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Front Yard People in a Backyard World

Front Yard People in a Backyard World

Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.

After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.

And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.

One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”

Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”

Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”

This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.

“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”

The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”

We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.

She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.

No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.

Behind the Scenes of Rooting for Rivals  

Behind the Scenes of Rooting for Rivals  

On a Thursday afternoon in September 2016, Peter Greer scribed notes on his whiteboard as Jill Heisey and I kicked around ideas about a new book project. We came into that meeting with very little clarity about what the project would become. We left that meeting with just a bit more clarity, but a shared commitment to pursuing the project together.

In just two weeks, Rooting for Rivals will be available in hardback and audiobook at all your favorite booksellers. Nearly two years after the genesis meeting, a whiteboard becomes a book. Just for fun, I’ve included the most common questions I get about the book below.

  1. What’s the story behind the name?

The original working title for the book was Open Hands. We also kicked around the title Kingdom First. In the end, we liked Rooting for Rivals because it is both sticky and communicates the heart of the book. It was on a trip to Australia, however, where we learned that “rooting” holds quite lewd undertones Down Under. While blushing during a meeting with an Australian director of a Baptist camping ministry, I asked if we should consider changing the title. Without hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely not. Most Australians understand the American use of the word. And, you’ll likely sell more copies in Australia if you keep it as-is.”

  1. What role do your agents play?

Andrew Wolgemuth was our agent for both Mission Drift and Rooting for Rivals. Andrew (also my brother-in-law!) is an agent with Wolgemuth & Associates (“W&A”). Akin to sports agents with athletes, literary agents help authors pitch their ideas and serve as guides to the confusing world of book publishing. We’ve said this elsewhere, but Andrew and the W&A team—Robert, Erik, and Austin—are the very best in the business. I’m obviously biased, but these guys are capable, faithful advisors and friends.

  1. Who is the publisher?

Like with Mission Drift, Andy McGuire at Bethany House (an imprint of Baker Publishing Group) believed in this project and believed in us from the very beginning. The first time around, we pitched Mission Drift to a slew of publishers. Because of that experience, though, this time we went straight to, and only to, Andy. What stands out about Andy and the Bethany/Baker team is their genuine enthusiasm for these ideas.

  1. What was Jill Heisey’s role?

Better question: What wasn’t her role? Jill and I both joined HOPE’s staff in 2006. During the last 12 years, she has worked in a whole host of full-time and part-time roles. But, in every assignment, she demonstrated her gifts as a writer, editor, and thinker. Jill sharpened our thinking and refined our writing. That she agreed to work with the two of us makes Peter and I forever in her debt. It’s not an exaggeration say this book wouldn’t exist if not for Jill. I’ll also note the roles of Brianna Lapp and Tom Lin. Brianna joined HOPE’s staff midway through this project and has played an important project management role over the last year. Tom embodies the principles in the book and wrote an exceptional foreword.

  1. What’s it like to co-author?

Writing with Peter Greer is like sparring with a grizzly bear while riding a bull.

In seriousness, writing with Peter makes both of us better. He invites critique and offers it. He puts forward bold goals and invites helpful constraints. Our team used a shared Google Doc to draft, suggest edits, and collaborate. It became a bit unruly when the draft surpassed 30,000 words. But, otherwise, we found it to be a big improvement over emailing Word documents back-and-forth like we did last time. Some people ask if Peter is involved in the nuts-and-bolts or just the big ideas of the book. And, I can honestly say it’s both. Despite leading a full life and a growing organization, he is actively involved from start-to-finish.

  1. Who financially profits from the book?

The Kingdom! Unless your last name is Rowling or Sparks, writing is not lucrative work. But, Peter and I have committed all the royalties from this project to HOPE and other like-minded churches and ministries. So when you buy a copy or a case (thanks, Mom!), you can trust it’s lining God’s pockets, not our own.

