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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: Grit

Diamonds and Stones: Adventures in Missional Entrepreneurship

Matthew Overton

Let me tell you what happened to me yesterday. I bet you will laugh.

First, my Thursdays begin with landscaping. This might mean I need to make a run to the dump to empty out a trailer, but it always means I have to load our equipment and hook up the trailer. It is usually a fairly smooth process. I have gotten it down at this point and over the years I have gotten really good with loading and backing trailers primarily because of all the youth ministry trips I have led. Anyway, this morning was no different. I loaded the equipment, made sure everything was secure, made sure I had our landscaping crew box and binder, and checked the chains and electrical connection. Next I pulled out onto the driveway and closed up all the gates to my side yard and then was off. It was very typical. I headed down Highway 14 and when I hit some traffic I pulled off onto the old highway. I love driving the old highway anyway. It is really bumpy, but you feel like you are stepping back in time just a bit. You get to see what old Vancouver looks like, freight trains go by, and there is an eclectic mix of housing. Anyway, I got done with the drive, pulled into the church and prepared to hand off the keys to my crew amidst the pouring rain. And this is where my day began to unfold a little differently than I had anticipated.

As I lifted the keys to my crew guy he is looking outside and says, "Well that's pretty fun." I assumed that he was referring to the weather. We have 3 major storms coming in this weekend and he had just moved here from Northern California. The gray and the consistent rain can grind on you a little bit especially when you are doing outdoor work. And so I turned my head and made some kind remark about getting used to the weather up here (which of course was really code for: "Sorry man, but you are going to have to suck it up out there today.") but when I looked at out my landscaping trailer it seemed a little off. Off was the operative word because my trailer was missing it's entire back gate. Gone. Pins still in their holes.

The trailer should have looked something like this. You'll notice that it has a properly attached gate.

Even if the trailer had looked like the one below, it would have been better by a slight margin. Because at least if it had looked like this second it would have meant that I simply had towed the trailer while dragging the gate for a few miles. Embarrassing, but intact.

But, nope. My trailer was missing the entire gate. With its license plate. I was gobsmacked. I still can't figure out exactly how THE WHOLE THING FELL OFF! So I quickly loaded my crew mate into my rig and we headed back down the old highway (now free of all forms of relaxing nostalgia) to recover my trailer tailgate. Oh and I bounced a $400 blower out the back as well. Phenomenal.

Eventually we recovered the gate and thankfully no one had driven over it or wrecked their car. But, in the 15 minutes in between my blissful ignorance and the recovery mission someone had stolen the blower off of the road. Joy.

And this was how my entrepreneurial day began.

One of the things I have learned in doing this social/missional entrepreneurship is that things just don't go the way you plan them. EVER. It can be pretty frustrating. I had to get the first problem solved, cancel an appointment for my day job, and then gather myself for my day in the office.

A key mantra that I grew up hearing my Dad say was, "Some days are diamonds and some days are stones." Usually it was said after something had gone wrong. Maybe he had a rough day at work where something just didn't work out the way he planned it.  But, that phrase has a critical truth to it when you engage social entrepreneurship or missional entrepreneurship. It is not for the faint of heart. It has a lot of ups and downs. I am learning to stay calm, keep moving forward, and trusting in God. I can never be sure, but I still feel confident that this project represents a calling in my life. A very unexpected one.

And so part of my day was a stone. I was stressed and anxious.  But an hour later I got another phone call. It was unexpected. Someone had nominated our landscaping jobs program for a Traditioned Innovation award through Duke Divinity School's Faith and Leadership publication. They called to let me know that not only had we been nominated, but that we had won! Better yet, it was a $10,000 award grant! I almost wept.

We have been fighting as an organization to build up enough capital to cover some equipment, but what we really need is margin for the right employee to be working at bids and projects for more hours. This gift represents a huge opening for us. I have been working for a gift like this for over a year now and mostly I had grown content with the fact that building this enterprise was going to take a long time. It just felt like we hadn't made a ton of progress lately.  We can use the gift for equipment, but it will allow us to channel more of our revenue toward funding our employees to expand the business. Our hope is that eventually we can get to a place where we can take on some clients who are unable to mow their lawns and afford lawn care. We hope to take care of their properties at no cost or reduced cost.  As we do those sorts of things, we can hire more students. This was one serious diamond in my day! I was so ecstatic and stressed at the same time I gave myself a massive headache.

