What is your definition of success? - iPleaders

There have been a number of times recently when I have heard Danelle describe me as an ‘entrepreneur’ and something inside me has jarred. It isn’t a word that has sat comfortably with me at all. I’m happy to be an ‘ideas man’ (my hero is Dale in ‘The Castle’), but ‘entrepreneur’ has connotations I don’t find helpful at all – especially as a recovering workaholic – but also as one seeking to live in the way of Jesus. That’s not to say you can’t be an entrepreneur and a follower of Jesus, but my hunch is that if your identity is caught up in being entrepreneurial, then you will always be wrestling with the question of who or what you are living for.

I have always had a bent for starting things, rather than maintaining them – for creating from scratch rather than reshaping what has been built. It has taken form in various ways – being the first Phys Ed teacher at a Christian school and having free rein to create a Phys Ed program and culture. I was the first youth pastor at my own church for 5 years and then went to another church where I was again the first person in a paid role. I have planted a couple of churches and started a couple of businesses so I certainly identify with being an initiator and driver, but I’m pushing back on the term ‘entrepreneur’.

I don’t think I am an entrepreneur – maybe I was – but now I feel I am more of a non-trepeneur – both in Christian leadership and in my business ventures. I’ll try and explain…

Of course Church leadership is intended to be servant natured and not about the ambitions of the person in leadership. We do it for Jesus – it’s all for God’s glory – except that if we’re honest, there is a fair bit of our own glory caught up in that sucker as well. It’s hard to lead well, to lead in a significant way, even be perceived as successful all while keeping perspective on your own fallibility and brokenness. The recent spate of celebrity catastrophes in Christian culture is enough of a warning that we don’t always manage ‘success’ well – that we can easily get lured into a false sense of identity as a ‘person of significance’ rather than someone God has blessed with various capacities which we have used well to serve him.

I remember in my youth ministry years I had internally set a trajectory for my ‘ministry career’ that was all very upwardly mobile. There were a few churches I figured would one day be worthy of me being their senior pastor. It was raw, selfish ambition and as it drove me, it both catalysed a youth ministry and nearly destroyed a marriage. Those two things were happening simultaneously. The group of people we were leading was growing and showing all of the signs of what we would hope would characterise a successful ministry, but Danelle was feeling lonely and abandoned because I was never home or never fully present when I was there. There was always a new dream to aspire to and move towards.

Moving out of that headspace took a significant amount of time and some serious un-learning. It happened over a period of around 7 or 8 years, beginning with a pendulum swing to a completely opposite direction (no concern for being successful whatsoever) before in time I was able to settle into a place of accepting that I have been given a number of gifts and capacities – which I am to use well – but also realising I am not defined by them, nor am I captive to them.

Curiously one of the turning points in my focus was the birth of our daughter, Ellie. Prior to her birth – probably right up to the day before – I had very little interest in kids and other people’s children almost always reminded me that my dis-inclination towards them was well founded. Then… Ellie. From the moment the nurse put her in my hands just 30 second after birth I knew my priorities had shifted. BAMMMM!! So… the moral of the story is – if you are struggling with workaholism have a kid… Maybe not, but for me it was a like a meteor smashing my world and completely and permanently knocking it off its axis.

Practically though, shifting gears involved two primary changes – from seeking to be seen to being willing to be unseen and from being highly competitive to being genuinely co-operative. Both are moves away from self-centredness (my ongoing struggle) and reflect the priorities of Jesus better than seeking to be a ‘prominent leader’ as we sometimes like to call people. Maybe it’s possible to be both highly successful, better than others and still humble and kind, but I was never going to be that guy. I was gonna kick your arse and kick it hard!

So you might expect (or at least hope) that a Christian leader would sooner or later in life have this kind of a revelation, but business is a whole different playing field right? Business is survival of the fittest, where squeezing out the other guy to increase your market share is the name of the game. (We do it in church all the time – all while pretending we don’t) If Christian leadership is to be defined by humility and servanthood, then business is generally seen as a zone where our competitive nature can have free rein and where our ambitions can soar, unfettered by the restraints of a gospel that calls us to a radically counter-cultural expression of life. Just as there are going to be pastors who can lead massive churches live in the spotlight with genuine grace and humility there are Christians who can start, lead and build successful and highly profitable companies while retaining their sense of identity in Christ. I have never attempted to build a business of that ilk, and I think I have a hunch of where it may end up taking me back to…

If entrepreneurship looks like starting a building a business of stature and significance then what am I meaning by ‘non-trepeneurship’?

