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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 Tag: christian social enterprise

Stripping the Ship: Calling A vs. Calling B

Matthew Overton

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Sometime ago I sat with a colleague who was concerned that as we build a different model of our youth ministry that we were neglecting too much of our existing ministry. We discussed that we were doing a bit less communication and that things were more rushed in general. To be honest, he was right.

In order to build a jobs based youth ministry on the side of our standard youth ministry we had been starving our existing ministry a bit. I told him he was right and that we were taking a calculated risk in order to reach out to a section of the community that we would never otherwise reach.  I appreciated my friend's concern for both our jobs and for my longevity (he was partly worried that I might burn out).

The thing I learned about innovation and change a few years back is that it is impossible to implement any change without sacrificing something. Usually one of the difficulties is that part of what you will have to sacrifice is part of your current picture of success. In order to change anything you are going to have to do a portion of what you currently do well...a little less well. I have come to believe that if we can't/won't take that risk, than any kind of innovation is impossible.

I have begun to refer to this process as "Stripping the Ship". If you have tracked this blog at all you will find that I tend to use nautical imagery to describe the journey I am on and the model I am pursuing. Stripping the ship refers to the intentional process of stripping down your existing model of ministry to its barest components that you regard as essential in order to free up as much capacity as possible to explore your secondary and nascent idea or model.

Sailors throughout history, for various reasons, have had to toss things overboard in order to lighten their load. The might need speed, there could be an emergency on board, or the conditions of the see and the conditions of their boat and its load do not mach well. Generally these objects overboard are referred to as flotsam, jetsam, and lagan. People do this same sort of thingall the time when they move from a larger home into a smaller home. They go through the process of sorting and tossing. There is almost always pain, grief, and satisfaction in this process. And part of this process is really helpful because it helps us define what is really important in our ministries and lives. Some things we don't get rid of entirely, we just get more efficient at them. These days I often find that I have found small ways and spaces of time to get things done that used to take me twice as long.

Stripping the ship often feels scary. You often wonder when you are going to throw some sacred object overboard that is the final straw for someone. You wonder if you are really just sinking your ship rather than stripping it down to make it lighter and faster. What ultimately makes the process worthwhile is if the ministry that you accomplish as a result seems more life giving and honoring to the Kingdom of God than what you were doing before. The difficulty though is that you won't know that until you actually test it all out for a substantial amount of time.  That is always scary.

As I have worked through this process I am learning a few simple things that I have helped me think and pray my way through this process.

1. Ask Lots of Questions and Invite Review- Try to ask your co-workers, leaders, personnel team, parents, students, etc. etc. periodic questions about whether or not they think you are still doing a good job at your primary calling/function. Their voice matters. You don't have to ask it that directly. There are loads of questions that you might ask to gauge how things are going.

2. Be Patient- You may not have had enough time to build up the rapport that you need to take the risk you want to take. Ask  yourself: "How much leadership capital do I have?" You might estimate internally or with others how many months you can sail like this before you need to restock the ship in some way.

3. Be Suspicious...of yourself- Remember that you might not be able to be honest with yourself about how things are going because you could have become so attached to the new ministry idea that you are pursuing.

4. Take an Emotional Review- Pay attention to your emotional sense of how you are doing. As much as you know that taking this risk will be scary, you should pay attention to when you feel like you are cheating calling A to serve calling B. I often use the Ignatian Examen as a way to figure out what the Spirit is telling me about how I am feeling. It is not always good to sacrifice your current picture of success to get to a new one. We should not idolize innovation or risk.

5. Catalogue Your Stories- As you go about your new ministry make mental note of every time that you encounter the fruit off this new way of doing things. Chances are that you are going to need that story to help other see what is happening. They may want to push or pull you back to the old way of doing things. I often tell a story of one of our students in our programs that we have built and ask them whether we should be pouring more resources into those outsider kids or into our church kids? I don't do that smugly (that would be unwise). I invite them into the tension that I feel every day. I am genuinely asking, "Jesus, who do you want me to minister to?" Often, they don't fully emotionally agree, but it always makes them stop and think about our priorities as a body. It also has a funny way of inviting them on the adventure when you do it right.

Blessings on your risks and innovations.

May you carefully strip your ship, so that in a streamline and sleek state, God might enable you to sail into new oceans, dangers, and Kingdom possibilities! Pray for wisdom often and be careful you don't throw anything overboard that is essential to the gospel or to your ability to stay afloat!

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.

"Ecto 1"- The Most Humbling Joyous Help I Have Ever Received.

Matthew Overton

This is what I like to refer to as "Ecto 1". It reminds me of the Ghostbusters rig in the movie except rather than keeping the spirit containment unit in the basement of the building, we just mounted it on our truck.  It's also my SECOND pickup truck. I don't know how this happened. I grew up two blocks from the Pacific Ocean in surfing country. And while I was born in Virginia, I was not born in pickup country. Some people have called it "Dorothy" from the movie Twister. Others say it looks like a Portland food cart version of a Breaking Bad episode.  To me, Ecto 1 is a sign of everything that is awesome about social enterprise and the church. It is a symbol of friendship, fellowship, and shared passions.

Ecto 1 is simply a watering truck on a converted F-250 pickup truck.

