I still remember the Sunday morning like it was yesterday. I mentioned in a sermon that as a pastor I feel like I have just enough light to see a couple steps ahead of me. In other words, I was admitting my limitations regarding my ability to know what was going to happen in the future. I was dropping the pretense of leadership that acts as if it “has it all together” and instead let people into my heart and mind for a moment. That was a mistake. Later I heard that there were people who were disappointed with my comment; no doubt they wanted a leader who sees clearly into the future and knows exactly where they and the church are going. As a leader you remember those moments. You begin to believe that it is safer to keep up the illusion that leaders always know the right thing to do and how to do it.
The problem with this illusion is that it kills the pastor’s soul; the weariness is sure to lead to burnout.
The gospel tells us a different story about leadership: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV
This is upside down leadership. Leadership that admits it is weak and that through our weakness Jesus will show himself to be strong. Paul’s messsage about leadership is absolutely counterintuitive to the way many in the world (and the church for that matter) think about leadership. Yet to the leader who is despairing of the burden caused by pretending it gives hope, it gives life.
I first learned about Tara Russell and what she is doing for the kingdom of God from the VERGE Conference website. Tara will be one of the speakers at VERGE this week. I was inspired by her story and I trust you will be too.
Michael: Hi Tara. Tell us a little about yourself.
Tara Russell: I was born in the mid-west in Pennsylvania and moved a good bit as a kid. We lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan before moving to Indiana where I graduated from high school. I’m the oldest of three kids and have fabulous parents (still married) who now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I played a lot of sports, and had many Christian friends, but didn’t grow up in the church. I went to college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and studied Mechanical Engineering before going to work for General Motors, Intel and Nike. I now live in Boise, Idaho with my husband, Jeff, and my kids, Tyson (6) and Lucy (4).
Michael: You are the CEO and Founder of Create Common Good. Explain to us what CCG is all about.
Tara Russell: CCG is about “teaching people how to fish.” We provide experiential job training and employment to refugees and others in need in order to equip them to find, perform, and retain jobs and move towards self-sufficiency. We use food to change lives and operate small-farms, value added food production, and culinary training and gourmet food service. I spent years in Asia working with General Motors in Shanghai, China and then again in Bangkok, Thailand working with women involved in prostitution. I know first hand the difficulties and challenges one faces when living as an “alien in an unknown land.” When the economy tanked in 2008, unemployment in the refugee community skyrocketed to nearly 50% in Boise. Create Common Good was born to fill the gap and prepare refugees to thrive in the workplace.
Michael:NightLight International is an organization for at-risk women in Bangkok, Thailand that you helped start. Tell us about it.
Tara Russell: NightLight is an organization that seeks to bring holistic life transformation to at-risk women. In many ways, my work starting NightLight with a group of friends in Bangkok was very similar. I focused much of my effort on the job training and business aspect of the new organization. NightLight (NL) helps women leave the bars and enter healthy employment by coming onboard to make NL jewelry. NL jewelry is then sold all over the world.
Michael: Few people wake up one day and just randomly decide to start a company. What inspired and motivated you to start these two companies?
Tara Russell: In 1999, when I was living and working in Shanghai for General Motors, I spent the year praying about whether God wanted me to be a “missionary” or a “business person.” I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I saw these paths as two distinct paths. During that year, God showed me that I was made for business, but that he wanted me to live in this messy space between I’ll call “social enterprise.” In essence, I felt God wanted me to figure out how to use business to transform lives. He affirmed to me that work IS spiritual, and we were all made to work. We were all given unique gifts and talents, and the challenge we all face is figuring out how to best use them to improve the lives of others.
Michael: Not everyone should attempt to start their own company. With that said, what would you say to the person who is seriously wondering how they can make a difference in such a big world?
Tara Russell: I think the first step is trying to identify what you’ve most gifted with – what’s “in your hand” so to speak. What do you love? What keeps you up at night? What is your heart burdened with? Whether you start volunteering somewhere, go to work with another organization, start a non-profit or for-profit, all have great purpose. There isn’t one path that’s the right path, and another that’s wrong. God asks us to work with all our heart as if working for him, regardless of where we’re at (Col 3:23-24). I believe we’re all called to tangibly put love in action, somehow. To me, that is living out the gospel, daily. Whether you’re being there for a neighbor who needs to be heard, standing up to advocate for women-at-risk, being the best mother possible, or modeling grace to a co-worker, we all have the chance to do that daily.
Michael: Let me guess…you are kinda busy! How do you balance being a wife, mom and an entrepreneur?
Tara Russell: Life is crazy, but crazy wonderful. My husband and I both run start-ups, and we have two small kids. That said, we have built a lifestyle that we feel is healthy and we’ve created rhythms that work for our family in the season we’re in. We protect our quality time as a family ferociously. Our kids don’t do a million activities – they go to school part-time and then are at home otherwise for the most part. We enjoy simple dinners at home, sitting down as a family at the same table, and lots of play time on the weekends and breaks (runs, bike rides, hikes, ski dates, etc.). My husband and I have learned that we’re both quality time, not quantity time people. 🙂 We’re both fairly independent, but we treasure our time together. If he’s been traveling or I’ve been traveling, we create a special space to connect, just the two of us, and have some fun together. As a mother and entrepreneur, I’ve had to be open and flexible to shifting my work schedule in varying seasons of my kids’ lives. I’m mom first. When the kids get sick and need me, I reschedule all my plans. I have had to be really FLUID essentially, and sometimes it means working in the evenings or at night once my kids are down. But I do work in an office outside the home, and we have a great babysitter that watches the kids a few afternoons a week. Another afternoon we “kid share” with a family on our team, and one afternoon a week I work from home.
Michael: Name a few books that have really challenged you lately.
“Your system is perfectly designed to get the results you’re getting.”
There are a few primary ways that discipleship happens in the context of church:
Sunday Morning Worship
One On One
In these different discipleship venues we use the Bible, pray and genuinely desire to help grow our people spiritually. I don’t doubt that for a moment. But we have to face up to the truth that the church is increasingly becoming irrelevant to those on the outside. What’s up? Where is the hole in our discipleship?
Is is possible that in our desire to love and disciple people that we are actually causing them to look more like a consumer than a follower of Jesus Christ?
Here is how it might happen. Let’s say I am the leader of a Small Group. Each week we get together and apply God’s Word in such a way to heal the broken areas of our lives. Sounds pretty good, right? It is good! It’s just incomplete. If we don’t lead our people into mission then our discipleship method is actually reinforcing the half-truth that the gospel is to make their own life better.
The same thing is true in any discipleship context. Sunday morning or in one on one relationships. If I am in a one on one discipling relationship and the gospel is only used to overcome a sinful habit or to help me through a trial then why would we ever expect them to view the gospel as a call to come and die for the good of others?
Let me restate my previous question like this; is it possible that we are discipling and reproducing people who look more like ourselves than they do Jesus?
I have been blogging for a number of years over at Missional in Suburbia (recently shut down that site). I love talking about the mission of God in a suburban context, but it’s definitely time to branch out a bit. On this new site topics will include the gospel in everyday life, messy community, the mission of God, my love affair with books, and last but not least upside down leadership–I am saying goodbye to a non-biblical leadership that pretends to have it all together. Make no mistake about it, this blog functions as therapy for me and through it I hope you are blessed and encouraged.