  1. Why the seven deadly sins? …and the 2×2?

On the whiteboard in Peter’s office, we scribbled out a bunch of chapter ideas about how open-handed faith-based nonprofit leaders operated in contrast to close-fisted leaders: Covet vs. Celebrate, Hero vs. Humility, Enemies vs. Allies, etc. As these ideas germinated, we discovered our somewhat arbitrary list tightly mapped to a more time-tested list: the seven deadly sins. An early iteration of this concept, circa March 2017, shows a snapshot of the progression of the chapter outline.

The version of the 2×2 we included in the book emerged from the brilliance of Madi Burke. Madi, then a college student interning with us in Lancaster, suggested we consider Augustine’s categorization of sin as deficient love, excessive love, or misdirected love. These categories proved enormously helpful in organizing a 2×2 that was at that point still very much a work-in-progress (an earlier draft also included here, just for fun). Those two organizing frameworks helped to make sense of the book’s main ideas.

  1. Are you doing anything fun to launch this book?

Yes! A group of 180 friends, family, and co-workers signed up to help us launch the book (THANK YOU!). With the tutelage and hosting of our colleague, Blake Mankin, we are producing a six-episode Rooting for Rivals podcast series. We interviewed a few of our heroes and can’t wait for you to hear directly from them. We also have a series of videos forthcoming where we’re not promoting the book but practicing it—actually rooting for our rivals. Be on the lookout.

  1. What do your kids think about Rooting for Rivals?

My kids—ages 7, 3, and 1—are absolutely pumped about it. Apart from our oldest, all they know about the book is that the only pictures are tiny author headshots. Still, when I first saw the final product, they expressed their enthusiasm in their own unique ways:

Many other friends—some of you are reading this very post—volunteered to help launch Rooting for Rivals. Thank you, thank you.

The Best of 2017

I began 2017 with a confession about 2016: I was a grump that year. And, I entered 2017 committed to being less consumed by the scandal du jour and more consumed by the people and places closest to me.  And, I’m happy to report 2017 was a much better year. Though 2017 was difficult, of course, it was filled with untold joys, adventures, new places, and books. It was replete with making new memories with people I love and shaped by new habits and routines.
Here are a few of my favorites from the past year:
Best new book: Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. No book shaped our family more this year. Crouch helped us “put technology in its proper place.” We haven’t torched our phones and laptops, but we have established much better boundaries. Because of this book, we watch far less television, keep our phones in their “parking spots” when we are at home and are much more cognizant of technology’s insidiousness.
Best not new book:  The Chronicles of NarniaWe read this series aloud to our kids before bed. And, we all loved it. Eustace, Reepicheep, and Jill Pole captivated our imaginations and pointed us to the big story unfolding all around us.
Best articles: In 2018 and beyond, parental advisory warnings may need to preface news broadcasts. Vulgarity dominated 2017. From politicians to celebrities, each day brought new ugliness about men abusing their power. These stories create an environment for Christians to reimagine how we might practice our faith and serve our neighbors. Two articles I read in early 2017 framed the moment. The first, a New Yorker profile on Russell Moore by Kelefah Sanneh, painted the opportunity for the church to embrace the posture of a prophetic minority. The second, an essay written by Wesley Hill in Comment, offered a challenging invitation for Christians to rediscover our call to hospitality.
Best new habit: I read Deep Work this year with my coworkers. And, Newport’s research struck just the right tone for our modern work environment. He names the ways our always-available work culture drives us toward shallow and unfulfilling hamster wheeling and away from deep, meaningful work. Because of the book, my team has instituted “deep work Fridays” where email, instant messaging, meetings, and social media are strongly discouraged, allowing us the space to think and work deeply.
Best movie: Hidden Figures hit all the right notes. It beautifully wove together themes of vocation, race, virtue, and faith. And, it featured a killer soundtrack. The character who made me laugh hardest this year was the affable narcissist, Batman (Will Arnett), who starred in Lego Batman.
Best story you haven’t heard: One of the best parts of my job is reading the annual “Thurman Award” nominees. These stories–submitted by our staff from the 900,000+ men and women we serve across the world–remind me of all the things that are going right in the world. This year’s winner, Savera, is one of those heroes who won’t make news headlines but should. Formerly homeless, Savera now employs 50 people in farming, construction, and real estate businesses. With her success, she’s adopted eight orphans, she pays for her vulnerable neighbors’ school fees, and has built clean water wells for her neighbors.

