church & ministry
Me, Myself, & Bob
By Phil Vischer
Creator of VeggieTales
We’re over here by Qwerty to talk about what we learned today.”
One of the keys to learning, modeled so effectively by a certain tomato whose voice sounds a great deal like mine, is to always, after a meaningful experience, pause and ask yourself, “What did I learn today?” Especially if the experience was painful. So, like a good little tomato, that is exactly what I did in the months after the collapse of Big Idea Productions. Not immediately, of course. When you skin your knee or bump your head, the first thing you need to do is roll around on the sidewalk and moan for a bit, clutching at the part that hurts. And that’s what I did first. I rolled around on the sidewalk moaning, clutching at my heart. After I got tired of moaning and rolling, I got up, looked back at my smashed up bike—er, company—and started asking, “How did that happen?” Which is really another way of saying, “What have I learned?” In the ensuing months I sorted through many lessons—some practical, relating to business and management, and some spiritual, relating to dreams and God. I’m going to start with the practical lessons because, well, I don’t know why. Just because.
Thing I Learned #1: Never lose sight of the numbers. This is a tricky concept, especially when the business I was starting was supposed to be a ministry. I mean, wasn’t I supposed to stay focused on the ministry of my enterprise? The message? The audience I was serving? Well, yes, I was. But the numbers showed the financial health of my ministry. And ignoring my ministry’s financial health, even for a brief period, was like ignoring my own health. Financial resources are like teeth—ignore them and they’ll go away. Ignore your health and you’ll go away. Just as dead men make lousy ministers, dead organizations make lousy ministries.
The trick here is that creative people called to ministry—”creative ministers” like myself—are seldom gifted at financial management. And gifted financial managers are seldom effective creative ministers. God equips different people for different roles and, as much as we would like it to be otherwise, none of us can do everything well. So gifted creative ministers need gifted financial managers, and vice versa.
So who should be in charge? Who should call the shots? Both of them, that’s who. The balance between creative inspiration and good stewardship of resources is vital to any successful enterprise. Neither can be subordinated to the other without serious and highly detrimental consequences. Rather than attempting to explain this concept, I’m going to show it in the example of perhaps the biggest creative success of the twentieth century, the Walt Disney Company.
Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother, is the unsung hero of the Walt Disney Company. Walt was a dreamer. Roy was practical. When Walt moved to Los Angeles to pursue his filmmaking ambitions, Roy agreed to help out, and the two formed The Disney Brothers Studios. Walt dreamed and drew and filmed. Roy borrowed money from their uncle and labored over distribution contracts and payroll. Roy didn’t work for Walt, and Walt didn’t work for Roy, but they clearly understood their roles.
The key to the Walt Disney Company was the partnership of Walt and Roy. The key to the partnership of Walt and Roy was mutual submission, based in genuine love for each other. Walt knew he couldn’t do what Roy could do, and Roy knew he couldn’t do what Walt could do. So they submitted to each other’s area of expertise and worked together, ultimately for the benefit of the ideas and the benefit of their audience.
In hindsight, perhaps the simplest explanation for the failure of Big Idea Productions is this: I never found my Roy. I never found the person who could look rationally at my ideas and then, in love, say no. There were numerous people ready to say no to me, but we didn’t have the sort of relationship Walt and Roy had, so I was always hesitant to trust them. As a result, I didn’t trust their “no’s.” So I barreled ahead, on my own, clutching my ideas like a child clutching a prized stuffed animal in a roomful of strangers whose motives he can’t discern.
If God has given you ideas for ministry, look for your Roy. It may not be one person—your Roy may be several people or even a whole board of directors. But the relationship will work only if the people you bring in to perform that role are there because they want to see your ideas succeed—want to see you succeed. There can be no other agendas.
If, on the other hand, God has made you a Roy, look for your Walt. Look for someone with creative gifting and calling. That person needs you desperately. This is tricky, of course, because Walts typically hang out with other Walts and Roys typically hang out with other Roys. They don’t mingle much—not at work, not at cocktail parties, not at church. Quite often, in fact, they look down on each other.
Love. Mutual submission. It all sounds very Christian, and, amazingly, seems to be the key to successful, long-term organizations. Amazing ideas come to life when people with complementary gifting devote themselves selflessly to each other, not for their own success, but for the success of the idea.
Thing I Learned #2: Ignore the voice that says, “You deserve it.” “Whenever I travel, I now rent compact cars and stay at the Hampton Inn. Always. I don’t care how careful I think I am or how successful my new business might become, I have learned that once I start upgrading my travel accommodations, I’ll start upgrading everything else too. Everything will become more expensive. Once I, as the leader, start spending more money than necessary, everyone else will too. They’re watching. And then my entire organization will cost more each day than it should, which will begin to limit the sorts of opportunities I can pursue. “Can’t take that job. Not enough money in it.” The more I limit my opportunities, the sooner my organization will cease to exist.
