An integral and foundational piece to human growth and city flourishment is non-profit work. One of the most well-known and award-winning non-profits in the Chattanooga area is First Things First. First Things First is an organization that provides healthy relationship skills through classes, events and multimedia outlets. They aim to be a community resource for the Chattanooga area by providing the most up-to-date research, content and educational experiences to all. The back bone of this organization is the CEO herself, Julie Baumgardner. I had the privilege of getting to sit down with Julie and talk with her about her experience with First Things First and the ways God has and continues to shape her into the leader she is today.
"As a counselor and somebody who worked in the healthcare profession, I saw so many of these issues impacting society: fatherlessness, divorce, unwed childbearing, and the thing is—they are all preventable."
What was it like starting First Things First?
Scary. We were started as an experiment and I had just come out of corporate America. We were really launching something that was very different and unique. It could have gone either way in terms of how people took it, because we were talking about very personal things. Interestingly, while they may have been very personal, people’s personal decisions impact the larger community. So you hear people talk about “what happens in my home” or “what happens in the bedroom” is nobody’s business but mine. The problem is that in truth the behavior in your home does impact all of us. So starting First Things First was a scary and exhilarating moment all at the same time.
What made you want to start First Things First?
Some business leaders actually came up with the concept and started it. So what made me want to be a part of it was knowing that it was prevention-oriented in nature. As a counselor and somebody who worked in the healthcare profession, I saw so many of these issues impacting society: fatherlessness, divorce, unwed childbearing, and the thing is—they are all preventable. So, I was all about educating people and giving them information, because I do think that when people understand the construct of things they can actually take those skills, use them, and do better rather than flying by the seat of their pants.
What drives First Things First’s mission?
I think that if the team were sitting here, they would say that everybody wants to have healthy relationships, and in order to have healthy relationships you need skills. You need to know how to communicate with people and how to appreciate opinions other than your own. People need to know how to deal with conflict, problem solve, make decisions, and to think about someone other than you, and a lot of people don’t have those skills. I definitely work with all ages and when we get together on a weekly basis, it’s all about watching the light bulb go on and watching people have an aha moment. We are guiding people to be the hero of their relationship story.
Have you noted any new or different challenges within families or with the people you serve over time?
Oh yes. I think it has become very complicated and convoluted. When parents don’t take responsibility and actively engage with their kids, and sometimes even when they do, there are just so many things speaking into the lives of people today. Social media: you’ve got young people on Instagram and Snap Chat who think they know who they are talking to, but they don’t really know. They may be talking to someone somewhere who they’ve never met. There are just so many people speaking into the lives of others who may or may not be out for their best interest. I think there are a whole host of things going on. Some parents who are completely asleep at the wheel and some parents who are working diligently just to keep a roof over their kid’s heads and put food on the table, both absent on each end of the spectrum, therefore there are things that are filling the void. Twenty years ago we absolutely didn’t have the issues we have now with social media and technology. Technology is even impacting marriages. So you have that to contend with. You also have this very loud culture voice speaking to people saying things such as, “What do you mean you can’t have a child outside of marriage? Who has the right to tell you that? It’s your body and nobody should tell you what to do.” But if we are looking at what is in the best interest for children, there are definitely reams of research for what is in the best interest for children, and that is to have a mom and a dad and a healthy marriage.
Have you experienced setbacks and/or challenges? If so, how have you handled it?
We had a grant that was a million dollar grant that we had had for 9 years. They decided to go in a different direction and wanted to change how we did business, so we ultimately decided to walk away, which was a big deal. We were walking away from a million dollars and having to replace that. It was really scary. We are in our third year away from the grant and really doing okay. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m thankful. I’m thankful to not be jerked around anymore. It has also allowed us to do more faith-based experiences in addition to the secular work that we do. I definitely spend a lot of time in prayer; I am very prayerful about what I am doing. My goal is to grow as a leader, and to be thoughtful and wise and discerning about what I do. And to constantly be looking to the future, thinking about new and creative ways to engage people.
