By Bob Lupton
I enjoy it when business friends invite me to join them for coffee. Business deals fascinate me. I would probably be a serial entrepreneur if I hadn’t received a calling to enter urban ministry.
On one breakfast occasion, I was listening with much interest to a conversation between two friends – a fishing equipment manufacturer and an investor – as they discussed a new product idea that promised to make millions. There’s money to be made in the angling industry if you can produce a lure that fish find irresistible. Fishermen know that bass love night crawlers. So did the owner of the manufacturing company. Plastic night crawlers were among his best sellers.
The only problem is that when bass strike from the rear, they bite off the back end of the worm leaving a short stub and an empty hook for the fisherman to reel in. The solution, said the manufacturer with obvious excitement, is to mold in a second hook at the tail end of the worm. Then no matter where the bass hits the worm, a hook would be waiting.
The idea was ingenious in its simplicity. K-Mart had already committed for a first order of five hundred thousand lures if they could be delivered in time for the coming fishing season. The investment was a good one, the business owner assured his potential investor.
It would be fairly easy to set up an automated mold that would infuse the plastic worm around the two hooks, the manufacturer explained. The challenge, however, was the time-consuming task of securely tying together the rear hook to the front hook at the precise distance apart for accurate insertion into the molding machine.
This would require tedious hand work. Finding a contractor to tie a million fish hooks together in the next ninety days would take some concentrated research. They would probably have to go to China or Taiwan, he said.
“Why don’t you do it right here in Atlanta,” I blurted out without much forethought. It was the disturbing prospect of shipping jobs overseas when so many of my inner-city neighbors were unemployed that brought me out of my silence. “We could set up an operation in my neighborhood right away,” I said with naïve confidence.
It would take some trial runs to establish efficient tying techniques and production speed, but I assured them we could make an accurate bid and begin production within two weeks. And so began one of the most exciting, stimulating, energetic ventures I had ever embarked upon.
My neighbors were eager to work. I rented some vacant warehouse space, set up long rows of tables, and started taking applications. Applicants sat across the tables facing each other. Each had a spool of line, a pair of scissors, a pile of fish hooks and a “jig” with two slots to insert the hooks into.
They practiced threading the hooks, tying a special non-slip knot, and transferring each two-hook harness onto a card that assured its accuracy. Not all the applicants had the manual dexterity for the work and did not make the cut. Those we hired were paid by the piece.
On the wall behind each worker was posted a large production sheet that tracked their hourly output. The competition was invigorating. Some with amazingly fast fingers tallied very generous paychecks. Needless to say, it was a very stimulating work environment.
In eight weeks our little operation had tied one million fish hooks together and delivered the contract ahead of schedule and under budget. The manufacturing company shipped out their initial order of double-hook night crawlers to K-Mart stores across the country.
Our employees eagerly awaited for the re-orders to flood in. They waited. And waited. But the re-orders never came.
It seems that one important element in this venture had been overlooked. The lure, though very attractive to retailers and fisher-folk, had not been vetted with the end consumer – the fish! The bass were simply not interested in night crawlers that had hooks protruding from their tails. Amid much disappointment, we closed up shop.
I wish I could tell you that this fishing lure venture was my only ministry misfire. But alas, it is but one in a lengthy litany of failed schemes I have attempted over four decades of serving among the poor.
There was the free clothes closet that turned into a grab-what-you-can feeding frenzy. And the toys-for-tots Christmas give-away that became a greedy entitlement program. And the chaos that my “jobs program” inflicted on some good-hearted friends when I sent them unruly urban teens to work in their businesses.
The list goes on – a pallet manufacturing operation, a sewing company, a lawn-care service, to name a few – all created for the noble purpose of providing jobs for unemployed folk in my community. Once in a while a venture did flourish but, regrettably, most fizzled over time. If failures can be considered “learning experiences” then I am indeed a very learned man!
Somewhere along this roller-coaster journey, it became clear to me that the rightness of one’s motives does not ensure the success of one’s efforts. The 80% crash and burn rate for start-up businesses during their first 18 months (according to Forbes) appears to apply not only to the for-profit world but to ministry ventures as well.
Just because we are diligently pursuing the will of God and seeking to “do justice and love mercy,” there are no guarantees that our self-sacrificing efforts will produce the outcomes we envision. Different outcomes perhaps. Outcomes like humility, or the relationships that are forged in adversity, or the deepening of faith when the bottom has dropped out.
In the end, God may be more interested in our faithfulness than in our successes.