“Entrepreneur” is not a word I’ve ever used to described myself. I admire the term’s association with energy, independence, dedication, and creativity. But people who call themselves “entrepreneurs” also seem to have a fascination with the new: starting a new business after selling their first successful start-up; seeking out new markets, exploring new avenues for profit.
This desire for “the next thing” drives much good in the world, but it makes me nervous. By nature I’m conservative, consistent, a refiner and reviser rather than an innovator. I’d much rather spend thirty years perfecting a craft than an hour worrying about how to monetize or market the goods I make. On the other hand, I’m always eager to read a new Victorian fairy tale or to try a new sewing technique, because these actions sustain interests I’ve cultivated since childhood. When I took my university teaching post at the age of twenty-eight, I expected–with joy–to be doing exactly the same kind of work for the next forty years or more.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself, at thirty-one, starting a soap-making business when I knew nothing about either soap or, for that matter, business.
I agreed to take on soap-making because someone needed to (we have goats at the Village, but no dairy to enable us to make any food products with their milk), and because, months before my marriage and move, I was dimly aware of the crisis of vocation that would come as I left academia, moved to Texas, and tried to discern a joint ministry with my new husband. In other words, I needed something to do.
For my first few months of marriage, soap-making was a gateway to belonging. While scores volunteers and staff bustled across the property, collecting herbs for made me feel a part of the work of this place. Making soap in my tiny RV kitchen gave me something I could share with volunteers and future neighbors. And having sample bars of honeysuckle-scented soap to give helped me vault over my shyness. I didn’t know if anyone here valued the poetry I had spent years studying, but I knew they could hold a bar of soap and call it good.
These virtues notwithstanding, I quickly I realized that I don’t like making soap at all. I enjoy formulating recipes and learning about different oils, herbs, and additives. I relish the pride of completing a batch. But I don’t much care for the process: having to wear gloves and goggles, the mess and equipment, the dangers of the lye, the washing of so many dishes afterward. I can understand why some people love it, but I simply don’t.
I thought my dislike was simply my insecurity, and I imagined that months and years of practice would “normalize” the tedious parts of the process. I tried to focus more and more on the elements I enjoyed (learning about herbs, for example.), but even so, the idea of a future full of soap did not thrill me. Furthermore, after a few months I was working (as a volunteer) full-time alongside my husband, helping get the Village’s on-site Community Inn up and running. By summertime I received the green light to pilot a program very near to both my own and my husband’s heart: a missional apprenticeship program called the Community Corps. Suddenly soap no longer felt like my only gateway to belonging here; it became a burden on my already-full and stressful weeks. When I was officially hired in August, I was told that I could drop soap-making whenever I needed to.
The problem, however, was that my little soap business turned out to be really successful. A fairly simple product with a good profit margin, our soap began to sell incredibly well when the Village’s Community Market opened, and I soon realized that it could produce a steady income for several of my formerly homeless neighbors. To simply drop it would mean withholding a valuable opportunity for meaningful, dignified work.
To a true entrepreneur, the solution to this problem is obvious: find someone else to manage the actual soap making event, or even to lead the program entirely. My husband, as well as my many wise colleagues, advised this throughout the summer. Pray for God to bring someone to take soap, they said.
These admonitions brought me little comfort. After a difficult year, I felt trapped in a world of scarce resources, and I was having trouble believing in God’s abundance. But I prayed, haltingly and angrily, believing that God could but not convinced that he would relieve my harried hours.
I prayed, God, bring someone to do this work with joy. Bring someone to do it instead of me!
The change came more quickly than I expected — not in the form of a person, but of a renewed spirit. With some changes to our weekly scheduling, the event moved from the end of a long day to a quiet afternoon — more restful already. As the soap make I had been training grew more confident, I realized I could let him work independently while I research recipes or techniques. I found my curiosity returning, and then she came.
An eager, capable woman. Someone who had dreamed of making soap for years, but hadn’t had the resources. Someone whose heart was committed to the work happening at the Village.
Just like that, I was “free,” baffled and blessed by God’s abundance and His timing.
In this freedom, I realized that making soap was teaching me a hard truth: for months, soap felt like a burden because I assumed that I was doing it for myself — that my own delight or pleasure was somehow the fundamental justification for doing a thing. When I first agreed to learn soap-making, it never occurred to me that I might be cultivating a skill or building a program in order to give it away.
Getting soap in your eyes stings, and it hurt to see myself so dragonish, unwilling to steward a treasure that was not mine to hoard.
Over one of our long Christmas drives, my husband played a podcast that offered a helpful alternative to my understanding of entrepreneurship: entrepreneurs, the speaker said, are those who find ways to add value wherever they are.
I didn’t want to own soap-making, and I cheated myself out of months of joy by thinking I was supposed to. Little did I know that my true commission was simply to steward it for a season, enriching, strengthening, stabilizing it, and then to hand it to its rightful master.
As a new year begins, I’m thankful that the time and energy soap-making has demanded are returning to me, providing more time for my reading, my writing, and my needlework. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for what soap has taught me about calling and ownership: that sometimes our call is not to follow our own passions, but to surrender them, pouring our treasures into something that was never ours to keep.