This article is the first of a series of 6, written by the members of the Cycle 1 cohort of ABHMS’ Co-Creators Incubator. The series explores 5 trends of Missional Entrepreneurship with a final reflection on the Co-Creator Incubator experience itself.
The application for Cycle 2 of the Co-Creators Incubator goes live on November 1, 2020. Visit www.cocreatorsincubator.com to apply.
Trend #1: Ventures struggle to find their place within conventional church systems and models
I had served 20 years exactly with the same church. It was half my life. I held many roles on staff, my last being the worship arts pastor. This fact is ironic, based on what I’m doing now. I grew up within this community of faith—what I would call my church family. I met my wife working at a vacation Bible school. Some of the staff had been neighbors, officiants of my wedding, and dedicators of my children. I always felt as if I belonged and was honored to lead and serve what I believed to be an important part of the culture.
But when I felt my calling growing in entrepreneurial endeavors and began to share those desires, I didn’t feel supported. In fact, because my passions were growing within the film industry, I even felt a bit of shame for wanting to spend time making films.
“Seems like you’re more excited to do film work than you are your church work,” said one of my pastors.
I honestly didn’t see a conflict. I see my film work as church work. The story of Jesus’ life and God’s love for the world is a narrative that was meant to be shared in new and creative ways. My film work was an extension of that. I had grown through a nonchurch community group of artists, a committed group of artists who met regularly, almost like a church but without the programmed liturgy.
But would I be welcomed to find a place for my “ministry”—my new venture within the church? I wrestled through my sense of being stifled and confined to work my 40-hours-a-week pastor job. All of our efforts, as much as we said they didn’t, went toward Sundays. We spent more time catering to one person lecturing the hundreds, passing out name tags, setting up chairs, doing announcements, and recruiting volunteers. And don’t get me started on the Superbowls of Sunday (Easter and Christmas).
I wasn’t using my gifts but was serving on Sundays and producing holiday gatherings. Somehow this was supposed to be the most important work of all? I’m leaving out a lot of information about internal church conflict around vision and lack of good leadership in crucial areas. But, during this time, I knew my time had come.
I had served a long time and felt proud of my time with the church and basically was ready to move on and start anew. I thought surely I would be celebrated and blessed on to a new chapter of life. After all, shouldn’t the church constantly be sending people out, not hoarding them to keep the institution afloat?
But when I announced my desire to leave, I was met with disappointment. I saw in the faces of those I told and the responses that I heard.
Them: “Will you work for another church?”
Them: “Are you leaving the church because your faith has changed?”
Me: “Maybe. Maybe my faith, values, and vision are changing, but I love God and want to serve with Jesus in every area of my life.”
Ultimately, I knew these responses weren’t about me. There were so many challenges and fires to put out that my leaving just opened a hole that had to be filled. I give the church leadership a lot of grace because they were dealing with all of the challenges every church faces. I was just another cog in the wheel.
I couldn’t help but be sad. See, I’m an optimist. If I were the lead pastor, I would want to partner with those growing and starting new things. What a great opportunity but to link arms and help an entrepreneur pave a new way—not just fund it (although that would be nice), but help launch this new thing together. But that didn’t happen maybe because my vision wasn’t missionary enough in their minds. I didn’t fit. My new venture, BraveMaker, definitely isn’t a church, and it doesn’t have the word ministry in its URL. However, I still think of myself as a pastor/minister 100 percent of the time.
I was hoping to feel like I was the college kid graduating and moving out of the house, but instead, it felt like a spouse being served divorce papers, quite painful and disillusioning.
The hard part was I was staying in the same city and starting this nonprofit venture. The same city where I served as a pastor in a building every Sunday now would focus the center of my nonprofit work. I focused on creating and curating brave stories through a film on justice, diversity, and inclusion. And for almost two years, we’ve been hosting community events in which the public can come see new films, experience new art forms and hear people share their stories of how they are living life, bettering the world, and finding hope and love. And we get to talk about stuff my church never did. Disability representation, gender identity, racial justice, sexual orientation, gender equity, immigration, gentrification, and more.
I knew I was being called by God to create BraveMaker, and it has been so fulfilling. I thought, “Well if my former church doesn't want to partner, surely others will.” I thought I would get the backing of many churches. I was wrong. I came to find that many churches are not ready to talk honestly about LGBTQ+ issues, for one. And still many white churches are scared about racial justice conversations. I get it. There are no easy topics. But I thought, surely, the churches would jump at the chance to be relevant and have a real impact in communities on what so many people long to discuss and learn.
Finally, after months of trying and striving to get any churches to join me—let alone support me—one of my board members said, “You need to give up the church as part of the BraveMaker mission.” The mission is just too risky in their eyes, and you can’t spend your time trying to change their minds. He was right, but I was a bit heartbroken. I thought, “I’ll keep inviting them, and maybe one day, they’ll join.” Does the church have room for people like me? I don’t want to lead a Sunday school or do a small group. I have different ideas and help people find faith in different ways. I know I’m not alone. So I’ll keep going forward.
Since then, I have had a few churches that bring groups to our events and promote their attendance on social media. It’s slow, but it helps. To this day, no church has become a regular donor or partner with us. It’s been a great group of individuals, grants, and some corporate sponsorships that have sustained us. I had high hopes that churches would be at the forefront of our work. Usually, churches want to think creatively about what it means to be relevant. But maybe it’s too scary, and all the red tape of elder approvals and congregational meetings slow it down. If you’re reading this, churches, include us entrepreneurs in your mission budget, and then you can take credit for our work. We all know that out of 168 hours a week, there’s only so much you can do with those two hours on Sunday.
I still love the Church, which is the worldwide, universal people of God. And I hope more traditional churches (local congregations) will embrace new, alternative ways of impacting culture and creating growth opportunities for all people to find their value and calling and, ultimately, come to know a loving God.
In fact, one of the most faith stretching things you can do would be to find those who love God and view their work as ministry. I’m doing it, regardless of anyone’s blessing.
Finally, pastors and church leaders, celebrate your artists and creatives not for what they can do for you on a Sunday but what they are doing out in the world. Beware not to minimize anyone who’s not a pastor, Sunday school teacher, greeter, usher, or small group leader. The church needs each and every one of us to do our work out in the marketplace—not just in buildings with crosses on them. It’s all just as important as the woman preaching in the pulpit, the guy in the skinny jeans singing his worship music cover songs, and the youth pastor discipling his students while sipping his almond latte at the church’s Cornerstone Cafe. We all are living a story. And I believe brave stories change the world.
Tony Gapastione is the founder of BraveMaker, which seeks to invest in filmmakers, coach creators to tell their stories, and gather audiences to engage in essential conversations that explore life’s meaningful questions.