A young Chattanooga organization that seeks to help Christians bridge faith and work has formally become a nonprofit, settled into its first permanent office and changed its name — to the Faith Co-op.
During a kind of incubation period, the organization formerly known as Chattanooga Faith + Work + Culture was run under the auspices of the Generosity Trust, a Chattanooga organization that describes itself as "a donor-driven foundation that provides funds and services to simplify charitable giving for generous Christians," according to its website.
The jump to independent nonprofit status represents a key coming of age moment for Faith Co-op, which was founded in a period of waning church attendance to help people with secular vocations find spiritual meaning and purpose in their work.
"One of the big things that I think all of us struggle with is that we separate out our spiritual life from the rest of our life," said Jonathan Ingraham, Faith Co-op's executive director.
"Work is not a necessary evil," he said in a recent phone interview. "It's actually one of the ways we glorify and honor God."
Faith Co-Op has new digs in Highland Park
In 2016, Ingraham began to lead a ministry of the North Shore Fellowship called the Chattanooga Fellows Program, which was oriented toward recent college graduates trying to figure out how to follow Christ as they began their careers.
Two years later, Clark Taylor, a hospital administrator, and Bill Stiles, a marketing veteran, launched the Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work and ran a fellowship for established professionals seeking to study the theology of work.
An event that year bringing the two groups together revealed they shared much in common, Ingraham said. In 2020, he said, they formally joined forces as Chattanooga Faith + Work + Culture — though that proved hard to remember and was changed to accompany the recent nonprofit leap.
The pandemic curtailed certain early ambitions, but in the years since, the organization has come to run five distinct programs.
They include an eight-week study program run for entrepreneurs and investors, a class series for churches and businesses, and a lunch series with a theme.
Then there are the extended fellowships,
One, the Main + Market Fellows program, is geared toward mid-career adults in Chattanooga who gather weekly and go on retreats to discuss what the Gospel says about work.
Ben Walter was part of the 2022-23 class. He's a plant manager at Southern Champion Tray's new paperboard factory in Chattanooga.
"If you went to Tasty Donuts, that would be our box," he said in a phone interview Friday. "If you went to the Boathouse and got food to go, that would be our box."
For nine months, he said, he and other fellows met weekly at the Smart Bank near Miller Plaza — going forward fellows will meet at Faith Co-op's new digs at 1805 Bailey Ave. — to discuss what the Bible says about work.
Fellows left the program planning their own projects. Walter's was oriented toward his workers.
His factory offers full-time pay for three 12-hour days per week, he said. Many workers use their free time with family or to do a second job. But for those who go home and don't know what to do with their time, Walter is seeking to bring in local nonprofits to offer volunteer opportunities so they can better connect to the place they live, he said.
The other program, called the Chattanooga Fellows, remains geared toward recent college graduates, like Gracie Smith.
As she finished her studies at Michigan's Calvin University, she imagined a future in which she would open a business or community center that would be a hub for outdoor recreation — oriented specifically toward minority groups and others who don't have easy access to nature.
"But I didn't really know what the next step to get to that point was," she said in a phone interview.
She found the Chattanooga Fellows program online, liked what she heard from Ingraham in a phone call and joined the fall 2022 fellowship class.
She was assigned to attend New City Fellowship in Glenwood, met with the other fellows for class and other programming twice a week and settled into an internship with Bridge Outdoors, a program of the Bethlehem Center that she said takes Dalewood Middle School and Brainerd High School students — young people she said who are often coming from low-income households — on after-school outdoor recreation adventures.
"We are using the outdoors as a tool to teach emotional regulation; conflict management; social, emotional skills; those sorts of things," she said.
In the move to Chattanooga, Smith hoped for a smooth social transition, but her fellowship class in some ways struggled with interpersonal connection, she said.
"That was a difficult reality to set in throughout the year," she said. "'Oh, this isn't super easy. It's not like college, where you live with your friends and like get to see them in class and for lunch.'"
Still, she realizes its simply difficult to establish new community, she said. And through the program, which featured classes, talks and meetups with many swaths of local life, she and other fellows made connections throughout the Chattanooga area with uncommon speed, she said. She found herself developing a new concept of the word "network." It was an active, living process — rather than just a thing one was supposed to do.
After the fellowship ended, Smith continued her work at Bridge Outdoors. Though the program does not have a religious mission, she said as she drives to work she tries to remind herself to find the sacred in the monotonous and to pray for herself, her co-workers, the students and their families — small things, she said, that influence the way she enters the day.
The fulfillment and compensation people receive from their work varies enormously, a fact many see as political in nature. Asked if Faith Co-op has a dimension concerned with workplace power, Ingraham said the organization serves both CEOs and people who feel like they have little agency in their workplaces.
"I just think the Gospel flips what authority and power look like on its head," Ingraham said, adding he hopes to grab people's imaginations such that they realize that no matter their worldly station, they are part of a grand and beautiful story.
When someone reads "Lord of the Rings," Ingraham said, they can begin to imagine themselves in Middle Earth — in the Shire, for example. He wants to invite people to approach Scripture with a similar spirit:
"I begin," he said, "to imagine what it looks like to live out that Gospel story in the context God finds me."