Understanding Ministry as Spiritual Entrepreneurship

I recently completed my first year in the University of Chicago’s Master of Divinity Program. All year, we have been exploring the question “What is Ministry?” I have struggled to define ministry for my work, as an interfaith activist and a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism. As I reflect back, both on this year and on the past few years, I believe I have found ministry in an unlikely place, yet a place that as a business major in my undergraduate years proves surprisingly relevant- that is, entrepreneurship.

To me, ministry is “spiritual” entrepreneurship. Learning to be an entrepreneur means learning to fill needs and niches with a skill or product. In ministry, we fill needs of the soul. I use my life experiences, my stories, and my interactions with people from all walks of life to form strong, lasting relationships. When we strip away everything we own or possess in our lives, we are left with our own soul and our relationships. I have learned through forming many different relationships that there is nothing more important than recognizing how every person in your life fills a need in your soul- by doing this, we realize how we can fill needs in others’ souls.

Spiritual entrepreneurship can mean a variety of things. According to Reverend Jim Burklo, the Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC, ministry is not a calling, but an “urge”. Ministry is “an urge to serve other human beings at the level of the soul.” Like entrepreneurship, ministry is about building relationships using the skills I acquire in my various pursuits. The most powerful thing I possess is a rich bank of stories of people that have entered my life at some point. Learning to recognize all the lessons these people have taught me allows me to constantly see the importance of all people, regardless of their differences to me.

In practicing ministry, like entrepreneurship, it is important to recognize “faith heroes”. These are my mentors and advisors, and I learn from their wisdom through experiences. My faith heroes are people like Rami Nashashimi (founder and director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network), Eboo Patel (founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core), Reverend Jim Burklo (Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California) – people who have utilized their skills in everything from business to an uncertainty about personal faith, and addressed urgent issues in local communities and now the world.  These three individuals began their work from humble yet meaningful places – Eboo, for example, founded the Interfaith Youth Core from the back of his car. Getting to know my faith heroes has inspired me – these are people whose stories are like mine, and who I would like to become. They learn from failure, meet people that move them, and turn their passions into action.

Spiritual entrepreneurship requires something Rami calls “agitation”. Rami saw a need in his community for basic health services, for activities that bring people together, and a place for Muslims on the south side of Chicago to worship together. At the same time, he saw a disjointed network in social services and non-profit organizations (including local religious organizations). Rami “agitated” the existing system by calling on local leaders to work together to form a coherent network, so that every organization played a key but unique role. “Agitation” does not necessarily mean seeing flaws, but means seeing assets unique to a community that are not being fully utilized. Rami saw a huge asset in religious organizations on the south side, but realized they were not communicating or working together effectively. Part of ministry and spiritual entrepreneurship means realizing gifts of individuals and who might complement them in their journey.

When I think about this practice of spiritual entrepreneurship, I ask myself, “where does faith fit in?” Can’t I do this work of building relationships, seeing needs and bringing my skills to them, without any faith at all? Some people do. My faith, Buddhism, guides me in my entrepreneurship. The Buddha famously taught two overarching concepts, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. The Four Noble Truths teach us that suffering is inevitable, and that in order to end our suffering we must recognize that our existence as human beings is impermanent and dependent on everything else in this world. Think of a ripple in a pond – a rock causes the first wave, which in turn causes multiple waves that grow larger and larger, until the whole pond is affected. The Eight-fold path serves as a guide in how we might go about eliminating suffering. To me, the most important spoke on the wheel of the Eight-fold path is Right Mindfulness – this means being “present” in any given moment. We practice Right Mindfulness by recognizing our connection to each human being around us, specifically, that every human suffers. In spiritual entrepreneurship, the ability to constantly remember my source of inspiration and drive plays the most powerful role in pushing me to keep working.

One last important aspect of entrepreneurship is risk. In my entrepreneur classes, the phrase “ready, fire, aim” at first seemed to promote risk-taking as directly related to reward. However, we eventually learned that entrepreneurs do not take risks; rather, they are “scholars” of their industry. They try one plan of action and tweak the plan as they see success and failure. In spiritual entrepreneurship, I believe “risk-taking” would equate to making ourselves vulnerable. In order to form meaningful relationships, we have to make ourselves vulnerable because it allows us to connect with others on a human level. Like entrepreneurs in the business world, we can be smart about how we make ourselves vulnerable. We can choose to narrate specific aspects of our story that deeply connect us to those with whom we form relationships. We can tweak our ability to engage with others based on our emotional experience with them.

My “urge” to spiritual entrepreneurship, or ministry, pushes me to pursue my passion for interfaith advocacy.  I hope to use my skills and my faith to bring young people of faith together to tackle social issues. My friends of different faiths and religious traditions constantly teach me about my own faith and identity, and these mutually inspiring relationships help me find center. I hope to live my life practicing mindfulness toward every human being and leading with my passion.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding Ministry as Spiritual Entrepreneurship

  1. Spiritual entrepreneurship is an inspiring concept, especially in a time when pastoral leadership in a mainstream church requires thinking outside the box and finding and filling needs on a bi-vocational or part-time basis. I don’t expect to find a full-time job with benefits and a job description that matches what I hope to do. I embrace the idea of doing pastoral, ecumenical and interfaith work on a freelance basis.

  2. Great post, Jem. Your point about learning from “faith heroes” is right on target, although I would add that we also learn from those that we serve. Another thing that came to me is the notion of responsibility; as an entrepreneur is ultimately in charge of her or his new venture, so must we as ministers be responsible and accountable for how our ministry manifests. That said, we also have to know when to turn to our team. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. A really great read. You are at the cutting edge of Buddhism in America, engaging in ministry in a way that creatively employs elements of this culture. My one question would be, how might Buddhism, including Mahayana texts and practices, accept or maybe challenge the capitalist frame that you are using? Instead of accepting the entrepreneurial frame, does Buddhism have resources that would critique this frame and possibly move our notions of ministry forward? Do you see any tensions in combining Buddhism and entrepreneurial capitalism?

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