It's entirely informal, a man standing in front of 40-odd people in a large, open, high-ceiling room in an industrial park. Jacket, no tie, he is easy, affable, commonsensical. He speaks about normal failures — ego, fear, complacency — things that cripple leaders and organizations.
"We believe that people are made to be given work that is of true and deep service," John Stahl-Wert says. "Work that matters to the world. Work where they can experience joy and satisfaction. Work where, at the end of the day, their efforts counted."
Murmurs, head nods all around.
"A great company is a great company because lots and lots of people show up every day intent on doing great things. The question is how you build that culture," he says.
In a career that's gone from pulpit to practical, Stahl-Wert, an ordained Mennonite minister, now brings traditional Protestant Faithe and Workes to goodness and decency in the workplace. In his early days, he founded the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) which helped young graduates engage with their community through service. These days he helps companies cultivate future leaders through his company Serving Ventures.
"People need positive affirmation to maintain a future focus," he says. "But they also need urgency — a compelling emotional reason to care, a way to make work personal, a direct connection to their lives and everything that they cherish.
"I love it when human beings see ways they can contribute. I love businesspeople who create jobs — and solve planetary problems."
Scion of Lancaster Mennonites, son of a farm-country carpenter, "growing up I had crafts," he recalls, "but no arts and letters."
At age 9 he discovered novels and realized, he says, "I was part of a large human family."
A year later he saw Funny Girl at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. "Until then, I hadn't been out of the cornfields," Stahl-Wert says. "That experience ruined me for the country."
In his early 20s, with a freshly minted social-work degree from a Mennonite college, he became director of a volunteer service program, supervising some 300 young people in 30 urban and rural impoverished communities. Moving hither and yon, some 25 years ago he found himself in Pittsburgh, pastor of a Mennonite church.
After six years and three churches, in '94, he dove back into social work. "Why don't we give college students something worth doing?" he asked.
Opening PULSE, Stahl-Wert went to career fairs, talked with collegians who couldn't figure out what to do post-grad. "You tell me what's in your heart," he said, "and I'll introduce you to organizations that are cool. And we'll see what happens."
What happened are hundreds of twentysomethings over two decades who have lent a hand to everything from JobLinks to Habitat for Humanity.
Then there was the Union Project, where he spearheaded the transformation of a derelict and defrocked East End church into a community center, now home to everything from beauty pageants to Zumba classes.
"Take a snapshot of PULSE and the Union Project," he says, "and you'd have my heart."
Adding a berth at the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, where he worked with businesspeople making positive change, after a dozen years, Stahl-Wert felt ready to open his own shop. At Serving Ventures, he now does a bit of everything, including teaching and coaching people "how to build companies that people want to work for — because they are good places to work and because they bring good to the world."
With such blue-chip clients as Children's Hospital, Bombardier, Fannie Mae and Merrill Lynch, among others, Stahl-Wert tells his clients, "Never say, ‘It's just grubby business.' Work is sacred, and we seek to integrate a life of faith and a life of work."
"The DNA in that," he adds, "comes from my Mennonite upbringing. Mennonite business teaching stresses servitude — and servitude is stitched into a Mennonite boy's soul. That shows in my work."
"One thought underlines everything," he adds. "I'm far more interested in serving someone who has a dream and a passion than in serving my own."
Back on the shop floor, back among people with safety glasses and plastic pocket protectors, he's talking quietly, forcefully. "Let's not do what we're supposed to do," he shakes his head. "Let's do what we should we do. Let's create that."
Smiles and approval all around.
"The work that you do demands you to work with others who have your back," he gestures about him. "God has designed us to need other people. We are essential to each other. So find people who are awesome in the things you aren't. And hook up."