Blurring The Lines: Talking Life and Work With T. D. Jakes

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Bishop TD Jakes square

T.D. Jakes’ motives show in his reflexes—in his instincts, he might say these days. And what shows is that with the same stones often used to build walls this pastor, author, business leader, humanitarian, filmmaker, television impresario, advisor to mayors, governors, princes and presidents . . . paves bridges.

Reflex. In the way that one person defaults to a quick judgment, Jakes’ first impulse, whatever it is, is the opposite of judgment.

The effect is that his continents run together. Usual boundaries vanish. Rather than screen to be with people like himself, in great differences he finds common humanity. His take on God is vigorous, and in the way that he sees the world roll wide and deep, so does his world of work.

Why say all this? To begin to explain why a church leader can fold in a city-swallowing family festival, a national talk show, bestselling books, movies, real estate, appearances on Oprah or Dr. Phil, and write a business book called Instinct—“a term the whole world can understand,” Jakes explains with a nod to the apostle Paul’s resolve to be “all things to all people.”

In this interview, the multi-purposed Jakes weighs in on Nelson Mandela, entrepreneurs, achievement and humility, and more, in a string of responses destined for copy-and-paste and, Jakes’ signature effect, to leave audiences freshly unsettled and better for it.


Honoring Nelson Mandela

The High Calling: Before we get into the official interview, Bishop Jakes, a question about Nelson Mandela, whose death just took over global news. You know Jim Collins’ term “good to great.” Other good South Africans were anti-apartheid. Other good leaders were imprisoned for it and later freed. What made Nelson Mandela not just good but great?

Bishop T. D. Jakes: Wow. I think great men are framed in significant causes. And I think that when you take Nelson Mandela, who was intellectual and articulate enough to give voice to a voiceless people, and to influence millions, it lifted him to a level and a height of awareness and attention that not only could shatter the bondage of apartheid but also continue to heal a nation.

A part of the resounding respect from leaders around the world is not just that he could survive the incarceration, or that he could lead, but that he could bridge people, worlds and cultures for the betterment of the country. He helped South Africa become the most progressive nation of the African world with the infrastructure to host the World Cup. He had the vision to say that people with diverse backgrounds and cultures can work together for the betterment of the country and he epitomized that in his leadership skills.

I can’t even articulate my respect for Nelson Mandela. In 1996 when I first came to Dallas the Dallas Morning News asked me if I could have a wish list of anyone at my table, and he was on my list then.

THC: Did you meet him?

TDJ: I met many of his family members. I’ve been to his birthplace and toured Winnie’s house. But when I was in South Africa, he was always out of the country or ill. So I never got the privilege. But his impression on my life is indelible. I agreed to produce the movie [“Winnie Mandela”] because of my respect for South Africa and the Mandela story. And I thought it might help to educate Americans, and African Americans in particular, about how, in many ways, the plight of South Africa mirrors the history of our country in race and dominance and freedom.

Produce What's In You

THC: Well, now to the interview and the first question about your roles--plural-- as pastor, author, moviemaker, social entrepreneur. . . . Are there habits, mental or physical, that help you straddle categories?

TDJ: I think you have to be authentic to who you are as a person. You don’t come into this world as a pastor. You come in as a person. And what I did with my life was to authentically produce what existed in seed form in my heart as an individual. My father was entrepreneurial. His mother was an entrepreneur, and her father was. I grew up with people that owned their own businesses and made payroll and met budgets while I was playing on the floor. Business was not a decision as much as an unveiling of how I process and think and prefer to hold the steering wheel of my own destiny.

THC: So all the things you do. Is it all a calling or a compulsion? And how do you know?

TDJ: It’s an instinct. That’s what I write about in my book, Instinct. If we stop making decisions based purely on intellect or education or past experiences and allow ourselves to gravitate to those areas of instinctive interest and passion, then we feel much more fulfilled because organically we produce what is intrinsically placed in us. That’s not as much a calling as a fulfillment to be fruitful and discover your seed. Your instinct guides you to what is in you. And when you find out what is in you, produce that.

THC: How does a person know what’s inside?

TDJ: Your instinct shows up first in your interests and passions, and as you gravitate toward specific areas. You notice that in conversations you linger on certain subjects. Those could be clues that help you unlock what you are instinctively endowed with. There is a master and there is a master plan. You can’t have a master plan and a master and not have him give thought to your creation. I think we are intrinsically created with clues to our destiny.

