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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: missionary process

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.

Why Christian Social Enterprise? #1- An Honest Appraisal of Human Nature

Matthew Overton

Along the way, a number of folks have asked the question as to why I think Social Enterprise in the church would be a good idea.  While many have agreed that they can see some "tent making" reasons for supporting social enterprise, a number of others have wondered if there are any theological reasons for engaging the idea of Christian Social Enterprise. I think there are. I believe the church has several unique attributes that it can offer the world of social enterprise/social entrepreneurship. In the next few posts, I am going to try and lay out what I think the Christian story offers the social enterprise conversation.

The first virtue that the church brings to social enterprise is that Christianity does not generally take a benign view of human nature. We are a damned mess and we know it.

A friend of mine who is significantly on the left side of the political aisle was down in Portland a couple of weeks ago at a post election rally. Having experienced overt racism over the years they wanted to try and take some kind of action to express their frustration over the outcome of the presidential race. They told me that while they enjoyed the rally and its speakers they felt nervous as a practicing Christian at several points. There were a number of parts of the rally that felt like gospel to them, but what they kept hearing under the surface of all the speeches and pleas was this overt faith in human beings and in our positive potential to do good.  The single biggest article of faith that they kept hearing at this secular rally was that human beings were regarded as inherently good, or at the very least benign. Their opinion was that this was folly. They felt that it was this sort of blind idealism that had led, at least in part, to the election's outcome to begin with.  I think my friend was on to something.

Christianity has always taken a low view of human beings. It is true that sometimes we have erred much too far in that lowly direction in terms of how we talk about ourselves or others, but a healthy skepticism about our better angels is a virtue of the Christian life.  We do not all approach the world from good places. Social Enterprise needs this healthy skepticism.

One of the weaknesses of the secular humanism that under-girds much of our secular (and ecclesial!) world is that because it is so optimistic about humanity it can often be too easily fatigued and deflated when human beings fail. I have long argued every time a church scandal pops up that the last people that should be shocked are followers of Christ! Shouldn't Jesus people be the ones in the crowd nodding and saying, "Welp, we saw this coming a mile away."? Humanism can become quickly fatigued when it confronts human recipients that don't really receive our social initiatives the way we expect. "Don't they know we are trying to help!? Why are they biting the hand that feeds them?!" Likewise, humanism can become quickly fatigued when those proffering solutions create initiatives that can seem remarkably self serving. Secular humanism has an optimism about it that puts all the power and control in human hands (more on that in another post) So, when it is discovered that those hands may often simply be a set of greasy palms and fingers rubbing together, it is hard pressed to know what to do. "We are better than this!" Are we really?

This truth has been ever present in third world initiatives. Many people have gone into the thirld world assuming the best (often paternalistically) about their neighbors.  The classic example of this behavior in action has been the mass distribution of mosquito nets to fight malaria across Africa.  Half a billion nets have been distributed across Africa to cover beds at night. While the nets are having an effect, there have been so many distributed that they have become their own economy. They have been grabbed up by enterprising folks to make fishing nets, soccer goals, chicken pens, rope, balls, and dozens of other things. Most of those uses, though unintended, are relatively benign and may point to third world folks asserting their own autonomy. Other problems have popped up to. For instance, the nets have contributed to over fishing. Also, because they are treated with repellents, the chemicals they are coated with enter the food chain. There is some evidence to suggest that theses chemicals are producing their own human health problems. Much of our good work is like a petri dish for the law of unintended consequences.  

Meanwhile on the giving end we have seen the selfishness of social enterprise at work too. While micro-loan investment has been seen as a good way to combat poverty, a number of its practitioners are simply in it to make a buck. Microloans have been used benevolently, but they have also been used abusively. We all have seen the example of celebrity aid projects that have turned out to be more about the SWAG bags at the concert than the actual cause. And of course there are many of us who have engaged processes of "help" to assuage guilt or to convince ourselves that we are benevolent. These  are very destructive tendencies.

The point is that the church begins social enterprise with two critical assumptions that add longevity and health to any initiative seeking to do good. First, as a giver I should not assume that I have the best in mind for my neighbor. I must assume, or at least ask, whether the good that I seek to do is really about me. Second, I must assume that any solution that I build is going to be used in unhelpful and even nefarious ways. Unintended consequences cannot always be avoided, but they ought to be rigorously anticipated.

One of the virtues that the church brings to the table is that because we sense the brokeness of our nature and story, we sense that brokeness that will accompany all the good that we do. Our beliefs, though they might be regarded as dour or outmoded, represent a sober assessment that guides us into social enterprise and keeps us going when humanity dissapoints. Imagine if Christian Social Entrepreneurs could develop a critical thinking and action process of what I will call "skeptical inquiry". Skeptical Inquiry would be a process that would speculate the unexpected responses of recipients of good and it would also provide hard hitting assessments about where the giver is perhaps caught up in self serving patterns of thought and action. This could allow much improved cost-benefit assessments of potential social enterprise projects.

I believe that the church is needed in the social enterprise experiment that is taking place at many of our university B schools. Our healthy skepticism is a good corrective.  We will certainly need to use it within our own social initiatives first, but we are needed in the larger business conversation about social enterprise. I am not convinced we will do the work any better than our secular counterparts, but we do have something to offer the conversation. If that makes me a skeptic or a pessimist, I am okay with that. It's just a part of the story that I follow every day.