Tuesday, October 23, 2007

not such big ideas

Here's a recent article from Leadership Journal. Since my family is crazy about Bob and Larry, the subject matter tweaked my interest. But the real point was not about talking vegetables:

Six years ago, Phil Vischer revolutionized Christian family entertainment by selling 30 million Veggie Tales videos. He was running the largest animation studio between the coasts, and had dreams that his empire, known as Big Idea Productions, would become the next Disney.

But by 2003 his dream was over. After a heartbreaking court decision, later overturned on appeal, Big Idea declared bankruptcy, and Vischer sold the company's assets, including his computer animated characters Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. His new book, Me, Myself, and Bob (Nelson, 2007) tells the story of Big Idea's rise and fall. We sat down with Vischer to talk about what he's learned.

What did you do after losing Big Idea?

About six months of rolling around and moaning, which is what you do when you wipe out. I also did a lot of reading and praying, asking God to sort through the wreckage and show me what I needed to learn.

Looking back, when did Big Idea get off course? Was there a turning point?

Big Idea was growing, but I didn't know how to manage it. It felt out of control. So, I turned to a popular business book, Built to Last by Jim Collins. I read through it like I had found Scripture. The book suggests a "big, hairy, audacious goal." I didn't think God had given me one, but the book said I should have one. So I made one up—one I thought God would like.

What was the BHAG?

I thought God would be pleased if Big Idea became one of the top four family media companies in the world. The goal came from my evangelical upbringing that said more impact is better. Better to impact millions at once than one at a time. Big Idea's aggressive growth, which came from the big, hairy, audacious goal, was ultimately its undoing.

When did you begin to sense something was wrong?

We were selling a gazillion videos and I was getting 400 fan letters a day, but one day I was reading my Bible and came across the fruit of the Spirit. It occurred to me that none of those things was present in my life. It didn't say the fruit of the Spirit is impact, large numbers, or selling lots of videos. I realized something was not right.

Where did you turn?

As everything was falling apart, I started reading a weekly study by Henry Blackaby. On the first page Blackaby more or less said, If what you are trying to do for God is not working, it may be because it came from your own head and not God. You may want to do something significant for him, but he just wants you to be obedient. That skewered my false gospel of impact.

How has your understanding of success changed?

I used to think people like Mother Teresa and Henri Nouwen were guilty of poor stewardship. God has given us limited time and resources and we have to help as many people as possible—not just one or two at a time. Mother Teresa should have franchised a system for feeding the poor on a massive scale. She needed an MBA.

Now I understand God has a unique journey for each of us with unique measures of success. Now I ask myself, Have I done what God has asked me to do? Am I walking with him daily? Success has very little to do with where I end up. It's not about measurable impact.

What advice do you have for pastors trapped in a false gospel of impact?

First, there is a danger in applying business principles to ministry. Businesses use numbers to measure success and ministries shouldn't. Using numbers to convince ourselves that we are doing God's will is dangerous. Second, remember that nothing is scripture except Scripture. We shouldn't look at a model another church is using and simply adopt it. Because God has uniquely led someone doesn't mean he is leading you into the same thing.

How are you employing these new ideas in your ministry now?

My new company is called Jellyfish Labs because jellyfish cannot choose their own course; their direction is derived from currents. As a Christian I should be thinking of myself more as a jellyfish than as a big studly tuna. I have a wall full of new ideas. But the moment I pick one and call it my dream—my big, hairy, audacious goal—I'm holding onto it too tightly. And that's a big change. God is now my dream, my deep desire, not what I can do for him.

Copyright © 2007 by Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.