Giving To A Vision

vision signIn the non-profit world, many people struggle with how to secure resources, namely raise money, to support their cause. Despite a ministry’s worthiness, many struggle or never reach their full stride due to inability to secure volunteer time or funding.   Why does raising money seem so daunting?  Although God is the ultimate resource provider, why do some non-profit leaders receive an outpouring of funds while others not?  Although most situations cannot be attributable to only one reason, I would propose a significant contributor is the lack of a leader’s clear, compelling, and well-communicated vision for the ministry.  I believe people are inherently generous and predisposed to give of their time and resources, if the right opportunity is presented the right way at the right time. When done right, I expect people to respond with joyful hearts and generous giving.

One of the key responsibilities of the leader is to ensure the ministry or non-profit has a powerful vision, strategy, and plan that can be effectively communicated to potential donors.  From a Biblical perspective, Christians are called by God to steward their resources and use them to invest in Kingdom opportunities.  Therefore, a responsible donor would logically expect to understand the vision, the strategy/execution plan, and how the ministry will be held accountable.  If a leader cannot article the vision and supporting details, a donor is likely to assume the resources will not be well stewarded.

When I interviewed for a full-time fundraising position at MedSend, the CEO enlightened me that those who have significant wealth feel an overwhelming burden of responsibility to give back and are actively looking for causes where their donations can make a big impact.  They want to make a significant contribution to the world and want to invest their money in a vision that is greater than paying someone’s bills.  Think about it.  What criteria do you use for giving?  Aside from tithing, people give to people not organizations, specifically to people who have visions.

If you are fundraising for a cause for which you are passionate, take the time to paint a clear and engaging picture of your vision, so you can help your donors understand how their efforts will release joy and power.  Make it big!  Stretch your dreaming! If you can create a vision that you could accomplish on your own, it is likely not from God.  God does not dream that small.

What can you can learn about church in a parking lot?


Excerpt from Sandra Dillon’s 2017 El Salvador Mission Journal


March 6, 2017

How many of you have hung out with the homeless?  Serving and eating a meal with them?  Fellowshipping and praising God with them?  Well, Kate and Nate Stal gave Darin and me the opportunity to walk into their ministry by helping set up Motel Church this Sunday in the parking lot of an old strip mall on FM 1960.  Many homeless live next to the “Motel” or the old Century 21 building nearby.  Because Motel Church has had to flex where they set up on the first Sunday of the month, they have kiddingly dubbed this church the Parking Lot Church.

So how does Motel Church have any connection with our upcoming mission trip to El Salvador?  God is always creative in how he speaks into my life.  As I wrote in the last journal entry, God wrote the first book that culminated with the design and launch of World Changers on Mission (WCoM).  I wrestled with whether God would start a second book in the series, and if so, I questioned how a repeat mission trip to El Salvador with LWI would begin the first chapter.  I believe I have an inkling on what God might be scripting based on what He showed me during our two hours in church.  Before I unpack His message, I want to share with you my experience as contextual background.

Motel Church entered my personal world when Matt and Holly Smith invited Kate and Nate Stal to a World Changers on Mission meeting.  Darin and I specifically wanted to hear more about the call that God had put on Kate’s heart—bringing church to the homeless.  After hearing her stories over dinner, we decided to step into Kate’s world.  Kate’s passion was contagious, and we wanted to provide support to someone who was making personal sacrifices to follow God’s call.  Rain or shine, Motel Church was holding service.

Motel Church 1We met in the parking lot of a dilapidated but functioning strip mall which sat next to the motel where some of the homeless were staying.  You might call this motel a flophouse.  Other homeless church members had been living at an abandoned Century 21 building, but recently a fence had been installed around the property to prevent squatters.  When we arrived at the strip mall, the parking lot was sporadically full with parked cars owned by those who were attending either one of two small churches located inside.  The only sufficient parking area to set up tables was near the dumpster, which adjoined another building open for business.  Kate was nervous to set up the church so close to the business in the event the owners decided to call the cops. What an awful feeling to think we could not hold church because of the fear of prosecution.

