Stephen Lewis is an organizational change strategist and facilitator, and a leadership development specialist, focused on helping leaders to discover their purpose, passion and calling in life.
He is the President of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), a national leadership incubator that cultivates wise, faithful and courageous leaders who make a difference in the world through the church and academy. In 2017, he founded DO GOOD X, a start-up accelerator for diverse, faith-rooted entrepreneurs creating social good ventures. Stephen has earned degrees from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Duke University.
You can learn more about him and his work at www.leadanotherway.org, www.fteleaders.org and www.dogoodx.org.
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Patrick Reyes: Hey, what's going on! It's Dr. Patrick Reyes here and today I'm excited because you all get to meet my boss, president Stephen Lewis. He is also co-founder of Do Good X, an accelerator designed for underrepresented social entrepreneurs who have limited business development experience and are passionate about developing businesses that do good in the world, and co-author of Another Way.
And also again, a co-author of a great book that's coming out in March, A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation, which you can pick up now. He co-wrote it with our senior director of communications and co-founder of Do Good X, Kimberly Daniel. And beyond all of this, beyond author, beyond president, Stephen Lewis is also just an inspiring, thoughtful, genuine good human, so welcome Stephen Lewis.
All right president Stephen Lewis, jefe of jefes here at FTE. I'm so glad you joined us on the Sound of the Genuine.
Stephen Lewis: It's good to be with you, Pat.
Patrick Reyes: Stephen, I know from working with you day to day not all your business, but I know a lot of your business, but I'm curious about how you got here. So if you can take us back to, who are your people? Where'd you grow up?
Stephen Lewis: Yeah. So my people - my mother, she's from a little small town called Center, Alabama and my fathers from Roxbury, Boston. And they met at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, North Carolina, a historically black college. My dad's people were originally from North Carolina and they migrated, through the great migration, to New York and Boston.
And so I had this kind of best of both worlds. I had this rich melting pot of the inner city in a Northeastern city like Boston and then I had the slow rural farm life from my mother's family. And that made, I think, for an interesting kind of dynamics of just growing up. My brother and I, we tend to be a little bit more laid back but we really enjoyed going to Boston. My mother worked for the airlines and so we got to travel a lot. We got to see a lot at a very early age, different cities, spending time with cousins and having a good time. That's where my roots are from. Those roots I think, shaped a lot of who I am today and just in terms of my demeanor and the ways in which I pursue life.
Patrick Reyes: And what were you dreaming at this stage? What were some of your imaginations about what you wanted to be when you grew up and who was there to fan those flames?
Stephen Lewis: Yeah, I wanted to be an architect, strangely enough. And,I had a knack for drawing, took several courses in grade school, took some courses in college. I just enjoy the dimensions of writing and transposing and the kind of art of creating structure and the ways in which that can hold ideas and people and organizations and communities, to do a particular thing in that regard.
And I was more artistically inclined in that sense. As a young boy, I had a lot of imagination. Curiosity and imagination were the two things that kind of went hand in hand, but also I was always asking questions, exploring different things. And that really gave lens to a lot of my kind of artistic sensibilities of drawing what I saw in the world. A lot of it was more, I think, internally versus externally focused.
Patrick Reyes: And did you have artists around you that were giving you feedback, really helping you explore this artistic side of you ?
My dad was interested in a lot of different things. He enjoyed drawing cartoons and that type of thing. So he would be the person that I would say that was probably my muse or my inspiration of thinking artistically. My mother, she did other types of things, but she was very creatively inclined as well, So I enjoy drawing, but I also learned a lot from my mother.
My mother wanted to raise us up in such a way so that we could be self-sufficient - that we wouldn't have to depend on or expect our partner to do for what we should be able to do for ourselves.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, that sounds like you got an incredible support in that house. Like you got mom and dad: artists, cooking, making things. did all that carry into your subject matter? How did your friends…did you have a little group artists you rolled with? Were you always in the studio? Like what was it like?
Stephen Lewis: No! I was a student athlete. I swam through middle school and did competitions and swim teams and that type of thing. Well in junior high I played basketball. So none of those things translated in terms of what I was doing in a school setting.
In many ways, I was a chameleon. I was six-four, kind of adapted to my context in that regards. So no, those kind of artistic things were things I kinda did outside of school or in my own kind of private time. All was not grand and great. My parents divorced at a young age and my mother suffered from depression and other forms of mental health issues and that type of thing.
So in terms of our support, we had extended family but most of them didn't live in Charlotte. My mother and father had a rich, thick, HBCU network of friends. These were college friends that stayed intact and that was supportive of our family and created that type of nucleus of support in that regards. And that's a strong network and they rolled deep. And those were long standing friendships that even continue today. And they were a large part of the extended village that raised us as a part of our extended family. It seemed like either every weekend or every holiday was some form of kind of a family reunion, even if they were not your blood relatives.
Stephen Lewis: That close-knit family and those friends will always ask you questions. What do you want to do? And what do you want to be? I remember being as young as five telling my mom, not really knowing what all that meant, but saying, Hey, you know, I feel like something about my life is going to be more than just, a normal, everyday kind of person going about his or her life.
That was probably my earliest inkling of maybe there might be something more to my life than just growing up, getting a job, getting married, settle down, having kids, growing old and then transitioning. I felt like my life had like greater significance, I think, as early as five.
