Anne Howard on the Mustard Seed Impact

“OK, you’ve started up, now how do you scale up?”

“How do your plans go to scale?”

I hear questions like this a lot. Scalability is a good question for anyone starting up something new—like The Beatitudes Society. The questions are really asking, “How do you expand your capacity to serve more people?”

It’s a question about economics and impact and sustainability. And it’s a question about faith—faith like that mustard seed that Jesus talked about.

In Luke’s story about the mustard seed (Luke 17:5-6), Jesus’ friends want something bigger—they want quantity. “Increase our faith” they beg. Jesus tells them that faith isn’t measured by quantity; even a small bit can have a big impact. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he tells his friends, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Even something small can do great things. But what makes that possible? And how can great ideas grow from a small start, or “go to scale”? I see mustard seed possibilities in two places: our Beatitudes Fellows, and then the new initiative called CANA. As it turns out, these two are not unconnected. Read on:

Just over two years ago, The Beatitudes Society pivoted. We made a big decision to switch from adding more programs—and counting more numbers in our summer internships, seminary chapters, and website hits—in order to look at impact. We kept our long-term vision to build a national network of progressive Christian leaders who will be a visible and influential force for good in the public square. But we narrowed our focus about how to build that network of leaders.

To make a long story short, we determined that we would focus our efforts on finding and equipping a select group of young leaders, each one of whom has great potential to grow progressive churches in his or her local community. (We’ll hold off on the big strategic plan for later.) The yearlong Beatitudes Fellowship was launched in 2012. The Fellows’ stories of courage and risk and growth and local impact are mustard seed stories. They are “pulling up mulberry bushes,” i.e. growing new and vibrant churches in unexpected places across the country. Their churches thrive, and these leaders thrive, when they collaborate—with each other, with their neighborhoods, with other faith traditions, with kindred spirits, and with other bold entrepreneurs across the country. They are a network of hungry learners, eager for the experiences and resources of other nodes across the network.

And that leads me to CANA.

The first thing that attracted me to CANA was the good folks who took the time to invite collaboration: Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt.  CANA is not about these two guys, but it does bear the imprint of their humility, their generous collaborative spirit, and their daring vision for the future of the church as a force for good. The Beatitudes Society and our national network of Fellows is all about collaboration and cooperation, so it makes good sense for us to try to connect to this new “network of networks,” which the CANA website describes as “a collective of faith-engaged organizations, individuals, institutions and networks rooted in a generous Christian tradition, who seek to embody a new Christian ethos leading to constructive collective action in the United States.”

I’m pleased to be an “initatiator” of CANA, along with a growing bunch of people who want to collaborate in the public square on behalf of the common good. CANA is not a new organization, but rather a new way for existing groups to communicate and collaborate. As the CANA initiative says, collective action is “any action aiming to improve the group’s conditions, as enacted by a representative of the group.”

The goal is to create a “healthy ecosystem for connection.” That sounds like “scaling up” mustard-seed style. I’m in.


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