After the business owner gave us his blessing, we waited for Nate to arrive with supplies and food, so we could set up church.  Kate knew many of the homeless members, so we engaged in conversation.  Darin and I offered them drinks from our cooler, and we arranged tables, chairs, and placed Biblical resources on the tables.  What I loved was how some of the homeless men helped.  Kate did not know how many members would come to church because of the looming threat of rain and the fact that some had dispersed when the fence went up around the Century 21 building.   Previously, they had as many as 30 attend this small Parking Lot Church.  From my perspective, the numbers did not matter!  God would bring the perfect number!  As several more church members arrived, the volunteers started to serve plates of home-cooked food.

Motel Church 2As we broke bread together, I was intrigued by the stories shared by James and Amy, a husband and wife, who lived in the woods behind the motel in a 3-bedroom tent.  They had previously owned a much larger tent but had to downsize to a smaller one for some undisclosed reason.  Before they could share more, dark clouds opened their flood gates, so we picked up the tables, chairs, and food and moved them under the shallow protective overhang that provided a sheltered walkway for the storefronts.  We traded in our chairs and tables to sit on concrete planter boxes with plates on our laps.  A few more folks arrived.  Darin and I happened to strike up a conversation with Miss Karen, a woman in her 60’s, who had on a McDonald’s employee uniform.  She lived in Greenspoint and took a bus to the stop in front of the strip mall, so she could then walk across the street to the McDonald’s where she worked.  When she got off the bus, Miss Karen saw our church, was intrigued, and eventually came over to find out more.  I asked her if she lived in Houston all her life, and after saying she was originally from Louisiana, she started to pull out old photos from a Ziploc bag.  Some photos were over 50 years old and showed herself and her twin sister when they were young.  She and her twin were separated at 9 years, when they went into the foster care system.  She never saw her sister until she decided to search for her as an adult.  This search brought her to Houston many years before.  Miss Karen’s story was painful to hear, yet she spoke of it as if she expected nothing less of life.  What was amazing is how she carried her most prized positions with her—these photo memories.

Jason started our church service with the third chapter in the book of James.  What I loved was how everyone participated.  Chris, one of the homeless church members who would not partake of any of the food, read some of the verses.  Although Jason led the sermon, many people participated in the Scriptural discussion, vulnerably sharing their own testimonies.  A youth worship team, who cancelled a few days before, left us without a praise and worship agenda.  However, that did not stop one of the homeless men, who was enthralled with the message of James 3, to put his plate aside, rise, take the mic, and sing A Cappella about how God’s not dead.  These few stories provide just a flavoring of what it was like to worship with Motel Church.  God kept nudging me with thoughts of Motel Church and El Salvador.  What do you want me to see, God?

God whispered that this is how he meant us to church.  I like to refer to it as a virtual church.  Matthew 18:20 describes church in its simplest version “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (ESV).  Motel Church was beautiful, because it reflected church in its simplest design.  A church is not a building but the gathering of those who are united in belief.  Recently, God has been tugging on my heart to re-read the Book of Acts, which describes the formation of the early church after Jesus ascended into heaven to be with the Father.  As described in Acts 2:46-47, “…breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people…” (NASB).

I have walked in severe material poverty in third world countries, but surprisingly not spent the same amount of time in similar poverty situations in my own country. On a relative scale, you might consider the American homeless as one of our more extreme poverty populations.  I found it strange how two active churches in the same strip mall were holding services, yet the homeless were not or did not feel welcome.  Walls can create boundaries that separate and protect those who are behind closed doors.  Are our church walls creating boundaries that separate the body of Christ?  On the other hand, does the concept of a virtual church help prevent the slow and insidious behaviors of putting up walls of exclusion?  What resonated with me was how active and participatory church could be in the virtual.  Everyone was free to contribute and participate.  In comparison, a church with four walls tends toward passive participation where the congregation sits and is fed from a pastor.

