomes of this experiment has been what it has done amongst the young adults in my church. We wanted to help teens and we are. But, while our landscaping company employs teens and helps launch them to more permanent jobs it has actually had unexpected economic benefits for local young adults.  Let me throw out some small vignettes:

1. Employee #1- We were able to talk through a difficult season of life while they were working for us. They hadn't graduated from college for some difficult reasons. They couldn't find an job and they were dealing with a significant amount of depression. We helped initiate a conversation about these hurdles and helped them address them with their family. They are now in more permanent employment after 2 separate stints with us. They were not the best landscaper for us (and they would freely admit that), but we were willing to tolerate some inefficiency for the sake of ministry opportunity. It was the right decision.

2. Employee #2- This employee learned hard lessons with us. We housed them at our church after they worked with Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and we got them a benefited custodial job. The problem was that they just weren't ready to take on responsibility. After 3 failed attempts and coaching by multiple adults we had to let them go. It was hard. We may have been pushing them to a level of responsibility that they were not ready for that soon. But, 1.5 years later they have a full time job doing construction and wandered back through our doors to let us know during our college dinner at Christmas.

3. Employee #3- This person just needed some extra hours. They have some big dreams for themselves, but not necessarily a helpful framework on how to get there. They were dedicated to their faith and that spawned a load of windshield conversations about theology and how the Bible is put together. It was a fascinating relationship in inviting somebody into deeper thought about the Christian tradition. Eventually they moved onto another job.

4. Employee #4- This young adult was also dedicated in their faith and was thinking about going to Bible college. Most of our conversations had to do with money. It was difficult to figure out how to try to point out the financial impracticality of someone else's dream. This is especially true when you know them, but not super well. They eventually went off to Bible college but quickly realized that the education wouldn't produce the financial runway they needed to pay off their debt. They moved back, got a more permanent job, and now live in our church's young adult house. We continue to maintain ministry and conversation with them about life, theology, and money. They are taking full advantage of this experience by paying down their debt which is possibly because of the reduced rent of our young adult housing.

5. Employee #5- This employee was working for a for profit organization that was paying them illegally under the table in a field that they were interested in pursuing. They had graduated from a university, but were just stuck on what to do next and barely barely scraping by. We have employed them now in two ways in our organization. They worked for the landscaping operation as a crew boss and also in admin. support for our non-profit operation. This allowed them a host of experiences that would build their resume. We also worked heavily with them on conflict avoidance which was the main thing that allowed them to linger so long in their previous job on poverty wages in an unhealthy environment. We still coach them on the next steps in their journey and they are starting some exciting chapters trying to figure out how to fund what they love to do most! They are a fabulous mentor for our students.

Employee #6- This individual found us online and as it turned out they had been served by our church 10 years ago when we were on a mission trip. They are a single parent and are trying to find sound economic footing and build a life for themselves. They had previous landscaping experience and we may see them as the future owner operator of Mowtown which would be an an amazing opportunity to bless them. They also live in our young adult house which allows us to create community with them.

Employee #7- This former student of our youth ministry finished college and cannot get a job in their particular field: Advertising using analytics. So, I offered to allow them to build their resume by helping us build our online profile. We have a lot to learn and they can teach us while building their portfolio.  They were happy to do so. My hope is that this work provides them some initial free lance work to build their resume so that they can find the job that they are looking for. Further, I think it helps foster the sense in them that what they are working on in their career can be ministry. They can find ways to benefit God's Kingdom while doing good work.  It also provides another opportunity for feedback and coaching as they transition through their young adult years.

Even as I type all of this I am floored. I want to make it clear that this has been a messy process and many of these stories, like all of ours, are still in process. There have been a lot of road blocks here and periods where I wasn't sure we were being very helpful. But, what I see is that engaging the economics of our world has enabled us to lengthen the meaningfulness of our church's ministry to young adults. It shows them that we care about their actual lives. It also shows them that God cares about their actual lives. Here and now.