A Seed of Purpose

THC: Speaking of instinct, your new book, Instinct, is about business. It’s not spiritual, you say, but then again it’s inevitably spiritual.

TDJ: What I’m saying is that whatever is in us, God put it there as it relates to our instinct. The book starts with the cells in our body and how they gravitate toward each other to form organs in the womb. Everything about us is sensitively wired to accomplish certain things. It’s hard for me to believe that a God so detailed that he gives rhythm to the cells of my heartbeat will get to what I was supposed to do and leave it up to me.

THC: But didn’t God put Adam in the garden and gave him open run of the garden? You’re saying he was made for something specific?

TDJ: You can’t go there. I was talking about stem cells and how God forms hearts. In the Garden of Eden, Adam was created a man. And then God said be fruitful. I said nothing can be fruitful that’s not seed-full. And to those people finding it difficult to find fruit, remember that it doesn’t start as fruit. It starts as seed. He gives Adam this ability to procreate, and there’s nothing God put on this planet without clues inside itself. From the tree God cursed to mankind in Genesis, all have a seed of purpose. What people can instinctively do begins in the seeds and cells of the human body.

THC: And yet so many people never find their seed. They muddle through.

TDJ: A lot of people are hung up on this issue and it’s because those who do follow instinct and unlock destiny don’t tell us how they did it. What motivated me to write is that while I reference my own life, I’ve been privileged to be around people who shattered ceilings and broke barriers. Regardless of background, or culture or ideology, they followed their instinct. They didn’t allow the rules to incarcerate them to what could be done.

Reaching Full Potential

THC: In terms of personal purpose, you believe business is life, and spirituality and real life are inseparable. So how has business—its disciplines, temptations, problem solving, teamwork, people skills, potholes and opportunities—affected your belief or spiritual growth?

TDJ: I believe that people of faith become more effective in maneuvering through the maze of this world when they have strong business acumen. People of business weather the vicissitudes of life more effectively when they have faith. To segregate one from the other limits both from reaching their full potential.

I’d like to elaborate on that a little because some people would argue that point. The Church is a living thing, not just an organization but also an organism from God himself. It exists in a world that requires some level of business. To have a church you likely have to own property and go to the bank. You must know about payroll and taxes . . . negotiations. All those things help you implement the faith calling. If you’ve got a story it’s got to be printed. A book’s got to be published. Communion has to have cups. A baptism needs a place to do it. The deeper you go in the 21st century responding to the call of God you need some level of business to function.

Meanwhile, anyone who’s ever operated a business knows sooner or later that you have to operate by faith. You market and hope someone responds to that marketing. You make a product and have to believe it can sell. You’ve got to knock on doors to sell and have the courage to go and the faith that you’ll get the results. In either world, each propensity strengthens the other.

THC: What if you had stayed out of the marketplace and concentrated on a traditional pastoral role? What would be lost? What wouldn’t you know?

TDJ: Let me respond this way: I believe when Jesus said to “go into all the world” he meant all the world systems. We don’t have to go by camel. We can engage the world through arts, language, intellectualism, business.

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had recently was restudying the Book of Acts. The Holy Spirit led the apostles city to city. Those cities were empires of linguistics, or art, or business. When you read about the bankers and business people in Ephesus being concerned about the apostles, it‘s because it affected the way they made money. If the Church is to be relevant in the world—and not to itself only—it has to have some impact in the world system or it is invisible. If we’re the salt of the earth, and we are, then someone must have the courage to leave the saltshaker because you cannot affect what you will not touch.

Only A Spiritual Story?

THC: Talk about the parable of the talents. Is it a spiritual story only?

TDJ: The problem is in the question. To say that something that is spiritual does not affect the secular is where I take issue. Whereas it has spiritual value and comes from Jesus himself, one of the elements in the parable is that the master says, “You should have put my money to the exchangers. You should have put it in the bank or invested.” So a spiritual being is telling a parable about business investments, and about expecting a return. He did not disengage from the world. He affected the world in a profound and powerful way.

This is where we miss it as believers. We’re so busy removing ourselves from the world we forget we’re supposed to affect the world. If the wealth of the unjust is laid up for the just, how will it be conveyed? If we’re supposed to turn the city upside down, as the bible said, how will we do it if few don’t leave the church? So many are focused on getting people in when the Great Commission was to go out. We cannot build a sanctuary big enough to hold the city. So the people in the sanctuary have to go into the world. We can’t just say, “Come in.” How many Sunday services can we have?

