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!

The Treasure Map in Navigating Business Cultures


How many times have you wondered whether the person you were talking with understood the meaning of your message as well as its intent?  If you sometimes question your effectiveness in communicating your message to an individual or group, what was your response?  Do you typically attempt to summarize your point again, hoping the second time they would get it?  Do you look for validation that you have been heard correctly?  What did it mean if they just politely listened and said nothing or instead gently nodded their head while you spoke?  The answer?  It depends on the environment in which the person was culturized.

In this globally-based workforce with intertwined business relationships, the most effective and successful leaders will be culturally savvy.  They will first understand their culture, the culture of those with whom they work, and demonstrate the ability to adjust their style with specific strategies to bridge these cultural gaps.  Although technology will continue to be an important element shaping the business landscape and growing profits, those who understand how to successfully influence people across cultures will be valued and highly sought after by companies.

Early in my career, I experienced firsthand being part of American business teams who left negotiations with Asia companies either questioning how well the meeting went or being overly confident in the outcome based on their own cultural lenses.  Only when we returned home to the United States did we learn that we had not made as much progress as thought.  How can a team or even an experienced and talented business person successfully navigate these international waters?

culture-map-book-coverThe answer lies in reading the treasure map of cultural behaviors, which Erin Meyer spoke about at the 2016 Global Leadership Summit (GLS) at Willow Creek Church.  Meyer (2014) has studied business cultures and seen “the sad truth…that the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work” (Meyer, 2014, p. 10).   Meyer (2014) concludes that without cultural literacy your default position will be to judge or misjudge others through your own cultural lens and assume that differences, controversy, and misunderstandings are rooted in individual personalities.   The truth?  Cultural patterns of belief and behavior frequently impact our perceptions, cognitions, and actions (Meyer, 2014).   In her book The Culture Map, Meyer defines the eight scales that map the world’s cultures and their location on the continuum.

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: principles-first vs. application-first
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
  • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  • Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible time

Today we no longer fly to another country to experience different cultures, because diversity sits in the office right next door.   You may be an American supervisor of an ethnically diverse group whose style reflects the United States Culture Map.  Believing in treating everyone equally, you may be left confused when trying to coach each of your team members who come from China, Japan, Asia, and Eurograph-us-culture-mappe.   You may wonder whether your coaching is making any impact outside of your circle of American colleagues.  Your coaching style is likely straightforward with specific concrete examples (low-context) to back up your feedback couched with soft qualifiers (slightly indirect feedback).  You probably sandwich negative feedback between two positives.  Your Dutch subordinate expects direct feedback, so he may likely misinterpret the degree and importance of your message as he expects you to be straight forward with any negative criticism.   You may feel frustrated at his lack of effort and progress in affecting change.  Perhaps, you may even start to stereotype Dutch behaviors based on repeated experiences with that ethnic culture.   It is not uncommon for people to routinely experience a clash or misunderstanding of cultures.  If we learn about culture, suspend judgment, and build bridges between these cultures to facilitate trust, communication, and ideas, we would harness the potential of every team member.

Giving and receiving negative feedback is a necessary component of business but sometimes riddled with insecurity for both the giver and receiver.  How should constructive criticism be given and taken?  How should feedback be delivered to get the best result?  How much feedback is lost in translation?  How do the words absolutely, strongly, kind of, and sort of play out when delivering criticism?  The answer depends on the culturalization of the giver and receiver.   Certain phrases and qualifiers have different meanings.  Take for example a British colleague providing feedback to his Dutch counterpart.  He says, “Please think about that some more,” implying “That’s a bad idea.”  A Dutch or German colleague, who expects and is comfortable with direct negative feedback, would likely interpret that as “It’s a good idea.  Keep developing it.”

culture-map-tableIn business etiquette classes, we are instructed on the ceremonies which demonstrate respect.  In Japanese business culture, it is customary to exchange small gifts with visitors and present a business card with both hands towards the receiver who respectfully reads it upon presentation versus immediately putting it into his portfolio. Americans easily embrace these cultural mannerisms but fail to realize how communication and language may be used differently.

Frequently in my coaching practice, I reference scales ranging from 1 to 10.  Regardless of the attribute measured, I find when an issue between two people is greater than 2 units apart anywhere on a 1-10 scale, the two parties will need concentrated effort to resolve their differences.  Meyer (2014) confirms my informal conclusion when she states that “what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures” (p. 22).  Relative positioning determines how people will view each other.

Meyer’s (2014) first piece of advice when interacting with someone from another culture is to “listen before you speak and learn before you act” (p. 27).   Understand how culture will impact the conversation.  For example, the United States is the lowest context culture with Japan having the highest context in its communication.  In simplest terms, the people culturized in America tend to communicate literally and explicitly.  They value clarity and place accountability of the intended message on the communicator to accurately convey the meaning of the message (Meyer, 2014).   On the other extreme, Asian cultures often convey messages implicitly which requires the listener to read between the lines.  Good communication is layered and subtle, and the responsibility of its accurate transmission is shared between the sender and receiver.  The Japanese have been culturalized over many generations to become skilled at “reading the atmosphere.”

I find it humorous that education can further exacerbate the cultural divide, by moving people more towards the extreme version of their dominant culture.  Highly educated Americans are taught and encouraged to communicate more effectively in writing and orally and to take more responsibility for the messages they send.   American leaders are typically rewarded for having and implementing the answers within their organizations. On the other hand, Japanese leaders are listening more to what is meant as opposed to what is said.  In my informal survey of American and Japanese business people attending a meeting, I find that at least 75% of the words spoken are by the Americans and 25% by the Japanese.   The Japanese typically spend more time reflecting and reading body language and other non-verbal clues.  When they do speak it typically includes more clarifying questions.  Many times, my American colleagues have misinterpreted the meaning of a nod, assuming their Japanese counterparts are in agreement.  In truth, head nodding is more confirmation of being heard.