And so I had a community that was always asking me like what I was going to do. I was a late bloomer. I was still trying to figure it out, not sure what I was going to do. When I got to college I landed on business. I've always been interested in business because of what it can be in terms of autonomy, economic freedom, but more importantly, the way in which it's a container to organize people and mission and to accomplish things in the world, because the vast majority of the wealth in the world, and I think in the country, are wrapped up in organizations. And if you can help organizations restructure and approach the world with an open hand versus a closed hand, we can make the world a much better place than the one that we've inherited.
Patrick Reyes: How'd you discern your college choice or the business program choice?
Stephen Lewis: Let me tell you, it was so unsophisticated. There were two options that I was kinda thinking about. And for the most part, I wanted to stay close to home to help my mom out with my younger brother and also she had some health challenges. And so I just felt it would be better for me to stay close to the home, you know, that's what families do - you revise your plans. I went to the local commuter college, UNC Charlotte, which is a mammoth of an entity today. That's really how I made the decision in terms of a college. And I knew that I was going to go into business. I just didn't know what aspect of that, did that entail.
Patrick Reyes: So what did that set you up for? UNC Charlotte, you got business, regional commuter campus. It really sets up folks to stay in that local spot. Was that your kind of imagination? I'm going to go out and graduate from here, start a business or join a business?
Stephen Lewis: I knew that I wanted to go into some form of business. I graduated, went to work for Moody's Investor Service, and that was all about really trying to look at, 10 Ks and quarterly reports and reporting data, inputting, those things used to come on CDs an, business will use that to make evaluations around businesses in terms of investment and that type of thing.
I probably did that for maybe12 months, but I was also working throughout the entire time in college. So I worked in retail selling lady shoes and going to school full-time. And all that really just set me up for thinking about the ways in which, business could be a viable path for me in terms of my work. So that set me up for Nations bank, which is now bank of America, And I was one of a hundred recruits that came into this kind of 60,000 member organization.
And it really was about trying to equip the next generation for executive leadership. It was one of these leadership programs [where] you do a 18 month stint in different areas of the bank in three rotations, and then you get a permanent placement after that. I started in this niche area within the bank, which is corporate real estate and asset management. Then I went into corporate purchasing. It was there that I learned a lot about business and it opened up my imagination about how, of all the bad things that businesses do in communities, how they can have a positive impact in communities as well.
I remember there was a little Episcopal church in downtown where my boss would go and do community service and volunteer there. And so as part of this management recruitment program, they wanted you to be well-rounded. So they wanted you to have this kind of broad exposure.
They also wanted you to be paired with a coach and paired with your peers and learn how to do problem solving. They wanted you to also be a community leader so they want you to be out in the community. So one of the things I did was shadow my supervisor at the time who was a 36 year old guy from Tennessee – Charles.
And he was a finance guy. He was an accounting guy. And I just shadowed him and saw the ways in which he was involved in community but also saw the ways in which, the bank was working to do community development. And not so much as the gentrified way that we typically see. So that was my kind of startup aha and exposure of the positive effects that businesses could have within communities. And shadowing Charles at the time it really expose my awareness about the importance of this is not about being workaholics or working in your job from nine to five, but it is about how you think about the well-roundedness of what it means to be a leader.
But in doing so what I also realized was what I didn't like about business. A large part of that is, I feel like it's like the academy, which is you get a job and then they want you to move here and then you just got to pick up your family, go somewhere else and you do your time there and be successful there. And then another opportunity, then they move you here. And I was like, I didn't want to be moving around the country chasing the dollar or climbing the corporate ladder. Because of my mom's health and well-being I was really looking for more stability. How do I plant where I am and actually build from there? Those are some of the kind of inner kind of turmoil that I had about do I really want to do this?
Stephen Lewis: There has to be more to life then climb the corporate ladder. I had to believe that my life has greatest significance then chasing the opportunity to be the big person. And you know where I was at that bank, I was two levels from the CEO. I was very fortunate in terms of being able to drive board members back and forth, build relationships, see what happens at the executive level. So the exposure, bar none, was not like any other type of training that I have ever had. In many ways it’s what has cut my teeth and has prepared me for the type of professionalism that at least that I tried to uphold and bring even into my work today.
You know, in that sense, there's a lot of good that has come as a result of that experience, and also realizing that experience is not everything. But that institution did more for my kind of vocational imagination and cultivating the next generation and my own sense of meaning and purpose.
I said, if I could just bottle this up and take this to the church, if I could help religious institutions - it should be even more important because they're concerned about God's work and God's leaders and how this works is going to continue - that I should be able to take this, bottle it up and bring it to religious institutions.
And man, let me tell you, I was green as a granny smith apple. My experience was met with a lot of raised brows and ‘this dude is talking martian’ and he's from a whole different planet. That's not what we do. That's not how we do. I don't think it was a language barrier, but it was imagination gap in terms of imagining who we are and what we can be. As an outsider/insider of church, I could see the possibilities. I could see what religious institutions could be. I could see what the educational formats could be. The bank offered that type of dichotomy for me in thinking about the ways I was in the bank, but I was also being shaped and formed in my religious institutions and vice versa.
Being that in-betweener or being that liminal space allowed me to continue to leverage my creative ability to see artistically possibilities and to imagine possibilities that otherwise may not have been seen if I was just like, focused on one thing or the other.
