Howard: Today we are joined by John Carroll. John Carroll is the founder and executive director of City Leadership. John, your energy for the city of Memphis is infectious. Tell us, why do you love Memphis?
John: Yes, if you know me, you know I love Memphis. I love Memphis so much that people assume I am originally from here, but I’m not from Memphis — which is part of why I love Memphis so much.
Memphis creates great Memphians, but I’m from a small town in middle Tennessee called Murfreesboro. Murfreesboro was a small town with nothing to do. We had a lot of great friends and an amazing community, but we didn’t have anywhere to go.
After college, I moved to the Dallas area and Dallas had everything to do — professional sports, great restaurants, broadway shows, etc. In Dallas wherever you went you were always around people, but you were always lonely. I knew it was lonely because I had experienced a great community in Murfreesboro. So I discovered that Dallas had everything to do with no one to share it with, and Murfreesboro had nothing to do with a great community.
After Dallas, I moved to Memphis in 2004 and thought I would only be here for a year or two, but I ended up falling in love with Memphis because it had all the big city amenities and an amazing community. Whether it was a Grizzlies game or the grocery store, I found myself running into all these people I knew.
Over time, the combination of community and great amenities has grown on me so much that I cannot imagine living anywhere else in the world — I love Memphis.
Howard: Memphis is the sweet spot of connected activity.
John: It really is, and this phenomenon is extremely rare. I’ve spent a lot of my career studying cities and how they work and how to move them forward. If you ook at the top 100 cities in America, you will be hard pressed to find a city with this level of amenities and a city-wide community.
Another thing that is great is that Memphis is a minority majority city. Most cities are majority white which is not inherently bad, but the culture ends up being a white culture. Whereas in Memphis we have a blended culture which is amazing. It creates a lot of diversity across the board.
Other cities have subcultures, but they are typically in areas that are isolated from each other, but in Memphis the whole thing is blended and interconnected.
So that’s the sweet spot: a blended culture, lots of stuff to do, and amazing people to share it with.
Howard: The work you do at City Leadership is a big part of enabling further interconnectedness in our city. What does a day at City Leadership look like for you?
John: We are a nonprofit for nonprofits. City Leadership is a nonprofit consulting firm. We help nonprofits get high quality consulting without the high costs typically associated with high quality consulting. So, what we do is we raise money to fund City Leadership and we give away our consulting to nonprofits for free. We do not do this haphazardly — we have specific problems and initiatives in the community that we are targeting to help other organizations make progress toward.
We call it proactive consulting. First we identify major problems in our city. Then we create a strategic plan for how to go about remedying some of those problems. We identify organizations already trying to solve those problems, and we offer services to help them do more good. Essentially our goal is to help the good guys do more good.
City Leadership has officially been doing this for 12 years, but we started all this in a church called Fellowship Memphis about 14 years ago.
One of the things we try to build are pipelines. An example of this is Choose 901. In 2012, we started Choose 901 in an attempt to start a marketing campaign that would bring recent college graduates to Memphis, and we are having a lot of success in doing that. Another pipeline we are building is helping people get out of generational poverty and into a good career.
Currently we have 20 staff and we love waking up and trying to help solve these problems every day. We wake up every day and promote Memphis as the premier place in the country to invest and enjoy your life.
Howard: You mentioned that City Leadership was originally founded in a church with a mission to help the good guys do more good. This sounds a little bit like a founder who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, and said, “Come, follow me.” However, instead of actually following Jesus we try to be mini gods and set up our own kingdoms. What does it mean for us, as humans, to follow Jesus?
John: I always thought I was going to be a businessman. I love the church, love Gode, love my relationship with God, and I always felt compelled to help the church. So as all these things started intersecting I tried to find a way to engage and figure this out for myself.
My biggest problem with my faith was that I just wanted to avoid going to hell — hell sounds awful. So I just tried really really hard to avoid going to hell, and people always told me, “don’t sin, be Godly, come to church, and donate.” This message didn’t give me any purpose or drive and was kind of paralyzing.