In decades past, businesses have been helped by having teams take the Myers Brigg Type Indicator (MBTI) (www.myersbriggs.org) and participate in team-building exercises to understand how team members prefer to communicate, process ideas, handle data, and make decisions.  These business teams were more homogenized in culture, but today’s global business environment demands everyone to be equipped with a new set of skills that embrace diversity in the workplace.  Meyer (2014) delves deeper into communication and evaluating than what I can do justice and also takes the reader through a journey to explore other important cultural attributes.  Understanding, respecting, and working with the deep roots of various cultures will forge and strengthen relationships and performance.   Culturally diverse teams will continue to populate the business landscape and every leader would benefit from learning more about cultural diversity and its impact on business success.

Reference

Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business.   New York, NY: Published Affairs. ISBN: 978-1-61039-250-1.


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business and life coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She partners with clients to help them develop and grow successful businesses.  She also works with individuals to create their life plans and build better relationships by identifying and living out their personal values, enhancing their skills and competencies, and holding them accountable to execute their defined goals.   Sandra welcomes comments, questions, and feedback at sandra.s.dillon@hotmail.com.

Will College Debt Affect Who You Decide to Date or Marry?

December 15, 2016

The flip side of that question is “Does your college debt make you less attractive to date or marry?”  Many want to believe the most important ingredient to a happy and fulfilled marriage is love, because true love can overcome the normal struggles endured by marriages over their lifetimes.   These same people would also like to believe that college debt should be immaterial to the decision with whom you spend the rest of your life—after all, the right person is the right person, no matter what the circumstances.  I would propose that love is a choice—a choice to fall in love with someone with whom you can create a successful life.  If this holds true, I would wager that most successful people are not necessarily looking for partners with money but for spouses who make sound financial decisions.  Why?  Because fiscal literacy and responsible financial stewardship are extremely helpful in developing a solid marriage foundation from which to move forward in individual life calling and marriage purpose.

Overwhelming costudent-debt-ball-and-chain-2llege debt can sap energy and joy, as well as interfere with life calling, because significant resources are funneled to pay off those loans—making it feel like one is dragging around a ball and chain for ten years.  Not even personal bankruptcy can dissolve this financial burden—a lifetime sentence until it is repaid.   I am neither advocating for or against pursuing a college degree, and these words come from a chemical engineer with an MBA, who will also receive her second masters in life coaching in 2017.  I believe a college education can open more doors for career and job choices as well as develop new worldviews, critical thinking, discipline, commitment, friendships, and a sense of community.  However, I am recommending that before taking on any debt that everyone understand what they are called to do, how post-secondary education will support that purpose, and then using sound judgment to determine the best path forward.  Approaches can include community college, part-time vs. full-time, scholarships, employer incentives, military benefits, etc.  You may ask how did I pay for my education?   I focused on good grades, worked when not studying, saved, sacrificed, applied for scholarships and loans, and was rewarded with grants and reasonable loans to pair with my savings the first time.  The second time I worked full-time while going for my graduate degree part-time, taking advantage of my employer’s partial tuition reimbursement benefit in conjunction with my savings.   The third time around I worked and saved for my full tuition, hence my return to college at 53 years old.

Mentoring and coaching high schoolers and young adults, I often see them struggle with evaluating and deciding how to afford a college education.  Surprisingly, many of these students are encouraged by their parents to apply and attend universities above their collective financial means.  The parents and students alike are swept up in the hype that a college education is the gateway to a successful life—the more prestigious the school, the better, and whatever debt is required to achieve that dream is worth it.  With this momentum and the euphoria of acceptance letters, it becomes difficult to bring good judgment and reasonable thought in deciding whether to pursue a degree, what degree, its timing, and how to pay for it.

The sad reality—burdensome college debt has stalled many young degreed graduates who cannot turn back time.  They are drowning in debt that cannot be expunged.  Consumer Reports (2016) issued a report on the impact on student debt, and the survey statistics are sobering:

  • 45% of respondents said their student loan debt was not worth the cost of college
  • 47% said if they had the chance to do it all over again they would accept less financial aid and go to a less expensive school
  • 50% are having problems making student loan payments

With half of recent graduates wishing for a do-over or struggling with debt repayment, these statistics should be a wake-up call that the current approach in securing a diploma is broken.   What are the impacts to graduates overburdened with college debt?  Consumer Reports (2016) found:

  • 44% cut back on daily living expenses
  • 37% delayed saving for retirement or other financial goals
  • 28% delayed buying a house
  • 12% delayed marriage
  • 14% changed careers because of student debt

In many cases, these necessary life adjustments resulted from not understanding the impact of long-debt.   Although not specifically addressed in the survey, many young graduates reluctantly return home after college to live with their parents, resulting in a “failure to launch” not by personal choice.  Although subsidized room and board allow these graduates to pay off college debt, they struggle with financial independence and attracting financially independent mates.  Consumer Reports (2016) revealed that 44% of respondents wanted to know how much student debt a dating partner had before beginning a serious relationship with 36% and 20% of respondents saying “no” or “unsure”, respectively.