The point is that some days doing entrepreneurial stuff it feels like my rear end just fell off somewhere back there along the way. And you always feel like you are driving the slightly bumpy back roads.  But, if you wait patiently, trust, and pray a small victory or a moment of clarity comes along. Both the diamonds and the stones teach you things. They both have value. Both can make you want to cry. It's just a matter of sifting.

Failure, False Facades, and Youth Ministry Innovations....

Matthew Overton

I was reading an article in the Atlantic the other day (you can read it here). It was written by a Mom who is struggling watching her child lose her love of learning.  The diagnosis is that the loss of love for learning that she was witnessing was essentially a byproduct of that child's loss of the willingness to fail and risk. The teen sensed the need to perform, achieve, and succeed to meet up with her parents' desires/fears.  I have argued that this plagues many of the students that I work with.  Many of them walk around with this notion that they "are" this or that. They "are" an artist or they "are" an A student.  These identities are not really learned as much as they are bequeathed by their parents in an effort to be encouraging.  I find myself doing this all the time with students and my own children. Ultimately these identities become this millstone around their necks.  They have to maintain this image of themselves that they have been told over and over, at all costs.

It's a bit like going to the studio sets at Universal Studios.  If you have ever been there you will know what I mean. Universal has this wonderful way of building these fake neighborhoods and cityscapes that look remarkably real. It's crazy! Especially when you are a child! What is so weird about it is how authentic it all looks. Check out the picture below of a New York City street.

The problem that is so creepy is that a closer glance quickly reveals how messed up it all really is. Things have kind of an awkward and claustrophobic feel to them. It's really real...but it isn't.  All you end up with, factually, is an empty lifeless neighborhood of facades. And this is what some of our students (particularly in the higher achieving groups) sense about their world. They know that they might NOT actually be a great artist or awesome scholar. So, they become terrified of taking any risks in order that those facades can won't come crumbling down. They want to make sure that they achieve and don't disappoint their parents.

So, as we think about innovation in youth ministry we need to keep this trend in mind. A number of people and places are talking about making room for doubt in youth ministry.  But, one of the main doubts that teenagers have is not just about who God is, or if God is, but about who THEY are and who THEY are becoming.  We need to create spaces for self-doubt and the not-yet formed teenager.  We need to make sure that we have corners of our ministry that allow students to fail.  The main problem there of course is that will mean developing ministries that allow students to engage in projects in a hands on sort of way.  They will need to be able to have ownership over things. Maybe worship, music, student leadership, or some kind of missional endeavor.  We have to allow them the joy of attempting and falling short.  The joy of "being in the arena" amidst all the grit, terror, and struggle.

Part of the reason that I think a jobs based youth ministry might work and why I think social/missional entrepreneurship is so critical to the North American Church is that it opens up just these sorts of horizons to us. Social Entrepreneurship allows for small scale missional endeavors of all kinds to take place in our world! They are just the sorts of endeavors that require hands on work!  Jobs allow teens to fail in all sorts of small and correctable ways.  They need have to learn to problem solve and risk. They have a chance to observe lots of different kinds of adults, and that is critical to them deciding who they want to become and don't want to become.  Jobs based Youth Ministry is going to need to have adult feedback loops who also help mentor them and help them process their mistakes rather than avoiding them. 

I continue to believe we need new experiments (lots!) in the area of ministering to teenagers. Whatever those experiments are, they need to allow students to problem solve and fail. My hope is that as social entrepreneurship becomes a necessity in order for the American church to maintain its Kingdom work in the world, that youth ministry will begin to be populated with more and more niche ministries that value just these sorts of virtues.

Rejection, Conflict, Social Entrepreneurship and You....