Not operating out of fear, but operating out of the fact that I am doing this with a right heart and am seeking to do the best I know how to do, I have to trust that God will honor that.
What has God taught you or shown you through First Things First?
The biggest thing he has shown me is that he is absolutely faithful. Even through the really hard gut wrenching times, I can look back and it is unbelievably evident that he is faithful. I also know that I am not in control. I have been entrusted with something and I take great responsibility for that, but I am definitely not in control. For somebody that is really type A and who is out there leading a lot, sometimes it is a battle. Not operating out of fear, but operating out of the fact that I am doing this with a right heart and am seeking to do the best I know how to do, I have to trust that God will honor that.
I would absolutely say that in every way I do business, handle the business, and talk to people it is with biblical principles.
How do you feel that being a Christian has led you in your role as a leader and CEO?
I would absolutely say that in every way I do business, handle the business, and talk to people it is with biblical principles. Everyone here seeks to treat people the way Jesus would. We talk about that all the time. Sometimes people are really prickly, but what would Jesus do? He would move in closer.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse or story pertaining to your work or how you view your role at First Things First?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Philippians 4:6. I literally can wake up in a panic attack and heart be racing and breaking out in a cold sweat. I’ve always been that way, I’m less so now than I used to be. I have just really learned that He keeps his promises. In twenty years now when I get really anxious I can just look back and think “Well here we are twenty years later and look how He has been faithful.” I could tell you stories about how crazy the timing has been on stuff; there is just no other explanation. Being prayerful is also huge. Also, reminding myself that His yoke is easy because I can either carry the burdens and be in toil about it or lay it before the foot of the cross.
This is very humbling work, because really no matter how good you are, if you are not letting Him lead, then it is going to be a problem. You have to be prepared that it is going to be hard work. I love what I do, but it is no less a challenge to me today than it was twenty years ago.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to go into the non-profit world?
If you feel like that is where God is leading you and that is what you are passionate about, then whole-heartedly embrace the ride, because it is definitely a ride. I don’t think it is for the faint of heart because some of the meanest encounters I have had have been with other Christians. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I also think that it’s complicated and highly competitive. I am a firm believer that if God has called you to do something and this is His work, He will use you to accomplish his work, and maybe not in the way you thought. I don’t think there has been a year where I felt like “Oh fundraising, what a breeze!”
Keep your eyes wide open for where He is working and where He wants you to engage with Him in the work. This is very humbling work, because really no matter how good you are, if you are not letting Him lead, then it is going to be a problem. You have to be prepared that it is going to be hard work. I love what I do, but it is no less a challenge to me today than it was twenty years ago.
Sometimes we think if we are going into ministry that we won’t encounter difficulties with people, but the reality is that people are people. You run into complicated stuff no matter where you are, and that’s really the challenge, letting Christ lead you in the midst of absolute insanity.
If you could say one thing to other business leaders who are Christians, or just the business community as a whole, what would it be?
I would say from a non-profit perspective, this really is a new day. I think that if we want to make a difference we need to help non-profits function more like businesses rather than entities that are always functioning out of “there’s never enough.” That means that people can have great hearts, but if they don’t know how to lead or be an administrator, or do the work that it takes to make it happen, they are probably not the entity that needs to be leading that charge. Sometimes it’s hard for business people to make the transition to working with nonprofits. I have watched people in the business world who are highly successful not know how to make the leap to helping nonprofits be successful. I would just say that the nonprofit world desperately needs more for-profit people who are willing to come alongside them and grow them and teach them and help them be better, but in a way that is helpful and not condescending.
Julie is a woman who is to be admired, a woman who truly seeks the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29:7). I pray for what Christ has consistently shown to Julie—that we learn to release our illusion of control and let God have what is truly his—our lives and our businesses. He is faithful.