Summer Days on the Farm

Summer Days on the Farm

I never chucked a straw bale before the summer of 1999. But that summer and the next, I moved thousands into humid, sticky barns throughout southern Pennsylvania.
My friend’s parents owned the farm and they put a few friends and me to work. We started early each morning, crowding into a pickup truck and bouncing along country roads till we arrived at that day’s barn. Once there, our job was simple: Fill the barn with straw.
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Simple, but not easy. With temperatures regularly in the 90s and the barns trapping in the dust and heat, we slogged through each day. And when the job was done, we’d ramble back to the farmhouse for heaping plates full of all sorts of cheese and meat-laden casseroles. Teenage boys eat food by the pound. Teenage boys working on farms all day eat food by the shovelful.
The work was not glamorous, but it was deeply satisfying. The demands of the job challenged us. The sense of completion energized us. We loved the fun of working with friends. Our boss taught us about farm life, trained us on new techniques and machinery, and celebrated our labor. And, he paid us well. When I opened my first paycheck, I couldn’t fight a smile from creeping onto my face.
I landed my first good job when I was 15. And have enjoyed good jobs ever since. Farm laborer, amusement park ride operator, butcher’s assistant, masonry mud boy, rec center intern, and then, of course, ten years at HOPE. In each job, I’ve had great coworkers, supportive bosses, fair wages, and enjoyable work.
It’s not lost on me how rare this is. Many people throughout history and across the planet have only known dehumanizing work. The log flume shift at Dutch Wonderland bored me nearly to sleep, but that’s about the extent of the hardship I’ve endured in my career.
John Perkins, a heroic civil rights activist, pastor, and contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “Jobs are the world’s best social service program.” Paid or unpaid, meaningful work is integral to what it means to be human. The unemployed, underemployed, and inhumanely employed understand the pain of not having good work.
In his book The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, looked at Gallup’s volumes of global research and came to this conclusion: the most significant global issue in our time—more pressing than even environmental degradation or terrorism—is job creation. “If countries fail at creating jobs,” says Clifton, “their societies will fall apart. Countries, and more specifically cities, will experience suffering, instability, chaos, and eventually revolution.”
Our task is to help as many people as possible experience the dignity of good jobs. And particularly, I believe, the Christian’s task is to help those facing barriers to employment to land good jobs. Entrepreneurs who are doing just that are some of the most inspiring people I know.
But even those of us who are not entrepreneurs can help people facing barriers to good jobs by supporting organizations that do. We can patronize great businesses and give to nonprofits that do as well (just a few of my favorites: Bud’s Warehouse, Mile High WorkShop, Magic City Woodworks, Jobs for Life, Krochet Kids, Rising Tide Capital, Seed Effect, Starfish Project, and HOPE International, among many others). I am so deeply thankful for the good work these employers are doing.
What Perkins, Clifton, and my bosses have understood is this: From the barn to the cubicle, good jobs aren’t incidental to human flourishing. We have been wired to work. This Thanksgiving, let’s celebrate family, bountiful food, and our faith. Let’s also celebrate the good jobs many of us enjoy.

