Iron Sharpens Iron

— by Tom Phillips

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. (Prov. 27:17) 

I have found this verse to be true and very relevant for me. Beth and I started our business, DCI, in 2001. Our intent, from the very beginning, was to have a business that sought the peace and prosperity of our city—Memphis, Tennessee. The first couple of years we were left to figure things out on our own. Thankfully, though, this was soon to change.

Sometime after we started DCI, I encountered an article in our local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, talking about another business owner who was using his business to advance God’s Kingdom. As I read the article, I was intrigued that this man, Alan Barnhart, was doing the same thing with his business that we wanted to do with DCI. Thinking that his experience and viewpoint might be valuable, I resolved to call him. As we talked on the phone, and later as we talked in-person, I began to see and appreciate Alan’s passion for ministry and work that, in turn, fueled our growing friendship.

Alan and I were busy people, so we knew we would have to be intentional about cultivating our friendship. To this end, we began regularly having lunch together, and this led to us walking on weekends. On these walks, we would always talk—about life and events, yes, but most often about our faith, our calling, and our work (ministry). We would talk about why we felt we were called to be businessmen on our mission field. As we walked together, we became close friends with a growing degree of accountability. Often, I would discuss my ideas or plans with Alan—strategies or concepts that might improve my work or outreach. Every time I’d talk about my ideas, Alan wouldn’t reject them or correct me; instead, he would ask me questions, seeking to collaboratively expand my ideas, helping me to make them better by intertwining his unique viewpoint with my own. This iterative process refined and purified my initial ideas, transforming them into something far superior to their original shape. As one example of this, early in our relationship, Alan and I were having lunch and discussing what sorts of ministry our respective companies did. DCI was heavily involved in local ministries and had been for some time. Alan, however, challenged me, asking me whether I had considered supporting international ministries. This took me somewhat aback, as I had never considered this before. As we discussed further, however, I became increasingly convinced that God had ordained DCI and, specifically, me, for international ministry. This one conversation has borne much fruit. We now have the privilege of being engaged with many international ministries that are having great impact. The ROLI (return on the Lord’s investment) is often much higher in the majority world. 

As we have become involved in each other's lives, we've also become advocates for each other's work. In our walks, Alan and I often talk about our business problems and approaches, and we have learned quite a bit from each other. We're involved in each other's companies, to the extent that Alan is on the board of advisors for DCI, and I am on the board of advisors for Barnhart Crane and Rigging (BC&R). In the time we've known each other, DCI's revenue has increased from around $9 million to approximately $425 million, over a 47-fold increase. BC&R has also grown steadily over that time period. Our mutual friendship and support has helped us navigate and capitalize on this economic growth.

Of course, for us, business is both our everyday reality and an ongoing commitment to what we see as our higher calling. One of the things I have heard from Alan since the beginning is “Profit with a purpose.” We are committed to providing innovation and excellence in our respective fields. We also try to consider all the stakeholders in our decision-making process. One of our mission fields is our businesses, where we can have a Kingdom impact on all the stakeholders. This includes our shareholders, vendors, clients, and employees. We believe it all belongs to God, and, as such, we are simply stewarding all the resources He has put under our care. We want to be the best we can be in business, bringing glory to God both in how we succeed and how we use our success.

Amid all of this, we’ve had the chance to grow together dramatically as friends. We have a shared purpose: ministering and providing aid to the majority world. The opportunities for shared experiences in this field are staggering; there are many needs out there in the wide world and near as many opportunities to help meet them, in Gospel love. We are always asking the question, “What has God called us to do and how can we have the greatest Kingdom impact?”

Alan and I had the opportunity to go to Africa together, with the goal of meeting with as many ministries and outreach programs as possible. During that particular trip, Alan said something that succinctly summed up our attitude at the time: “We can eat and sleep when we get back to Memphis.” On that trip we visited four countries and met with 32 different ministries in a span of eight days. Shared experience and shared motivation is the mother of friendship.

Alan and I have developed a lasting friendship, which has had a major impact on my life. It has helped me in business and increased my Kingdom impact. I can honestly say that my life would not be as rich without knowing Alan. We’ve spent the last 12 or so years building each other up, challenging each other, and getting to know each other; I am the better for it. We care for each other, even beyond our shared goals and passions. One of my proudest moments in our friendship happened when I had the privilege of helping Alan bag his first deer. It did not take long until Alan shot an eight-point, beginning and promptly ending his deer-hunting career. Most people are happy to shoot any deer, but Alan started with a big one. Because of our friendship, Alan’s triumph is my victory.

Proverbs 27:17 talks about this process of becoming biblical friends. It begins, of course, with two men walking together through life, but, over time, it becomes so much more! It is the simplest of processes, but it is also in some ways incredibly difficult. Friendship, especially biblical friendship, often demands more from you than you originally intended to give. Being close friends with another person takes commitment, accountability, trust, and a willingness to be vulnerable. Sometimes this takes sacrifice; Alan and I have walked together in rain, heat, and even once when the temperature was 22 degrees outside. This level of commitment doesn't always come easy. More challenging than the commitment, though, is maintaining vulnerability and openness. Most of us do not like feeling vulnerable; I certainly don't! Giving Alan permission to hold me accountable is one of the hardest parts of our friendship for me, though it's also something I really could not do without. Sometimes he says things I don’t want or like to hear, but I need to hear them. It is important in life to find someone who can really challenge you, pushing you out of your comfort zone and making you examine your ideas and choices. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to have a Christ-centered friendship, you have to trust the other person. We all know of sham friends who have mocked and belittled their friends or who have taken advantage of privileged information. That sort of friend is no friend at all, only a deceiver! Take care to avoid those kind of "friends," but don't be so cautious that you forget to trust your true friends: people who mentor you, coach you, invest in you, and challenge you. Such friends are without price, an incomparable treasure. I thank God that I was able to meet Alan Barnhart and that he and I have been able to walk together these past few years. Together, we have sacrificed, strived, overcome, and grown; we have talked and commiserated, shared together and worked together, challenged and uplifted each other. This is the core of my friendship with Alan, and this is iron sharpening iron!

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[Special thanks to Malte Wingen on Unsplash for the cover photo]