Encouragement For Entrepreneurs

THC: So entrepreneurs know something essential, something everyone should know.

TDJ: I think that entrepreneurs know that as long as you are employed you are controlled, and in the pursuit of freedom itself—freedom to plan, to think, to build, to buy—entrepreneurism affords freedom. When you are employed, you are compensated but also constricted. Restricted. The project is due today. You must do this. You must, you must, you must. An entrepreneur sets the rules. Not to mention that as an entrepreneur you have freedom to hire people. And to teach people to fish is a much higher pursuit.

THC: But plenty of people cannot be entrepreneurs. What instinct or other skill serves them?

TDJ: You’re either an entrepreneur or you’re part of the infrastructure to support someone who is. Directly or indirectly you’re engaged in entrepreneurism. We’re all entrepreneurs or no one has a job. People aren’t on a team because they aren’t entrepreneurial; they’re part of a team and mission in support of something that is entrepreneurial. If we lose entrepreneurism, we suffer.

One great problem in this country is that we’ve stopped producing. We’ve failed in the initial command to be fruitful. We’ve started allowing other countries to be fruitful and innovative instead of us, and it contributes to economic troubles and crimes. When we were building railroads and making the engines and creating aircraft and so on we had better jobs, stronger families, and a stronger country.

The Greatness of Our Uniqueness

THC: Bishop, if business is life, why has the church made it a second-class calling. And why do Christians in business buy into that attitude?

TDJ: I don’t know that all of them have. The generalization is inaccurate. We’ve seen birthing of ministries like Full Gospel Businessmen’s associations in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There are those who know that business people need Christ and Christ needs business people. Not a single one of the 12 disciples was a rabbi. As far as we can tell, the majority was in business. He chose a tax collector. Luke was a physician. Peter was a fisherman. Jesus didn’t just pick out 12 rabbis.

THC: But eventually these non-rabbis gave up business to concentrate on Jesus’s work.

TDJ: Peter didn’t give up his business when he became a disciple. Jesus used Peter’s boats. Paul, later on, continued to make tents. There came a point in Peter’s life where he gave over to the ministry—but we’re not all supposed to do any one thing. That’s the greatness of our uniqueness. When we break down into one-size-fits-all we fail in the uniqueness of God who has given us all fingers and no two of us have the same print.

The effort to get down to “thou shalt” with everyone’s life and business undermines the plan of our uniqueness. If you think of the creation of the universe as pieces of a puzzle, if the pieces were all shaped the same we would never get the picture. Every piece has a purpose, and you’ll never be fulfilled by making more cash but by finding your purpose. If we’d listen to the voice within more than the voices without we’d be more effective in finding our purpose in life.

Whenever people set the agenda for everyone else’s life, that’s our problem. We’re trying to get it to a science of what it looks like. What a Christian must do. What a preacher must do. What a mother must do. Many great mothers do things differently. Some great mothers can’t cook. Or sew. Other great mothers can. We can’t always formalize the strategy of effectiveness because uniqueness has to have preeminence in your style of doing what you do.

So while we’re guided by the word of God and have a clear understanding of morality, we get no recipe for purpose. Jesus healed blind person after blind person but didn’t do it the same way. The moment you tell ‘em to go wash, he’ll turn around and spit in their eye.

THC: One closing question—about humility. In the business world the coin of the realm is power, money, influence. In the faith realm, meanwhile, the lead virtue is humility. A lot of business people, especially if they are Christians, wonder how humility and achievement play together in real life.

TDJ: I don’t think the two ideas are opposed. It’s possible to have the power to affect change and still be humble that you’re allowed to have it. My illustration of power and humility cohabitating is Jesus Christ himself. You can’t find anyone with more influence and power than Christ and you find him at the feet of his disciples washing feet. He didn’t have to forsake one to produce the other, and neither do we.


EDITOR’S NOTE: All week on The High Calling, we’re focusing on transitions in the workplace, home, and community. Are you experiencing change in your life? Join us each day this week for articles, interviews, and reflections on thriving in transition. Or, do you know someone who is going through a transition right now? Encourage them by sharing one of this week’s articles via email or social media.

Interview conducted by Nancy Lovell, writer and principal in Lovell-Fairchild Communications. Photo from the files of The Potter's House, used with permission.