My Charity > Your Charity

My Charity > Your Charity

I’m glad I began my career before Twitter really existed.
Deep in the archives of my hard drive, I’ve stumbled across more than one Powerpoint presentation that makes me eyes roll. Recently, I found one I used with a church about the superior effectiveness of HOPE International’s work compared to our peers. One slide included a bar chart illustrating how much it “costs” HOPE and our peers to serve one person per year. Of course, HOPE came out the clear bargain winner in contrast to our peers fighting human trafficking, promoting child sponsorship and developing clean water.
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It’s tough to know where to start in critiquing my own approach.
Let’s start with what likely undergirded my decision to make this presentation: I believed it was my job to quantifiably prove HOPE’s superiority. No matter whether that’s possible—more on that in a second—my first fallacy was assuming it was my job to make the point. In our culture, we excuse some forms of peacocking. We expect politicians to flaunt their records. We applaud musicians and athletes who declare their own excellence. But for most of history and in most areas of life, self-declaring our preeminence is off-putting.
And yet, there I stood. In my memory, and I hope I was more nuanced, my remarks went something like, “As you can see in this chart, HOPE is ten times more effective than these wiener organizations.”
There’s nothing wrong with talking about why we love the work we do. There’s nothing wrong with sharing the ways our teammates have innovated, nor about the ways God has provided and the lessons we’ve learned. But there’s everything wrong with telling everyone how awesome we are. Bragging should never get a free pass, even if it’s for a good cause.
I’m not saying nonprofit leaders shouldn’t quantify our impact, assess our work’s effectiveness, and invite the critiques of charity evaluators. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be pompous jerks about it.
Then there’s the claim itself—that Christ-centered microfinance was a better dollar-for-dollar investment than other types of charity. For a while, I thought this tack was novel. I sure wish it were. But nonprofits regularly employ this chest-puffing approach to tell our organizations’ stories. I’ve visited enough nonprofit galas and web sites to know it’s commonplace. Nonprofit leaders play nice when we’re in the same room, but get us in front of a room of philanthropists? Well, we just aren’t afraid to tell them about the many ways our approach trumps our peers.
Doctoral students have written tens of thousands about how to best assess nonprofit effectiveness. I won’t try and summarize that here. But what is obvious is my approach was, at best, apples-to-oranges, and perhaps apples-to-fences. Making comparisons like mine demand far more nuance and far less naïve exuberance.
But even if my claim was true—there’s absolutely no way of ever knowing—is that a ranking HOPE wants to win? If scholar Jeremy Beer is right, charities winning at efficiency are often losing at love. In an effort to prove effectiveness and rank how logical it is to support our cause, are we at risk of losing the heart and soul of why we do what we do? The perfect example of love and service to humanity was one that made no logical sense on the surface. Frankly, a lot of what we see in the life and teaching of Jesus rubs against pure rationality.
If I was to go back and share some advice with my younger self, I would frame my advice this way:
First, people care deeply about the why. We want to know why leaders do what we do. We’re interested in how we go about our work, but only if we first know why it matters. When we skip the why and talk about the how—as I did—it is like we’re providing directions but never sharing the destination.
Second, people rally around collaborators. Americans give away somewhere around three percent of their gross incomes. I’m quite certain the approach I employed would do little to move that needle. Instead, it would simply mean HOPE’s slice of the three percent might grow marginally larger. Leaders who collaborate, though, have a shot at actually increasing that pie. Leaders who link arms with others and celebrate the importance of their peers can cast a vision big enough to draw people more fully into the big problems facing our world and more into opportunities for us to respond to them.
Finally, I’d encourage me to remember the world is not mine to save. Posturing like my organization with our amazing methods had the market cornered on brilliance shined a light on me. In so doing, it did not shine a light on the one who is the creator of all good ideas and the one who understands more fully the concerns of humanity more intimately than I ever will.
When I gave that talk seven years ago, Twitter was thankfully still in its infancy. Nobody tweeted a picture of those embarrassing Powerpoint slides. I’m done trying to elevate HOPE at the expense of other great organizations. It was and is a flawed strategy—and it’s a lot less fun than celebrating our peers for the wonderful work they do.