In the past decade, an increasing number of social entrepreneurs—individuals who feel called to make a difference in the world while earning a living doing it—have been establishing themselves. From mindful consultants to healers to savers of elephants and rainforests, these entrepreneurs find ways to live their passion and at the same time make an income.
What do social entrepreneurs have to teach those of us who desire to offer ministry in the world? With shrinking churches and outdated denominational structures no longer able to support the ministries they once supported, is there a place for “soulful entrepreneurship” in churches and among those who minister beyond the congregational context? I believe there is. At the same time, we who offer ministry as “soulful entrepreneurs” must overcome a number of barriers, both within ourselves and in the church structures that surround us.
Ten years ago, when my book Soul at Work was released and I felt called to grow my consulting and spiritual formation work, I called together a discernment group from my faith community. For years I had lived with the mindset that following my calling was good, while promoting myself was bad. While not identical with self-promotion, promoting my work also fell into the “bad” category. After all, if I followed my calling faithfully, wouldn’t people flock to my workshops, retreats, and programs? Wouldn’t consulting clients line up at my door? If I offered quality work, I shouldn’t have to promote myself, right?
Wrong. Both a decade ago and then later, after the financial crisis of 2008, when layoffs and cuts in training budgets occurred, I found that this mindset wasn’t serving me well. People needed to choose carefully where to invest the little money they had. As one who helps leaders and organizations live out their deepest values, I had to demonstrate to potential clients how working with me would be worthwhile.
The discernment group met with me to help me find my way. The dialogue went something like this:
Group member: “Do you have a passion for the transforming work you do with leaders and organizations?”
Group member: “You teach, write, and speak about this, right?”
Group member: “How will people know about your books and programs if you don’t tell them? Aren’t you the best one to convey the message?”
Me: “Hmmm. . .”
This all seems obvious to me now, but until this conversation, I’d been stuck in an “If you build it, they will come” mentality that seems common among people in ministry. Yes, many people had found out about my work by word of mouth. At the same time, I realized a larger audience could be served by my work. And if I wanted to have a bigger impact on the leaders and organizations of the world, I needed to let them know what I had to offer. Furthermore, if I wanted to earn a living, I needed more clients. I didn’t feel comfortable with the “hard sell” approach. Yet I knew that sitting back and doing nothing wouldn’t serve me or my potential clients.
I taught my clients how to be soulful leaders and to lead from within. Might it be possible for me to be a soulful entrepreneur and to market from within? The same discernment group member (who had worked in sales) who challenged me to take my message out into the world also taught me that between the poles of “hard sell” and “no sell,” another approach existed. She called this approach “consultative sales” and asked if I could consult with people and see what their needs were and then offer my services if they seemed to be a good fit. I told her I could try.
With the help of a coach specializing in supporting social entrepreneurs, I worked on overcoming my internal barriers. I learned that it wasn’t a sin to reach out to people who might be a good fit for my programs; in fact, it was part of the ministry of serving them. And I learned that it wasn’t a sin to desire a living wage. At the same time, my coach helped me develop basic business skills, such as writing a business plan, learning what to delegate, and learning how to invest time and money in things that would bring a good return on investment. While I had spent years honing my ministry skills, my business skills were nearly non-existent. At first, I needed to spend almost as much time on the business side of my soulful venture as I did on the ministry side, until I could get things running smoothly. Only then could I return to focusing primarily on the ministry side.
Then I ran into external barriers. The business wisdom I learned told me how much I should charge for my work in order to earn a living wage. The churches and denominational structures who seemed to be my primary audience offered a tenth of that (or less). These external barriers seemed insurmountable. I began experimenting. Could some individuals pay my full fee for individual work and for programs I offered? Could larger churches pay my full fee? How could I develop a sliding scale that would allow me to offer what I wanted to offer to those individuals and churches who couldn’t afford my full fee? How should I price my longer programs? Was it possible to get grant money to offer financial aid to those who needed it for the longer programs?
Over time I learned that it was indeed possible to be a soulful entrepreneur. I learned how to balance charging my full fee sometimes with some pro bono work and some work on a sliding scale. I learned how to successfully apply for grants and how to direct program participants to sources of financial aid. I learned how to reach out to a wider audience. I learned how to design programs that met the needs of my clients. With the ongoing help of my coach, I set income goals and met them.
Soulful entrepreneurship is possible. At the same time, it requires a different skill set than what is taught in seminary. How might those with a calling to minister outside traditional church structures, as well as those within, learn to be soulful entrepreneurs? Coaches who serve social entrepreneurs may be one resource, though their language and approach require some translation. For example, it’s not unusual for coaches who serve social entrepreneurs to oversell their results and to subscribe to a worldview that many soulful entrepreneurs might find off-putting. Coaches sometimes offer would-be entrepreneurs approaches along the lines of, “If you follow my six principles the Universe will align with you and you’ll be able to buy a big house on the ocean.” My own way of thinking about this might be something like: “If I learn good business skills (including consultative sales) and combine them with prayer and discernment, I can trust that God will be with me and guide me and I will find the people who are a good fit for what I offer. I will serve them well, I will continue to improve what I offer, and I will be able to earn a living wage.”
I think we need coaches and training specifically for soulful entrepreneurs. If, as so many of us are now aware, the life of faith is less and less centered in congregational settings, we need ministers who can serve people where they live for the whole of their spiritual lives. In their homes. In neighborhoods and other communities. At work. And that means the church needs people who can prepare ministers for soulful, outside-the-box, entrepreneurial vocations. How, I wonder, can we draw on the diverse talents in our own congregations—as I did when I gathered my discernment group—to support and sustain ministries of creativity and innovation that depend as much on “real world” business skills as they do on the necessary biblical, theological, and liturgical grounding that have traditionally defined seminary curricula? Who might God raise up to prepare soulful entrepreneurs?