I had wondered for a number of years how, given the lengthening of adolescence, we could accompany our young adults effectively in the next chapter of their lives. As it turns out we have been doing it for the last 4 years, but we just stumbled into it by initially trying to minister to teens more effectively and prepare them for adulthood. Most of our ministry really has just been coaching and accompaniment.

I continue to be amazed at how God honors experiments. The Spirit is often the one who takes us from the place that we think we are going into places we would not or could not have tread previously. My hope is that we as ministers and youth ministers continue to risk and experiment so that we end up in those unexpected gospel places!

Windshield Conversations...

Matthew Overton

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I have written several posts about how one of the biggest surprises about how we have tried to do youth ministry and social enterprise at my church (other than how hard it is!) is the impact I think it is having on adults. I have felt that doing a mentoring and business based model of youth ministry has drawn out the gifts of numerous adults in my church who probably would not have had anything to do with youth ministry previously. This sense has been affirmed over the last few weeks in particular.

A few weeks back I was in a parking lot in my truck when one of my mentors called. They wanted to clarify a few things about their student and also check in on their paperwork status. While I was trying to make it into my next appointment I found myself getting the chance to do what I enjoy most: Coaching someone in how to do ministry with teenagers. But, really I was coaching them in how to do ministry with their fellow human being. We talked about listening well and about the unique personality of their particular assigned student. We talked about what to do if any particular crisis issue came up and we revisited our abuse prevention protocols. I also assured them that I was just a phone call away.

The best part about the conversation was that this adult had no business doing ministry with teenagers, and I don't mean because of relative age. I have always used older adults more than younger ones in youth ministry. Age is somewhat irrelevant. What I mean is that this particular adult, while a WONDERFUL human being, just doesn't strike you as somebody you would expect to be hanging out with a teenager. They would be one of the last sort of folks I might recruit for a number of the normal elements that make up a youth ministry. This of course is probably more of an indictment of youth ministry than it is a characterization of the individual. The fact that our models couldn't accommodate the gifts and talents of this individual is egregiously bad. When it comes to youth ministry the hand has often been saying to the foot, "I don't need you."

And then this experience with this one adult seemed to repeat itself another three times in the next week.

What had happened in part was that in the 4th year of our program we doubled in size. We now have 23 students in the program and that has meant pulling from a wider crop of adults from our church and beyond for the first time. During the first three years we mostly had adults that had a good deal of experience with teens from our ministry community. They entered the program with a certain sense of confidence and veterancy in what they were doing. But, this year is requiring more encouragement, coaching, and listening. And it's a ton of fun. In many ways, I feel like I am doing exactly what I ought to be doing most of the time.

When we built the initial landscaping company, one of the things we talked about was "windshield time". We meant that while we were driving around we wanted to take advantage of conversations that would happen along the road with students. But, as it turns out adults need windshield time too. They want to help students. They want to do ministry. But, they just need somebody as a kind of reflective backstop. It's funny at times because I am coaching people who are nearly twice my age. In a lot of ways their nervousness reminds me of my experiences of doing hospital chaplaincy in my early 20's. I remember vividly feeling like I didn't know what to say, what to do, or whether I was going to really screw somebody up through ignorance and the sugary additive of good intentions. It's not a fun feeling, but it is a necessary stage of ministry.

This is what my adult mentors are learning.

1. Most of life's problems are not solvable by human beings. They are knots that are just too hard to untangle. This is partially why relationship with God is so powerful. God does the work we cannot. And while that can make us feel futile at times as servants of our neighbors it's also kind of a relief to know that we don't have to solve problems.

2. Ministry and service to one's neighbor always involve getting involved in someone's mess. When you really engage ministry you find out how most of our forms of service are actually designed to keep us distant from the recipient. We serve at arm's length in most contexts. it's safer that way. Real face to face ministry in which you actually have to just listen and walk with somebody through their crap is often messy. You are invited into the story of a neighbor and that is inherently risky. It might cost you some sleep, some money, time, and probably part of your heart.