On our last trip to El Salvador, God told me that every one of us is equipped in some way where we stand, regardless of the newness of our faith.  Jason was equipped to lead the sermon, and many of the homeless felt equipped to read from the Bible and contribute their testimonies and views.  WCoM speaks to how church, business, and mission are integrated with connectivity, dignity, and the knowledge and faith that one is equipped.  I have a feeling that God wants to show me a vision of church and has tied an element of this message with our mission trip to El Salvador.  Perhaps the next book will speak to what the church should look like, how it should operate, and what it was intended to achieve.  I am reminded of the Book of Revelation, where a unique message was delivered to each of the seven early churches.  Each letter defined for the church how it was viewed through God’s eyes, a challenge or reproach, and a promise.  In today’s climate of conflict and judgment, providing an environment where people from all walks of life can come together to share in the common bond of the love of Christ is one of the best strategies that I know of to grow the church.  Only seven short months before mission departure!  A lot can happen in seven months!

Church-as-Business: Visioning, Missioning, and Equipping

Many pastors, missionaries, and laymen understand the Kingdom power held in the relationships of church-on-mission or business-as-mission.  However, many fail to acknowledge the power that can be unleashed when churches embrace the concept of church-as-business.  In fact, the concept that a church would be run like a business may feel unnatural, uncomfortable, and even sacrilegious to some pastoral heads and laymen.

wcom-emblem-2016-11-03People love church-on-mission, because the idea gives them a warm, fuzzy and satisfying feeling of doing good, being charitable, and aligning with the mission of the Gospel.   Most Christians think of mission as helping people in need, servicing the poor, making disciples, showing Jesus’s love, and preaching the Bible.  The concept of mission conjures up serving locally or through short-term mission trips across the globe.   Churches readily partner with missionaries, providing regular financial and prayer support to people who are called into full-time mission.  Churches extend their congregations’ reach by investing in those who are called to be the hands and feet on the ground.

In more recent times, the concept of business-as-mission has grown in awareness and popularity, as churches realize the Kingdom impact of helping third-world families and leaders develop sustainable businesses that bring economic health to impoverished communities.  The goal is to give someone a hand-up versus a hand-out—give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will feed himself for life.  Therefore, churches are sending teams into third-world countries to teach business skills and sometimes providing micro-loans with the hope of helping men and women start or improve their business acumen, build sound business plans, and grow their enterprises.

Church-as-business provides a third, yet important side of the triangle—a side that has been overlooked and missing from many churches.  Inclusion of church-as-business can propel church growth.  Why the general taboo in thinking of churches operating as businesses?  I have only theories.  One theory reasons that with most pastors and church administration educated in theology—not business, marketing, operations, and finance—they lack knowledge or exposure to understand the value of business principles at play within the church.  Another theory, is the cultural taboo associated with church and business—people should not talk about religion in the workplace, so perhaps the backlash is they do not talk or associate business with church.   A third theory is the preconceived ideology that church and business are compartmentalized enterprises with nothing in common.   Faith followers operate in businesses Monday through Friday, sometimes on Saturday, and Sunday is reserved for church service and other religious and social activities.  Our culture supports the separation of church and business based on old Biblical standards such as honoring the Sabbath, Blue laws and practices of not talking about religion at the workplace.

I contend that churches and businesses have more similarities in how they work and what they want to achieve than people may initially want to admit.  If my argument rings of any truth, churches can flourish by embracing many of the best practices identified, deployed, and further refined by businesses.  Although the product manufactured by a church may be different than a business, the strategy and processes are fundamentally the same.  With churches commissioned to grow disciples and businesses chartered to increase revenue/profit, churches can learn best practices in new business development from successful businesses.

For those who are not yet convinced that churches can learn from the business world, the table below defines the structural and operating elements which are unarguably similar between them with the only significant difference their output.