With these statistics as a wake-up call, the next question most students should ask is “How much college debt can I afford?”  The general rule of thumb is a graduate can afford college debt equivalent to the first year of salary.  For example, if you are pursuing a teaching degree and expect to be paid $50,000 per year as a teacher, you can commit to $50,000 of student debt.  A post-graduation balanced budget should be drafted to confirm you can re-pay this debt while ensuring you can put a roof over your head, food in your mouth, clothing on your back, and the means of getting to your job to earn that income.

When I student-loan-payback-schedule-10-yearscoach students and parents on personal finances, this simple matrix translates the amount of student debt into a monthly payment for 10 years at various interest levels.  Some students are financing teaching degrees at prestigious 4-year universities, taking on over $100,000 of debt for a job which will only pay $50,000 per year.  When asked “How will you put a roof over your head if you have to pay $1,000 a month towards school loans?” their facial expressions reflect confusion, surprise, and worry.  What I find more troublesome are students who are financing college under an “undecided” major.  These students usually take upwards of 5 to 7 years to graduate—incurring more debt than if they would have paused after high school, worked, figured out what degree fit their life plan, andstudent-debt then pursued their education over 4 years.   Powell (2016) reported that the average college graduate debt is $37,000 in 2016.  Many of the entry-level, non-science based jobs for these graduates do not pay that amount per year.  Many graduates have no idea when their loans will be paid off.

If you think colleges are educating you on prudent decision-making and the harsh realities of debt repayment, they are not.  Universities are businesses, trying to make enough money to keep their doors open.  If they sign you up, the colleges will receive income through your financial aid and tuition payments.  They are not incentivized to explain what debt you can and cannot afford.  By default, they are operating on the concept of Caveat Emptor, translated Let the Buyer Beware!

Pursuing a college degree can be one of life’s most significant and costly decisions, because the debt you take on can have a lasting impact on your quality of life.  The debt you carry can also impact your ability to attract a life partner.  Many students never stop to consider all the long-term ramifications of debt choices.   I encourage you to pause, think through this decision, reach out for help, and make wise choices!  Your future depends on it!

References

Consumer Reports National Research Center (2016). College Financing Survey: 2016 Nationally Representative Online Survey. Retrieved from: http://www.consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis/degrees-of-debt-and-regret/

Powell, F. (2016). Ten Student Loan Facts College Grads Need to Know. U.S. News. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/slideshows/10-student-loan-facts-college-grads-need-to-know


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She coaches others in how to develop and execute 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.

A Female Engineer Coming of Age in the 1980’s

What is it like to be a female engineer forging a career in a male-dominated profession?  I would expect the answers to be wildly different depending on the decade when a woman engineer first enters the workforce.  My career as a chemical engineer has spanned four decades, and as I reflect on those early years in the 1980’s, my stories would probably have many of today’s young female engineers question the peg on my honesty-meter.  With a spirit of humor, I share some of my more interesting, coming of age stories and lessons learned of what it was like to be a woman chemical engineer in a sea of male colleagues.

sandi-marvin-mobilBefore I begin, you may wonder what prompted me to now share these personal stories after almost 40 years of a long and successful career.  Well, as I was rummaging through some personal files buried deep in boxes stored in the spare bedroom closet, I stumbled upon this photo of me and Marvin, another young engineer, circa 1988. What is odd about this photo? I immediately chuckle at the silliness of me, a process engineer, in the control room of the Mobil Chemical plant in Edison, New Jersey, wearing a hardhat, white blouse, gray pleated skirt, black pumps, and a string of pearls.   In truth, this was a staged photo, taken by the Mobil media team who wanted stock photos of various Mobil engineers to use at job fair booths where teams recruited young engineers.  However, this was a standard photo of the day.  Women were a fraction of the engineering profession relative to the long history of the chemical industry, and neither females or males had yet figured out how to acclimate this gender blending.  Females struggled with how to act, interact, and dress for success within this male-dominated society.  Most males were uncomfortable working with us—this was especially true of those who were older, who in most cases were our superiors making decisions about our promotability, raises, and job opportunities.

In my opinion, most male engineers related to women as mother, wife, or daughter, but not colleague.   Even if they were comfortable working side-by-side with their female counterparts and accepted them as equals, women engineers still made the male engineers’ environment slightly uncomfortable, because it disrupted their relaxed and established behaviors of swearing and telling of sexually based jokes. Now, male engineers were forced to think before speaking so they did not offend any woman colleague in the room.  Note, I said woman colleague, not women colleagues.  I cannot count the number of times in a meeting, when a male engineer would get passionate about a topic, say “sh*t,” “fu*k,” or some variant expression of such, and the room would go silent.  He would then turn towards me and say “Sorry,” or “Pardon my French.”  Personally, I can swear with the best of them and was not offended in the least, but what did offend me was the fact that these men were uncomfortable swearing in front me.

The painful reality is that any time someone is on guard in your presence, you may be allowed in the group, but you are never fully accepted.  I knew in my heart that my opportunities at Exxon Chemical would be limited, because people are only willing to invite others into their ranks when they are comfortable with and trust them.  Field studies of company organizations by Jackall (1988) indicated that employees have little chance of being promoted into higher levels of management without “…mirroring the kind of image that top bosses have of themselves [and making] the people [who are] most responsible for [one’s] fate comfortable” (p. 58).  Women were only advancing into lower-level management positions, mostly because of affirmative action and political and societal pressure.   Although women might be able to gain trust through hard work and performance, I knew many of the male decision-makers would never feel comfortable with women engineers in their higher management circles.