Patrick Reyes: You mentioned bringing them into religious institutions and we haven't heard that part of your story. So tell us a little bit about, like church. Like where is church showing up as you're going through this kind of business, the level of access you have at the national bank level, thinking about investments, asset management, all this stuff that most 20 year olds don't get to even witness, let alone make some decisions on. So where does the church play alongside that narrative?
I was always in my home church, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church out of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a middle-class church. As a young kid in high school, you know, church was not necessarily a bad place. It was a place where I could continue to ask my questions. It was a place that affirmed me in the sense of, this church will put my drawings up to be viewed by members. It had that type of affirmation in that sense but that was a lot of pressure, but also a great appreciation of how church was affirming the gifts of someone young, before I even could put those two things together.
When I was at the bank, I was still attending Friendship and I started doing lunchtime Bible studies. I’m not really sure why I did that except feeling a sense of call. And in large part that was because this book, in this faith, it's like the center of black Christians life. I felt like I need to understand it more. As I studied more and got involved within my own church, I had this wonderful teacher, the Reverend Dr. Sandra Caldwell. She really opened up my imagination about studying the words beneath the texts. That was like giving a kid a chemistry set. So coming back to this lunchtime Bible study, I was doing lunchtime Bible studies, people in the corporate setting who were young professionals who wanted to do this, but what that helped me to do is to get clear about what it was that I believe or what it was that was important to me. Let me say it that way.
It's good to have that kind of outsider perspective to help push you. But all of those, I think Patrick, was the beginnings of a call to ministry. I didn't know what all that entailed, I didn't even know there was a seminary let alone, like I just knew my church, for the most part. But then like that whole side of me like I had not put two and two together, but it was church that really shaped and formed me that way. Where the pastor was a teaching pastor and was a deeply spiritual, contemplative type of guy and yet a very fiery kind of preacher. And so I remember his son and I discovered commentaries and we used to go to the Wednesday night Bible study. They’re having these conversations going through the text and so me and his son were sitting there and we raised our hand and he was like *deep sigh* yes, son? Ask your question. He would ask his question and then I would. He said, “Y'all gonna gang up? Be easy on the old man.” And you know, we sitting in the sanctuary, probably about 50 people, and it got to this point where we were just like, “So let me ask you a question.
Do you have to believe in the Trinity in order to like you know be Christian, because there’s nothing in the book that says anything about trinity.” And then you just have these different types of questions and just bantering back and forth. The pastor enjoyed it, at least that's what he conveyed. But you had this bantering back and forth between the next generation and an elder around questions and ideas.
Stephen Lewis: And that was a place that was affirming, when I know the church is not affirming for a lot of people. That was my experience and it was there alongside the corporate setting that I was thinking about like, I might be called to ministry. But I had this quandary because I was thinking about doing an MBA. So I sat down with my boss. He was a great mentor but he was also a devoted Christian leader within his own church. You know, we'd be working late at night and he's working on something for church or whatever.
It's like, man, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be preparing for this meeting. We got these banking presidents coming in. Oh yeah, well you're going to do that presentation. I'm just doing it now. So yeah. But that's the only way you gonna learn. You gotta learn by doing. And you do this little short presentation, a little small piece, and then he would carry it forward. But that's how he was. But he said, come on in tomorrow, I'm going to tell you something.
Did you know that so and so is song was so-and-so? But did you know this or that? And he started just quoting off these kind of Bible facts and that type of thing. And I sat down with him one evening as we’re having one of these exchanges, and I say to him, ‘I'm trying to contemplate, should I go do the MBA or should I go to an MDiv?’
He didn't steer me in one direction. He said, why don't you apply to both? Me at the time, I was like, I feel like I just need to apply to one or the other because it wouldn't be, like faithful, if I applied to both because then it’ll just be like whatever you get in, that's what you were supposed to do.
So I sat with my pastor and way led onto way. And I applied to the MDiv, and got accepted to Duke and went there. [I] told the folks in the corporate setting and surprisingly, they were very supportive. They were very supportive and loving. And so I had a person asked me, that I was sharing a cubicle with, so you're going to seminary. You gonna be a preacher. So what are going to do next You gonna get you a church? You're gonna do this that or the other. And I said, you know what, I don't know?
Instinctively, I feel like, I don't know. Like I like to do that consulting with churches and denominations around like the next generation, like cultivating the next generation of leaders or helping them change their institutions. Some of what I've learned here. I don't know if there's a job like that, but I'd love to do something like that.
And then fast forwarding, after seminary, six years later, I winded up at FTE. Unbeknownst that there was anything like an FTE. Cause FTE was defunct in the late nineties, it was just getting back on his feet. And so I didn't know anything about an FTE, known as the Fund for Theological Education, let alone that this is an organization that did this kind of work. Who would have known I'd be doing something like what I was at least trying to articulate six years prior.
Patrick Reyes: We're going to have to bridge that gap a little bit. And I'm going to tease out your former bosses way that he expressed it, you need to learn by doing, so in that six years, you're going through your MDiv, you get a job between this and FTE. You start doing some stuff. What are some of those things that you start doing to tease that out?
Stephen Lewis: One night I was over my pastors house I think I had gone to drop-off something for recommendation or something to that nature, to request for recommendations. So I was on my way home, I don't have music turned on or anything - just time to clear my head. I'm on these back streets and I hear this, do you trust me? Now I'm a natural skeptic, I'll be the first to tell you. I think I'm a healthy skeptic, but I am a skeptic in things.