Fortunately I was able to start my first business when I was 43 years old and I had dealt with a significant number of identity issues. The business wasn’t my focus in life – it wasn’t the new thing that was going to define me. It was initially a bit of fun – a hobby – an experiment – that slowly began to gain steam and then became an integral part of our lives. Had it not been for a rather catastrophic loss of $250K as a result of the GFC I doubt I would have pushed into the business space much at all. But when we came back from our 2009 lap of the country deeply in debt I was forced to make the business work for us as a source of income and a means of paying off the debt.

But it came with certain self imposed constraints. I was employed by the church two days of the week. I chose Monday and Friday as my church days and Tuesday-Thursday as the days I would get my hands dirty. I sense an entrepreneur would have struggled to hold that balance, but for me it wasn’t a problem. I limited the work I could take on and in turn the money I could make to 3 days of the week, and I never worked weekends… never… And the reason for this definition in time allocation was that I now had real clarity on my calling. It was neither to be a successful local church pastor, nor to be a successful local business person. It was to be a missionary in my own backyard – to communicate the message of the Christian faith to ordinary Australian people in a language and a way they could understand. In church I was leading a bunch of people in that direction, while in business I was learning what that looked like practically as I engaged each day with the people in our community.

I never had the goal of being the biggest retic business in Perth, or the highest earning landscaper, or any of those kinds of dreams. In fact one of my goals was to narrow my service area so that each year I worked continually closer to the suburb in which our church was located. It was purposeful and intentional, all while making a decent profit.

In 4 or 5 years the business had grown and was busting at the seams. I had 4-6 week wait-lists and constant pressure to get thru all that I had scheduled and not get behind. I know some tradies like to have 3-4 months of work ahead of them, but for me I liked to have no more than a week or two, so that I could flex and adapt with whatever else may be needed.

When things got hectic I would put my business up for sale on Gumtree – usually the price was whatever the payout figure on the mortgage happened to be… I didn’t sense I was in any way ‘called’ to be a retic bloke – but this business was helping me become who I did sense I was called to be. One day a friend from church offered to buy half and we could be partners. I liked some of that idea, but I could also see the possible complications that may arise from partnering with a member of our church in a business venture. Aside from that ‘conflict of interest’ I was aware I wanted to keep business simple, flexible and autonomous. This was going to introduce a layer of complexity I was not sitting well with – so I declined. Instead I offered to teach him how to run his own business in retic and then after a couple of months working together, I sent him out to work on his own – as my ‘competition’. He started Mr Retic and developed a very successful business. Over the 15 years I have taught or trained 3 or 4 guys who have all gone on to run their own gigs – something I am really happy about – co-operation rather than competition and enmity. Two years ago as we did a second lap of the country in our caravan, my friend Dave, also from church ran my business in our absence. He continued working for me when we returned, but I was feeling the loss of those three factors (simplicity, flexibility and autonomy) so I pushed him out and encouraged him to buy Mr Retic, which was now up for sale. He did and now a second Mr Retic has come along and I’m really pleased for what both men have accomplished as they have entered business. In my younger years I would have done everything possible to be the best, to eliminate the competition and to win. Not so now. In a month or so we part company with Brighton Reticulation to some new owners – also people of faith. And we will seek to support them as much as we can as they step into this space and find their way. It’s a joy to be in this space in life.

Then back in 2021 at the end of our long service leave ‘lap of Australia’, I discovered ‘caravan weighing‘, a very niche business which at that time had few competitors in WA. It came out of a conversation at 80 Mile Beach with the original WA ‘caravan weigher’. He had sold his business 2 weeks prior and was now free as a bird – but I spent half an hour picking his brains, sensing an opportunity. To be honest we didn’t really need to start another business… but I had a hope for this one, that either it would facilitate how we did ministry in the years ahead or it would be a great way for a church planter to make some $$ while kick starting a church. We could employ that person, pay them a good wage and offer them the opportunity to arrange the work around their ministry priorities. If we owner operated then we would be free to help out country towns that were struggling while running the business during the week. Caravan weights has become a big thing and with so many people on the road there is an endless supply of work.