Matthew Overton

One of the main things that I am learning as I engage social entrepreneurship is how to deal with rejection on a regular basis.  For the last 10 years in particular I have worked in an institution ( the church) that is relatively static.  Most churches, at least the ones I have worked in, are fairly stable affairs.  There might be staff conflict or a budget crisis every so often, but generally WHAT the church does stays pretty stable.  Don't get me wrong, if you have a domineering head of staff who shoots down all your ideas, you can certainly experience rejection in the church.  Most frequently I have experienced it through the pain of folks that I care about within the life of a church choosing to go elsewhere. And of course there are many ministers/pastors that have subtly and not so subtly simply been asked to move on.  But, rejections come much more frequently, I think, doing entrepreneurial work.

As I have been building my lawn business I have learned to thicken my skin a bit.    Here are some ways that comes up.

1. Dealing with Conflict-You often have to have uncomfortable conversations with your customers.  This can be really tricky when you customer also attends your church.  As I have thought about the church and social entrepreneurship I have realized that for most ministers/youth workers to engage this way of doing ministry will require them to be pretty adept at resolving conflict.  Sometimes this can be hard. Especially if your congregant isn't good with conflict.

2.  Dealing with Rejection- As pastor, my call is at least in part, to ALL the sheep. You are supposed to remain at peace with people. If someone leaves your church it feels like a big loss.  In business it happens every day.  Sometimes people are picky. Sometimes you make mistakes that they just won't put up with. Sometimes the customer thinks they can get a great deal elsewhere. Sometimes they are sure they know what they are talking about and are sure you don't.  You really don't have that much control.  I have had to learn to just accept the rejections as they come.

3.  What Am I Worth?- One of the new features of rejection that I am learning in the marketplace is that not all rejection is bad. In fact, some of it is quite good!  I have had to learn the lesson that I need to set a price point that causes people to reject me. If I set my prices too low, I can't make my program for teenagers run.  So, I have to be prepared to charge what I think is right even if it is beyond what some people can pay. Again this is difficult if you are working with some of your church members. It's hard because they want to support your program, but they have NO CLUE about what you need to cover the basic costs of your business. The principle is pretty simple. If you are winning every bid that you put out there, you are probably bidding too low.

4. "It's Just Business"- The other part you have to get used to is that some folks just won't get the vision of what you are doing.  Sometimes it will be people in the church. My church has been great about this whole program! But, I think it might be a hard fight in other places.  I have often found that I have to tell customers that just because we are a landscaping company that works with teens and young adults doesn't mean they are going to get a basement deal.  If I played that game we would be broke and it would be a lose lose.  I can guarantee that the customer would expect great work even at a low price and when they didn't get it, they probably would just never call again. We try to do excellent work at a fair price. But, at the end of the day I have had to learn that for many customers, regardless of the nobility of our mission, this is "just business".

5.  Avoidance- I have learned in ministry that most people don't like conflict and that some will do anything to avoid conflict.  I have learned (and am learning) to deal with it head on.  Business/social entrepreneurship runs at a pace where avoidance simply will not work. If someone is frustrated or dissatisfied, you have to make the phone call...NOW!  If you don't your business and your reputation will suffer very quickly. The axiom in business is that the best time to take advantage of an opportunity is yesterday or now. I have begun to see conflict as an opportunity.

6. It's Not Me, It's You- One of my friends in ministry told me early in my career that as a pastor you have to remember that 80% of what people bring to you as your problem (or the church's problem) is really just their problem or hang up getting projected onto you or the institution.  This has been a hugely helpful principle in the church and beyond. It allows you to not take things personally and not to become a victim to unreasonable expectations by others.

The main thing that I am learning is just to silence that pastor voice inside me that says rejection is bad or that I messed something up. It is just part of engaging ministry in the realm of business. As my Dad would say, "It just goes with the territory."

True Grit: Why Jobs Based Youth Ministry Matters

Matthew Overton

This morning I read an article by Angela Duckworth (here). She is a psychologist who has done some research on why millennials struggle in the work place.  I have read bits and pieces of her work before and for full disclosure I have not read her full book.  Essentially Duckworth finds that students who have more "grit" seem to go much further in life than those who do not. They accomplish more of what they set out to.  Her research seems to indicate that the older a person gets the more grit they acquire. What it doesn't seem to be able to confirm or deny is whether millennials are any less gritty than their forebearers were at the same age...at least on the grit scale she developed. There are other studies she alludes to that seem to say that millennials aren't any less gritty though she can't test it on her scale.  Her main point is that they lack grit because they simply have not had enough life experience to develop passion and perseverance.