Do you trust me, I'm thinking to myself, I'm making this up? What? Do you trust me? I don't know. I don't know if I do. As far as I can explain it, Patrick, I'll say it this way, it sounds crazy, the point is that, if you trust me, let me steer the car, let me drive. I'm not talking metaphorically. And for a minute I take my hands off the steering wheel and in this moment, it's this whole idea about whether or not a skeptic can trust the eternal.
I get home, I get out the car and I'm dumbfounded. I never had that type of deeply spiritual, intuitive moment before…and one of the reasons being so is because - I've written about this in Another Way - when I'm six or seven years old, my mother had postpartum depression, but she had some other things going on. You know I prayed and prayed for her and nothing happened. How do you trust the eternal, if you can't trust the eternal to take care of your primary caretaker? So there has been this thread of a skeptic learning how to trust and lean into his own source, the eternal, that animates all life.
When I get out of school, I have another one of these encounters. I was dating a young lady for two years, and was going to get engaged and they go on a vacation and they die in a tragic accident. And I was dumbfounded. I was like this is not supposed to happen to young people preparing for ministry.
Like this is crazy. And I didn't feel like I had anything within my educational background or, upbringing that prepared me for this kind of horrendous experience. If you would rewind back to the things leading up to that summer, there were things had come up that summer that were signposts of what was to come.
I'm doing an internship in this church and this woman has a tragic experience and I tell her you know, it's okay for you to be angry with God. I was big enough to handle what you're going through. You don't need to clean it up for me or whatever. I'm mid-twenties and she was like, no, I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna…She just kept it real polished, kept it real positive, kept it real clean. And that was her faith. She could do that. And then fast forward two months, this thing happened to me.I was not as buttoned up as she was. I was mad as hell.
I'm saying all this to say that there's something that's beyond what we're studying, there's something beyond the curriculum, there's something beyond the syllabus, there's something beyond what we're doing on Sunday that has arrested me and continues to, ask this question of, do you trust me?
And I hear it and it's strong, it's a strong urge, strong sensing. So when I get out of school, I had to put my whole life back together again cause I couldn't return back to where I was. I needed a fresh start. I came to Atlanta, got married, I got a job, working for Sprint, of all places. So I’m like, I'm not doing this. I'm going to get me a regular job and I'm gonna fall back on my finance degree. And that's what I was doing. And then I met, Alton Pollard, who was the director of black church studies at Emory, was at a little small church on the Northwest side of Atlanta [he] said, hey, we need help. Would you consider coming over? And I came over there to visit, and I decided that I would volunteer my time.
And so I'm with him and I'm with another friend of mine, he says, “Your on cruise control. You could be doing a whole lot more than what you're doing, but you're not. You have to find resolution within yourself to figure out how you make peace with your past harm and injury and find a way to move forward because you have a lot to give to our industry, to this work.” I was like, man, I'm not trying to do that. He said well I want you to come to a class. I'm gonna let you and a couple of the folks TA with the class. And that’s what I did. And you know, it was an opportunity to try on, that maybe the academic kind of track was for me.
I got accepted to Emory to do a ThM or something like that and I decided not to do that cause I was thinking about just doing a PhD. And so that was one of the things I was contemplating after I finished. I did that and I decided that I'm a practitioner and I want to figure out like, how do I bring this work…I'm wrestling with these ideas and I gotta find me a laboratory. So they said why don't you take it to the church and that's what I did.
I went to this church, Trinity African Baptist Church, Portia Wills Lee, United Methodist who didn't get an appointment and she started church. Entrepreneur [who] gave me a chance, with Alton Pollard and some wonderful people over there.
And she allowed me to do things that very few people would get to do when they were young. She gave me a lot of latitude to be able to teach and experiment and do a number of different things. I did a whole host of stuff like asking people from the pulpit, are there things that you've always wanted to ask but never felt like you could ask of the Bible because it was considered to be taboo? If you are one of those persons, in the back of your pew, there's these little index cards you can write those questions down. What we get on those index cards, I was like, people are going through some real stuff and it's all masked with ‘how you doing? I'm doing fine. How you doing?’ And we keep on moving. But man, the stuff that people were asking about their loved ones, questions that they have about whether or not their loved ones were going to be saved, orquestions that they had about their own faith and their own kind of inner turmoil?
I said let's scrap whatever we was doing in Bible study. Like this should be the thing that we're doing for the next, whatever period of time. And it's like great, let's do it. Let me tell you it was standing room only. Do you hear me standing room only! And what that taught me is that if you meet people where their needs are and build your stuff around those kinds of needs, where they're like, man, I'm convinced, you can do just about anything within these institutions and people will love you. So that's what we did.
It was one of the best laboratories for what a small church with limited resources can do. If I can do this in a small place with no resources, man, if I have some resources, you can't tell me nothing!
Stephen Lewis: And so I was doing that. And 9-11 comes and Sprint basically said if you want your job it's in Kansas City. I said I'm not traveling, I'm not moving. And I had another mentor who said Hey, why don't you come over to ITC? There's a place called the Institute for Church Administration and Management. You'd be the training manager and help them work with clergy around conflict resolution, interpreting financial statements, taxes, all these types of business/organizational type of stuff so I was the person who's responsible, kind of helping making those events happen.