Again I didn’t approach this with the intention of cornering the market and becoming the best. My goal has been to slowly increase the number of jobs each week with 1 or 2/week in the first year, 2-4 in year 2, then doubling again in year three. With 6-8 jobs a week there is enough money earnt to keep a church planter afloat or to sustain a roaming ministry life-style.

I’m not sure quite where my brain was going when I decided to bring the supply and installation of diesel heaters under the umbrella of Weigh My Caravan. I think I just saw another opportunity to meet a need that was currently unmet, so I offered the service on my website. Then someone rang and asked me if I could do it for her… I was nervous as the only one I had completed prior to that was on our own caravan. But I said yes – hoping I would figure it out again easily enough on the day. Sure enough it all went well and worked out, then a second person called and a third… and so the work trickled in. I began to realise that other than caravan shops where the wait time is a month or two, no one was doing this work in Perth… So I then set up a new web presence not with any intention of growing a massive business but again with the hope that I could either support myself in mission work, or possibly support someone else with a job as they planted a church.

What I have discovered is that this is yet another niche that is totally untapped. I haven’t done any advertising for either Weigh My Caravan or Perth Diesel Heaters, but the right SEO seems to have positioned them to generate more than enough work. Along the way I have been able to introduce a couple of friends to these businesses and now they are running their own shows. Not what you’re supposed to do in business I know… but then who gets to call the shots and set the tone for the shape your business takes?

For those of us who follow Jesus we bow the knee to him first and ask what would a business he operated look like? Would Jesus be a ruthless tycoon always ready to take over competitors, unwilling to help others and relentlessly expand his empire, or would he operate in such a way that he pointed to an alternate reality – this thing called the Kingdom of God. With this as a guiding motif it’s impossible to see others only as competitors and the goal to be domination and subjugation.

So ‘non-trepeneur’ seems to fit me quite well. The decision to work at Quinns Baptist in 2009 was a step back in terms of any career status. I started leading a small established church on the fringes of the city and went from leading a national organisation (in the Forge days) to now leading a relatively unknown church in a part of the world no one cares much about. I sensed it was a calling to what I would now describe as ‘faithful insignificance’. I know the work we did was significant in the lives of those we were around, but no one is seeking us out to speak at conferences on how to lead ‘faithfully and insignificantly’. Sadly those qualities don’t inspire go getter leaders. 

That said, I’ve come to a place in my self where I don’t care if we work with a church of 15 people or 1500. I know who I am and what I can do in either space – and I also know who I’m not and what I shouldn’t be asked to do. Alongside that I’m conscious of the temptations to be seen as indispensable or an messiah figure to any group. Nup – that aint me – just a naughty boy (see Life of Brian if that last sentence doesn’t make sense)

Similarly I enjoy the business world and the fun of starting a project and seeing it flourish, but it really isn’t where I locate my heart and where my sense of calling is. Last week a friend popped his head into the caravan I was working on and chuckled as he saw me trying to squeeze into a very tight space. ‘Caravans aren’t my future!’ I said as we both laughed. And as I spoke I knew what I said was true – I wasn’t created to weigh caravans or put heaters in them – but it is a fun way to pay the bills as I get on with my real calling.

So in short – I’m not against creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. I love those qualities and I hope I carry some of them in myself, but it just comes back to why we do what we do and who we do it for. Perhaps if you’re feeling burned out in church leadership it’s time to step back and reassess who you have had been called to be and what you have been gifted to do. Maybe you’ve changed lanes and now you’re running an ecclesial enterprise rather than a church. Maybe you’re even good at it, but you feel it leeching your soul. The church isn’t a business and Jesus didn’t call anyone to be CEO of the body of Christ. Or if you feel like you’re losing your soul in the business environment then perhaps some clarifications around ‘who’ and ‘why’ will help you operate thru a different lens.

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