I agree with Duckworth in a couple of different areas.  One, I agree that none of this is the "fault" of millennials.  I get really sick of people defining the struggles that some millennials face in moralistic terms. Whatever millennials are and are not was never in their control when the shaping of their personalities happened.  If boomers want to blame millennials for anything they probably need to look squarely in the mirror.  Teens and young adults, whether millennials or gen Z, are simply the reflection of the adult world around them.  Second, I also agree that age does in fact increase our grittieness. This makes sense and her research backs it up. But, I think her study misses some other key research.  Namely that it isn't just a lack of gritty experiences that causes millennials to crumple.  It's aslo what they have been forced to focus on. Achievement.

In January 2010 there was a small article in Psychology Today looking at why it is that anxiety and depression rates have increased so significantly. It's end conclusion is that millennials and kids today don't get to play freely enough as children.  I think this is very true.  But llater in that article it describes a pivotal dynamic in that many students have been led to focus on externalities. They have been taught and have digested the narrative that the primary goal of their life is to find success.  The problem is that in order to be successful, you have to control things external to yourself.  You might have to achieve at school, work, or sports, etc.  The reality is that those external spheres only give us so much control. Luck/Chance is a major factor in how you do in those venues, though we are loathe to admit this as bootstrapping Americans. We like to think that we achieved everything on our own merit. This is why we struggle with understanding things like systemic racism, economic inequality, and unmerited grace.  Sometimes things just don't work out and it isn't always our fault. Sometimes things do work out and it wasn't all because of us.  Read the Psamls. People don't always get what they deserve. You can't control it. And that is scary.

Since we have so little control over the external it increases our anxiety when things go wrong. Setbacks are more depressing.  The more we try to achieve externally, the more we sense our lack of real control and our anxiety and depression go up.  The argument based on the research is that previous generations had more of a sense that their primary task in life was to shape (at least in part) their inner self.  The task of young adult was to become a well rounded human being. When my students hear "well rounded" they think about their menu of external achievements rather than about who they are as a person.  The difficulty is that we have a lot more control over this internal world than we do over the external one. We have much more power and say over who we are as human beings than what we do as human doings.  Therefore, we have less anxiety when we perceive that our main task in life is to figure out, "Who do I want to be as a human being?" rather than, "What do I want to achieve as a human being?"  I think we have pushed millennials to focus too much on their external world rather than their internal one.

So, as I look at Duckworth and the research by Twenge in the Psychology Today article, I tend to think that teens and young adults need two things. First, they need to work on developing their whole person.  In my case this has come primarily through my Christian faith life and certain practices of self awareness (think: Meyers Briggs and ancient prayer practices). Second, they need risky real world experiences that help them to develop grit. All of this relates exactly to the program that we have created in my local community and church.

Our jobs based program is designed to help provide experiences that involve accountability and an openness to failure. We believe that letting our students fail at things is a good thing.  We want to teach our students problem solving and a willingness to risk.  I think one of the key grit producing experiences that many of our millennials regularly miss out on is a job.  A teen job is just the sort of place where we learn the kinds of lessons that seem to be lacking for SOME millennials. Let me recount some of my experiences on the jobs I had in elementary school, high school, and college.

- While babysitting I experienced the rage of a less than sober Dad who came home from the USC vs. Notre Dame football game early. He chewed me out and fired me because the house wasn't as clean as he had hoped. Mostly he was mad his team lost. His wife later called and apologized. (Age 12)

- I learned about risk when my brother was driving too recklessly in our van while delivering newspapers and hit a bicyclist. It was partially the biker's fault and he was okay, but I learned about the power one had in a vehicle. (Age 10)

- I had doors slammed in my face by customers who didn't want to pay their newspaper subscription fees. (Age 10)

