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Community Engagement
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“I’m in the God Business”
By Rajkumar Dixit, DMin
 
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It was 7:30 on Sabbath morning when my phone rang.  On the other end was a businessman I had met just a couple days before.  “Kumar, what time does your church service begin?  Is it okay if I bring a friend with me?”
 
His name was Carl.  We met on Wednesday morning at the Vancouver Board of Trade, an organization where business professionals meet together for networking, and relationship building. 
 
My church treasurer wasn’t convinced that the $1200 in annual fees was worth it.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure either. 
 
I have been looking for ways to connect with the business professionals in Vancouver since I moved here a few months ago.  Vancouver is known for being one of the most secular cities in the world.  In fact, 7 out of 10 residents claim to have no religious affiliation.  
 
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, the last place I wanted to be was the Board of the Trade new members orientation.   The meeting started at 7:30am, a convenient time for busy professionals to connect before heading to work.  For a pastor who had attended a late night church committee, the idea of waking up for this early morning meeting was distasteful. Perhaps it was guilt, or the fear of wasting that $1200 membership fee, that gave me the motivation to attend. 
 
There were about 100 people in the room.  Each of these white-collar professionals had only one thing on their mind:  “Sell, sell, sell.”  After breakfast and a brief introduction by the Board of Trade representatives, we were instructed to stand up and give a five second introduction.  In those five seconds we were supposed to state our name, our business, and what we have to offer. 
 
As I listened to the various realtors, bankers, financial analysts, and entrepreneurs sell their services, my heart began to race.  What I am supposed to say?  I think I’m in the wrong place.  I began to doubt myself.  The gentleman next to me stood up and introduced himself:  “Hi, I ‘m Larry.  I own Fast Signs.  We are the in the business of making you signs, fast.”  Everyone chuckled. 
 
 It was my turn.  I stood up.  “Hi, I’m Kumar.  I am the Pastor of the Oakridge Adventist Church in Vancouver.  I’m in the God business.”  The room erupted in laughter and applause.  Applause.  People were smiling and happy to have me in attendance with them.
 
After the introductions, we moved from table to table to explain who we were in greater detail.  Instead of five seconds, we were now asked to give a one-minute pitch – explaining what services we provide.   I explained,  “I’m here to get to know the business professionals better and to offer you a way to know God.  If you need assistance with a wedding, funeral, or have questions about God, give me a call.”  During the next hour, as we played this version of business speed dating, I collected over 30 business cards from business professionals who wanted to connect on a deeper level.
 
As the meeting ended, I realized that I have a unique service to sell.  While there were a half dozen realtors and bankers in the room trying to build a case for why they were different from the others, I was the only clergy in the room.  What if I became the unofficial chaplain to this group of people?  What if I were to become their pastor and help them on the road to discovering Jesus?  I drove to the church office after the meeting and entered every person’s business card contact into my email database.  My plan is to send them monthly notes of encouragement and opportunities to connect with my church. 
 
Leadership Howard County
 
A few years ago, I had lunch with Ron, an influential leader of the community.  I had been the associate pastor at the New Hope Adventist Church for eight years in Howard County, Maryland.  Ron suggested that I apply for a position in Leadership Howard County.  Leadership was an 18-month cohort – with leaders from local, civic, and business sector.  Ron explained the power and influence of Leadership in this way,  “Kumar, this is the secret key to the city.  If you get into this program (he was an alumni) you will never have a door close on you, or have an unreturned phone call.  You will quickly discover the power behind this fraternity. 
 
The Leadership program is highly competitive.  Of the 100 people who apply each year, only 40 individuals are accepted.  I applied and with the help and influence of Ron, I was accepted in.  The tuition is quite expensive.  It cost $3500 to belong to the cohort.  Most companies and organizations pay for their tuition fees because they know the value.  During the orientation, I quickly discovered that this cohort did in fact retain the cream of the crop.  There were bank presidents, large business owners, the fire county chief, city planners and more.     
 
The purpose of the Leadership program is to introduce to people how decisions are made, and how you can make a deeper contribution to the city you live in.
 
