Donald Trump vs Spirituality

One of the controversies I often find myself embroiled in is my use of business style language when I talk about church. This is especially true when I use words like “entrepreneur.” So, I wonder: can a church be entrepreneurial? What, in other words, does Donald Trump have to do with Jerusalem?

The resonances of the word “entrepreneur” are very different depending on what the word “entrepreneur” means to you. If it suggests someone like Donald Trump, then I can certainly see why you recoil. The feeling I get from people like that is that money – in vast quantities – and power is all that counts in life. They seem to think that people are means to the end of wealth, rather than ends in their own right. There is little that speaks of authentic relationship here. It’s all about the big deal, the braggadocio, the alpha male BS, all in the service of that great God Me, Myself, I. It is best summed up in the quote “Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.

(Of course, it may be that I am terribly traducing The Donald. Perhaps he is all about authentic community, rather than money, and beneath that fable combover is a beautiful soul. Perhaps.)

For me, however, entrepreneurship has different resonances. Rather than the big-shot CEO, the word speaks to me of the creativity of the garage startup. It is the bright idea that resonates, the little team building something powerful and new to solve a problem that no-one had ever thought of addressing before. It is about unlocking one’s own potential in the services of others to bring your own unique insights and abilities to bear. It’s not about the extrinsic rewards (the money, the chance to give a TED talk or be obsequiously interviewed in the papers), but the chance to do something meaningful with your life which only you can uniquely bring. It’s a way of living more than a way to get to your success destination.

Looked at this way, I think that it is deeply possible to be entrepreneurial in a spiritual setting. Standing organically within the Christian tradition, you look around to see what you can do to help souls. There is something which calls to you – a group that you feel called to “love and serve” (as they say in the Fresh Expressions world.) Perhaps it’s refugees, or a little local community, or people who feel excluded by and exiled from church.

Given that, what will you do? How will you love and serve the little bit of the world that God has apparently put on your heart?

This is deep stuff. It asks: who are you, really? What situation deeply moves you, enough to be worth sacrificing for? If you want a more meaningful life than just tamely going into the office every day and, for instance, wrestling with enrollment forms , then it is going to involve sacrifice. And definitely it will involve the risk of failure. Many failures, even.

When Bert (the lecturer who taught me about it at Swinburne) told us about how important it is to embrace failure in the Lean Startup world, I was very struck by how much more like a spiritual discipline it was than something businessy. You had to take the core of your vision, and pivot when necessary, being aware that admitting failure is hard because your ego so quickly gets involved.

In fact, it was very striking how much it resembled a quality the Ignatian world calls “indifference” – to be able to hold lightly enough to the particulars of what you intend to do that, if it fails, you can learn from that failure, and refine your vision. It’s easy to say, but very hard to actually do.

When I was busily developing my idea for a project for my Entrepreneurship unit, I found it easy to ask questions which elicited responses like “what a great idea!” People are nice, my friends want me to be encouraged, no-one wants to be a downer. How much harder it was to come up with questions which really dug into whether my idea had legs or not. Partially because it really is harder to ask questions more searching than “what do you think of my cool idea?” But mostly, I think, because even with this little toy idea, I very quickly got attached to it, very quickly identified closely with it, so that any criticism of the idea felt like an attack on me.

If it was hard with a toy idea for a uni course, how much harder would it be for something I really care about, like Cafechurch?

So, even though it can potentially lead to misunderstandings, I find entrepreneurship-talk a helpful way of articulating what I’m on about. Indeed the very fact that it is a little shocking to people is quite useful – it bounces the conversation down interesting and unexpected directions which are implicitly true of church just as much as business. Churches do sometimes treat people as means rather than ends. Churches often do implicitly take on non-theological ways of engaging with the world, but because they are veiled in religious sounding words, it isn’t obvious what is going on. Using non-religious language can strip away a lot of cant and clarifies things. Which, surely, has to be a good thing.

I’m interested in people’s thoughts and feelings about this. What sort of images does the word “entrepreneur” raise for you? Do you think that secular language like this has any place in the business of helping souls?

I’m feeling quite pumped about the upcoming workshop we are running here at Sentir, rather ambitiously entitled Entrepreneurial Apostolic Leadership. It’s on the 20th of February at the Campion Centre in Melbourne, and we will be talking about all this sort of stuff, with an aim to get you up and running with some practical ideas, and for us to get some ideas about what would be helpful for people when we put together a whole new unit on the area in the second half of the year. You can book here and look at a draft timetable here.

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