Necessity isn’t the only Mother of Invention. Dissatisfaction can be, too. It was for a youth pastor in the Pacific Northwest named Matt Overton. To better engage both youth and parents, he started Columbia Teen Enterprises. It’s the social enterprise arm of the youth ministry at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington.
“I started a social enterprise because I was tired of perpetuating disengaged faith,” Overton says. “I wanted to help my congregation—both youth and adults—figure out what their Sunday faith has to do with their Monday life.”
The idea took root three years ago when several teens (including some on the “fringe” of the youth group) and adults from the congregation helped the Overtons with home renovations. The family had purchased a fixer-upper upon their move from California. Overton realized that the conversations he was having with teenagers as they wielded hammers and shovels were more relaxed, open, and meaningful than those he often experienced inside the church. The work made the teens contributors, not just receivers. They were being treated as young adults with ability to handle responsibility, and they liked it. Meanwhile, the remodeling efforts also drew adults from the congregation who hadn’t been involved much in the youth ministry—or in other church programs. Something was wooing them and Overton eventually realized what it was. As he told a journalist from Faith and Leadership, “I had provided people an outlet to use their natural gifts and talents for a greater social good. It was social entrepreneurship in a nutshell.”
Overton gathered seven interested adults from the congregation to brainstorm on how to combine youth ministry with a jobs program. Initially he’d thought about launching a home renovations company but the team eventually decided that a lawn care/landscaping company would be a better fit. He took the idea to church leadership, prepared for some push-back. To his delight, the proposal was greeted enthusiastically. Elders with business experience were particularly high on the plan. Overton was given several hours a week on paid time to get the ball rolling, and Mowtown Teen Lawn Care was born shortly thereafter.
To be a Mowtown employee, youth must complete a series of training workshops. These are taught by church members and they cover such topics as employer expectations, goal setting, and personal finance. Teens don’t have to be members of the church to be considered for jobs. The first youth were trained and deployed in June 2015.
Overton accompanies youth to the job sites and works alongside them. That time, plus the drive time to clients’ homes, provides rich opportunity for mentoring. Overton and his team think up questions to discuss with youth on the job that emerge from the training workshops. He also talks with the kids about their family lives, friends, and school work. Overton is convinced the work offers dignity to the youth while affording natural opportunities for giving advice and correction.
Mowtown Teen Lawn Care is a for-profit business. Overton used his own money for start-up capital. There’s no financial or liability risk for the church. Every six months, a team from the church reviews the company’s financials and ensures that the enterprise is advancing the mission of the church. He acknowledges that some Christians are skeptical about doing good through doing business but he’s committed to overcoming that mindset.
Given the notoriously low salaries paid to youth workers, Overton sees this ministry as a potential model for others to replicate. He can gain additional income from the business at the same time his work on the job very much involves personal discipleship. As Overton told marketplace leaders at a 2015 “Hatch-a-Thon” hosted by Princeton Theological Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry, “If youth pastors could run small businesses that also employ youth, they could supplement their incomes while providing work experience and having more meaningful mentoring to the youth in their churches.”
For more information on Matt Overton check out his blog, Youth Ministry Innovators.