It all starts, I think, when a voice shows up inside your head one day and whispers, “You deserve it.” Up until this point, I had always lived modestly, though more out of necessity than deep philosophical conviction. But now I was hanging out with executives, and their lives looked like fun. And then that little voice showed up in my head and said, “You’re an executive, too, you know. After all, they all work for you.” Good heavens. The voice was right. I was more than just an “executive”—I was the CEO of a successful company! I was the executive of the executives! “Look at all the hard work you’ve done,” the voice continued. “Look what you’ve built. Don’t you deserve it?” And suddenly my cars started getting nicer and my meals fancier. I started eying nicer houses in nicer neighborhoods—” executive” neighborhoods. And suddenly everything at Big Idea started costing more. Meals, travel, equipment, everything—because we were successful, and we deserved it.
That little whisper—”You deserve it”—comes, I believe, from the worst part of our sinful natures, the part that always wants another cookie, a bigger house, a nicer TV. I’m pretty sure it’s the same voice that told Hitler he “deserved” Poland. Advertisers know the power of that voice, and they use it relentlessly. The new car, the ridiculously high-fat dessert, the fantastically overpriced watch—do you need it? Of course not. But you deserve it. I have come to hate that voice. I will avoid any product that tries to influence my purchase decision by telling me I deserve it. Why? First of all, the appeal is insanely selfish. If I deserve it, it must follow that someone else does not. I have achieved more. I am special. As a Christian, of course, it’s horrifically bad theology, throwing that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing right out the window along with a hundred other verses about self-denial and putting others first. What do I really deserve? Death. That’s what I deserve. Death apart from God. I am a selfish dweeb standing before a holy, righteous God. Imagine me trying to explain to God why I “deserve” a nicer car than the guy next to me. “Well, I’ve worked so hard, and—as I’m sure you can see—I’m very successful.” Ha. Good one. Seeking our own comfort over the comfort of others is a pretty good definition of the word sin. And yet there I was, Mr. Bible College, allowing myself to be coaxed down that path by the fact that my business card now sported the letters “CEO.”
In addition to bad theology, though, thinking that I deserve more than others is bad business. Concluding that I deserve a more lavish lifestyle than the people around me fails to consider the fact that the people around me are, more than likely, my customers, the people I’m supposed to be serving with my products. And yet here I am, looking down on them, judging them “less deserving” than myself. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. I travel, sacrifice, slave away night after night. Not like these other folks.
Tell me, how easy is it to serve someone you consider less deserving than yourself? Nearly impossible. Want to kill a company quickly? Decide you are “better” than your customers. Executive pride kills companies. Christian selflessness, on the other hand, is not just biblically sound, it is also good business.
I had an experience years ago that I think of often when I find myself tempted with “executive pride.” I was riding home on the subway after putting in one of my killer marathons in postproduction. It was probably 4:00 a.m., and I was half-dead. I felt proud, though—proud of being such a “hard worker.” When I got off my train, a thirty something Hispanic man got on, headed downtown. From the way he was dressed and the guys just like him I saw in our neighborhood every day, I knew his story almost immediately. He was a family man, married with two or three kids. He was headed downtown at 4:00 a.m. for a menial job in the kitchen of a restaurant or hotel. It was probably one of two or even three jobs he held, all menial, barely above minimum wage. All to feed his family. I watched him sit quietly on the train and felt the air leak out of my puffed-up ego. Who was the “hard worker” on the subway that night? Who “deserved” a nicer car? A nicer house? Yeah, I pulled all-nighters every now and then, but it was work I loved, for which I was well paid. Give me sixteen hour days filled with thankless, unfulfilling menial labor and see how long I’d last. Who “deserved” a better life? It sure wasn’t me.
Thing I Learned #3: If you successfully identify a need and create a product that meets it in a unique way, you are the expert. Even if you’re a twelve-year-old junior high dropout. Even if the guy next to you has a Harvard MBA and a Fortune 500 pedigree. In the business that was born out of your brain and your instincts, you are the expert. You may find someone who can help you immensely with human resources or finance or marketing. You may find a brilliant consultant who can ask poignant questions that will help further refine your thinking. But when it comes down to your product and the way it meets the needs of your audience, I’ll say it one more time, you are the expert. Even if you’re the youngest guy in the room. If you don’t believe this, they never will. If they still don’t believe it even after you’ve made the point, they need to leave the room and keep right on walking out the door. Every good hire brings something vital to an organization. Each new team member, however, needs to recognize what it is you brought that made the organization spring to life in the first place.
