Matt Overton: How social enterprise has changed my congregation and me

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A youth pastor finds that running a social enterprise has influenced everything from his preaching to his role in the community. It has also helped congregants reach across the political divide.

A couple of years ago, I was driving down the road having an emotional crisis. I was terrified that I had taken too big a risk in launching a social enterprise and mentoring program at my church. “Why did you do this to yourself?” I wondered.

I wasn’t sure that my organization would ever be sustainable. I wasn’t sure I was making the impact on teenagers or my local community I had hoped for. I wasn’t sure I would recover even a portion of my fairly substantial personal investment.

I thought about my father, who had been a bit of an entrepreneur himself and had taken a number of risks that failed. When I was a teenager, we lost our home and became isolated from family friends who had invested in his ventures. This really sunk my dad for a number of years.

I asked myself, “Why are you trying to do this? Isn’t this kind of risk what you were trying to stay away from? God, is this where you wanted me to go, or did I run out ahead of you?”

It was a big risk to start social enterprises at my church, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by that risk. But I think what has kept me going over these past three and a half years has been the fruit that I have seen from this ministry -- both personally and in my community of faith.

One of the important questions I have been asked is, “How has this experiment with social enterprise changed you as a minister and changed your congregation?”

The reality is that it would take a couple of hours to discuss all the changes I’ve noticed, but a few can be laid out here.

My preaching. Because social enterprise involves so many difficult ethical decisions (How much to charge? Where does profit go?), it has increased my respect for the difficult economic tensions that many of my congregants live in every day. It has helped me better understand how truly radical the ethics of the kingdom of God are, and how flippantly a preacher can place the mantle of those ethics on the shoulders of congregants on Sundays.

The admonition “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink or about what you will wear” sounds very different when you are fretting about whether your business will fold if you make the wrong decision.

My role. Often when you say you’re a minister, it’s a conversation killer. But our jobs-based mentoring program opens up conversations, and so my role as minister has become less of a barrier as I interact in the larger community.

People want to talk about our world and teens; people open up about their own kids’ struggles to find work and purpose in life. They tell me how frustrated they are with church and its lack of engagement with the world around it. It’s pretty remarkable.

My sense of congregation. I feel that my congregation is no longer confined to the people at my church. My whole sense of “my congregation” has become much more missionally broad because this project has brought me into contact with so many more people in the community.

My patience and my efficiency. This has been both good and bad. Because I have to work so quickly in my social enterprise role, I have become less patient about the pace of change in my ecclesial role. My sense of urgency when it comes to kingdom work has grown.

Yet this is tricky, because ministry and faith need slow, critical reflection. The community of faith needs ministers who are fully present and available. Often, this means slowing your pace to the pace of your congregants no matter what the issue is that you are dealing with. To a certain degree, the kingdom of God demands inefficiency! So I have had to balance the pacing of the marketplace with the pacing of the kingdom of God.

My connection to missional webs. It seems that every time I turn around, our social enterprise has an opportunity to make a new business or school connection in our county. I am not interested in advertising our church; what I am interested in -- and excited about -- is using such connections to bring people and resources together to find creative and complex solutions to our county’s challenges. That feels great!

Our congregation’s mentoring relationships. When I was a high schooler, I was assigned a mentor for my confirmation class. It felt artificial. Our church has sought to do youth ministry intergenerationally for quite a while, but actually having generations overlap and interact authentically has been the bigger challenge.

Our social enterprise has provided a natural way for generations to co-mingle. When adults and students talk about work, money, goals and life, it creates an easy platform for meaningful conversation and discipleship. We expect to have 20 congregants mentoring students this year, with about 30 congregants involved in our work overall.

Our congregation’s reach across the political divide. In my denomination, there is an old saying that “theology divides, mission unites.” I think this is true in certain instances. Our jobs-based mentoring program has been able to draw different segments of the congregation together across the political divide.

Our right leaners appreciate that we are teaching kids a work ethic, while our left leaners appreciate that this ministry can engage teens from low-income communities. I am sometimes surprised that we have such a politically diverse group moving enthusiastically in the same direction.

Our congregation’s capacity for risk. The congregation seems more willing to think and serve outside the box than ever before. The social enterprise work has helped others begin to launch their own ministries, establish nonprofits and redefine what ministry means. That isn’t all because of this work, but I think it has been an important influence.

One of the most powerful lessons I keep learning when I have moments of panic in my truck or on a job site is the radical call to choose trust rather than fear in the life of ministry.

Many times over the years, I’ve heard people cite God’s deep faithfulness when they have been in moments of risk or need in ministry. I’m embarrassed to admit that my internal reaction has often been one of skepticism. I have often thought about all the times my congregants, friends and families have been crushed, disappointed or wounded while taking risks for the kingdom.

And yet there have been so many moments in this journey where faithful risk seems to have been accompanied by a curious kind of abundance. In a way, this process has made me become skeptical of my fear and skepticism.

Each day, I have a growing sense that God is giving me a new kind of kingdom calling through social enterprise. I sense that there are others out there with this same nascent call, and my hope is that God will allow me to continue to share this joyous tightrope walk with others.