David Gill, Mockler-Phillips professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
A helpful model of curricular integration: The seminary class profiled in this article was selected by the ON Advisory Committee as a “helpful model” for network faculty to consider. See the class syllabus here. This article is adapted with permission from the Summer 2014 Mockler Memo.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus recently completed the second year of a program to train current and future church leaders in church-based entrepreneurship. We see this as a great model for other theological seminaries and Christian educational institutions. We also see our ultimate goal as mobilizing local, parish churches to undertake similar initiatives and make them a regular, long-term, ongoing, vital part of their ministry.
Across the country and around most of the world, people are struggling to find jobs. Some of the unemployment challenge is due to technology replacing human labor. Some of it is due to social and political breakdowns such as warfare, violence, and corruption. Some of it is due to famine, disease, and natural disasters. Some of it is due to ignorance – not knowing how to work. And some is due to the lack of good work ethic – motivation, honesty, diligence, responsibility, and so on.
Every man, woman, and child on earth was made in the image and likeness of our Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer God and is dehumanized if he or she is not able to do creative, sustaining, redemptive work of some type. Rather than just looking to existing businesses or to government agencies to create jobs, let’s ask, “What can the church do?” Rather than blaming Washington or Wall Street, let’s rise up with God’s help and do something in the church! Within our churches are many who need and want to find meaningful work, and there are others with skills, experiences, networks, and resources to help their brothers and sisters find or create new business and work opportunities.
Training Seminarians to Coach Entrepreneurs
Our course, “Entrepreneurship in Church and Community,” has been co-led by longtime pastor and entrepreneurship trainer Larry Ward and me for the past two years. We do most of the teaching and coaching, but occasionally invite guest experts to talk about financial and accounting systems, using technology and media, or other topics. We also bring in both recent and veteran entrepreneurs to share their experiences and counsel. The course uses three basic reading resources: the inspiring best-seller “The $100 Start-Up” by Chris Guillebeau, the big manual “Start Your Own Business” from Entrepreneur Press, and the Bible.
Roughly a dozen students were enrolled in each of our semester-length courses, which met for a three-hour session each week for 12 weeks. We think our Saturday morning version worked a little better than our Tuesday evening one. Our officially enrolled students were primarily seminary-degree-seeking students, but we also had some alumni and special non-degree students.
Characteristics of High-Potential Entrepreneurs
At our first class meeting we reviewed the jobs and employment challenge, and discussed the biblical basis for our response. Then we reviewed the characteristics of a promising entrepreneur. This is what each of our students should look for in the prospective entrepreneur – someone in their church or community who wants to start a business. A promising entrepreneur will have many of the following character traits.
- Creativity: Lots of ideas. Thinking “outside the box.” Innovative. Inventing a “third way” when others seem stuck on two undesirable alternatives.
- Determination: Dedicated, persistent. A real “pit bull” who won’t give up even when the going gets tough. Even when they are alone, they keep plugging away.
- Passion: Invested. Totally “into” the project with blood, sweat, and tears. This is their baby, their reputation at stake. Willing to accept responsibility.
- Risk-taking: This is new. Willing to go out on a limb. No guarantees. Not reckless or foolish, but still reaching out and taking the right risks.
- Prayerful: They need and want God along to guide and help at every moment, every step of the journey. They pray daily, and seek prayer from pastor, church, and friends.
- Integrity: Totally honest, transparent, above board. No games, no patience with unethical, wrong, cheating, dishonest people and practices.
- Teachability: Always eager to learn something new every day from every possible source: people, reading, competitors. A life-long learner and recognize that they don’t know everything.
- Team-builder: They acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. They gather an informal “posse” or “kitchen cabinet.” They partner with or hire quality people with complementary gifts.
- Detail-fanatic: Won’t tolerate sloppiness, careless mistakes, shoddy financial records, or less-than-excellent products and services.
- Communicative: They engage people with a smile and tell them the honest news about their business, products, customers, and plans. They own up to the truth and are respectful.
We gave our students a simple application form to use with their “wannabe” entrepreneurs to make sure they understood the nature of the challenge and were seriously committed to the project. We reviewed the applications and approved the entrepreneurs: one for each enrolled student who would serve as a mentor and a coach.
Basic Training for Entrepreneurs
By the second or third week of the course we urged students to bring their entrepreneurs to class. Having the student/mentor and the entrepreneur side-by-side in class really facilitated communication. Every week we spent time in Bible study and prayer about different aspects of faith at work. We prayed together at the beginning and end of each class. Our class meetings were much more than business training – they were often full of passion and energy and even worship.
Through our Oikonomia Network program at Gordon-Conwell, we were able to provide a small grant to help each pastor/entrepreneur team get a start-up off the ground. We helped each of our entrepreneurs set up a dedicated business checking account (we did not allow the start-up money to be mingled with other household money and bills). We only released the grant money when a business plan with a detailed budget was approved by the mentor and the instructors. At the end of the course we required detailed accounting of the launch phase finances.
For eight weeks we laid the foundations for entrepreneurship in serious biblical study, theology, and ethics. What does the Bible teach about the reality and purpose of work, leadership, money, communication, and related topics? And what do Christian ethics teach us about building a healthy workplace culture, resolving difficulties, and doing the right thing in God’s eyes? Based on this robust theological foundation we got into the practical “nuts and bolts” of starting a new business (see the syllabus for more details).
At the ninth session, we had a great party and celebration as each entrepreneur came in dressed to impress and armed with just a few power point slides, took 10 minutes to describe and sell us on the new business. At our launch day celebrations, we invited friends, pastors, local news media, and others to join us to hear the presentations.
In weeks 10 through 12, we met weekly for news updates, trouble-shooting, and guest entrepreneur presentations. After the three-month course (stage one) was officially completed, we required a four-month business plan and arranged monthly, voluntary breakfast meetings to stay in touch and help each other (stage two). After that, we gave four prizes of $500 each to the best-performing start-ups.
I’m pleased to report that one year after the first cohort of start-ups was launched, 13 out of 16 are still in business. That’s an amazing testimony to what God can do! I can’t wait to see what God does with our current and future cohorts.
Our most striking success is the story of Victor Cubi. He had little education and spent most of his life on the streets. But he had the traits necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur, and with the help of mentoring – through both the Neighborhood Resource Center and our class – he used the startup grant to create his own business: Victor for Hire – Lawn Care and Home Maintenance. He went from earning minimum wage and sleeping on a couch to owning his own business and living in his own apartment.
It Is no Secret What God Can Do
There is no reason that a local church can’t help its members and neighbors find or create jobs. Most churches have members who know how to write a résumé, present themselves in an interview, develop basic work skills and attitudes, and manage basic finances. This is “Life and Work 101.” Our people often don’t get that training at home or school, as many of us did in earlier generations. It’s an opportunity, church!
And beyond those basics, some of our people can be helped to turn their skills, abilities, and passions into new businesses. At a minimum, our churches can create sharing and praying fellowships for job seekers. A further step can involve a group study on the basics of starting a small business. Our churches can recognize these efforts and pray for them in the services, and patronize the businesses during the week. The church can allocate some money for start-up grants.
The Christian life is not just about saving our souls for the afterlife, as important as that is. It is about making Jesus Lord of our lives 24/7. It is about salting and lighting our lost and dark world. Taking some steps to help people find work should be part of what followers of Jesus are known for in our world.