Statistics show that in 1999 women accounted for 25% of all engineers under 25, but only 5% of engineers over 49 (Wikipedia, 2016).   In 1999 I was 37 years old, and my best estimate was women accounted for less than 10% of the total engineering workforce.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  Going back to the early 1980’s, my story begins as a newly graduated chemical engineering recruited into Exxon Chemical. In 1984 the oil/chemical industries were crawling out of an economic trough.   Despite Lafayette College’s reputation as a prestigious engineering school, only half of my chemical engineering class received job offers.  I was one of the lucky ones, hired by Paramins, a division of Exxon Chemical.  I was surprised to receive their offer, because I used Exxon as my first practice interview when they visited the campus.

In the early 1980’s women engineers struggled with how to dress for an interview.  The prevailing trend was to dress as much like a man to fit in and subjugate your female gender. So, we donned either blue pin-striped or gray suits with shoulder pads for that masculine look, white collared blouses, and a paisley ascot or necktie fashioned into a bow.  We had matching kerchiefs in our breast pocket.   Our only differentiation was the skirt versus slacks with low heeled pumps.  Did I win Exxon over with my academic and work accomplishments or my ability to visually fit in with the rest of the male engineers?  Was I the chosen candidate because of affirmative action?  Regardless, I was grateful for the job offer as a contact engineer, working in a chemical plant making lubricant additives.

Despite all these facts and figures, what are some of my most interesting personal stories as a young, female engineer starting her career at Paramins in July 1984.  I soon learned that this division normally hired 25 graduating engineers per year, but with the economic turn down, they had not hired any during the previous 3 years.   Myself and another woman, Joan, were the first new hires in several years.  I quickly learned that the rules which I believed governed success did not apply here.  For 22 years of life, I was conditioned that if you did the work well, you got rewarded, which represented how the typical academic world operated.   Learn the material, apply the material, earn an A.  These rules did not apply at Exxon.

Let us start with the uniform?  What is the appropriate Exxon dress code? As contact engineers, we were expected to dress in a way that balanced our need to spend time in both the plant and office.  As I looked around, there were two women role models.  What were they wearing?  The standard female dress for Exxon was to look like a man, which meant khaki pants such as Dockers, a long-sleeve buttoned-down shirt, and penny loafers or boat shoes.  I owned none of those outfits but soon invested in a few.  Afterall, I wanted to make a good impression.  The women did not wear make-up or jewelry, except on occasion Diana wore a pair of small gold hoop earrings.   Initially, I played the dress game, even though these outfits contrasted with my personality.  I felt suffocated in this Exxon uniform.  Over time, I started to add color to my wardrobe with jeans and print tops/sweaters.  I wore make-up and jewelry.  Although closed-toed safety shoes were always worn in the plant, I traded my penny loafers for clogs when around the office.  No one said anything, including my boss, but the repercussions came during my first salary action.  I had a glowing performance appraisal, but when I got a relatively poor raise, I asked a lot of questions that my boss was uncomfortable answering.

I then found out about Exxon’s forced ranking system, which means that everyone within a band of job classifications must be ranked “1 through last” by a committee of supervisors.  This exercise is completely independent of performance reviews and used to allocate merit increases.   Although no one is privy to their ranking, I did find out I was in the bottom third.   The typical Exxon employee response would be to accept your ranking without question, but I needed answers.   I felt badly for my administrative boss, Paul, who was left to answer my probing questions.   Uncomfortably, Paul, shared that my ranking was based on the way I dressed.  The other supervisors in the room who do not know my work performance judged me on my appearance in the office hallways.  I do not remember his exact words, but Paul implied that I was flashy and not conservative enough.  I agree that visually I did stand out from the other few women engineers, but seriously, my salary increase was partially a reflection of me being too female?

For argument’s sake, I asked Paul for an example among my peers who was considered a top performer and why.  Paul referenced Doug because of his dedication to the job; he typically arrived at 7 am and left at 7 pm.   Although I did respect Doug’s abilities and contribution, I knew that at the witching-hour of 5 pm, Doug closed his office door so he could take care of personal work such as writing checks and paying bills, all the while leaving the impression he was hard at work for Mother Exxon.  Frustrated, aware, yet unwavering, I decided I was not going to dress like a man or make false appearances of working longer.  I still held out hope and a worldview that the same rules which applied in academia would eventually win out at Exxon.  I had not yet figured out lesson one which is as an individual you cannot fight culture and win.   You either chose to adapt or you need to get out and find “your people.”  However, this was my first real job, and I was learning the hard way about the real world on many levels.

My job as a contact engineer required me to work with many different people and levels within the organization.  I worked alongside unit operators, providing technical support on production, quality, turnaround, safety, and environmental issues.  I worked with the operators’ first line supervisors.  I had dual supervisory reporting structures, which for a first job can be very stressful.  I had my administrative boss, Paul, who provided general direction and did my performance appraisals, and had a dotted-line boss to the operations manager, Alan, because I supported his production units.  Paul was a young chemical engineer, who was very comfortable with female colleagues.  Alan was an older chemical engineer, near retirement, and known to be a “male chauvinist pig” which was a common term used in the 1980’s.  I learned there was a long-standing lawsuit filed by one of my operators, Kurt, who was suing Alan and Exxon for making him crazy.  Yes, crazy!  Kurt claimed that Alan would intentionally assign him jobs/activities that were frivolous and designed as inappropriate busy work to retaliate against Kurt because he did not like him. After knowing and loving Crazy Kurt, as he was affectionately called, I would agree that Kurt was “off”, but the question that loomed was whether Kurt’s craziness was a chicken-or-egg-first with Alan.  We will never know, but with the pending lawsuit, Alan was especially cordial to Kurt on those rare occasions when both would be in the control room.