During the 18-month cohort I was exposed to a detailed overview of how the city works.  Politicians, judges, and experts from the non-profit sector taught during our eight-hour marathon sessions.  Each of them shared different insights to the inner workings of the community.  We learned how the city leaders are developing their strategic plan.  We received the latest demographics to study and discuss before it had been circulated to the press.  We discussed and often argued about the challenges related to poor, and the underserved in the community.

When I applied, I thought I would be sitting in monthly meetings for eight hours a day, networking with other influential leaders.  I was naïve.  In addition to the eight-hour monthly meetings, we were given homework and projects to accomplish.  We were divided into small groups and assigned a non-profit board in the community to meet with, give free consultation, and work on a project they needed help with. 
 
My group was assigned to an organization called Rebuilding Together.  Rebuilding Howard County was a local chapter of the national organization, based in Washington, DC.  My group was asked to provide expertise consultation by addressing a marketing strategy, brand awareness, and member retention. 
 
My group consisted of a marketing professional, Internet entrepreneur, senior vice-president of a large government contractor, and a litigation attorney.  In addition to meeting with the Rebuilding Board, we had to meet on a weekly basis apart from our regular work responsibility.  After meeting for several months, we developed a seventy-page business plan; complete with a marketing proposal and professional video commercials that was presented to their board.  We donated a cumulative of 200 hours to this project. 
 
In addition to the monthly Leadership meetings and our  business project, we also had another set of required homework.   We were expected to attend a minimum of 3 field trips to local private and government agencies such as the recycling center, the police and fire department, and hospital emergency room. These field trips provided a glimpse on how the County operates, and revealed growth issues related to a metropolitan area.     
 
Why would busy professionals take the time and money and invest in a program like this?  
 
This was the best place for myself as clergy to build strong relationships with business professionals, by building trust and collaborating with people I would rarely be in contact with.   For example, the president of the local theatre called me and asked if they could use my church for practice for a few months, while they were renovating.   I was able to minister to an attorney going through tough divorce.  Two fathers whose children had autism came to me for spiritual counseling, asking how to deal with the stress that was oppressing the entire family.  Several of these individuals have attended church with me.  One new friend said, “Kumar I love your church.  If I wasn’t Jewish I was be coming here every week.”  If I didn’t move shortly thereafter, I have no doubt that she probably would have starting regularly.
 
When I made the decision to move to Canada, my entire cohort planned a happy hour at the local restaurant to say farewell to me.  These busy professionals took off work early to spend a couple hours at the local restaurant to honor with me before I moved.  When the moving truck came to pick up our belongings, the vice-president of the United Way drove to my home to say farewell. 
 
Once again, I was the only clergy in this group of esteemed leaders.  My role evolved quickly and I became their pastor.
 
Building relationships
 
How are you building relationships with the business community?  When the local civic and city leaders have a problem, do they think of asking your local church leaders to join the conversation? While most of the professionals in my cohort joined Leadership as a way to network and expand their business, I have an entirely different motivation.  I joined to build trust and introduce people to Jesus.
 
On a spring afternoon, we were headed to the state capital to meet with the governor and his staff.  As we rode the charter bus,  I sat next to Heather, the Senior VP of a technology company.  She grew up in a secular home where spirituality was  never discussed.   Aside from being married in a Catholic church, she had never attended a church.  It quickly became evident to me that she had been saving all her questions about Jesus and how to follow him for our bus ride.  “I have always felt that God was watching me since I was a child,” she shared with me.   As a result she brought her entire family to my church to visit. 
 
I don’t want to give you a false impression that this is an evangelistic model. Rather, this is a way to get involved in your community immediately.  How are you engaging the civic and professional leaders in your community?  Can you pick up the phone and expect the leaders to answer?  If there were a sudden disaster or emergency, would the community leaders think of you and your church? 
 
As you join a local civic group, consider the good will you will be able to contribute on behalf of God’s kingdom. 
 
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Rajkumar Dixit is the pastor of Oakridge Adventist Church, in Vancouver Canada.  He is the author of Branded Faith:  Contextualizing the Gospel in a Post-Christian Era.  You can follow him on twitter @kumardixit.