Focus Area Church Business
Enterprise Purpose Grow disciples Grow revenue/profit
Human Capital Members/Pastors Employees/Management
Compensation Salary/Bonus/Reward Paycheck/Bonus/Incentive
On-boarding Process Membership Classes Employee Orientation/Training
Human Capital Deployment Service/Discipling Job Responsibilities
Finances Tithing/Expenses Sales/Expenses
Infrastructure Church Facilities Offices/Plants/Warehouses
Consumers Community Members Customers
Marketing Sermon Series/Missions New Products and Offerings

Do you see the similarities in the building blocks and processes between a church and business?  Many churches, just like businesses, grow and then lose traction, slow down, and in some cases, go bankrupt.  Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Rainer, 2014) estimated that healthy churches account for only 10% of the church population, 10% are dying, and 80% are sick or very sick.   Rainer (2014) studied churches to uncover what makes certain ones thrive and what are some signs that a church is sick or dying.   Key signs of sickness include a congregation’s attitude that the best days are past, decline in worship attendance and tithing, programs and ministries which focus on members rather than outside the church, and no true sense of disciple-making.  Busyness and activity replaces meaningful purpose.  With these sobering statistics, I would expect a church to have an on-going self-evaluation process and focus on implementing best practices.

Don’t these key signs of sickness sound familiar to when a business struggles? Employees adopt a bad attitude, unmotivated employees frequently call in sick, management becomes increasingly focused on retaining employees with programs and rewards to the detriment of its customers. Employees lose focus on the business purpose and in cultivating customers. Businesses grow through innovation and a customer focus through knowledgeable, aligned, and motivated employees who understand and believe in the business vision and purpose.  They know their role in the organization and how they contribute to the goals.  Churches attract members when they focus on serving others, making disciples, and living out the mission of the church.

On the other hand, businesses suffer as customers leave and take their purchasing-power elsewhere; churches suffer when members take their tithe money and time to another church or at worst use it for personal consumption.  In the business world, studies run the gambit in identifying and quantifying the impact of best practices.  What can churches learn about best practices from these business studies? Although an internet search would likely provide handfuls of articles on best practices, I have my own list cultivated from my more than 30 years working and developing new product lines and businesses.

Leadership cannot lead unless they can define and clearly articulate for its employees and members the purpose and direction they plan to take the company or church.   First, leadership must develop a vision and mission statement as well as define the operating values that support the purpose of the church.   The vision must be detailed enough that it differentiates itself from other churches and provides a clear sense of direction for its members.  On the other hand, the vision must not be too specific that the boundaries constrain how God wants to empower and use its members.  Just as God designed individuals with specific spiritual gifts, so too has God breathed life and gifts into various churches to accomplish a purpose.  In my opinion, the weakest mission statements are those which are “motherhood and apple pie,” which deliver a feel-good message that no one can argue with and which appeals to everyone who passes through its doors.  An example would be “Making disciplines who are making disciples.” No one would disagree that should be a job assignment of every Christ-follower.  However, I expect with this vision many members would not feel equipped or understand how they will achieve that mission.  They do not even understand how they will know if the church is achieving its mission.  With so many questions, people feel left to their own devices and at worst never become truly engaged in the church’s vision, just taking from the church what satisfies their curiosity and spiritual need.

The vision and mission are critically important so people can make an informed decision to join the church, because that vision/mission resonates with them.  The church should set an expectation that all are welcome where they stand and will grow spiritually by supporting the defined vision and mission.  All churches cannot be all things to all people.   Better for a church, which is functionally its members, to define how God has called them to serve in this fallen world.  Churches are most effective when they can define what fits and what does not.  The vision/mission becomes the referee on how they will direct their resources when bombarded with endless opportunities and demands. What would be a solid and compelling vision and mission statement for a church?  If I had to describe what I would be most attracted to as a Christ-follower, below is what I would be called to join.

Vision

Build a transforming Christian army to love the world as Christ loves all

Mission

Coach leaders to crush their limiting beliefs, love who they are, and discover their identity in Christ.  This mission will be accomplished through the following:

  • Self-exploring to identify lies that are holding back personal identity and service and replace with the truth
  • Driving on world service in ways that show Jesus’s love to others and honors personal spiritual gifts and talents
  • Meeting people whether they are in their personal spiritual journey and providing information and encouragement to purse Christ as their personal savior
  • Developing and encouraging future world changes to organize and move out in service

 

The above vision/mission is detailed, yet flexible enough to move in many directions.  Visitors would have a clear understanding of what the church stands for, how it operates, what they could expect from the church in terms of support, and what would be required of them.   Hopefully, it would inspire versus confuse them!