3. You don't know your neighbor or their experience until you know them. When you engage ministry you quickly find that you don't have clue about other people's experiences. Most of what we live on in life are assumptions about others from a safe distance. Ministry has a way of disrupting our stereotypes and assumptions about people from the outside because it invites you into the inside of their lives. You end up in conversations, homes, and at tables that teach us just how ignorant we are. It's embarrassing and awkward, but it's good work and it is never finished. You are never done learning about the folks to which you minister.

4. Good listening is the best skill you have. People often get frustrated with how church folk and others will offer all kinds of platitudes to people in crisis ("God doesn't give you more than you can handle."). Often they do this because platitudes actually kind of work...when you keep your distance from your neighbor. They make you feel that you have helped your neighbor when in fact they mostly have just reinforced your distance from them. It's only actual ministry that exposes them for what they are: manure. Actual ministry, wading into the life of my neighbor reveals that reflective listening is the best, and often the only, balm we have. Good listening and good questions are the first tool in a pretty limited actual ministry tool bag.

In any event, these conversations have been fun. It's nice to be doing what you are supposed to be doing. It's nice to invite others into the holy mess that God invited me into some years ago.

Glimpses of Glory #1

Matthew Overton

 For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

For the record.  Our truck is not nearly as shiny as this one.

What can a dump truck, snow, and bricks teach us about Christian ministry? Something maybe.

Some weeks ago I brought my girls with me to complete a large landscaping job in which we were building a stone retaining wall.  The job was finished and there were about 150 extra bricks that needed to be loaded into a large dump truck and hauled back to Home Depot. When my girls and I got to the top of the ridge in our neigborhood we found that while it had not snowed at our house, it had snowed a couple of inches up there! It was also a good deal colder. As a good Dad, I of course had not anticipated this and brought no work gloves for my girls, 5 and 8 or for me.

Over the next couple of hours I patiently helped them help me load each brick onto pallets in the truck. I stood up on the back end looking down at them as they handed up each brick covered in snow. I felt badly looking at their pink little hands, but I also knew that this was a really good character building experience for them. At one point a couple of older boys bicycled by with gloves on. My oldest could hear them complaining about how cold it was and that they needed to stop and warm up. At one point she looked up and said, "You know at school, the boys always talk about girls being 'fancy'. Sometimes I think boys can by pretty 'fancy' too." I couldn't help but laugh. While my girls were cold, they were learning the borders and testing the margins of their mental and physical toughness through work. All children need to do this. We talked about sometimes needing to focus on the task at hand when things get difficult, that when things get difficult you sometimes have to just keep moving forward until the job is done. I believe these things. But, it was their in their looking up during and after the work that I was most struck.

One of the hopes in pursuing Kingdom work (and specifically youth work) through the vehicle of social enterprise is that as we pursue it we think reflectively about the theology that does or does not undergird what we are doing. In the past I have tried to write on theological frameworks for Christian Social Enterprise and the other day I ran into one of these ideas while in church. There was a connection point between the experience with that dump truck and what I was hearing.

At least part of what we are doing in youth ministry through social enterprise is giving students glimpses of glory.

     In his lecture/sermon on "The Weight of Glory", C.S. Lewis draws an analogy to children and parent while he is trying to define glory as "fame or good report". Lewis is careful to say that glory, on the human side at least, is actually our need for the recognition of God. What we often pursue is fame or good report from our fellow human beings as some kind of substitute for this divine embrace. But, his point is that we are wired to seek recognition from God. A kind of divine approval and blessing.

     All of us long to hear from some final authority the words that we see in Matthew 25, "Well done good and faithful servant." In Matthew 3 we also find that the Son of God, after being baptized receives praise from on high. "And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Again in Matthew 17 we see in the Transfiguration that the Father again is well pleased with the Son.  The point of all this, and its one that I think I agree with, is that as human beings we long to receive the praise of God. Shoot, apparently even God needs the praise of God! We are in some sense wired for it. But, the trick is that in order for us to believe in that God who delights in us and hope for its future day of fullness, we need to experiences glimpses of glory here and now. That is to say that it is often human beings, our neighbors and perhaps most importantly our parents, who provide that foretaste as we live this side of God's Kingdom. We need somebody, sometimes anybody to tell us, "Well done, I am proud of you!"