And FTE called me up and they said, Hey, we need somebody with your skillset. So I said what's that? Someone with business skills and a theological background. I went there and the rest is history. And the FTE has more resources and I'm able to like do some amazing things with some amazing people. But those early laboratories of places like Trinity, even in places like the Institute for Church Administration and Management, those early places, like those laboratories, it was like my imagination on steroids.
Patrick Reyes: As I think about the way you're piecing all this stuff together, one of the things - both that I love about Another Way and your leadership is - the things that you are making space for both in yourself is this deep sense of questions. The space for anger, to be angry with the divine because the world has moments of deep pain and trauma, the space you gave yourself and gave your congregation members for grief, both with what happened in your own family and your own relationships, but now you come into FTE where you're doing the next generation, where you're piecing these things together. You've got this great experience in the business world around what does leadership development look like? You've experimented some at this church where you're saying, Hey, your whole self, bring your whole self, all your deepest questions to this moment. To go all the way back to the beginning, you're an architect, you're an artist. So you're piecing all of this stuff together. Tell me about those first years at FTE. How has all of this coming together in this call at FTE?
Stephen Lewis: I was doing FTE and I was still working at the church. Actually, this is the weirdest thing, April 27th, 2003 I get ordained, which is also the anniversary date of FTE's birth. Shortly after that, me and several friends we get together and we was like, we need something else. We need a different container that can hold the fullness of our questions and our wonderings and our imaginations. It was probably about five or six of us, we got together and we get this thing, it's the trust, it's the souls trust.
And it's really people who are on the margins of whatever centers that call them to assimilate. But that group came together as a way of demonstrating that we need a different container. And so one of the things I want to encourage for young people is that if you need a different container, create a different container. You don't have to continue with business as usual. You don't need to have to adhere to business usual if you don't want to do that. Folks always say, even at FTE, it's like you know why y'all encouraging young people to go to church, become leaders of churches, whatever. Church are not this, they're sexist and they're heteronormative, male-centered and all these types of things like why would you encourage that?
And my whole thing is if the church is not what it is for those who want and feel called to it, they can help shape what the church can be and what the church will be. You've always had people who were resistant revolutionaries who helped shape and broaden…pushed these institutions, these communities of people to where they are and where they could be.
And I would say there's a lot of women that are at the forefront of that, that have helped and shaped, at least in the African-American church context, when they didn't get their just due that has helped these entities become what they are. Nowhere near where they need to be, but have gotten us further along in that sense.
And I've tried to encourage that, because of my own experience and saying that, Hey, you can do this. You don't even need a bunch of money. You just need folks who want to come together and say, Hey, let's do something different. It's that kind of inkling that I think about where work in the church and working at FTE kind of helped me see some of this.
And then as my work has progressed at FTE, I started thinking about how do we help people lead change? What's the alchemy of how change happens? That led it into a project where a former colleague, Matthew Williams, and I went with two other partners to see one of our funders and said, Hey, we thinking about this idea, let's make it happen.
But the precursor to that was this thing that I brought to Matthew, it was something to the effect of CDPL - it was like the Center for Public Leadership. And I had a concept paper or a business plan of this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to build this thing. I'm just passing through. I'm not here for FTE a long time, just passing through, I'm going to develop this thing.
He and I shared an office at the time, and FTE had this bright idea that we’re going to put all these young professionals in the basement and just let them do their thing. And that's what we did. There was a lot of kind of ideating between our offices and other people but CDPL was the muse that became next generation resources, which was another kind of non-profit idea concept which then became Project Rising Sun, which is the thing that actually got funded. But those iterative ideas is what emerged to Project Rising Sun. I was taking all that energy for the church, came to this place where I'm now sharing his office with his brother, he had hopes and dreams, we started talking about what if we could fund folks to like do their creative ideas? This is 10 years ago, writing up on a whiteboard like man, if we could like fund people, helped them like develop their ideas. Now you fast forward to 2017 comes Do Good X. All these things are iterative ideas that emerge out of ideation.
Patrick Reyes: So tell me about DO GOOD X, because this really is about ideation and innovation.
Stephen Lewis: The organization had been exploring this idea around innovation. We have a number of scholars and graduates who are coming out of school and recognizing that the job market is going to change and having to freelance or be more entrepreneurial and trying to piece their calling and vocation together.
And those jobs and opportunities are not going to be there in the future, like they were in the past. Part of what we began wrestling with is that a lot of young people that want to make a difference in the world as activists and nonprofit leaders and other kinds of social services kind of agencies, or they want to work on these more kind of structural things.
And so part of the question I've began asking is what do we do post activism? How does the kind of fervor and the values and the problem that you're working on get sustained after the activism, but also even beyond their lifetime? When we started thinking through all this, part of it was acknowledging that if we could build something that democratized access to business and organizational skillsets for leaders who feel called to build new kinds of institutions as their ministry, and to build ministries that may be businesses that employ others and address real concerns within the world, that would be a gift. That is another form of discerning pathways into ministry And so Do Good X was really born out of the confluences of these different realities. So, what would it be for us to actually democratize access to knowledge around starting businesses for good?