The second most important church practice is to assimilate its members who are the human capital that fuels the outreach in the community and grows the church.   Many churches have a bunch of social and crisis-intervention programs for the congregation that attracts membership.  Caution!  All these services can be beneficial to support the rough spots in the lives of its members as well as attract others to Christ in the process, but leadership must be canvasing the landscape to ensure a healthy balance of services with their mission.   An imbalance can be a sign of a sick church.

Many churches host membership classes for those who are interested in learning more about the church or becoming members.  These classes typically provide a history of the church, explain what it is doing in its community, ask one to be part of the church, and then want to sign one up to a life or small group.  I believe a more sustainable method of attracting members is to provide the full landscape and plan, explain what the church expects of its members, and then explain how the church will partner with them to contribute.  Share the story that they are part of the story to create change and make an impact!  However, the message cannot be held at a high level.  Sell the story with enough granularity that they can see themselves as part of the team or solution.  Once they see themselves part of something bigger than themselves, the church can equip them or convince them they are equipped for action.  When people feel part of a mission bigger than themselves and buy in emotionally, their resources of time and money will follow.  Their excitement builds.

Many churches may successfully develop their vision, mission, and values, but fail to equip the congregation.  As in business, many strategies have been dead-on best in class, but the execution fell apart, and management blamed the strategy for failure.  Churches are not immune from the same malady.  Visioning and missioning is tough but relatively much easier than execution.  Visioning takes a finite amount of time and culminates in a final statement—it has an end; whereas, execution is an on-going fight for growth.  The process is fundamentally endless, and leadership may tire in trying to keep the execution ball moving forward towards the pins without it going into the side-gutters.

Many pastors preach from the pulpit on what is required by the congregation to meet its vision and mission.  First, there are requests, then more forceful pleas.  No one in the congregation disagrees, but they fail to act.  Using the former mission statement example of Disciples making disciples, everyone would agree that is an important vision for any Christian church, yet despite the pastor’s encouragement, the majority sitting in the pews feel ill-equipped to have conversation with non-Christians about their faith and Jesus. This post-modern world does not provide an environment conducive to Christians sharing the Good News with non-believers.  Most Christians are uncomfortable discussing their faith even if it means the church body does not grow (Rainer, 2014). Carter (2012) found that despite 80% of Christians feeling sufficiently knowledgeable to communicate their faith and believing they have a personal responsibility to share the Gospel, more than 60% have not shared the Gospel even once with a non-believer in the previous six months. Some have never shared their faith. These studies make the case that churches need to empower their members (employees) and provide tools, ideas, and perspectives that allow them to be more comfortable in talking about their faith and overcoming the barriers of inaction. Soul Whisperer (Comer, 2013) is a must-read for the current age.  Comer’s (2013) message breaks the long-held paradigms of evangelism and introduces more relevant coaching for Christians to share the Good News. Build a relationship, start where they are and not where you are, read what they need, and show them how God is helping you now, are all powerful ways to share the Gospel.

In addition to discipleship, members can grow in their spiritual walk by serving others. When someone asks me, “How can I find myself,” I have one and only one answer.  “Go serve.  You will find yourself in serving.”  Therefore, churches should have a variety of outlets for service.  By service, I do not necessarily mean greeter, parking guide, worship and service child provider.  Although these are important functions and membership needs to help with these services, the church should have service opportunities outside of the church that are aligned with the vision and mission.  These options should focus at a minimum within the local community, because this is the source of your new membership.  However, if the church’s mission supports a cause such as sex-trafficking or orphan care, the outreach opportunities should have no boundaries.