     Lewis says that in this way we are rather like children. Anyone that has children can verify that there is nothing they long for more than to earn (honest and genuine!) praise from their parents. They long to hear that they have worked hard and done well.  This is what I ran into with my own girls.  At several stages of the work, while they hardly complained, they did seek out my approval. They clearly wanted to know that they were doing a good job at the task at hand. This dynamic continued after the fact as well. Tucking one of them in at night I told them that I was proud that they had worked so hard and toughed it out.  They wanted to hear what every human being wants to hear from some higher authority, "Well done you hard worker! You are doing great! Keep at it! I am proud of you! I often try to offer them this praise apart from the tasks they perform, but I also want them to be able to honestly assess when they have worked hard and done well. And all of this of course is exactly what Lewis is driving at. We are all looking up in some sense. I think Lewis is exactly right about this impulse to receive glory from the one who made us and it is an important theological pillar that supports all the intergenerational ministry and youth ministry that my church is working on. We are engaged in Christian Social Enterprise through mentoring because it gives us an opportunity to add an adult, or perhaps the first adult, to the lives of local teenagers that need to catch a glimpse of glory.

    Part of what we do when we do ministry is we provide glimpses or foretastes, or inivitations to glory, for those that we work with. We have an opportunity to help people believe and hope that somebody out there is interested in them precisely where they are. One of the reasons that we have created a program around intergenerational mentoring is because we believe that our mentors have much more to offer our students than professional experience. They have much more to offer than years of wisdom. Part of what they have to offer is a glimpse of the glory of God that we all long to hear and know in fullness one day. The voice that says to us, "Well done child! I am proud of you! How did you walk that road!?" In short, what we are providing is foretastes of glory, hints of divine love and approval. We are offering human beings opportunities to be caught in the tonal warmth and magnetic light of God's voice and gaze.

At the end of the day, the world is full of people with technical skills. It is full of people with soft skills. It does not have enough people with the ability to offer these divine glimpses.

My hope is that our program can continue to offer that.

The 4 Rings of Christian Social Enterprise

Matthew Overton

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Over the past few years of trying to run a profitable social enterprise that is meaningfully connected to my local church there have been a number of revelations. Most of them have had to do with various aspects or growing awarenesses of how isolated I have been in my church role from the community at large. For those of us that have read books on missional theology, this is nothing new. It was only a revelation to me in the sense that I thought I had cleared the church/community wall a number of times in my ministry. But, engaging a model of social enterprise that truly interests the community has resulted in a volume of extra-ecclesial connections that I had never thought possible. I have met with superintendents, church folks, community service providers, and business people and the web of connections in my community to good work has formed at an unexpected pace.

Over the course of this season I have begun to construct an economic model (a very humble one!) that describes the degree to which I think the church has been isolated economically. I call it the 4 Rings of Kingdom Economics. The basic idea is that if we truly believe that whatever we are working on is good Kingdom work, we need to find better ways to fund it. I believe that in my life time the people of God are going to need creative ways to find resources to live out the hope that they have. If we want to bless the world, we will need new economic engines to do so. The model I created simply articulates where I think we are and where we need to broaden our economic thinking.

Ring 1- The Christendom Economy

This ring represents the majority of Christian history. I don't think I need to explain Christendom to you all. This ring represents the church's most isolated thinking. Basically the church is/has been funded off of the benevolences of the christian empire and people's private morality for the better part of 1700 years. However, this ring has begun to shrink. The church has lost its privileged status in a few respects and its influence is declining rapidly. My suspicion is that this trend will only increase (and I happen to think it is a good thing in some respects!).

In my mind this is a ring that reeks of dependency and apathy. It causes the church to be safe, isolated, and frumpy. It also incentivizes the church to engage in charitable work that does not actually cause real uplift, but rather robs people of their dignity and tends to maintain the status quo. We have a veneer of balm, that never really engages the roots of the justice issues we are trying to resolve. It looks like we care, but only to a point do we really want to help others. Why risk a steady flow of capital when you have plenty to take care of your baseline?

