Blaise Pascal’s translated words in Lettres Provinciales say, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
I reflect on these words often, not simply because a good friend, Andrew Shinn, spoke these to me over a taco hangout at Ocampos, but because it is the bane of my existence as a passionate person. See, just because you care so much about your idea does not mean someone else will too, or that it will solve that person’s problem. You’ve got to start by listening.
Early in my professional career, as a young, excited national director of training for a parent engagement company, I fondly remember being at the Texas Statewide Parental Involvement Conference in 2014, thinking to myself “how long have I been talking?” mid-sentence when pitching our program to a school superintendent. See, I was passionate about our work and the results we were getting around the country. However, I spent so much time selling this superintendent on my program I failed to listen to that person’s needs before offering what was (in my mind) a great solution. My objective was clear enough: find new schools to partner with us. However, the benefit to that superintendent’s schools was not clear. This helped me realize I was not at the conference for myself and my products, but to serve others, to solve their problems.
The approach I had used was a solution-provider approach, claiming I had the best product in town, versus a problem-solving approach, dealing with the customer or beneficiary’s pain point. You may ask, well aren’t they the same thing? No…but sometimes yes.
Now, as associate director at FPU’s Center for Community Transformation (CCT), I contextualize the work we do with entrepreneurs in our community. We often find folks who have the next greatest thing on the market. Or so they think: grandma’s secret taco recipe, a plumber with the best pipe sealant or a life-coach with the greatest secrets to happiness. What they think can be true, but when they are trying to provide a solution that others may not see as the solution to THEIR problem, this could be what I would call a “big oof.” Rather than suggesting solutions from the start, our strategy at CCT is to talk less and take the time to listen to what people are asking for.
CCT (cctfresno.org), part of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, exists to equip local leadership to increase the social, spiritual, economic and physical well-being of the Central Valley. We work with churches and faith-based community benefit organizations, as they are trusted institutions in our most marginalized community, and where our neighbors turn in their time of need. However, we continue to hear through many conversations with clergy that leaders of these institutions do not feel equipped to engage in specific neighborhood issues. I listen to their needs, their victories and everything in between. When there are victories, we celebrate and praise the Lord for good work He has accomplished in and through us. When there are problems, we roll up our sleeves, get to work, by beginning with a listening and learning posture.
A few examples:
- A coalition of Spanish-speaking pastors asked if we knew how many Spanish-speaking churches were in urban Fresno. The number was much higher than we guessed: one-third of the nearly 500 churches in Fresno were Spanish-speaking, and less than 5% of their pastors had any formal theological or leadership training. Since these pastors are often bi- or tri-vocational, they don’t have the time or resources to attend seminary or other higher education. This lack of training and investment led to everything from bad theology in the pulpit to leadership burnout and unhealthy congregations. These key leaders asked if we would partner with them to address this problem. Now a certificate program in ministry and leadership, delivered 100% in Spanish, has produced 110 graduates from more than 45 churches and from 19 different cities within the Central Valley.
- We heard churches and entrepreneurs of faith needed support to tap into the 90% of the marketplace spent on “business” rather than being donated to churches, foundations and community-benefit-organizations. Start-up funds were either too expensive or simply nonexistent. Eight years later, we’ve raised and invested $125k dollars in 53 “social enterprises” (businesses that accomplish the goal of a nonprofit). Some 56% of these enterprises continue to operate after their first year (normally 90% of businesses fail within their first year), between 2017-2019 (pre-COVID) generating almost $4 million in revenue and giving employment to over 120 people (many with barriers to getting jobs).
- Faith leaders told us payday lenders do business in our 22 communities of concentrated poverty, where banks often do not. The practices of these lenders lead to financial chaos that enslaves communities in generational poverty. With those leaders we identified a training they could employ to lead their neighbors to financial well-being. Now, Faith & Finances, a faith-based financial literacy program from the Chalmers Center, is used in more than 45 churches, 12 nonprofits and four Section 8 housing communities to inoculate hundreds of people against payday lending.
Churches and community benefit organizations want partners and tools to help them live out their Gospel calling in difficult circumstances. But they don’t want us to tell them what they need. They want us to listen and then help them fashion a response. The tool—social enterprise, micro enterprise, financial literacy, specialized training in transformation, etc.—has be right for the specific challenge. And to determine what that tool is, we begin by listening.
As Sunbird alum (insert Sunbird caw here), I pray we continue to serve, in good faith and good will, using fewer words and a posture of listening as we continue to Engage the Cultures and Serve our Cities as God calls us to, both as individuals and as a collective.