A Unexpected Lesson from the Business World

            A few months ago, I began an MBA program at a local college.  As the Church changes and evolves to meet the needs of world, I am realizing that there are many tools that I personally need to develop.  While I want to develop my own leadership skills, my primary goal is to learn the tools necessary to help faith communities launch successful social enterprises. I want to explore if it is possible to start a venture development organization that provides mentoring and seed funding to help faith communities reach their neighborhoods and the community-at-large to generate health and prosperity. This is not an especially innovative idea. The monastic movement of the middle ages was largely funded by social enterprises and the development of market solutions. The Church was an integral part of local economies. 
            When the program kicked off with our orientation, I was not too surprised that my motivation as a student was a little different than many of my classmates, many who are seeking career changes or advancement and more responsibility in their professions.  However, I was very surprised that the focus of our first session was using your position to leverage your company’s ability to create the greatest positive impact in the larger community.  Maybe I was a little cynical entering the program and thinking profits were what an MBA program would focus on, but instead we were asked, “What are we individually doing to make Memphis a better place?” And we were told that if we are not giving back, volunteering, and working with others, we will not have a positive impact in the community, or a successful business.”  Here is the kicker, the speaker implied, that your motivation cannot be to have a more successful business, but instead, to make a larger pie, a better place to live because this is what it means to be human in an interdependent society. 
            Our first class after the orientation was an Ethics class that we are wrapping up this semester.  The impetus has been the same: make your community a better place. We have been studying businesses that have been profitable because they work to create a better life for everyone.  And the lesson we are all supposed to take home is the simple reminder that a good leader makes the world a better place to live in.   
            I say all this because when I was the minister of a church, I spent way too much time focused on running the congregation without asking the question, what are we doing to make our community a better place to live in. Sure, we were involved in outreach, and we deeply cared about the community, but I certainly did not have my priorities in line. I was focused on the church community, growing the church, and forming the community through teaching and pastoral care. While I still believe those are noble causes, I have to wonder, how would our church have been different if we started every vestry meeting with the question, “What are we doing to make our community a better place to live in?”  Or maybe as a Christian, “What are we doing to see the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”  Maybe I would have spent less time worrying about the altar and flower guilds and more time with my parishioners in the community doing the work we are called to do. Maybe there is something to learn about the Christian ethic from the business world.  

The Church-Based Marketplace

I’ve been trying to imagine what the ideal relationship between a church and the neighborhood where it is located should be.  I’m not sure that I have landed on the perfect answer, but I have been struck lately by thinking it can be more. 

I had one of those moments a few weeks ago when I walked out onto the porch and there were three amazon boxes including books, shoes, and another article of clothing, and I had a moment of panic about what our society is becoming.  I love the quick access to my consumer choices, but I worry that the desire for immediacy is driving me to be more disconnected from other people.  I see the hope for the church to be the community gathering space or the “Village Green” where people gather and interact with each other.  Our society desperately needs more of these spaces. 

If the church is the new “Village Green” how can the church aggregate its resources to cultivate a new economy or marketplace that directly impacts the health and viability of the neighborhood where our churches are located?  I wonder if the key to this question is seeing the faith community as a resource for creating market-based solutions and connecting people to their consumer actions.  If giving of our financial resources is a spiritual discipline, then maybe spending money should be as well.

My friends Adam, Roger, Mike, and Margery have been dreaming of a bakery in the St. Mary’s Cathedral / Diocese of West Tennessee neighborhood.  They live in the neighborhood, sometimes with others, who are housing insecure.  Just behind the cathedral, my friend Mills and I, and now one of the neighbors, Joe, have been building an aquaponics farm to grow lettuces, beets, greens, and tilapia.  My friends Eyleen, Madge, and many others have been working hard to create a production and business to empower survivors of trafficking.  They have a garden a few miles away.  The Bring it Food Hub, located a block away, aggregates food from local farmers in a 150-mile radius.  Dennis and Mark have a farm forty-five minutes away, but are parishioners of the cathedral.  These are viable businesses, many that are a response to people’s faith, that are connected to the community where the cathedral is located. 