- I had to quit a warehouse job as a college student that I desperately needed because I couldn't load boxes on a conveyor belt fast enough. I just couldn't read the serial numbers quickly. I am bad with numbers. I couldn't believe I couldn't do it. I knew they would probably fire me and so I had to quit. The place was filled with odd ducks and cast offs who could do the work and I couldn't! I was smart!? (Age 20)

- I was chewed out by an L.A. county judge because I had not set up her classroom properly at our church. She later came back and apologized in one of the most genuine ways I have ever seen. She asked my forgiveness. It was a powerfully good lesson in Christian humility. (Age 15)

-I listened to Ramon the groundskeeper at my local tennis club tell me in Spanish about his descent into alcoholism after his son was shot in the face during a drive by shooting. After the loss of their son, his wife slipped into a massive depression and he drank a six pack before bed every night for 4 years just so that he could sleep. He later came to faith and he and his wife found hope again. I had to deal with anger as I watched people from my community treat him like dirt around our tennis club. Meanwhile tennis pros that supervised my sister and I were acting like children and ruining marriages for sport. (Age 19)

-I had to settle an open dispute between adults twice my age after they were yelling and shouting in front of a group of teens on a mission trip. I had to call out their behavior as childish and unnaceptable. It was one of the scariest moments of my life trying to be firm with an older adult. One of them had been a helicopter machine gunner in Vietnam. He later apologized for his behavior. (Age 20)

These probably represent about 1/10th of the experiences that I learned on the job.  These moments, and a hundred others, are crystal clear for me.  I cannot begin to account for how powerful it was for me to learn so many lessons.  What made it so doubly impactful was to combine those lessons with the stories of faith that I heard each Sunday about hope, injustice, suffering, joy, etc.  The medium of my Christian faith provided a kind of narrative for reflection that helped give meaning to the lived work experience.  Faith was the central cord that knit the tapestry of work experiences together.  Faith helped me answer the internal questions and the work experiences helped me to ask and answer the external questions of what I wanted to do. They also helped my answer the internal questions of who I did and DID NOT want to be as a human being.

Many of our students do not have jobs anymore and they miss out on the chance to observe adults.  We talk often in our churches about the importance of allowing students and adults to co-mingle inter-generationally. Too often we relegate our teens to silos where they are surrounded only by those their own age.  Many of us in the church have started to try and figure out how to provide inter-generational interactions to combat this siloing effect in our culture.  However, I have come to believe that allowing our teens experiences with excellent adult mentors isn't all that they need! They need negative examples too!  

Work is an important medium because teens need to observe some of the adult train wrecks that inhabit their world too! In fact how will they know how to savor and internalize the ways and habits of healthy adults if they haven't had the chance to juxtapose those good example with unhealthy ones?! One of the reasons that I came to appreciate my best mentors in life was because I also knew a host of not so great adults.  I think this is critically important.  My own jobs based ministry program is trying to emphasize mentoring. But, what we often miss is that our students don't just need GOOD examples of adults to observe.  They need terrible examples as well.  Our kids need a spectrum of adult observation that extends beyond parent, teachers, coaches, and pastors. I am not going to go find terrible adults for my program, but I hope my students go get jobs that expose them to lots of different sorts of people.  Too much of teen mentoring is steeped in adult fear. We want to keep our kids safe so we only allow them into spaces with adults who have it together (or appear to).  We need to risk allowing them the freedom to see more examples.

And this is where we can link back to the Psychology Today article.  The main argument of the author Peter Gray is that lack of play as children is a key factor in the spiking rates of anxiety and depression in young adults. Well, what makes free play so healthy is that it allows things like risk, autonomy, and problem solving. In other words it gives a childlike version of adult work! Work provides all of these things.  It may sound weird, but play is the work of children and work is the play of adults! Free play is actually practice for adulthood in many ways.

So, in the end, students do need more experiences to build grit.  I happen to believe that they can get those through work. But, they are not just lacking in gritty experiences. We need to combine grit producing experiences with processes that help them engage in internal self development and reflection. That development (and not just grittyness) will help them not to buckle as they enter adulthood.  I continue to believe that combining faith and jobs is a powerful way to go about shaping our students.  It is a superb medium for development of life and faith. I wonder if others of you experienced something similar in your life. If you did, I would love to hear about it.