I developed outstanding relationships with my four operators (Kurt, Victor, Eddy, and Angelo), but not before some trials and tribulations.  I first met Victor a few weeks after starting my job when he finally came on day shift.   My first stop of the day was to visit the control room to inventory the previous night’s events.  I walked over to the NP/NPS/DDP desk, where Victor sat reading a magazine, and I introduced myself.  After a long pause, Victor slowly turned his head towards me, lifted and shook his finger at me and said in a low, measured voice, “You better not get snotty on me.”  After the shock of his introduction, I responded, “I won’t get snotty on you, if you don’t get snotty on me.”  Then a big cheesy smile broke out over Victor’s face, and he said, “I like you.  We’re going to get along just fine.”  Victor and I became fast friends, with him warning me of all the embarrassing pranks the operators liked to pull on the new engineers who did not have any practical experience.  These pranks included asking the engineer to get them a nitrogen blanket or to pull a sample from a vacuum tower.  An experienced engineer will get a chuckle and know why that’s impossible, but the young engineer will try to accommodate the request without success.

Working at the plant also came with its challenges in handling sexual advances.  Despite all the policy and rhetoric about respecting women, many men paid no heed, because there were no repercussions for bad behavior that went against announced policies. Angelo, a short Italian fellow, had the nickname of Goose.  I never gave much thought as to why, because I always called him Angelo.  Well, one day Angelo and I were walking up the alley to unplug some vacuum jets, when I felt him pitch my butt.  I was shocked, turned towards him, and with disbelief asked him whether he just pinched my butt.  He gave me a big smirk and said, “Yeah!”.  I then slapped him across the face and said, “Don’t ever do that again.”  I then turned and kept walking towards the unit.  I never said another word about it, and we picked up right where we left off.  I did not hold it against him, but I firmly established my personal boundaries.   Overall, I had close relationships with all of my operators—partners who troubleshot the units for quality and production rates.  As we were fighting a quality issue one day, I asked Eddy, “What do you think is going on?”  He responded, “Why are you asking me, I’m just the operator?”  I replied, “Because you know these units like the back of your hand.  Why wouldn’t I want to know what you think?”  He said that most of the young engineers think they know better so the operators choose not to share.  Working with the operators provided many valuable lessons.  I learned and reaped the rewards in treating every one as an equal at the table as we worked together, which built a strong foundation of trust.  I loved working in the plant, because I could be my authentic self in relationships and utilize my engineering skills.  Then I had to remove my steel-toed boots and return to the office environment.

My office struggles mainly focused on my relationship with Alan.  How does the youngest female engineer handle an older male chauvinistic pig who is her boss?  Not sure where or who started the reference to Joan, Diana, and me as Bogie’s Angels, but I did hear Alan gloat about it when we were brought up in conversation as his angels. You see, three of the four women engineers reported through Alan Bogard’s operations chain of command.  With Charlie’s Angels one of the most popular TV shows at the time, Alan enjoyed his label of having three female engineers under his direction.  It gave me some comfort that I was not the only person, male or female, who did not like this overweight, cigar-smoking, and arrogant man.   My beloved Crazy Kurt had his lawsuit against Alan, and no one else talked favorably about him.  My “Alan story,” which changed our relationship, started with a product quality issue on the NP unit.  For several days, this continuous manufacturing process was not converting the raw materials into product. With all hands on deck and through a process of elimination, the team suspected that some contaminant was interfering with the catalyst but could not determine the root source.  Water was a known killer of this catalyst, because it reacted with the BF3 to form HF.  Prior to my hire, it was a well-known belief, that you could not measure water content in the reactor.  If you had a water leak in the coil, the only way to determine such was to shut down the unit, clean out the reactor, and pressure test the coil.  The cost and lost production was significant and a choice of last resort.  Against specific protocol, I had an operator take a reactor sample to the lab for water analysis.  As Alan, the supervisors, an operator, and I all discussed the problem in the control room before making the decision to inspect the coil, I volunteered that I had a water analysis running in the lab which would be available within a half hour.  Well, did I get a reprimanding up and down by Alan, in front of all my colleagues.  He publicly humiliated me, telling me I was stupid for wasting time on a foolish approach, basically implying that I was incompetent, because everyone knows water will be reacted into HF and not delectable.  I bit my tongue and held back the tears of anger, frustration, and humiliation.   With no further ideas from the group-think, the team disbanded.  With tail between my legs, I left the control room for the lab.   Surprise, the gas chromatograph revealed several percentage points of water in the reactor.  I was vindicated.  Oh, how I dreamed of what I wanted to do next, all of which were not constructive.

What I did do was walk into Alan’s office and close the door so no one would hear our conversation.  I told him in no uncertain terms that how he addressed me in the control room in front of my coworkers was uncalled for, unprofessional, inappropriate, and embarrassing.  I put him on notice that I would never tolerate him treating me that way again.  I continued by saying that if he wanted to reprimand me in the future, he had every right to do so, but he would do it behind closed doors.  After I finished defining my boundaries, Alan just stared at me.  I truly believe he was speechless.  Before he could say anything else, I then informed him of the high-water analysis that could only be from a leak in the reactor coil and that we needed to shut down the unit immediately for a repair.  He was dumbfounded.  I never remembered getting any apology for his bad behavior, but I do know that he tip-toed around me moving forward, treated me politely, but he got me on my next performance appraisal.