Ring 2- The Passion Economy

This ring represents other individual charitable resources. Many people in Christian communities give very little of their actual wealth to what they at least say is the most important institution in their lives. I think the average is about 2.5% or something around there.  I have heard many pastors lament this. "Gee, we could do so much more good if people gave more to the church!" I have always been frustrated with this sort of thinking. The problem isn't the people. It's the passion.

Many people in my church have privately acknowledged as I have been engaged in this project that they give quite a bit outside the walls of the church and outside of Christianity. They will often say in a kind of half whisper that it is because they don't find what we are doing at the church to be compelling enough.  They don't trust that if they gave more that it would actually be used on the right sort of work! I am not sure they are wrong.

I believe that churches and ministries need to stop complaining about people's lack of giving and look at their own repetoire of missional ministries. Is there anything there that is compelling enough for someone to actually lay their life down for? If there isn't why would they bother parting with their treasure? I continue to believe that most of human beings are looking for something so worthwhile that we would trade or very lives for it! In fact, I am often shocked at what we waste laying down our time, money, and health to pursue. People "passion" for our ministries as my friend Kenda Dean might say, if we had something worth suffering for! If we can develop ministries that are actually worth people's blood, sweat, and tears then maybe they would actually lay down their lives and their dollars!

In short, we don't have compelling ministries.

When we begin to develop ministries that are compelling I think we will find that our people have way more human and monetary resources than we have even begun to imagine. This second ring represents their untapped heart/passion dollars.

 

3. The Non-Profit Economy-

This economic ring represents funding that might come to a compelling ministry from denominational sources, granting organizations, family foundations, charitable trusts, and corporate entities that have a social mission. Many churches have never considered these as viable ways to fund the good work that they might be doing. The difficulty is of course that many of these potential sources do not care to fund a local congregation specifically. However, by setting up a 501c3 (relatively easy these days) with its own board and mission, one can clear that hurdle. There are billions of dollars available for organizations that are well organized and have a clear sense of what the mission is that God is calling them to engage.

4. The Wallet Economy-

This ring represent the multi-trillion dollar economy that is ebbing and flowing every day in our world. This ring is one that Kingdom based enterprises can engage with regardless of whether or not our world/customers share our faith or justice goals. There are many people who don't care about faith, but who do care about the poor and just want a good cup of coffee. They might want fair trade clothing. They might want their lawn mowed by an ethical company that is teaching teens how to work. What is great is that by accessing this ring of the economy, ministries can use the normal to create to accomplish the hopeful. We are simply tapping into the day to day purchases of ordinary folks in order to accomplish Kingdom good.

In many ways this source of funding Kingdom work is limitless! Think how many dollars change hands in our economy every day.  However, this ring also will require excellence because to exist in this ring will require a level of efficiency and competetiveness that is high. It will also require the providing of goods and services that are top notch. The marketplace just won't tolerate mediocrity for very long as a general matter. This represents a challenge because in many ways the church is known for mediocre. No one goes to a church supper expecting excellent food. In the confines of the 1st ring mediocrity works and is even expected. People actually might get kind of irritated if the fare was superb at church meal. They would wonder how much we spent and why!? But, when you step into the every day economy people want bang for their buck. They have much higher expectations because they are not giving to you out of benevolence.  So while this ring has access to trillions, it comes with a challenging set of competitive costs.

 

Note: I am still refining this model and what it means. I would welcome some comments from folks to help me reflect and revise it. I would also love to know how it strikes you theologically and intellectually. What questions does it bring up and what challenges? Do I have some presuppositions that I am blind to? Let me know.

For Profit, Non-Profit, Hybrid

Matthew Overton

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For the last several months I have been writing some articles for Duke Divnity's Faith and Leadership publication on the church and social enterprise.  This is the 3rd article in the series and it takes a very brief (and simplistic) look at choosing between various for profit or non profit structures in doing Christian Social Enterprise.

You can read it here.

How to Launch a Social Enterprise (Faith and Leadership)-

Matthew Overton

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.