Oak Leaf and Romaine Lettuce from the Episcopal Aquaponics Experiment
My friends and I are dreaming of how to be community.  Last weekend, we all decided to host a pop-up market just outside the parish hall of the cathedral.  As people left the Sunday church service they were invited to purchase romaine and oak leaf lettuce from Episcopal Aquaponics Experiment and spice rubs and tea from Thistle and Bee Enterprises.  People purchased beef and eggs from the Oaks at Winfrey Farms.  People bought jams from the Sisters of St. Mary’s Monastery and squash and beans from the Bring it Food Hub.  The bakery sold all 20 loaves kicking off their business.  The congregation found a new way of investing in the neighborhood of St. Mary’s. Consumer choices helped foster relationships with the people who live where the community worships.  People built relationships with the people who grew their food.  And maybe even more importantly, the local businesses and neighbors networked, shared stories, and dreamt of how they might work together.

Pop-Market at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral
I have always imagined that the kingdom of heaven looks just like a diverse worshiping community engaged on Sundays going forth into the world. Yet, I wonder if we haven’t fully lived into the breadth of possibility.  Could a marketplace be part of the kingdom, the direction the church should be moving in? Maybe there is more that we can do to live into a holistic and transformative community?  Maybe the kingdom is the “Village Green” where stories are shared, partnerships forged, lives empowered, and goods and services exchanged. 

The New Chef in Town

As I continue to dig into the work of empowering communities and leading congregations to develop better practices of community ministry, I am finding that the learning curve is a steep one.  We often jump out in the work aiming to fix all sorts of problems, only to find that our own expectations are unable to be met.  Sometimes the very way we aim to meet the needs of others falls drastically short, and it is those who aim to serve others who become educated. 

A new friend shared a story about a meal program she was once involved with in Baltimore.  She had been participating in the program for a long time.  The idea of providing food resonated with her.  She felt that people are hungry and if you can feed them, you are doing something positive in the community.  One day she was serving a meal and a man walked up to her after finishing his food.  “You soup is too watery and you all have no idea what you are doing.  You’re disorganized and this is a mess!”  He continued to share with her that he had just been released from prison and had worked his way up to running the kitchen program in the correctional facility.  She intuitively invited him back to work with her volunteers and asked him to run the meal program. In just a few short weeks, the man was running the kitchen much more effectively than before and the meal program was considered wildly more successful. The program ran for several more years successfully under his leadership.

I share this story because it causes me to reevaluate how I understand success.  What I find successful was not found in serving meals or feeding the hungry, but in helping a person live into his gifts and talents.  I wonder if we are often lured into the trap of believing that in order to help someone we must impart some sort of knowledge, skill, or craft on that person.  At the core of most outreach or community engaged ministry is this idea that we have something of value that someone else needs.  We hold the keys to another person’s prosperity.  And yet, what my new friend offered was a story of a person who was perceived to be in need, teaching a whole community how to more effectively run their program.  Success was the empowerment of an individual to use his gifts and talents. 

I wonder if many of us, myself included, have been doing this whole outreach thing wrong, or maybe not making the best use of our time and talents. We have spent countless amount of hours, dollars, and energy trying to fix problems by focusing on people’s deficiencies as opposed to seeing their gifts and talents as resources.  Maybe respecting the dignity of every human being is about drawing forth their gifts and talents so they can be the people God has called them to be.

A Blessing of the Catfish and Catfish Poop

This spring and summer, I have been working with my friend Mills Polatty, (many others have helped as well), to build an aquaponics pilot project just behind the Episcopal Bookstore at St. Mary’s Cathedral, in Memphis, Tennessee.  The project is an attempt to answer the question, “What role can faith communities play in local food systems?”  The pilot project is the creation of a relatively small system designed to hold about 900 plants and grow up to 200 lbs. of fish.  The fish waste reacts to bacteria in the plant roots to create nitrates which in turn fertilize the plants.  The plants in return clean the water for the fish to live in. This type of system can grow food with about 4% of the water used in traditional farming and with a fraction of the space. 