The lesson learned is you can embarrass someone into compliance and better behavior, but you cannot change their attitude or heart.  I may have won some battles, but I certainly did not win the war.  I was proud in how I handled Alan by standing up to him behind closed doors, but realized I was just treading water where I worked.  This company was a great training ground but would never embrace diversity enough to accommodate my style that builds success.  They were operating on a different model, which rewarded conformity in all areas, including having the right sexual anatomy.   A woman could have modest advancement within Exxon, but to do so, it required her to morph hersesandi-exxon-going-away-lunchlf more into a man and his behaviors.  I’m flexible, but not that flexible.  After three years of lessons learned, I decided to take my experience to another company called Mobil Chemical. My good friends Henry, Jofran, and Joan hosted a going-away lunch, with an invitation that suggested I would be climbing the corporate ladder at Mobil.  What’s wrong with this photo, which was pulled from a trade magazine?  In the 1980’s women engineers were stereo-typed climbing storage tank ladders, wearing 3-inch heels and slit skirts?  At least we have on hard hats for our personal safety.  Believe me, I cannot make this stuff up and am thankful to have a paper relic from the past to prove what I say is true.  I do not know what this photo was originally trying to advertise, but I cannot think of one appropriate product or service where this image would be practically appropriate.  Remember, this was the 1980’s, when women’s roles as engineers were still being shaped, and men, who were in decision-making positions affecting their careers, did not quite know how to assimilate them.  The engineering road for women was not yet paved, at best most of the timber was cleared so you could see the path.  Both men and women engineers were uncomfortable with some aspects of their workplace as genders mixed.  I cannot speak for men, but I do know that many women chose not to speak out for fear of being pigeon-holed or labelled a troublemaker.  Better to suck it up, play nice, and hope for a reward.

Regardless of the black comedy stories I am privileged to share as a female engineer of the times, I would not trade one of them or this career path I chose.   Chemical engineering has served me well in how it trained me to think strategically and solve problems, and as well it has afforded me job opportunities that were stimulating and rewarding.  I have traveled the road less-traveled and for that I am grateful.  If you think all my interesting stories have been told, they have not.  Stay tuned for more adventure stories of this female engineer as she navigates Mobil Chemical next….

References

Jackall, R. (1988).  Moral mazes: The world of corporate managers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0-19-503825-8.

Wikipedia (2016). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_women_in_engineering#Statistics


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership.  She coaches others in how to develop and execute 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.

Executive Survives as Substitute Teacher in Elementary School

November 2, 2016

For those who have been following my blog as a corporate executive stepping into the Texas public education system, I continued the journey by selecting my first elementary school position posted as a fifth-grade math/science substitute.  I have always held the belief that a parent’s best parenting abilities have a sweet spot that matches a certain age of a child.   As I reflect on my own parenting life phases, I believe I am a great parent for teenagers.  I understand teenagers and know how to connect with them in a way where they will listen and consider thoughts and alternate ideas. I believe my secret is in how I communicate with them, trying to remain judgmeelementary-schoolnt free, helping them see the longer-term impact of their short-term decisions, and empowering them to make the best choices.  I know that parental orders and demands are just manipulative tools that might get immediate compliance from a child but do not build sustainable values and better decision-making that will carry forward into adulthood.   The teenage years bring stress and fear into the lives of most parents, but not me, younger children with wild impulses and underdeveloped frontal cortexes are my most uncomfortable parental stage.  Now, I have chosen a classroom full of these youngsters.  Bye, bye, middle and high school kids, it is time to embrace the elementary kids and find out how the public education system is serving their needs and shaping their minds.

My substitute teaching assignment was for a half day in the morning.  I walked into Martin Elementary* about 25 minutes before the start of my assignment to check in with administration.  When I do not have the opportunity to debrief with the regular teacher, I like to arrive a bit early to review the sub instructions, which helps me to have command of the class activities before the kids enter the classroom.   My first indication of the school’s disorganization was when the main office did not have a sub sign-in sheet ready and my daily schedule was not available.  This was uncharacteristic of my previous sub assignments.  What was the morning plan?  When did classes start and end?  Where was the roster for attendance?  The administrator said she would bring a roster to my room and gave me a key to unlock the trailer which served as my classroom.  She handed me a map, pointed to the classroom, and left me to find my way.    After locating my classroom door, I walked into a double wide trailer disaster.  Two bathrooms stood in front of me dividing one side with 10 computers in various forms of disarray, partially empty bookshelves with books scattered over the floor, and disheveled cabinets half opened with contents on the ground.  The other side of the trailer had a one piece U-shaped desk formation with about 4 individual desks haphazardly placed within the classroom space.  The teacher’s desk and printer area was a disaster with paper and various stuff.  I walked over to the teacher’s chair which was littered with three jackets and sweaters.  I had to move them so I could sit down.  I had never seen such chaos and disorganization in a classroom before.

I searched for the sub instructions on Mrs. Valdez’s* desk and found a stack of crisscrossed papers with several yellow sticky notes scribble with unclear instructions and 24 popsicles sticks with numbers.  The instructions referenced using the numbered sticks for 20-minute rotations between with the computers and working through the worksheets.  Counting the number of papers, it looked as if there were only enough for one class.  What were the other classes supposed to do?  I also signed up for math and science and all these papers where grammar and language arts.   Was I in the right room?  I thought I would be covering 4 periods in this half day.   Considering the instructions, number of papers, as well as lack of roster and class times, I was baffled and concerned.  At that moment, a woman walked into the trailer to give me two permission slips for two named kids when they arrived.  I asked whether she could help me.  “Sorry, but I’m just an administrator,” she said, “but maybe one of the other teachers in a trailer across the walkway can help.”