Particularly those who are women and people of color. Do good X is a discernment process to help people discern, are you cut out for this? Is this something that you could do? And if you are there are others that will join you to help you carry your work to the next level and see how way leads on to way
Patrick Reyes: So you have Do Good X and FTE, tell me how all of this kind of fits under that umbrella of vocation, helping people find meaning and purpose
Stephen Lewis: In many ways what I was trying to bring to FTE was this idea that the next generation it's not the church of the future, the next generation is right here right now on ground floor giving shape to what will become. And this idea that I want young people, I want my daughters, I want your daughter and son and the next generation to be able to live and lead out of their own sense of meaning and purpose.
We talk about vocation and call, but it really is people's own sense of meaning and purpose. I haven't, travelling across the country and beyond, met anyone who said, 'I don't want my life to matter.' I haven't met anyone who said, ‘I don't want my life to have meaning.’
Haven't met anyone yet who has said that to me. A lot of what FTE is doing, it really has been kind of extracting what is this organization? Yeah, we give fellowships but at the end of the day what we're really into is the idea that we're helping people to discover their own sense of meaning and purpose, and specifically how they live that meaning and purpose out through Christian ministry and teaching as a way to make the world a better place or to make a difference in the world.
And so that's a lot of what I've tried to cultivate in my work at FTE, towards that end.
Patrick Reyes: People who hear this and knowing that you’re a president will think, oh wow, presidents just ideate. That's what they do. They come up with great ideas. They stick with them. They create programs and incentives to do this work, to help a new generation of young adults find meaning and purpose.
But we know the job is also much more than that. Bringing all that business experience. But also the people who you bring along, so it's not just your idea, but you're teasing in all this great energy for a national organization, from all parts and walks of life. Executive leaders, folks who have aspirations to be an executive leader, how do you go from these great ideas that iterate over years, but also are refined by the people and the structures that you put in place?
Stephen Lewis: So one of the things I would say is that the ideation stuff, while it may seem all nice and beautiful, ideas don't mean jack. They're a dime a dozen. At the end of the day it’s whether or not you can actually execute to make an idea happen, right? Not just any old idea, an idea that really has impact, and that can actually make a difference in the lives of your constituents and advances your own particular mission.
The energy is not in the ideating, the energy is in the execution. And I want people to hear that, right? Because the work is in the details. I was working on the execution of this grant for Project Rising Sun.
And so every morning I was facing the rising sun, putting in two/three hours before I even get to, you know, the day's work. That's what has to get done in order to see a thing through. So as an executive, what I would say is that all of what you are up to rests on the execution and you have to have a good team.
And you have to be able bring that team along. You got some executives, that's all they do is ideate. You got some executives where their position is nothing but a position to build their own brand. That is not me. Whether you're at the top of the bottom, we all got to roll our sleeves up.
So I know what it is making copies and doing all those types of things that you have to do in order to make the organization work. That's what it is being a generalist. That's what I learned at Bank of America. It's not about the top, it's about the people who are actually helping to carry the work forward.
And so you gotta bring people along and you got to work a lot on the interpersonal dynamics. Leadership, for the vast majority, is what takes place below the neck. It's not about what you hear it's not about what you think. It's the emotional waterline below the neck that really is the thing that you have to attend to.
And so when people think about organizational change, when people think about organizational behavior, you're attending to the dynamics between people's response to change, people's excitement to change, people's pushback against change. People who are comfortable in doing things like they've always done it.
And so the kind of coordination and the communication and the training and the evaluating and the assessment and making sure you got benchmarks and how you coordinate all that together towards a particular vision, like it is not for the faint of heart. I was not interested in being the president of FTE. Like I didn't go seeking that out. I was a young person in the organization saying, you know what, I'm going to get to my work. Like I want to get to the work that I'm supposed to be doing for my own vocational trajectory.
I had a senior director of communication walk down to my office and she said, ‘you're going to be the next president of the organization’. I'm thinking to myself, I'm not even going to be here. I'm working with an executive coach. I'm probably going to go do something else. She said, watch you're going to be the president. You get this type of community affirmation and then, you have detractors, people came to me and saying, you know, it's not your time. I said, I didn't even say I was applying for a job! Again, it's this whole thing about trusting that way will lead onto way.
And so why do I say that? If you're pursuing an executive role, I want you to know that while it may come with particular perks and that type of thing, realize that the job will be always bigger than you. And it's not as glamorous as you think it is.
It's like preparing for another profession that's different from the one in which you've been trained in. If you're not looking for it and you're open to it, similar things. You gotta build your skillset and your capacity to do this work in a particular way that you may not have thought about or even considered.
Stephen Lewis: And so people who are interested in the call to executive leadership need to know the stuff of organizations. From operational, programmatic, they need to think about how change gets done, who has agency and power and authority to affect change, they've got to think about insurance, risk management, they got to think about all types of liabilities and that type of thing. They gotta be able to distinguish themselves as the executive from their own personal opinions and ideas.
They gotta be able to self-differentiate. This is me talking versus this is the executive talking and also understanding that when they're talking they can never fully distinguish themselves from each other. So learning how to do that and to be masterful - all of that takes time. And so you can't just think because I was trained in this one thing that naturally transfers over to being an executive. Our industry needs good leaders and our leaders need better education.
And the education from a PhD to a master's level degree in the humanities is insufficient to prepare them for all of the stuff that they will endure and encounter as an organizational executive. They need that stuff, but that stuff is such a small part of what they will be doing. You need someone who knows the stuff of organizations and particularly nonprofit leadership or we'll continue to possibly have what we've experienced and what other organizations experience, which is you set people up in roles that doesn't allow them to be successful because the jobs are so big.