One beautiful illustration from our experiment is the value of waste. Early in June, 100 lbs. of catfish arrived as a donation from Pride of the Pond catfish farm in Tunica, Mississippi. Children for the Vacation Bible School at St. Mary’s were invited to gather around the fish for a “Blessing of the Catfish and Catfish Poop.” As children gathered to give thanks for the fish and their waste, they learned a valuable lesson: everything that God has created is sacred. The fish waste is a necessary ingredient for the plants to grow. This celebration raises the question if we as Christians have a theology of waste. And how could we participate in life if we found value in everything we used or generated as opposed to our practice of consumption, which draws what is useful and discards the rest?

I have no idea if this type of farming is the answer to food sustainability issues in our world. I do know that we need to think about how to make food more local, and to move away from industrial farming practices. And maybe, more importantly, we need to think about what is waste in light of our understanding of creation. We need to take seriously the sacred nature of all things, and if we are serious, maybe this will change the way we relate and interact with the world. Maybe this would call into question our relationships with human beings, our understanding of justice, and the way we advocate for our resources.

While this project is just a pilot, the hope is it might lead to the ability to provide both food and jobs in under-resourced communities and create a more just economy. I hope this summer, it will lead to a farmer’s market on a Sunday morning that has employed a person or two from the St. Mary’s neighborhood, connected people to local food, and been a visible and tangible sign of resurrection and justice in the community. And I hope for those children and the larger community, we see waste for what it really is, a sacred gift from God.  

Listening: Moving from Guest to Partner

Listening is a critical component of gracious leadership. In Peter Block’s seminal work on building community, he says, “This kind of leadership, convening, naming the question, and listening, is restorative and produces energy rather than consumes it.”[1]  In Holy Currencies language, we must listen to the voices of those whose voices have been suppressed in order to circulate the currency of truth. This is a shift from seeing ministry as something we do to someone else, and instead, the allowing of others to find their voice. It is a ministry of empowerment. 

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral has just begun a new ministry, one of listening and empowerment. During the Currency of Truth workshop as a part of our Holy Currencies model for ministry, the Cathedral team came to a crucial realization.  While there was transformative and holy work taking place on Wednesday mornings with worship, job preparation, art, and community breakfast for over a hundred of the housing-insecure people of the neighborhood, there was a much-needed vehicle for learning the story of these individuals and building a more holistic community. 

The Cathedral’s Holy Currencies team member, Denise Dinkins, suggested creating a leadership team from guests of Wednesday morning. The team created a process in which once a month volunteers set communication guidelines, study scripture, and dream about the possibilities for the neighborhood and community.  Together, the Cathedral and the residents of the neighborhood are discerning a collective vision. 

One resident suggested that programs in the summer for children would be helpful.  A clergy member of St. Mary’s reflected that programs were done the summer before but were not well attended.  The resident offered to go door to door and recruit as she would be trusted in the community.  Here, a person, who had been seen as a guest of St. Mary’s was being empowered to become a leader in the community on behalf of the church.  The Very Rev. Andy Andrews, Dean of the Cathedral shares, “In the listening session I attended, a participant shared that what they were really looking for in the Cathedral was a safe space to be present, to be heard, and to be prayed for, and not a place to be fixed or where programs would supposedly make them better.  I am learning that more programs are not always the answer.” 

St. Mary’s has now conducted two leadership rounds, one in April and one in May of 2016.  There is a healthy tension between wanting to respond to many of the concerns that are being raised by the residents of the neighborhood and those who are housing-insecure. St. Mary’s is learning more about the issues of the community, the challenges of bad credit, dishonest landlords, of issues of safety and the need for mental health advocates, drug addiction programs, and literacy help.  The Cathedral team is learning that as their community creates more porous boundaries, many of those who had been seen as clients or guests are empowered to be agents of change as they live into their ministry.  This is not the result of creating programs to fix others, but instead learning to listen which in turn turns a guest into a partner in the holy work taking place at St. Mary's.  

[1] Block, Peter, Community: The Structure of Belonging, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers: 2008), 88.