I immediately knock on the door of another fifth-grade teacher and introduce myself and my confusion.  Mrs. McFadden* took pity on me and followed me into my classroom.  She took one look at the instructions, shook her head, and said, “If I were left with these instructions as a sub, I would be panicking right now.”  She said what I thought.  She first told me that this class was different, because all the kids stayed in the classroom the entire day, except for large group (physical education, art, music, etc.).  She said I had to escort them to gym first period and then I would have my free planning period.   I now realized the paperwork would get the one class through lunch.  Whew! I needed to rotate the kids in 20-minute intervals on the computers, but what were these sticks for?  Mrs. McFadden said, “I have no idea what the sticks would be for.  Just decide how you want to rotate them.”   She was very annoyed with Mrs. Valdez, because thi was not the first time that subs had been stranded and confused, which makes the school look bad and hurts their ability to get subs.   She and other teachers had complained about Mrs. Valdez, but she said administration looks the other way.  Mrs. McFadden highly encouraged me to give online feedback about this assignment with the hopes that the administration would listen to me and act.  Oh boy, put in the middle of education politics.

With strategy in hand, the kids started to arrive and someone from the main office brought me a student roster.  The first student to arrive was a tall, African American, and cheerful girl who greeted me with a big hello.   Then she walked out of the room.   More kids arrived, and they began eating, talking, and playing.  I introduced myself and asked them questions to get to know them.  I talked a little bit about my trip to El Salvador to drill a water well to bring clean water to a school.   They were fascinated and could not believe that kids did not have safe water.  Then, the first period bell rang, and I closed the door to the trailer.   First, I took roll, and when I called out Amy*, all the kids said she was in another teacher’s classroom.  One of the kids added, “Amy always has to go to another teacher when we have a sub.”  I realized the first girl to arrive was Amy, because she was no longer in the classroom.   After roll, I explained their assignments and the morning process.  I asked whether they had used these 24 numbered sticks before.  They replied that they each had an assigned number and knew theirs—no sticks required.

First period I walked the kids to gym, and on the way, I met Mrs. Peters* who was the fifth-grade rotating paraprofessional (para).  She explained to me that Amy was pulled and should never have come into my classroom.  She is not mean-spirited or a trouble-maker but jacks up the kids.  Subs cannot handle her, so she is always removed.   Mrs. Peters told me Amy might come into the classroom during a break, and if she does I am to tell her to get out, and if she does not leave I am to pick up the phone, press the # key, and the principal will come to remove her.  Wow, ok, I have my orders.

When I returned to the trailer, Mrs. McFadden and her co-teacher, Mrs. Smith, pulled a cart into my trailer to get supplies from the cabinet.  They were gathering materials for a group project on sedimentary rock.  I asked whether I could help them.   They politely declined, but talked about going outside to pick up acorns, leaves, and dirt.  I responded that with a free period I was happy to help, and they took me up on my offer which gave me the opportunity to get to know the teachers better.  I found out that Mrs. Smith used to teach at Bloomfield* Middle School, where I previously substituted as a LIFE Skills teacher, and she thought she would go crazy based on the kids’ behavior.  She transferred to this elementary school and was much happier.

As first period was ending, I walked to the gym to escort my class back to their room.  Hopping and skipping over to me as I stood outside the gym, Amy proudly announced, “I’m packing up my things and coming over to your class.”  My calm response was, “Amy, I was told you are not allowed in my classroom, and I will have you removed if you show up.”  She replied, “But, Mrs. Watkins, the principal, said I could.”  I responded, “Unless I hear it from Mrs. Watkins directly, you can’t come with us.”  Mrs. Watkins walked over and explained that Amy promised to be good and asked whether I would allow it.  I’m laughing inside.  I am the sub, and you are asking my permission whether a kid can be in my class.  Mrs. Watkins then added that Amy would be punished and have her cell phone taken away at home if she did not behave.  Any issues with Amy and I was to immediately pick up the phone to call the principal to the trailer.   I turned to Amy and said, “Amy, you have a choice today.  You are completely in control of your behavior.  You can choose to have good behavior.”  Amy said, “I will be good.”  And off we went to class.

One of the single desks at the front of the room was Amy’s.  Obviously, she needed to sit by herself and not in proximity to the others.  Another kid, Raymond*, had a timer on his desk, and a third boy, named Charles, was dyslexic, which explained why he did not want to do his work.   After I handed out the first paper, I explained they were to return it for the second, and so forth.  I started to call out numbers, every other number starting with odd, so kids could go to the computers for those assignments.  Those that remained at their desk immediately started to break out food from their lunches.  I was told by Mrs. McFadden that the kids eat breakfast in their rooms, but this was a little much.  When Mrs. McFadden came into the trailer to pick up a printout, I asked about the food policy.  She gave a disapproving look around the classroom and said, “Mrs. Valdez always lets them eat during class.  The other teachers only allow a snack at 11 am.  I would just let them do it.”  Obviously, the teachers do not approve of Mrs. Valdez’s structure and schedule.