Does the church offer members a spiritual gift inventory?   Are there opportunities for members to apply them?  As the church grows, leadership should empower individuals and teams to carry the torch on various initiatives—similar in how businesses launch project teams with internal sponsorship oversight.  Success stories should be shared from the pulpit as a means of stimulating the quest for service.   Members are the lifeblood of the church, they are the church, and empowering them in a way to bring in new members by serving in their communities and sharing the Gospel is what the church should focus on.  Do we need another sermon from the pulpit to add to our knowledge or just encouragement to learn Jesus through serving?  Too many times I have heard, “Just one more Bible study and I’ll be ready to serve.”    We are all equipped to serve in one way or another exactly where we stand.   Our stories of service are our most powerful tools and what we use to harvest and feed ourselves.  Instead of being a spectator in the pew, be a world changer in the field.

Next, I will discuss my business thoughts in building a personal church brand and marketing.

References

Carter, J. (2012). Study: Most churchgoers never share the gospel. The Gospel Connection. Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/study-most-churchgoers-never-share-the-gospel

Comer, G. (2013). Soul whisperer: Why the church must change the way it views evangelism. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications. ISBN: 978-1-62032-183-6.

Rainer, T. S. (2014). Autopsy of a deceased church: Twelve ways to keep yours alive. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing.  ISBN: 978-1-4336-8392-3.

Mission, It’s Not What You Think…

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I travel the world and in my community carrying my self-identity in missional living.  Back in February 2016 my husband and I returned from Nairobi, Kenya from a business-as-mission themed short-term trip developed between my home church, Northisde Christian (NCC),  the local church, Redeemed Gospel Church (RGC), and a non-profit Transformational Ventures (TV).   Below is my final journal entry where I shared what God revealed to me in my walk with him during my time in the slums of Nairobi.    My Chapter 3 as mentioned below has been written in the documentary Poverty, Inc.*  The message hit me upside the head as hard as a two-by-four.  After being stunned and finally picking myself up off the floor, I am processing the message in how it continues to break my paradigms about missional living and my role in developmental mission.  Stay tuned for my next blog where I unfold my Chapter 3 and response.  This entry provides perspective…

* Poverty, Inc. available for viewing on Netflix

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Over the past 10 days I have rejoined my normal world.  The re-entry process for every mission journey is unique, because it is a time of reflection and consideration of next steps based on experiences that challenge my thinking.  Although I am fairly experienced at international mission journeys, I desire to understand what God wants to show me on any journey.  God has a purpose, and I seek to understand his message and what I am to learn and do.

So spending time in my journal and reviewing all the photos and videos we took of our journey together, some of the themes that keep coming to mind are:

  • Power of partnership, especially with dignity
  • Relationships, not necessarily business
  • Transforming lives

As I dig deeper in thought what rises to the surface is the “Power of Partnership to Transform Lives” through dignity and not charity.  The words power, partnership, transform, dignity and charity will all have slightly different meanings to the reader depending on the filter by which each word is read.  All 6 words by themselves are positioned for misinterpretation, so string them all together into one phrase, and I fear the concept may get messy!    What does she mean by the “Power of Partnership to Transform Lives?”

I believe Redeemed Gospel Church (RGC) and Northside Christian Church (NCC) can be partners to transform lives both spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically.  When two organizations come together for a common goal, many people refer to the union as a partnership.  When I refer to a union, I am careful to delineate the difference between a partnership and a relationship.  A partnership brings two entities together that have a long-term vision, are joined through thick and thin, pool resources, hold each other accountable and are each valued by the other in what they can bring to the partnership. Upon closer examination many churches or non-profit partnerships have some of the above elements but not all.  When one organization believes it provides more value than the other joining organization, the unspoken word is charity.  For lack of a better descriptor, the dominant partner perceives it is giving away some of its value (charity) to combine into one entity. There may be a reasonable driver for this type of union, but I would not call it a partnership under those circumstances.  In typical business merger and acquisition, a fair price or equity position is negotiated for the value each company may bring to a joint venture or merger.

