Second thoughts on entrepreneurship

Opinion

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Tom Holmes

A 125 year old elm across the street from my office was taken down last week by the village. It measured 40 inches in diameter. A windstorm, such as it had withstood for over a century, proved to be the cause of its demise. A few weeks ago high winds tore off a branch, which was big enough to be a tree itself, and smashed in the roof and windows of a car parked on Brown Street. Safety and liability issues ruled. The tree had to go.

Life went on, of course. While the once noble tree lay sawed up into three foot segments on the parkway, daffodils and crocuses were blooming, the grass was greening up and buds began to appear on the maples flanking the newly created stump.

I've spent a lot of time with the members of M2 lately. Being with this group of merchants is exciting. Energy and business savvy breed success. Success attracts compatible, high class businesses. A cooperative village government creates a favorable business climate. And the result is a favorable "ecosystem" in which independent entrepreneurs with unique, quality merchandise can flourish.

I've spent a lot more time over the 23 years I've been here with the clergy group we call the ministerium. I suppose we could refer to them as M1. The contrast between M1 and M2 is striking. While businesses on Madison Street are making money, every church that has been in Forest Park for more than twenty years has decreased in number of members.

Members of M2 have the energy of sprinters. Members of M1 have the pace of long distance runners. In the faith community there is a strong sense of history. In the business community the focus is entirely on the future.

I am sometimes envious of M2. I wish my congregation could have their energy. I would love to see some of them become leaders in my church.

But then I got to thinking about that 125 year old tree: how it stood strong for so long, how it provided shade and beauty to the residents of Brown Street as generation after generation of tulips and marigolds blossomed and then died.

St. John Lutheran Church has been in existence as a congregation for 147 years. They have worshiped together and served the community since before shots were fired at Fort Sumpter. St. Paul's, St. Peter's, St. Bernardine, the Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ have been standing and living at their corner locations around town as Madison Street businesses have come and gone.

Why is the faith community struggling while the business community is thriving? Every pastor in town, of course, would like to know the answer to that question. Bill Winston of the Living Word Christian Center, a few weeks ago, gave us his answer: "The Church is a business, and pastors need to be entrepreneurs." Now, Pastor Winston puts his money where his mouth is, and he would say that the proof is in the pudding. After all, he arrived in town less than twenty years ago, and his congregation has grown from twelve to twelve thousand.

But here's the catch. Bill Winston is planning on leaving Forest Park.

His congregation has outgrown its present facility at the mall, so, as any good entrepreneur would do, he is looking to relocate and expand.

Business people, you see, are oriented to the bottom line. If what is on their shelves isn't selling, change the product line. If you're not making money where you are, relocate. If your income isn't enough to support a staff of ten, lay three people off.

The churches which Bill Winston criticizes don't think that way. They are, if you will, oriented to the top line more than to the bottom line. That is, they tend to be focused on being true to identity and purpose more than to what sells in the community. Some call it a stubborn inability to change with the times. Others call it faithfulness.

I am writing this on Good Friday. The attendance tonight, I expect, will be about half of what it was when I arrived here. The cross doesn't sell as well as it used to. I worry about that, of course, because as much as I want to maintain that the church is not a business, if income doesn't match expenses, sooner or later the picturesque church building at the corner of Brown and Dixon will be replaced by high end townhouses.

But there is something about that tree across the street that makes me want keep on investing myself in this small group of people who come here to worship and serve. There is something precious about having roots in a community. There is something about institutions that last for more than twenty years that gives strength and stability to community. There is something good about commitments that are based on the top line of purpose instead of the bottom line of profit.

When I go to the Morton Arboretum, what do I want to see: one hundred year old trees or bright, yellow daffodils that are here today and gone tomorrow? I, of course, want both. To switch metaphors, it's a lot more exciting to be a ship that sails the seven seas than it is to be a dock.

More exciting, that is, until a gale comes up. That's the time every sailor wants to be tied securely to the dock.

The blossoming flowers on Madison Street have added color and excitement to our town. Enjoy them while they are blooming, but don't be so taken with their brightness they you neglect caring for the trees outside your office window.

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