A few kids were focused and methodically working through their worksheets.  Those I rewarded with more computer time.  Many kids wanted to converse with me, and despite their intelligence would not focus on their work.   Mrs. McFadden also confirmed that Mrs. Valdez allowed her class to take off their shoes and walk around in socks, so Charles, began kicking sneakers around like they were soccer balls.  I had to sternly say, “We do not kick shoes in the classroom like soccer balls, sit back down and do your work.”   Raymond just sat for an hour eating and not touching his first worksheet.   The kids complained that the articles they had to read and answer questions were too long and boring.   Casey at the bat?   My response was, “Life is not easy or fair and working through assignments you do not enjoy helps develop the discipline you need to get through life.”   Heads went down towards the paper for a few more minutes of focused effort.  Amy stood up and walked over to the computer area to look over the shoulders of others.  She was not disruptive in terms of jacking the kids up, but just struggled to focus on her work.  When she did her worksheets, they were accurate, but it took her awhile to focus.   I estimated that half the class could focus and the others were either unmotivated or had stunted attention spans.  Constant gentle reminders and re-direction on boundaries and compliance was all I needed.  I used more words than I had planned, but the kids listened when corrected.   I was having no real behavioral issues at least compared to my expectations, and I thought Amy was a delight to talk with and behaved well.   The kids kept saying, “Will you come back and sub again?  You are the best sub we have ever had.”  I asked, “What is it about me that makes me your favorite sub?”  They said, “You don’t yell at us.  You talk to us.”   Yelling was a common theme I have been hearing.  Why are subs resorting to yelling?

Fast forward to 12:15 pm when Mrs. Valdez knocked on the trailer door.  I opened the door, and after she took a few steps in, she spotted Amy in the room.  With big wide eyes, Mrs. Valdez said, “What are you doing here, Amy?”  Amy came running up and told her the principal allowed her, because she promised to be good.   Mrs. Valdez turned toward me for confirmation, and I acknowledged with a nod, and then Mrs. Valdez hugged me.  She turned to Amy, hugged her, and said, “I knew you could do this. I’m so proud of you.”  Amy was ecstatic to be acknowledged.  After Mrs. Valdez and I debriefed, I announced to the class that I was going to handout 4 Golden Passes (school money for treats and privileges).   I gave the first one to Amy, because she completed all the work and her behavior was good.  I then handed out the other three passes to those who had also completed all their worksheets.  The kids were excited to be acknowledged.  They all told Mrs. Valdez that they wanted me to come back.  She turned to me and said, “If you see any of my sub assignments, I would love for you to take them.”  As I was leaving the classroom, I waved goodbye and said I would see them again.

So, what were any new thoughts about public education from my elementary experience?

  • The friendliness of the teachers towards subs is specific to the school and its culture. I felt welcomed and included, although the disorganization was initially a bit unnerving, because I have high expectations in being the best sub possible.
  • On an individual basis, teachers can do a better job preparing their subs with instructions. This not only benefits the sub who will be more inclined to take jobs but also allows the sub to carry out the teacher’s plans.
  • The kids are controlling the schools and the teachers/administration is using bribery (Golden Passes) and yelling/threats to illicit good behavior from students.

My experience with the older students in this elementary was positive, although I am gravely concerned in how they are raising and rewarding our children. Children spend about 8 hours or half of their waking lives in the school environment.  Putting academic knowledge aside, the schools are shaping the soft skills of our children and how they will interact with the world as adults.  Stay tuned for my next elementary sub experience!

 *Names have been changed to protect personal identities.

For those interested in my other public education blogs visit:A Day in the Life of a Middle School Substitute Teacher;  From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher; What Can An Executive Learn From A Middle School LIFE Skills Classroom?

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 want initially 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 the 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, 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 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 to identify and quantify 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 equipped to communicate their faith and believing they have a personal responsibility to share the Gospel, greater 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.

World Changers on Mission

Excerpt from Sandra Dillon’s LWI El Salvador 2016 Mission Journal (November 2, 2016)

I typically write my closing journal entry several days after returning from mission, so that I have time not only to unpack my bags but also the messages God shares with me during the week.   Although I know God uses my hands and feet on the ground to serve, I am also to receive.  God did not disappoint.   I believe he put all the pieces together for me starting from my journey to Kenya in 2013, Haiti in 2014, Honduras in 2015, and then Kenya and El Salvador in 2016.  Besides these short-term mission trips, God placed on my heart Shine Crossings and World Changers on Mission (WCoM).  At the end of 2015, God closed the door to my employment at TPC Group and opened another door for me to attend Liberty University full-time to purse my second Masters which is in Human Services Counseling, Life Coaching.  God made this all possible by bringing Darin into my life as a soulmate, supporter, and now financial leader of our home, so I could walk through the threshold and into the calling God has for my life.  God has a plan, and I am living it!

Two years prior, God told me to watch for the Cross laid over the Star of David.  Well, the corners of that star started to take shape about 6 months ago.  God gave me the vision of the first triangle with corners of church (people), mission (developmental service), and business (enterprises).   After my trip towcom-emblem-2016-11-03 Kenya in early 2016 another inverted triangle started to take form with dignity (in service).  This trip completed the other two points of this triangle which are equipped (where we stand) and connectivity (God has no borders).  So, when you put the two triangles together you have the Star of David.  When I stepped into the Tabernacle Church in El Salvador and saw their emblem, the message was that Christ covers it all.  The puzzle is complete.  I believe when God told me to look for the Cross over the Star of David, he was telling me that he had given me everything.  It is done! Now go!

I will be honest.  I’m a bit scared.  Not scared of failure, but just scared, because it is just so overwhelmingly big.  Therefore, I remind myself again of TD Jakes’ message at the Global Leadership Summit (GLS).  If you can accomplish your dream on your own, you are not dreaming big enough.   I am also reminded of the bracelet that God encouraged me to buy just weeks before mission—FEARLESS.   Dream big!  Fearless! And fear less!  I better embrace it all, and as I like to coach others and must take my own advice—just MOVE!  GO!  Have no fear, God is with you always.