A few weeks ago I was able to attend a gathering at Seattle Pacific University called UnFamous. It was a gathering of institutional leaders (seminaries, colleges, foundations), social enterprise practitioners, and other folks with varying degrees of interest in whether or not the church can serve as an effective vehicle/partner for social enterprise from a faith based perspective. It was a good use of time.
The gathering was something I had instigated because a local trust, the Murdock Trust, had offered out loud in front of me to host such a gathering. I called them up a while later and asked if they were serious about that offering. When they said they were, I acknowledged that I was not such a person to lead that gathering, but that I knew people who were and the ball started rolling. The ball eventually stopped in Seattle with a gathering of about 55 folks.
There were three main components to the gathering. Key partners listened to the overall conversations going on and gave plenary sessions (20-25 minutes) on what they were digesting. Practitioners of social enterprise delivered 10 minute Ted Talks about their particular expressions of social enterprise in the church. There were also break out groups on the last day where we tried to decide what the action points for this kind of movement needed to be going forward.
There are several things you should know about this gathering:
1.) It was one of the first of its kind and it signals that the conversation about social enterprise in the church is starting to gain traction. I do not recall a time I felt less isolated as a faith based practitioner of social enterprise than at this gathering. There are many Christian ministries that gather around helping people talk about faith and work, there are not a lot actually combining the two. This kind of work is well off the maps of many faith based institutions…and it shouldn’t be.
2.) It was diverse. We had a good representation of race, gender, socio-economic status. This produced respectful but intense conversations about a whole variety of topics. Some people in the room disagreed about the nature of reconciliation. There was some tension between various minority groups with one another. There were thick discussions about access to capital for minorities and divergent contexts when it comes to churches thinking about social enterprise. We even delved into reparations late one evening. Yet, despite all that difference (and I am sure there was much conversation that I was rightfully not privy to as a white dude) those conversations were done well, I think, in the spirit of the gospel. No one was treated as enemy, but truths were told. Good work was done.
3.) Secondary Diversity- There was also a clear sense of diversity in terms of economics and even defining social enterprise. A number of folks disagreed about what to call this kind of faith based work. Some called it “redemptive entrepreneurship”. Others called it, “Christian social enterprise”. Some folks felt that they didn’t want any sort of separate Christian terminology applied to social entrepreneurship at all. They simply felt that Christians need to simply engage the good work that God is doing in the world and that as long as it is good, why should we put our separate label on it. I share some of these same suspicions, but not all of them. We also had differing senses about what social enterprise even means. Is it for-profit, non-profit, etc? Must it be overtly social justice oriented or simply seeking the betterment of all with a justice bent?
4.) It was fruitful- As I mentioned earlier, people that do the work that I do often feel pretty isolated in their work. For the past 5 years I have often felt that while I knew others were out there doing similar work, I didn’t know exactly where they were. Many times I initiated conversations with various economic networks and foundations in the church, and even donors, and I found them to be confused by what I was talking about. The idea that you could do ministry and business as the same vehicle was foreign to them. So, while the diversity of the gathering produced some tension and loving conflict and while it felt a little all over the place at times, it did manage to connect previously isolated networks. This was liberating and exciting. It was thrilling to see the diverse expressions of social enterprise within the church.
5.) It was preliminary- To me, it felt like we need more of these gatherings. I think we need 5 or 6 of these a year around the United States for the next 5 years. I am not sure that mass gatherings (500-6,000) are what is needed in this kind of space. We need gatherings that feel more intimate and contextual/regional. I would think that we need to maintain a high degree of diversity, but we might need to gather around more focused ministry goals or regional areas where collaboration might lead to leveraged impact. We would especially need a greater number of true investors at these gathering and folks inside and outside the church. True leveraged impact through cooperative collaboration will not be possible without that kind of cross-pollination. Some of those important focus points.
5.) It reminded me how unique the Forge ministry is- One of the things that surprised me at this gathering and that continues to surprise me is that there are not many people who have intentionally combined ecclesial work with economics the way that I have through the Forge. I remain convinced that what I have done seems obvious and that there must be folks out there doing this similarly to us, but I haven’t found them yet. It’s also the fact that we are embedded inside a church (though we are a separate 501c3) that also makes us unique. This is not to say that our work is better or unique in that nature of the work itself. There are many teen job programs that at least have some foot in the marketplace. But, the context, intentionality, and focused theological reflection on our work are particularly unique so far.
Last, here is the link to the “Ted” style talk that I delivered.
See you at the next gathering!!!