I never asked to be a pioneer

John Finch

Greater Glasgow February 09, 2017

Setting up a social enterprise and community café from scratch…when it hadn’t even been part of my plan to be in the Gorbals in the first place! I made a million mistakes and broke my own rules, but I left behind something good that I built with friends and that is sustainable and strong without me. That feels good. These are some things that I learned through the experience. Some of them I learned with hindsight, and didn’t get them right first time round. Some of them may not be universal but more particular to the circumstances we were in. And some of them might be pretty obvious!

What the heck am I doing?!

In 2012 I was in the early stages of returning to work after a period of sabbatical. The Church of Scotland gave me a temporary placement in Gorbals Parish Church, where they were starting to move into their new building. It hadn’t been part of any plan for me to be there and I arrived not really sure what they wanted me to do. Or even what I was capable of doing: my mental health was still quite fragile. I also didn’t know how long I was going to be able to stay there. Not an auspicious start for a pioneer role!

The congregation had designed the foyer of their new church to be a café, but had not yet worked out how they were going to open it, or even run it. I had some catering experience and although I wasn’t hugely excited at the prospect, I decided that it would save a lot of time and energy if I just got on and opened the café for them. And that’s what I did.

I ended up staying there for five years and growing the business to the point where it was employing a full time manager, a couple of part time staff and paying its way. For the first wee while I struggled with feeling like the work I was doing was a little too similar to things I’d done before. Although I was really grateful to have a job, I also felt like it wasn’t what I would have chosen for my role. Despite the way I felt, over time I felt like God was holding me there. He was asking me to do two things: be faithful with the task I had been given, and learn to value myself and my skills outside of what I did for a job (Colossians 3:23 Luke 16:10).

Wisdom from the front line: 12 lessons learned

The following are a series of disconnected thoughts around about what I learned once I ‘got over myself’, accepted where I was, and got on with the task at hand.

  1. It’s always important to work out where the energy to sustain something is coming from. Who is in it with you? Who is going to invest? It can be lonely being the one who holds the vision and the piece of work when no one else wants to play, and it is also kind of pointless. So maybe don’t pioneer on your own, maybe that is a kind of test around about whether something is worth doing. If it is on your heart, good…but is it on anyone else’s heart?

  2. Make a plan but hold it loosely. Often the stuff that is really beautiful and transformative is not the stuff you have set out to do, but a bi-product, something that has happened by accident. Be ready to change tack when that happens. Grab hold of the unexpected thing.

  3. Keep making plans. Even if you only put a few of them into action, keep engaging with and reimagining the future. Things change all the time, nothing stays the same. Your latest plan is already out of date. But the act of lifting your eyes to the horizon is a good and helpful thing to do. Imagining movement where there is still none, aspiring to momentum

  4. There’s a time when you’ve talked about it enough and it’s just time to act. Even if you’re still not sure what you’re doing, just get in the water and try and swim. You can get back out again if you have to.

  5. Keep a look out for people along the way. Mike Breen talks about people of peace, and it was a kind of revelation to me that sometimes those people who you just can’t shift, the ones who arrive early and leave late, are not just lacking in a purpose, but their purpose is right where you are, God has sent them to you FOR a purpose. Mould the work around those people. Don’t be afraid to make one person too important. Changing one life is way better than changing no lives. Keep it moving. Don’t let them settle or stagnate. Always look for the next step.

  6. Engage regularly with your purpose. Work out your culture together. Stay true to it. When people disagree remind them of your purpose and culture because often they have forgotten one or the other. Get buy in. Get nodding heads and smiles. Think intentionally about how you set the culture, how you get buy in, how people see the value of the culture in action, how you create those learning opportunities. If you can’t do that you’ll end up being goalkeeper as they try and slot shots past you whenever they can. If you can, they’ll be up the other end scoring goals.

  7. Do things slowly. Move slowly through the land. Pay attention. See where people want to gather and hang out. Celebrate and mark and be spontaneous. Give gifts and surprise people. Take time with people. Listen to what they want to talk about. Don’t make the activity or the mission the king, don’t neglect the people who are round you just to get the job done. The job can wait till tomorrow.

  8. Do things on your own buck as far as you can. Cash with expectations means you can’t react or change your mind. It means you have to stick with the plan even if it’s a bad plan. Make things pay and work hard for you. Keep activities and staffing within a footprint you can sustain and afford otherwise you make fundraising the idol that you sacrifice all your energy to. If you can’t pay for it – maybe don’t do it until you can. Hold your own weight. Wash your own face.

  9. Do things really, really well. Make yourself proud. Go nuts for quality and attention to detail. Make it industry beating. Try for world class. If it was good last time, make it outstanding next time. Take people with you on it. Don’t talk about what you can just about manage to do. Talk about how you can take it further and make it better. Look at professionals, artists, brand leaders, see how you can do it better. Every so often up your game. Every time people get comfortable and the lessons settle in, shake it up again, push them a bit further. Make it harder, more demanding, more difficult. Because what happens is that you make yourselves proud. You feel good, you feel the achievement and you feel it together. We’ve not just pulled it off we’ve totally nailed it. And you keep momentum and no one gets bored.

  10. Do branding. You can’t actually not do branding, you either have intentional branding or unintentional branding. You get to choose. Make it good, use it, apply it consistently, use brand colours, brand rules, brand culture. It just helps people get what you are and what you are about, and it makes them feel like they have walked into something that is happening, on purpose, for them, instead of by accident for probably someone else.

  11. If you are doing a social enterprise, write a business plan. If you can get away with it, maybe don’t write it right at the start – it can be helpful to write it a wee bit into the process because you’ll have a better sense of what you’re actually going to achieve and the direction you’re heading. But write one. Keep good records, record as much data as you can. In the café we had a huge spreadsheet that did all sorts of stuff with our figures – the reason being it helps you know your business. It helps you spot trends and react, it helps you know when the changes you make are working. You don’t know at the start what data you will need, so where you can do it, without too much effort, record everything you can.

  12. Work yourself out of a job. Find people who can do or learn to do the jobs you have and let them go.

Join in the discussion on Facebook

John Finch

John Finch

I’ve spent the last 15 years working for the Church of Scotland as a Youth Worker, Team Leader, Community Development worker, and most recently as a Ministries Support Officer supporting the 65 Parishes with the highest levels of deprivation. I’m married to Gab and live in Ruchill in Glasgow.