But when it comes to running an organization, the executive office is not a pulpit. The executive office is not a classroom, it’s not a library. And so if you're going to be a nonprofit leader you need to know the stuff of nonprofit leadership. Take this to the seminaries and that type of thing, what trains you to be a researcher, is not the same thing that you need to be an executive, and there's a mismatch in the education and the opportunity.
And so if you don't have experience of learning this stuff on the job, then there's a educational gap for preparing people for executive leadership. I'm just fortunate because I've had a lot of experience outside of religious institutions with regards to executive and nonprofit leadership.
You have to be a student of organization. If you're a student organization, you've gotta be a student of people and their behaviors and the dynamics and the structures and the process and the policies and the governing bodies, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Those things are, crucial. They're critical.
So you can have an idea or you want to, but if you don't know how to navigate the mechanisms that help make that idea come to fruition, it would be all for naught. What I want for those who are interested and those who are called, is the industry to do a better job in their preparation for those entities. Because our institutions are going to need even more qualified leaders and their training is going to have to be better because these institutions are going to be even more strained; they're going to have, less resources to work with. That is me looking back over my life and saying someone who was thinking about the next generation of leaders for Nations Bank did not wait till Nations Bank needed leaders to be thinking about developing leaders.
And they didn't think about when they need to be training them to then be training them. And what I'm saying as an entity who's responsible for cultivating the next generation of leadership and a voice of many within the industry that is cultivating leaders for its institutions that we need to adhere to that same type of advice and not wait till when leadership is needed and to get about the business of cultivating and addressing the educational gap, so that institutions have a fighting chance.
I still believe that the vast majority of our resources are tied up in institutions. We need folks who can be moral agents, have creative minds, but who are artistically competent executives to execute on the mission of their institutions and hopefully to contribute to a life of flourishing and healing for the constituents that they're working with.
Patrick Reyes: That leads me to this question of you were an artistic kid drawing things that you saw in the world, you had these experiences at the wheel of the car where you heard, do you trust me and I know you have your own practice with the divine, almost as a mystic, I am wondering how you marry these two things together?
So you just gave me the kind of like organizational, O.D. stuff, the organizational leadership stuff you need to have to be an executive, but the executive role isn't always forward-thinking, it's not always generative. It's not always bells and whistles and dreaming up new plans and then putting the right people...It also can be a lot of time alone in discernment, thinking about the decisions you have to make, the people that you're responsible for and your own sort of inner voice, what's happening in your body. You said most leaderships’ from the neck down and what you feel in your body. Tell us a little bit about your practice as an executive leader in that. How do you manage that?
Stephen Lewis: Because like everybody else you're pulled in so many different areas and sometimes, trying to put out fires. And so, you know, really trying to find space to cultivate and to reflect on the work is you got to steal away that time to do that.
I have inbreakings of just, in a church kind of way, we would talk about, you know, this spirit that has this unction that is calling you, it's like these deeper intuitive sensibilities that call out to me. So sometimes, I have dreams about stuff that's going on and then something I need attend to, and it's something I need attend to. Or it's reflecting and trying to get up underneath the symptoms, what I see and what I hear and what I think, but really get into the structure, like why do we keep seeing these same things over again?
I'll intuit something, I get an impression you need to go look or you need to search XYZ. It's not me and I do that, and it'll be you know, an answer or some insight that leads to something that we're working on.
I think part of what my gift is a synthesizer - trying to bring different ideas together and trying to pull them together.
And to me, it's like an artist who's trying to draw something or paint something on a canvas and it's pulling in these multiple kinds of ideas, but it's will I be sufficient enough to pull this thing together the way that it's coming or it's communicating to me. And that's always the burden of this.
But those kinds of practices require you to get off the grid. I get off the grid weekly. Or it's being in nature. It's riding bikes or it's walking trails or something. But it is getting out of the routine and not like vacation, like we need this more regularly. So weekly, I'm spending time giving attention to my intentions and giving attention to what is reciprocated as a result of that. We need many sabbaths and sabbaticals on a weekly-daily basis so that we can come back to the work, refreshed and renewed.
Because this is below the neck kind of work you gotta be able to guard your person or your field because you can become a magnet for a lot of people's kind of emotional turbulence and some people haven't learned how to shield that. They're exhausted. People who haven't learned how to do that, they track the energy of other folks, or whatever. They feel empathically, what other people do. So you gotta figure out how do you gauge that and monitor that in a very balanced or a harmonious kind of way, because if you don't, you'll be too open and you'll feel and intuit what other people are like sensing and you just can't work that way.
So let me give an example of that. A couple of years ago, you and I was doing something together and it's one of these emotional, hard days for a number of different reasons. Our colleague was leaving to go on the next adventure of his vocational journey and I had some stuff going on personally, et cetera, et cetera, and so you and I were doing this thing for a group and a person asked me a question and it just opened me up in terms of this level of vulnerability. So they asked me is the work hard? Do you ever get discouraged by the work?