Well placed charity is a blessing!  Northside financially blesses many initiatives or mission outreaches that align with their vision, mission, and goals.  Northside and RGC have a long standing relationship where Northside has brought money and people to help drill a water well on the property, put a new roof on the church, etc.   Transformational Ventures has invested time and resources in helping the RGC leadership personally and organizationally.  I am sure Northside will continue financial support, because they believe in what the church is trying to accomplish.   All this is a blessing for the giver and receiver!  As RGC, Northside and Transformational Ventures continue to make progress in its aligned goals, the word partnership seems to be mouthed more frequently.  I challenge those who are speaking “partnership” to define and describe what that truly means in action.  What does that look, taste and feel like tangibly?

I truly believe that RGC and Northside can be true partners in the way that I have suggested partnership, but first, both churches have to get real with what they each can and will bring to the table in the partnership.  No one way contribution—charity, but two way contribution—dignity.  I know this is a paradigm shift in thinking.  What will RGC contribute?  I’m not suggesting material resources that they don’t have?  I would suggest they can help our church learn how to culturally embrace what it means to love God (worship), to love others (service and tithing), and to make disciplines of disciplines (how to spread the Gospel).  Not sure we do as good a job on these endeavors as RGC.  Maybe they can mentor us in a partnership?  Share their best practices?

Pastor Brown and Pastor Dave are the men who will eventually decide whether RGC and Northside will truly partner by pooling their talents and resources.  God has no boundaries and neither should we.  If together NCC and RGC can save a 1,000 souls this year, does it matter whether they are in Africa or America or any combination of the two?

In summary, God has a reason for every mission journey, a message for every individual who chooses to venture into the field and for every person who meets the missionary.  As Mohamed so purposefully said, “It wasn’t an accident; God brought us together.” I also believe when you live missionally and live out your purpose, God will reveal a bigger story over your lifetime.  One mission journey may only be a chapter in a 1,000-page novel, but it may feel like you just devoured the whole book.

I believe this second trip to Kenya was another chapter in a book God wants me to read.  These first chapters of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are setting my foundation, teaching me, challenging my thoughts, and shaping my views.  My first chapter, which was my first trip to Kenya with Woodlands Church, was about understanding and experiencing good developmental mission.  I continue to practice developmental mission in my daily life through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) to keep me sharpened in this area.

God had me read the second chapter of my novel when he took me to Kenya on this trip.  He defined for me what true partnership has to embody for long-term sustainability—dignity!  Dignity not just in actions but in heart/mind belief!  People can act with dignity, but if the heart/mind is not aligned on dignity the partnership is reduced to a relationship. There is power in partnership to transform lives.

As I finish chapter 2, I am anticipating chapter 3, yet I don’t know where chapter 3 is yet.  Where can I get a copy?  I don’t know.  Is chapter 3 another foundational learning or am I going to get to practice and take action?   I have so many unanswered questions for the future.  Guess you could call this a cliffhanger.  As soon as I find that third chapter I’ll let you know!

The Scarlet Letter “F”


In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional setting of Boston in 1642, a woman named Hester Prynne must stand for three hours on a public scaffold wearing the scarlet “A” on her dress.  For what purpose?  So that she could be publicly shamed and humiliated for adultery!  For those not familiar with the classic novel The Scarlet Letter, adultery was against the law of the land and church but also an unforgivable sin whose sentence lived on until death.  Fast forward 375 years when adultery does not carry the same legal or societal stigma and where most surveys reveal that it is more common for husbands and wives to cheat than not over the course of their marriages.

Perhaps because adultery is so common, we have put the Scarlet “A” back into our pocket and now sew on a Scarlet “F”, as in felony, on every shirt lapel leaving prison.  Oh, we may not be as obvious about it in this politically sensitive world, but how we treat ex-felons, who have served time for their crime, speaks volume in what we think of these men and women.  Through our laws, community policies/practices and personal actions we have labeled these released prisoners (a.k.a. felons) with “F” as in “Failure.”   Did you know that when a prisoner is released from prison he gets the clothes on his back, $50, and a bus ticket to anywhere?  What is he supposed to do with those resources for his first night’s lodging and food?  Let’s get real.  What do you think happens next?  With no support he will likely connect with old friends who will help him back into illegal activity to put food in his mouth and a roof over his head.  And so the cycle begins again!  Statistics show that 50% of felons return to prison after 3 years and 75% after 5 years.  These are just the felons who get caught.  Why are these statistics so surprising?  They shouldn’t be.

