Jason Byassee: Habits of a networker

Networking, not empire building, is a habit of transformative leaders.

One habit of transformative leaders is that they make creative friendships. This is not “empire building” -- getting to know people in case you can use them later. It’s networking -- genuinely investing in someone in anticipation that God will generate fruit from the peculiar combination of gifts of these specific people.

An exemplar of this kind of creative friendship-building is Steve Sallee, pastor of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.

Cokesbury is a thriving mainline church in an era when thriving and mainline are not commonly joined in the same sentence. Sallee illuminates the practice of networking. He went for a haircut one day and saw heavy digging equipment across the highway. He asked the barber what it was for. “They’re putting in a Super Lowe's,” he heard. A light went off. There was a regular Lowe's across the street from Cokesbury. Was it available? He came to find out it was. And what better place to house a food ministry, a contemporary worship service, even a gym. Sure it doesn’t look like a church, but if a church can be stretched and bless its city better, why not? He learned the nearby car dealer had offered $5 million for the building; he could scrounge up $3.3 million.

So he called the United Methodist Church in Wilkesboro, N.C., then Lowe's headquarters. Lucky (or providentially?) for him it was a pastor he had once interned for in seminary. Soon Sallee was in Lowe’s CEO’s office for what was supposed to be 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, he’d explained why selling to the church would be an investment in the neighborhood. Lowe's sold the lower price to its board by saying the church could be flexible on when it took possession.

Creative relationships -- with a barber, a former supervisor, and a new one with a CEO -- yielded ministry that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

Another story points to the importance of observation, noticing, paying attention. Sallee and a fellow pastor approached the mayor of Knoxville. The poor mayor felt cornered, fidgeted, didn’t want to meet with two pastors. What would they want? They said they didn’t want anything. He exhaled and relaxed. Instead, they wanted to offer something: What did he need? What did the city need? How could this church bless its city?

Hizzoner thought and got back to them with a problem: truancy. Too many kids were out of school, and in Tennessee a parent can be charged for that. So the church got to work. They leaned into the lives of the kids who were in court instead of class. They poured resources and more importantly people into it. One child would never take his hat off and kept getting sent to the principal’s office for insubordination. Leaning into his life they learned his family didn’t have running water, his hair was a mess and he was embarrassed. Another family moved often from hotel to hotel, and with so many kids could barely get them fed, let alone clothed for school. Water, clothes -- a church has people who can work on those, and they did. Last year one student announced in truancy court she was going to college. The court burst into applause. The judge wept.

The point here is that a church is working hard to bless its neighborhood, making its mark, not by size or membership role or budget, but by the lives blessed, the territory reclaimed, the marked difference in its city. Cokesbury has learned to count differently. For the sake of its recovery ministry, Cokesbury counts the number of cigarettes in the parking lot. Each butt is a great sign. It means more addicts are choosing tobacco over alcohol or coke.

Sallee describes himself as part of a movement of churches asking this key question: How do we bless our city? The goal is not to build an empire. It’s to bless a neighborhood. A church can do that. Even yours.