I have been asked to reflect on our experience of launching the Cultural Engagement initiative through the Hendricks Center here at DTS at the invitation of DTS President Dr. Mark Bailey. Given we are crossing our first year of releasing podcasts (61 episodes including 12 chapels for 61 hours worth of material), I was asked to reflect on what did we learn in the process? Here are several observations, including one combined idea, in the sometimes bumpy road of going from a good idea to a launched and effectively functioning structure.
1. Instinct is good but feedback is better.
A new initiative is often birthed as a raw idea. Sometimes it comes in a quiet moment far away from the swirl and normal hubbub of work. But to hone it needs feedback and reflection. A variety of sensitively trained, sympathetic eyes can help take a rough idea and hone it. In a sense, the roots of the Cultural Engagement initiative came years before it was launched, when Steve Jobs announced the iPod. I was in Germany on sabbatical. Mark Bailey was in Dallas. The day Steve Jobs announced the iPod, I sent an email to the Seminary saying we could do audio theological dialogues for the public. Mark instantly saw what I saw as well. Out of that conversation, “Dallas Dialogues” were born. A seed was planted, but it was not yet a fully functional idea. The Dialogues ran intermittently from their introduction for a couple of years. But the feedback we got told us: (1) these were appreciated, and (2) a more organized effort was needed. Feedback helped us think about the next step.
[By the way, we have called our productions podcasts, even though we know they are videocasts, to remind us of where and how we started.]
2a. Trust your friends, even when they are frank.
Step two in the birth of the initiative came from faithful alumni that we met with at Cape Town III in 2010. Dr. Mark Bailey and I hosted an alumni meeting for DTS grads at this major Lausanne event. It was a rare opportunity to interact with our grads spread across the globe at one time in one setting. About 40-50 grads were there. They pled with us that the dialogues were good and that engagement on life issues such as Cape Town had raised was very needed. So we should be doing more of this, not less. They were clear and spoke almost as a chorus that this was a hole that needed to be filled in how our graduates were trained. They were frank and right. They were looking to us at DTS to give a biblical perspective to the needs and challenges of the contemporary culture, much of which has changed significantly since they were students.
2b. A great idea without good structure will not really work.
What was missing is that we had done the Dialogues on an as needed, ad hoc basis. No one was really in charge. We did them as we felt a need, but there was no real organized goal or purpose to them other than to be of periodic help to others. People sensed the help, but that was all it was offering. The approach had no real structure. No one owned it. So a good idea was in need of structure.
3. Go to work to unify what you are doing so it fits with the larger organization.
It took slightly over a year, but Mark Bailey and I began to discuss how we could plug this hole the alumni had signaled we needed to fill. How could we make it work with what we already had some experience doing? The trick was to make sure it also served the larger mission of the school rather than pull away from it. This led to a series of meetings with key players at the Seminary to assure that the initiative served our community as a whole. Numerous discussions covered issues such as branding; how we could connect with other elements of the campus, especially the presence of a new prong to the thrust of the Hendricks Center; how to involve the faculty; and how to enhance what was taking place for students, our major concern. Dr. Bailey approached Dr. Hendricks and received his enthusiastic approval to expand the scope of the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership to the Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement. Much time was initially spent getting to know what the Hendricks Center was doing already, so what we did would not get in the way but come alongside. A good idea is not realized as a soliloquy, nor does it function well on an island. It takes a solid team, serious engagement by many inside and outside the effort for perspective, and a larger group that is supportive making sure it fits into the whole. We dreamed and launched, not realizing that in doing so there was so much more that was possible than what we originally had imagined. One mistake we did not make was to wait on a good idea until everything was just right. We knew honing would continue to be necessary.
4. Realize there will be adjustments and be open to fresh angles.
Some of what we are now doing was not even on our radar screen when we started. The dynamics of this initiative has had a life and momentum it supplied and was not planned out. People came to us and encouraged us saying we were on the right track. They made suggestions that helped us see more potential for what we were doing. We have chosen here and there to ride that wave of where many of those suggestions were taking us. The hard choices involved deciding whether those adjustments deflect from our core goals or help fulfill it in ways not initially imagined. Our context is responding to and dealing with culture. So a fixed approach is not flexible enough to deal with our mission. As long as the core goals are seen, solid, and well defined, flexibility to get there can work. If the core goal is not clear, then the variation can cloud getting to the desired result.
5. Keep getting feedback and work to stay fresh.
We continue to seek feedback for what we are doing. In many cases those who have been a part have given us a fresh angle on the topics we introduced. I now worry coming out of the launch period that we could lose the freshness of what we are doing. If it “ain’t broke don’t fix it” can become “we are in cruise control and are losing our edge.” Feedback prevents this. What keeps an initiative new is being willing to be renewed. So we move forward keeping our ear to the ground, knowing that God has been faithful in leading us. We seek to listen for where He has been taking us all along through our many supportive friends who are telling us to forge ahead. To keep a working idea effective requires holding to many of the same things that launched it.
Thanks to all of you who have contributed to making the initiative work. We do value your feedback, so please let us know of topics you would like covered and how we can do a better job of serving you through the Table podcasts. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.