What are the hurdles for felons who want to legally re-integrate into community?  Well, he has difficulty finding a place to live, because he doesn’t own a home.  He can’t live in an apartment complex, because management discriminates against all felons regardless of the crime, and probably, he can’t stay with relatives where he has worn out his welcome long before his prison sentence.  He can’t get a job, because he doesn’t have any decent clothes for an interview, but if he Sandi 1 Class 27did, when he checked the felony box on the application he is immediately disqualified.  What would you do?  I expect you are saying to yourself, “Well, he shouldn’t have gotten himself involved in crime to begin with?” Honestly, there is a part of me that wants to sympathize with that statement, but the other part of me knows a different story.  My other half will suggest that the difference between you and an ex-felon can be the simple fact of just getting caught.  How many times have you had one too many drinks, been legally intoxicated, and yet chose to drive home?  For those who made it home safely, we breathe a sigh of relief—no one was hurt or killed.  If you didn’t make it home, you might be in prison for intoxicated manslaughter.

So, you may think, “I see your point; it could have been me, but it wasn’t. Felons are not my problem.”  My reply is, “If you live in this country, it is your problem, because incarceration affects each and every one of us.”  Did you know the average annual cost to hold an inmate exceeds $30,000?  Did you know the real cost to the taxpayer is multiples of that when you factor in lost tax revenue on wages, welfare and aid given to families of incarcerated men, and damages from crime.  For those who are killed or harmed during a criminal act, I cannot put an estimate to the value of life and limb, but at a minimum, lost wages, funeral expenses, and medical bills could be tallied in the total cost.

So what can be done about this problem?  Well, the solution is not by any means easy or short-lived, but we can start by building awareness of the issue, investing in effective transformational programs, and crushing the felon stereotype.   The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP, http://www.pep.org) is giving prisoners the opportunity to change their lives for the betterment of their families and communities.  PEP sees the value of these incarcerated men, and along with other business volunteers, they all come along side those prisoners who are doing the hard work to transform themselves.  This program initially focuses on building authentic manhood and servant leadership and follows with building skills and training in business entrepreneurship.  When program graduates are released from prison, they have access to transitional living and support to help integrate back into society.  Over the past 3 years I have been an executive PEP volunteer and have seen transformed lives and returned dignity in the men we serve.

On April 1, 2016 I honorably participated in a kickoff session for another PEP class who were entering the authentic manhood segment of the program.  Today I received a batch of photos with thank you cards from those men with whom I had the privilege of spending the day in prison.  Yes, they teach these men how to write handwritten thank you cards, a much appreciated and overlook form of business etiquette.  When you see how hard these men work for their future, you can’t help but be inspired to partner with them in their walk.  If yoThank you cardu were wondering whether this program works, recidivism is < 7% after 3 years for those graduating from this program. For the fifth consecutive year 100% of the graduates secured their first job within 90 days.  Since PEP’s launch in 2010, 211 businesses have been started with 6 now generating over $1 million/year revenue.  That’s not failure—that spells S-U-C-C-E-S-S!

PEP is a non-profit organization operating only through donations and no government financial assistance.  The local Texas state correctional facilities welcome this program, because it works!  We can only hope that one day, the federal and state governments will fund and incorporate these concepts into the prison system as a whole.  You may not be in a position to volunteer your time or talents or to donate to this worthwhile program, but you can change the way you think about a felon.  You can start to break the felony stigma. Don’t rush to pin the “F” letter on a felon’s collar.  Ask questions.  Learn his story.  Offer support in a meaningful way.  Even the act of listening and empathizing shows compassion and can make one feel valued as a human being.  Like every one of us who has made a mistake, we hope to be judged not for who we were but for who we are actively working to be!  Embrace the PEP Revolution!


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She now coaches others in how to develop and execute their life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.