Dave Odom: When should you start an organization?

Many of us feel a tension with the institutions that employ us and our own sense of calling. How do we know when to submit, when to challenge, and when to leave and start something new?

What do you do with a great idea? Announce it? Convince others of its importance? Turning ideas into action requires that people and resources be organized. Behind substantial, sustained actions are organizations.

In this interview, David Gushee and Richard Cizik describe the decision to establish the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and illuminate the personal and missional considerations in starting an organization.

Cizik describes the struggle of resigning from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), going on his own and finally agreeing to submit to the accountability of a new organization. At the NAE, he believed the organization needed to act in ways the board did not. After leaving he realized that working alone would not have sufficient impact. Many of us feel a tension with the institutions that employ us and our own sense of calling. How do we know when to submit, when to challenge, and when to leave and start something new?

Discernment begins with questions about vision and vocation. What is the vision of the institution, and how are its activities and services aligned toward it? How do those activities align with my calling?

To anchor the responses in the here-and-now, discernment also includes an accounting for sin. At the beginning of a training session for pastors on developing lay leaders, I once asked about questions that were on their minds. Eighty percent replied, “How do I replace the current leaders with new ones?” They believed the lay leaders accounted for all the sin. If I assign all of the sin to others or an institution and don’t acknowledge my own, some serious self-examination is in order.

While at the NAE, Cizik increasingly experienced a tension between the vision of the NAE and his own calling. He worked within the system to address the tension and finally realized that the visions were distinct and incompatible. In Gushee, he has a peer whose vision is very close to his own. Together with Steve Martin they founded an organization.

They needed an organization to hold each other accountable and to create the possibility of lasting change. Cizik admits that he resisted the accountability. I feel that pain. Life as an independent seems much easier. But individuals can only announce change; bringing along others begins to create change. It is when people work in community that it is possible to move toward the vision of God’s reign and account for every individual’s capacity for sin.

Having been a part of four start-up ministries, I realize building a plane while flying requires tremendous energy. The team needs to create traditions and processes for the organization to operate, as well as accomplish the work the organization was created to do. When considering starting a new organization, it important to note that Cizik spent years working to align his calling with the purposes of a powerful, established organization. Only after that effort did he come to join with others in starting something new.

Being organized is required to do much of anything that is important. Doing something “big” requires being organized into an organization. What do you believe is so important that it needs more than words? Where are the people who share your vision? What needs to be created to get organized?

Dave Odom is Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.