Matt Overton: The three phases of launching a church-based social enterprise

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A youth pastor who began a church-based social enterprise shares advice for others interested in this kind of ministry. The three initial phases are discernment, consulting with the community and testing.

Starting a Christian social enterprise is difficult and passion-filled work. It comes with a ton of setbacks and self-doubt. And a ton of excitement.

I believe that social enterprise -- a business with a social good in mind -- can offer a new way forward for the church.

But I realize as I evangelize about this new model that people will have questions about how to get started. How can a local congregation or minister launch a social enterprise that maximizes missional impact in a community?

I have identified three initial phases for this work: habitation and discernment; consulting with the community; and testing.

The advice here is aimed at ministers and congregations interested in starting a small-scale enterprise that has a relatively low bar for entry into the marketplace. Launching a large-scale idea for social innovation requires much more capital and risk.

Habitation and discernment

As Christians, we have an obligation to prayerfully inhabit a place in order to do this work in ways that honor God and neighbor.

I have participated in several programs that help launch social enterprises, and one problem I’ve seen is that they often encourage people to ideate quickly.

This worries me. We Christians have a long history of doing things to others in unhealthy and wasteful ways. I think we have a theological obligation to take the time to inhabit a place, to listen well and to pray, and only then, after a period of discernment, to come up with an idea.

Ideally, I think would-be social entrepreneurs should live in a community at least three and a half years to discern the context and to build up leadership capital and trust within the local church before formulating ideas. That time is also important for discerning whether the needs of the context and the specifics of a potential enterprise line up with a leader’s God-given gifts.

I happen to love physical labor and mentoring teens, and I know something about lawn care. So launching a teen landscaping company made sense for me. It was also something that our state’s highly restrictive teen labor law would allow.

It’s critical for churches preparing to launch a social enterprise to understand the social needs and marketplace of their particular community. And since the purpose of social enterprise is to place the mission ahead of the profit, it is crucial to think about the mission thoroughly.

Consulting with the community

The next step is to look at the cloud of witnesses.

One of my favorite lines in the book of Acts is when the apostles and the elders at the Jerusalem Council, trying to discern how Jewish and Gentile converts are to interact with one another and the standards of faith, arrive at their answers and say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us ...” (Acts 15:28 NIV).

The idea here, at least in my Reformed mind, is that the discernment of God’s will seems to have been a group, rather than an individual, process. This is an important ethic in starting a Christian social enterprise.

That’s why I began by talking with the leadership at my church.

My initial conversation was with my head of staff. I made sure he understood why I was trying to do this and what the potential implications were in time, energy and dollars.

I also shared a couple of books to help explain the concepts behind my project, such as asset-based community development and social enterprise in general.

What was critical, in my case, was that my head of staff understood missional theology, allowed the staff a good deal of autonomy and was not opposed to marketplace-based thinking. We also had trust in each other.

My next step was to inform our Session, which is our church’s governing body. I worried that they would find my idea confusing or frightening, so I prepared a presentation on my own ministry journey, my idea for the enterprise, the financial implications for them and a critical FAQ.

I wanted to make clear that I wasn’t proposing to detonate their existing youth ministry. I also was not planning to leave the church. I made sure to help them understand how my idea linked directly to my job reaching out to teens in our county.

I also framed it as a six- to 12-month experiment and asked for four to eight hours per week to work on it during the initial phase.

To my utter amazement, they really liked the idea and thought it fit well with the stated mission and vision of our church.

I gathered eight key people on an informal team. I invited people who had run their own businesses, people who would be good mentors and people who were trusted by the church. I also consulted with folks who had legal and tax experience.

For a church that doesn’t have folks with particular experience, I’d recommend exploring congregants’ connections to people in the community who support the idea and consulting with the local community foundation.

Testing

The last phase is experimentation and testing.

I started small. I hooked up my V-6 to a church trailer and mowed a few clients’ properties each week. I also shadowed a local landscaping company’s crews and paid close attention to people I saw out working.

The point is to start with a manageable volume of business to see whether the ministry leader is cut out for the work. This also provides a glimpse of what the actual market looks like in the area -- sort of like an informal market survey.

But most importantly, this phase offers a test of what ministry looks like in this setting.

Is it possible to do effective ministry within the context of this business? What is the actual potential of kingdom impact on customer and employee? This is essential.

At the heart of Christian social enterprise is the mission. Whatever shape it may take, the mission must be the focus in a church-based business.