July 7, 2013

All things new...

As I’ve mentioned, the week before last I was in Chicago for a conference. I had the opportunity to lead a workshop and provide a few consultations on starting new ministries. The folks that attended, while all Episcopalian, were at the beginning of a variety of different types of ministries. I know what that feels like. In my adult life I have almost always held jobs that were new positions, in new divisions, responsible for new projects or new enterprises altogether. Just as many of these efforts have failed as succeeded. So, I feel as though I've learned a few lessons about entrepreneurial work. I know it’s nerve racking for some to be in such a position because it is fluid and ambiguous. I love that place. I love bringing order into chaos… or the other way around depending on the day.

My hope was to offer some practical advice for those called to something entrepreneurial. More than that, I wanted to offer a different perspective on entrepreneurial ministry. We had a good conversation on the subject but because I deliberately framed it like a conversation more than a presentation, I didn’t have any slides or handouts for folks to walk away with. So, for those that find it helpful here’s a run down of what I intended to cover in our time:

Power and Resources: One of the most common things I hear people complain about is money and influence. The assumption is that if a new ministry had either more influence on the system they are within (denomination, organization, etc.) they could get more done. Or that if a new ministry just had more money they could make their wildest dreams (er, I mean God’s dreams) come true.

To begin, power and influence are a lot more nuanced than a title or where you fall on the organization chart. Get your head around systems theories and counter balance that with some work around spiritual systems. Most of us tend to think that institutions, not matter how old or young, work from top down. It's a lie. Influence on an organizational system comes from everywhere. Your job is to figure out how those different aspects influence the whole and work with that. You don't need a new job title or a company reorganization for that to happen.

Second, some of the best entrepenurial ministry I've ever seen has been ridiculously under-funded. Do Christian institutions tend to fund the wrong things and give very little to their best work? Yes. But rather than complain about this, give your organization a reason to create better funding. Get creative. Institutions don't fund what they don't have an imagination for. Give them an imagination. Show them what's possible, give them a prototype. You live in a Kickstarter world now.

Sustainability is another aspect of the resource issue. If you put yourself in a situation of dependency on resources you cannot produce through your new endeavor, two things happen: 1) you diminish your capacity to influence the system, because you are now indebted to it and 2) when the institution's money runs out–which is a very real scenario in many Christian organizations, so does your sustainability. The lack of resources almost always equals increased ingenuity and creativity.

Lastly, back to the Kickstarter analogy–Kickstarter works for those who build relationships. Can you articulate how the person who benefits from your ministry on a weekly basis to those in your institutional headquarters benefit from the work you do? You have to know those people in order to know whether or not your work does benefit or impact them. This goes back to understanding how influence within your "system" works.

So, if you can "flip the script" on influence and resources, what else needs to be paid attention to?

Collaboration and Creativity: Rather than over-emphasize financial resources, spend your time on people power. I've learned a ton from appreciative inquiry and asset-based community development when it comes to getting done what I've been called and tasked with through people rather than resources. Please don't misunderstand me: I know that resources matter. But in the end, our work is about people, so engage them–especially this generation coming age which wants to contribute to collaborative and creative opportunities.

Redefine the Metrics: Another common challenge I've faced, and discussed here, is that what me measure to determine success has changed–is continuing to change. If you don't shape the metrics, they'll be shaped for you by others.

This is not to say that numerical growth doesn't matter. Anything that is healthy grows. But growth does not necessarily insure self-preservation. My friend Neil Cole often uses the analogy of a fruit tree. He talks about how a healthy tree produces fruit, but the fruit doesn't feed the tree itself. Rather, it bears fruit in order that other trees may grow.

Curate Stories: Whether or not you can spout off the metrics that tell of the vitality of your work, a critical aspect of shaping how people understand your ministry is telling stories. Tell stories any chance you get. But don't just tell stories. Collect stories, curate them. Create space for not only your stories to be told but the space for others to tell theirs. Stories that expose the good news of God at work in your context, stories that speak of transformation.

We discussed a lot more. But these are the basic parts of our conversation.

Let me offer one last note on finding order amidst the chaos of starting a new endeavor: it starts with you. There's a lot that cannot be pre-determined. When starting a new endeavor. In fact, my assessment is that the first 3 years of anything new are all about discovering what a ministry is intended to be/do. Even on a daily basis it can often be difficult to predict what 24 hours will entail. Because of that, anything orderly begins with you. Even after having filled my new position in a new town for a nearly a year, most days are filled with unexpected things that take up a good deal of my time. I realized a few years ago that if I was going to be healthy and productive I had to order my personal life, because chaos was what I was called towards–and having 3 kids is part of that. Almost every day of the week starts with Bible reading, journaling and exercise. It's made all the difference for me. I spend at least an hour and half alone and this is what feeds my soul, gets me ready for the rest of a day that will hold unpredictable things. Find what nourishes you, energizes you and figure out how to get it into your lifestyle so that you can do what it is your called to.

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