And I said, man, let me tell you something - the stuff that we all have going on in our life, when I think about work, this is nothing compared to life. Like I can do work. It is the beauty and the volatility of life, sometimes violently that'll wash asunder, if we don't figure out how to build whatever boats that helps us navigate the kind of eddies that we will encounter, the currents. I had this moment where, you know I was just in tears. It was one of those kind of inbreakings where, you know, you try to keep it all together as a professional and executive whatever but we're also very human. I felt bad, I was like oh my god, I'm showing all of these emotions. Like I'm a laid back brother, I try to keep it intact. As a professional, you can't wear your heart on your sleeve. You may thank you can, but you can't. But you can't be cold and robotic either.
Stephen Lewis: So as a leader, you’ve got to find the right balance that allows you to be fully human and also fully professional. And there are times where we need to be vulnerable so the people know that we care about the work and that we care about them. You will be tutored and learn how to manage your emotions, I think that's for all people of color, but I'm just talking from my particular vantage point.
So I say all that to say is that you find you a discipline that allows you to access and to process your emotions, but also what you're processing in terms of another dimension, because I just believe…no, I know, that what I'm able to do and what I'm able to accomplish is not just on my own ability. I know that I'm guided. I know that this team is guided and I know that what we're up to is beyond what I can just see in terms of flesh and blood. And so that requires me as a leader to be an integrationist, to know the technical stuff of businesses and organizations, and also be able to rely on a deep well - resources that we all have access to within ourselves, between us and beyond us.
That's not liturgy, that's not preaching, that's not worship. That's what all those things point to. And so I'm trying to develop habits and practices that allow me to access that even more. Because from where I sit that’s ancestral. And if people want to know what we're practicing, and Christianity in particular, is an ancestral religion.
There’s a reason why they talking about the God of Jacob, Isaac and so on. There's a reason why you have all these genealogies. And so we have this great reservoir of ancestral wisdom that is available to us. The way I talk about it, Patrick, when I think about a practice is that there’s a morphogenetic field, which is to say there's a field of knowing that we didn't know that we have access to, and that each of us are a library to be mined because within us are worlds of spirit, of the sound of the genuine, of hopes and dreams, our answered prayers and the seeds of a better world.
And so part of it's like, how do we access our own libraries? How do we read ourselves and access the voluminous volume of the spirit that is waiting to conspire with us? And so that's what those practices help me to do in integrate with the kind of technical or the technique of organizations to be hopefully fully human and hopefully create an organization that allows others to do that while at the same time realizing that it is work.
Patrick Reyes: The way that you've talked about your call journey, going all the way back from Alabama, Boston-Roxbury connection, being an artist, an architect I mean you are a brilliant architect of people, of spaces going through all this O D work. But you also have folks like Matthew, who you've journeyed with, this soul's trust, this deep sense of family. How much of your sense of call, less of the how, but your why, the meaning and purpose of your life comes from the broader sense that connection to ancestors, your community, your people, and how much comes from these conversations, where you're at the wheel and you hear the 'do you trust me?'
Stephen Lewis: It's not an either/or, it's both/and. It is the same. The eternal is within us. It's the you of you and it is the you of you collectively in terms of Unbuntu, I am because we are, but there is something that animates all of us and we all are playing a role in a larger vocation on behalf of what God is up to in the world for the sake of the least among us.
And so when it's that, several years ago of the, do you trust me to what takes place when I'm in my own time down in the woods or what’s taking place when I’m preparing a board meeting and I'm having a perfunctory conversation over slack, and I get arrested by something, like all that is spirit.
And I don't want to make the kind of false dichotomy to say that it's one or the other. Spirit in the end is communal: let us make humanity in our image, not let me. So whatever that communal entity, whatever that communal, familial or ancestral entity is we are an extension of that. For that, I'm grateful because without that, I may not have my own sense of north star that guides me, but also calls me into that ancestral river, for those who come before me, and those will come long after me. That each of us stand in a long lineage of spirit working in us individually and working through us collectively and beyond us to get something done on behalf of humanity.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, I hope that our listening audience gets the gift that is to work for you and with you at FTE because the pieces you're talking about, the having a longer family, being human together, navigating work and life and spirit as it is all one, you model that better than anyone else in the industry. And the facilitating of spirit, I think the way you do that, both in FTE and I would say in the broader theological education, church, academy, social entrepreneurship space. It is rare because the way that we've been trained up as you've so eloquently said has not been this, it's been orthodoxy.
It's been top-down leadership. It's been about creating solutions for everyone else to follow. And it really is a privilege to work at FTE and see the way that you've been leading this organization and to be a small part of it. So thank you.
Stephen Lewis: I considered it a great privilege to work with you and others who keep me on my toes and we keep each other on our toes and hopefully, build towards something that is meaningful and it's life giving and that will stand the test of time. So I'm grateful to all of our good colleagues who make the dream what it is, and where we going? Tell him Patrick, they better buckle up. You ain't seen nothing yet!
Patrick Reyes: I was going to say, to you use your own words here that you have gathered like the super crew of folks who can give attention to the right intentions and for that I'm grateful. So thank you, Stephen.
Thanks again for listening to President Stephen Lewis's story. And as a reminder, go out there and get A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation. You can find it anywhere that books are being sold.
I want to thank all of our colleagues at FTE for making this work possible. And a special shout out to Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace who set up all of this podcast and @siryalibeats for his music and Diva Morgan Hicks for getting this story out into the world. You can find this podcast and all of our resources at ftleaders.org, and we hope to see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.