Every time I sinned I tried to be more Godly. God is all knowing, all powerful, all present, all good, etc. So not only was I sinning and feeling terrible, I was trying to become “Godly” and never could.
So I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong, and over time in discipleship, study, and community things clicked. The reason we have the Bible is not so that we would just believe that God exists. Rather, the Bible is a blueprint for how to live as humans. Jesus was our perfect sacrifice so we don't have to go to hell, but he lived for 33 years. This is puzzling because he could have been perfect for 33 seconds and that would have been sufficient to atone for our sins. So why did he live for 33 years instead of 33 seconds? Do we have the gospels just to show off Jesus’ perfection? No, they are a blueprint for how to live. So the key is to understand how Jesus lived as a human.
To this end, myself and some guys I was discipling decided to break down every action we saw Jesus doing to figure out if we could live like that. What we discovered is that 98% of the things Jesus did are things we can do as well because all Jesus was doing is loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind, and loving his neighbor as himself.
So we came up with some categories for Jesus’ action. One was whether Jesus was proactive or reactive — whether he was actively pursuing something or reacting to something. Jesus always was seeking to make things like they should be in the kingdom of God. So he would physically correct things by healing people. Relationally, he would challenge people to love others differently. Intellectually or emotionally, Jesus challenged people to think and feel differently. Even spiritually, helping people understand how to worship God.
One day, Jesus is going to come back and restore the whole world, but what we are doing right now is to go out and shine our light to other people by changing things to be like they will be in the kingdom of God. If someone is hungry, feed them. If you don’t like someone, love them. If you have fear, think about how to have hope instead.
Howard: And, not all of us are supposed to do it in the same way, yet in John 15 we see that all this is an outpouring of knowing you are loved. It’s an affirmation and the more we do it the more we know him.
John: Yes, and here are a couple different pieces of this. The first is that the more we understand ourselves the more confidence we have to go love other people. We get so worried about what we are not — and that drives our insecurity — that we do not realize these worries are from our enemy. The enemy is trying to get you to not go and do good. The devil cannot extinguish your light as a Christian, but he can help you put it under a basket, and if it’s under a basket, it might as well not be there. We must stop comparing ourselves to others because this drives insecurity.
We all have a different part to play and should not be ashamed of our part. You see, nobody can do everything and only one thing isn’t enough to do anything, but we all have to do something and when we all do something, we change everything.
You have a different part to play than me and I have a different part to play than the next guy, and it was designed to be that way. That’s why it's called the body of Christ, every part is different. If you put a toe in your eye socket, you aren’t going to see anything.
One thing I want to touch on is Jesus’ divinity. The cross was no doubt painful, but so was the 33 years leading up to it. Imagine being God in human form and going to bed every night knowing there are people who are hungry, lonely, and in need. As God, Jesus could have helped all these people, but instead he had to go to sleep.
So while he could have snapped his fingers and solved everything all at once, I’m so thankful he gave us a blueprint for how to live.
Howard: One thing Jesus modeled is presence. How did Jesus do this?
John: Jesus modeled presence and proximity — he got really close to people — as well as limitedness. Jesus limited himself. We cannot try to solve every problem in the world, we can only solve the problem right in front of us, and that is what Jesus modeled.
Howard: Specifically, when we think about the things that are not how they are supposed to be, what are some things we can do to help?
John: One of the biggest problems Memphis has is that only 20% of 3rd graders are on reading level. Currently, there are 10,000 3rd graders and I bet there are at least 10,000 people in Memphis who care about reading and could tutor a 3rd grader for 1 hour a week. Honestly, even if we only had 5,000 people tutoring we could fix the problem in a year. By next May, this problem could be solved.
Another problem is our insecurity in our relationship with God and in order to fix that we need to stop comparing ourselves to other people and value who it is that God created us to be. Once we are secure in who we are, we are able to love others in greater and better ways.
Howard: John, this has been amazing. Thanks for coming on.
John: Thanks for having me.