About 9 months ago our Downtown Business Association recruited Mowtown to water their downtown flower baskets.  They hang them every year in the downtown area in order to beautify the local business district. They had a truck, with a built in watering apparatus, and all we needed to do was supply the workers and a bid.  They had also worked with teens and young adults to water the baskets previously.  So, we leapt at the opportunity. But, that's when things got a bit more complicated.

For various reasons, our local city didn't want Mowtown to rent the truck. They also didn't want to sell us their old 1970's Dodge Pickup. And this is where things got awesome.

Several of my team members stepped in.  First, they went out and looked for pickup trucks. They went to local auctions and online. Eventually they found  a truck they liked and when they told the owner what we were up to he knocked the price down substantially. But, that is where the real work began.

This is Dave. Dave is a retired airline pilot/Rube Goldberg truck mechanic. Dave is awesome. Be like Dave.

This is Dave. Dave is a retired airline pilot/Rube Goldberg truck mechanic. Dave is awesome. Be like Dave.

These guys spent hours thinking about the best designs. They purchased a tank and mounted on an aluminum reinforced palate so that when the watering season is over we can pull the tank right out of the truck. I consulted with friends who are engineers about pickup size, and water shifting, and baffles. Next they put in a pump, mounted a light on top, consulted with the city about stripping the old truck for watering tools. They fixed up the actual truck which needed some significant work. It had holes in the pickup bed and needed a new bumper.

All along I had to proceed in faith in this because I know nothing about cars. I can change oil, tires, spark plugs, batteries, and filters, but I don't. Ever. I loathe working on cars. I know how to do some things, but I don't really "get" cars.  But, because these guys on my team care about students and about this idea that we all have been working on they laid out for this idea in terms of money, time, and passion.

A few weeks ago I went over to one of their houses to borrow their dump truck (yes they have one at home) and there was Ecto-1. I couldn't believe it. I honestly felt like crying the next day in worship because I was so thankful for friends like these. I know they enjoyed doing it, but I don't like when people help me out usually. I am pretty independent. It was humbling to say the least.

My point in all of this is simply to say the social enterprise requires a bunch of risk and trust. It also requires community. As much as I have wanted to test a model that proves to someone else that they could do this on their own too, I have had to realize that this is a group process. It takes way more than just my passion to get something like this off the ground. It takes the gifts of others too. I continue to learn that lesson in spades.

But, this is why the church matters. The church is a bucket of ages, stages of life, gifts, talents, treasures, and passion like no other that I know. It has a built in ethic to lay one's life down for the sake of the world. As I continue to argue and believe, it is one of the best vehicles I know to engage social enterprise.

This morning at 4 a.m. an 18 year old student and a hard working American who emigrated from Central America are out watering baskets in our downtown. We are helping them economically, they are forging unusual community together, our downtown is being beautified, we are making some profit, and my church community is more engaged than it was a year ago. It's the best missional idea I have ever had.

If Christian Social Enterprise is wrong, I don't want to be right.

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.

The Goodness of Equal Exchange...

Matthew Overton

One of the blessings of doing ministry through social enterprise is that an ethically performed exchange of goods and services places the "giver" and the recipient on equal footing. I received this note from a customer a few weeks ago and was elated to receive it. We had provided a high quality and prompt service. In this case the customer was overjoyed to have snow removed from their driveway after a solid snow storm and ice storm. I was able to spend several hours working with my students which was relational time well spent. We talked about life, a bit about faith, and a good amount about hard work. I get to do ministry, the customer has a service provided that also impacts their local community, the student grows and develops in faith and life. It is an equal exchange.

This way of doing things seems so much more preferable to the unequal exchanges in many of our charitable works in our community. In many of those systems, Group A has all the power, dollars, and say-so and often does something "good" that the recipient doesn't even want or necessarily need. The recipient is often further incentivized to keep their mouth shut because they don't want to appear rude to the giver and they may be able to make use of SOME part of what the giver is peddling. But, the exchange is always unequal. One party controls the whole situation. I think many of us know this is how we do charity work and it makes the giver feel wonderful, but often steals dignity from the recipient. It is unhealthy and the same unequal exchange can be seen in other areas of the church's life as well.

In our church ministries, youth and adult, we often disempower those we serve unintentionally. One group has all the cards. They are the minister, or the discipler, or something else. There is very little mutuality. The recipient is often supposed to sit and receive what is being taught.  This, not surprisingly, can create environments where people don't feel motivated to pursue their faith for themselves. They become dependent on the model or the individual providing the spiritual good and services (for lack of a better term). We can do better.

My point is that we need to find ways to even our exchanges a bit more. We need ministries and spaces where giver and recipient are on more equal footing.  Our social enterprise (The Columbia Future Forge and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care) empowers students who are involved, robs little dignity from the person buying the services, and brings adults (as mentors or crew bosses) and students together as co-workers rather than as givers and receivers. It's pretty cool.

Last, one of the best things about engaging economics and faith is that I am discovering that to provide a good or service that is high quality and prompt is a kind of service. It blesses the customer when they pull in their driveway.  That is important ministry and one that the church needs to validate more frequently. Ministry and Business need not be two seperate categories all the time.