David Gill: Tell us about the “Gotham Fellows”.
Katherine Leary Alsdorf: The Gotham Fellowship grew out of our pilots of classes and discussion groups as a way to provide discipleship and public theology training at the same time giving an opportunity for the gospel to deeply change how people approach their work. We had whetted the appetite of the church enough at that point to be able to invest in this intensive program. We started in September 2008 with just 24 Gotham Fellows but now have 40-44 people in the program, a 9-month intensive theological training program during evening and weekend hours.
Gill: And what about your entrepreneurship initiative. How did you get into that?
Alsdorf: Part of Redeemer’s comprehensive vision for loving and serving the city of New York has been that the city needed lots more gospel-centered churches. But it also needed the people of the church to be leading the institutions inside the city and starting new ones. We call it the “gospel ecosystem.” We were nurturing those people inside organizations, usually at entry-level to mid-level positions, in hopes that some of them would make it to greater leadership positions. But when you help an entrepreneur from day one, when they’re the founder and they can set the vision and goals and strategies and create the corporate culture of the organization, they’ve got a chance to have a lot of gospel impact.
We decided this was a way to do on-the-job discipleship, coming alongside an entrepreneur and helping them think more deeply about every aspect of launching their new venture. Some of them will become viable institutions changing the city through their gospel-centered vision. We started the Entrepreneurship Initiative (Ei) in 2007. We work with about 40-45 entrepreneurs a year, giving seed money and prizes. We go through a whole business plan competition. We are attempting to create an infrastructure of support around them where they’ve got coaches and mentors and people (even customers) from within the church to help them get off the ground. The congregation has been great, volunteering time and coaching. We’ve even had some foundations run by people in the church deliver the next round of investment. We pick winners in the for-profit area, the non-for-profit area, and the arts area so that we’re really being broad in thinking about the kind of new organizations this city needs to thrive.
Gill: Do you explicitly ground this to the idea that God “entrepreneured” a world and Jesus “entrepreneured” a church — and showed us the way for creative entrepreneurship?
Alsdorf: Certainly. Creativity and innovation but also passion. Secular entrepreneurs talk about the need to have passion, without any recognition that the word “passion” comes from the passion of Christ and that, in his case, passion meant suffering for the sake of others. We want our entrepreneurs to connect to that level of passion. What they’re doing is really a “calling” not just a chance to unleash their entrepreneurial energy but to serve the city or the world at large. It’s been great to make those connections to deep theological themes.
Gill: Does a church-based center for faith and work need to be single-congregation-oriented or can it serve a partnership of congregations?
Alsdorf: Redeemer has three congregations and eight services. At this point, these three congregations are linked centrally and the center for faith and work supports each of them. But the mission all along has been to spin out new churches and congregations so we’re in a lot of conversation at the moment about whether some of what center for faith and work does can be pushed out at the congregational level and what parts of it should stay centralized. We’ve always been very open handed to serve other churches in the city so our entrepreneurship program, our Gotham Fellows program, our vocational groups, pretty much everything we do has been open to people from other churches. I’d say the participation is still 2/3 Redeemer but a lot of other people participate on a regular basis.
David Kim has succeeded me as Director of the Center for Faith and Work and my role now is to work under the auspices of our sister organization — called Redeemer City to City — to help other cities create a church-planting movement with a faith and work component that brings the gospel into the culture of the city. So I’m helping instill that into the mission and the DNA of churches in other cities.
Gill: If there’s a church out there in some town across the USA that says “I love what you’re doing there but we only have 200 people, not enough to have specialized vocational affinity groups,” what would you advise them to do first to get their church on board with what you’ve learned?
Alsdorf: The reason we wrote Every Good Endeavor was so that we would have an easy way to share the key theological ideas that have resonated with our congregation. I get emails all the time from pastors who are doing study groups with people in their church around that book. But it’s a lot more viable to give the theological resources and let the local church contextualize that into the type of ministry that would work in their church setting. It’s harder to respond to someone who asks “so how did you create a vocation group?” Rather than the “how-to”, I want to be giving the foundational thinking and vision and mission. The “how-to” of creating different groups and applications looks different in every context. There is no one-size-fits-all template.
Gill: Sheryl Sandberg has a best-selling book, Lean In. You seem like a woman who has not “leaned away” from leadership or challenge in your life but rather “leaned in” in the best sense of the word. Do you like Sandberg’s book? And is there any sense in which Christian women need to be more willing to be used by God in stepping up to leadership?
Alsdorf: I actually loved her book. I didn’t particularly expect to but I loved it. I think she captured the brokenness really well. She had such good sociological research. She really depicted the lack of justice, the lack of opportunity, the lack of joy in the experience of a lot of career women and I think having been part of the early phase of women moving in great numbers into the workforce, I’m excited that that topic is back on the table.
Her solution, however, comes up short. Her “lean in” is “lean into yourself” — “you can do it!” “You’ve got what it takes baby.” But whether you’re male or female, our “lean in” has to be “lean into God.” God wants us to be risk-takers and get out of our comfort zone and respond to our callings in the world — not on our own strength but by leaning into him. I want to meet her and I pray for her that she will understand that there’s a God to lean into in the brokenness of ourselves and the marketplace. How can change happen? How do we make this a better more flourishing world for everyone? We’ve got resources in the Word of God and in our relationship with God that provides so much more hope — a more realistic hope than just leaning into our own competencies.