Thing I Learned #4: Know yourself. Lesson 3 can get me into all sorts of trouble if I don’t have a good grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. There are areas where I should look to others for help, and there are areas where others should look to me. I need to figure out which areas are which before I start hiring, because hiring people whose strengths complement my own will be the key to my future success. Also, beware of early success. Seeing my first idea turn to gold convinced me that all my ideas would turn to gold, which was not the case. Early success can be a very dangerous thing.
Thing I Learned #5: Bigger is no longer better. In some cases larger organizations do have a competitive advantage, but those cases are becoming fewer and fewer all the time. I wanted my own animation studio. My own design studio. My own sound studio. Why? Because I thought all that creative capability would create more opportunities. I thought a larger staff would mean greater impact. In reality, the opposite was true. A larger staff meant higher permanent overhead, and higher permanent overhead actually reduced the range of opportunities we could pursue. Sure, we had people who could do all sorts of amazing things. We could make movies. We could make kids’ books. We could make records. But the only opportunities we could pursue were the ones with enough profit potential to cover our huge overhead, which, in our case, pretty much meant “more VeggieTales.”
The only thing that was guaranteed to cover our overhead was more VeggieTales, so all other opportunities fell by the wayside. The thing that was supposed to enable me to pursue all sorts of new ideas ultimately sealed me into a tight little box. By the late-1990s, the world was full of great design studios, sound studios, and animation studios all excited to pitch in on great projects. What the world was missing was the stories themselves, which is what I did best. Real impact today comes from building great relationships, not huge organizations. More overhead equals less flexibility to pursue unexpected opportunities. (Boy, do I wish I’d learned that one sooner.) Smaller—and smarter—is better.
Thing I Learned #6: Build a team that rows in the same direction. As I said earlier, if you don’t care about customer service, the culture of Nordstrom will spit you out like a bad melon ball. Whether a pro baseball team, a church committee, or a company, a group succeeds when everyone starts on the same page. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to think the same, look the same, or talk the same—that sort of conformity leads to groupthink and failure. Diversity is a wonderful thing, as long as the diversity isn’t around the purpose and values of the group itself. I was very nervous about this at Big Idea, though, since the page I was starting on was religious. As it turned out, however, being a Christian wasn’t necessarily the same as being “on mission.” I hired some Christians who didn’t fit and some non-Christians who did. The key was that each employee—from the receptionist to the president—was excited about Big Idea’s mission and the Christian values we promoted. And it mattered a lot. My vagueness about Big Idea’s true mission and values led to a profoundly confused, dysfunctional workplace. By the time I had figured out the problem, it was too late to do much about it. Even my executive team lacked true understanding of my purpose for Big Idea, as an offsite meeting one day profoundly illustrated.
We had been quarreling about “target audiences” and marketing strategies for weeks. Finally, in frustration, my vice president of human resources brought in an outside consultant to lead the group in some “team building” exercises. Near the end of the day, I stood at the front of the room and tried to explain, as clearly and unflinchingly as I could, my motives for founding Big Idea. “I am a Christian,” I said, “and I believe the Bible exclusively holds the truth about our standing before God and the path to restore our relationships with him. I want to share that truth with our culture. That is, at the end of the day, what Big Idea is about.”
Most of my executives nodded along appreciatively. Then my president, the ex–Jack Welch fellow who had, by now, been running Big Idea for almost two years, spoke up: “If that’s what this is about, I need to opt out.”
The room went deathly silent. I felt like a complete idiot. The man I had hired to help me accomplish my mission lacked my motivation entirely. I was mortified to realize that my failure to get to know him before—or after—offering him the most important job in the company had greatly contributed to the organizational mess my ministry had become.
As I build new teams in the future, I will not pursue uniformity in thought process, giftedness, race, or specific religious denomination. In fact, I will pursue diversity in these areas with a vengeance. But I will make sure that each person walking in the door of any organization I lead is a huge fan of our core goals and values. It will make all the difference in the world.
Order your copy of Me, Myself, & Bob: A True Stroy About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables
Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, is the author of Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God and Talking Vegetables. This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson, Inc.
In 1990, 24-year-old computer animator, Phil Vischer, sat down to create a group of characters that could teach Christian values to kids in a delightfully weird way. Hence, a tomato named Bob and a cucumber named Larry were born. VeggieTales would go on to revolutionize Christian filmmaking, selling more than 50 million videos and placing Phil's faith-filled stories in one of three American households with young children.
Phil continues to pursue new ways to integrate faith and storytelling through his new company, Jellyfish Labs. Phil lives with his wife, Lisa, and their three kids in Illinois.
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