Welcome to the first of our interview article series featuring Christian leaders’ spiritual and practical take on work! We hope that our stories inspire readers (you!) to take meaningful actions in work.
Equal parts spiritually enlightening and refreshingly practical, Ryan Keith, President and founder of Forgotten Voices talks to us about faith that works. Literally.
Forgotten Voices is all about innovating orphan care through churches in Africa. How did this vision of yours take off?
Let’s rewind back to 1996. I was a high school student and board member in a student advisory council that advised our state Board of Education in Massachusetts. I quickly discovered my gift for providing wisdom or strategy to big endeavors and for some reason, people gave me their most valuable commodity in the world: trust. When you’re onto something big so young, you learn how to steward public trust not from being the oldest and wisest, but from tirelessly learning, preparing, and understanding multiple perspectives.
That lesson on stewarding public trust really played a role in how I wanted to do things right.
Commitment to principle and culture trumped the desire for rapid growth, knowing that if I established the foundation first, I would have a story to tell and leverage public trust to grow FV. We have grown by about 300% in the number of churches and children we serve since 2015, but the previous 10 years was about telling people, “Hey, we do not want to grow a financial budget yet; we want to solve the orphan crisis and partnership crisis first.”
It must have been tough with the first 10 years of getting the formula right. What did you fear most? Do you still have the same fears?
My chief fear was failing, especially when I was trusted with so much money. I am a dreamer and so often three, no, five years ahead of reality, but things have not worked out as fast as expected. It was not only the fear that people will stop giving but also them possibly developing a sense of distrust in future similar entities. I care more about the failure and its impact on their relationship with the Lord and their money more than FV itself.
Honesty in relationships was and still is vital in overcoming those fears. When we fail, we drive to someone’s house who gave us a lot of money and say, “Here are three reasons why we failed; these were in our control and the others weren’t.”
Self-will behind the curtains was not the cure. Acknowledgement of self-doubt and inviting people to come along for this roller coaster ride was.
I think that being quick to diagnose problems or situations coupled with a high degree of confidence is a good secret to success. Trust your gut if you have prayed. A lot.
How do you get through trying days especially when motivation runs low?
Breakthroughs for low motivation days, or a sense of defeatism as I’d call it, comes through an honest diagnosis of asking tough questions like, “Do I lack humility? Why am I afraid to try again?”
You can’t perform a proper diagnosis without having close confidants; I personally have three or four guy friends who have 24/7 access to my life. I may sometimes get to the root of a problem, but when I experience dark moments where I am blind to what I don’t know, my close guy friends remind me of my calling and character, and help me discern between genuine blind spots or character flaws.
I practice quiet days. I don’t plan them, but it happens about every 10 days. When I feel, “Man I have nothing to add to this meeting”, or when I think that everything I say is important, I immediately start my quiet day. I don’t talk unless necessary, but my goal is to listen to how God is on the move around me.
Do you believe in “work-life balance” or “work-life integration”?
I was about to leave home and go to Switzerland for a meeting but felt horrible leaving behind one of my children who was sick. My wife said, “If you’re going to Geneva but wish you were home, you’re now not home and not in Geneva; what are you accomplishing?” There’s so much value in being fully present wherever I am and giving myself the flexibility to tend to work when inspiration or responsibility calls.
I get to use my God-given gifts to do life-giving things to provide for my family.
My issue with time management principles is the assumed dichotomy between work and “life”. My work life and home life exists 100% at the same time. Instead of feeling guilty about leaving my kids behind for work, I tell them that daddy doesn’t have to work but he gets to go to work. It’s all about the attitude I instill in my kids that I get to use my God-given gifts to do life-giving things to provide for my family.
I think for a living. I can’t put strategy, long-term relationships, and culture on a form, fill it up, and be done with the day. For example, I see things in the amusement park ‒ I took my kids there two days ago ‒ and I notice innovative ideas and think about implementing those ideas in FV. I could either beat myself up for working during non-office hours or celebrate that God provided these opportunities. I just don’t believe that people flourish in rigid timeframes and environments, at least for creative leaders.
Still, I try to work no more than 10 nights a year. Why? I have two hands and 10 fingers which is a simple visual reminder of saying, “God I’m giving you my two hands and putting my plow to the ground but when my 10 days are up, the rest is up to You.” And guess what? My productivity levels go up because it really makes me choose how I want to spend my days.
I see that spirituality is obviously a huge part of why you do what you do. How does your faith interact with your work?
Work to me is going on this big quest and you can’t procrastinate preparation for a big spiritual quest. You just can’t give what you don’t have. Daily quiet times are not always mountaintop experiences but they nourish you like no other. For example, all the mundane things in life I share with my wife builds up to a life well-lived and I think that is the way I interact with God on the daily grind.
At work, FV practices praying the Lectio Divina together every couple months. I also encourage each team member to find three to five people who are committed to praying for them every day. It is a spiritual discipline itself to know that you have a community supporting you through prayer.
I am a Praxis alumnus, and we talk about spiritual disciplines and leadership sitting in the intersection of culture, theology, and entrepreneurship. As I intentionally integrate my time, resources, and spiritual gifts into leadership, my entrepreneurial cogs start to grind and shape my mission of advancing peoples’ understanding of God and culture through theology and my work.
I don’t mean to brag on your behalf but you even went to Harvard for graduate studies. How do you stay grounded through all your successes including Harvard and even Praxis?
Staying grounded intentionally propels you to take the attention off yourself to get perspective. When I attend a conference, I spend no less than 80% of my networking time focusing on other ministries, trusting that others will somehow initiate conversations about FV. When you encounter stories about heroes of the faith along the way, God tugs at your heartstrings to remind you whose glory matters in the end.
And yes, it is impressive getting to study in Harvard, but try attending school with students from 54 countries consisting of an astronaut, a famous movie star and three congressmen, among other influential people. You’re amazed at Harvard but I didn’t think I belonged there! Again, perspective.
Speaking of developing perspectives, are there any books that you fall back on every now and then to refresh your view on life and work?
Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby changed my life. I encourage people to get the workbook ‒ that’s where all the action and fruit happens! I do it every six years or so to make sure I’m still growing in my intimacy with God. Blackaby’s writing challenges my work ethic; am I joining in God’s work or am I trying to please God through my actions?
I have a soft spot for Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck drove around America in the 1960s in a truck with his poodle Charley in efforts to rediscover America. It’s a timeless lesson: valuing people beyond transactions. I love stories of people and I love that these stories remind me to allow others to speak life to my dreams.
Time for the fun question: what is one gift below $100 that impacts your work?
I bought a $30 (now $40+) putting green from Dick’s Sporting Goods awhile back and it has been one of the most life-giving purchases I have treated myself to. I use it all the time, especially during long phone calls because I’m more effective when I’m physically active, but the magic really happens when ministry leaders come into my office and put their guard down. I bought one for our Africa director in Zambia who played on it and asked, “Can you bring me one?? It is so refreshing!” and I did. It really reminds all of us to have fun. I don’t even golf.
A big thanks to Ryan Keith (and his family’s flexibility) for the interview.
This is a collaborative project between Ray Chung and Li Yen Chong.
Li Yen Chong is a recent international business undergraduate from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She currently works in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. You can find her @ Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.