At her essence, Karen Mains is an idea entrepreneur.
While visiting the Kibera slums of Kenya, for instance, she and African colleagues initiated a microenterprise project for women widowed by the AIDS epidemic. Here, the Global Bag Project was born. Trained as seamstresses, granted pedal-driven sewing machines (in a region of the world where power-outs are frequent) as well as certificates of achievement, these women, many who live in bamboo-sided, thatched roofed, dirt-floor huts, could now support their children, pay for school fees and uniforms, and hold their heads a little higher.
Mains believes strongly in her own mother’s maxim: Always leave a room in better shape than it was when you entered it. Karen has diligently applied this rule, as well, to her role in the world.
Always leave a room in better shape than it was when you entered it.
Married for over six decades to the Rev. Dr. David R. Mains, she joined her husband in many joint ministry ventures: planting an inner-city, inter-racial church on the West side of Chicago (Circle Church) in 1967. The members met in a Teamster’s Union Hall and were witnesses to the race riots that blazed in many of American’s city after the assignation of Martin Luther King, which burned down whole neighborhoods around their meeting place. This church experiment, where the Mains served for 10 years, was part of the attempt to deal with white flight occurring in the city as the racial demographics of neighborhoods shifted.
In 1977, David Mains accepted the invitation from his uncle, John D. Jess, to lead The Chapel of the Air, one of the first national religious broadcasts in the United States, established in 1937 when the Federal Communications Commission opened the airwaves to religious broadcasting. When his uncle retired, David was made Director of the media ministry which aired on some 600 stations daily across the country with an estimated listenership of some 2 million people. Due to their team approach, Karen was invited to either co-host many of the fifteen-minute broadcasts with her husband, or also to become one of the first female voices to solo over these conservative outlets.
In time, David Mains turned his attention to also telecasting, and Karen joined him in co-hosting many of those shows. Again, Mains applied a creative approach to this media outreach, which included man-on-the-street interviews, panel discussion with a variety of opinions, etc. For these unusual approaches in telecasting, Mains received the National Religious Broadcasters Producer of the Year Award.
Due to her public platform, and a growing re-examination of the Scriptures that many in conservative ecclesiastical systems now interpreted as wrongly restricting the role of women in leadership (a kind of theological misogyny), Karen found herself in a variety of “first woman” roles: i.e. first woman behind this pulpit, first woman on this platform, first woman speaking at this retreat, first woman on this board, first woman as chair of this board.
During these years, she and other women leaders launched the outreach of Hungry Souls, a ministry devoted to developing leadership skills through creating ministries for women who were hungry to achieve substantive spiritual depth. This was accomplished through Retreats of Silence of various lengths—half-day, weekend, or three-day events where participants were coached in developing the capacity to listen, to hear and to respond to the inner nudgings of the Holy Spirit.
In the intervening years, Karen Mains became a well-loved spiritual mentor to hundreds of thousands of readers through the outreach of her twenty-three books published released within the Evangelical marketplace. Her first book, Open Heart, Open Home, was the only book on the scriptural theology in conservative religious publishing at the time of release. It is still in print and has sold over 700,000 copies.
Mains’ idea entrepreneurship is highlighted by the practical, often joy-filled, creative thinking displayed in her writing. Some of those titles are The God Hunt, The Delightful Chase and the Wonders of Being Found; With My Whole Heart: Disciplines for Strengthening the Inner Life; Making Sunday Special: Creative ways, new and old, to make Sunday the best day of your week and Medicine for Mouth Disease: A Miracle Cure for Troublesome Tongues.
With My Whole Heart was awarded The Gold Medallion by the Evangelical Publishers Association and The Fragile Curtain was granted the Christopher Award by the Catholic enterprise of the same name—the Christophers. Karen considers The Fragile Curtain the best of her published writing attempts.
After the death of her son, Jeremy Mains, at age 42 of lymphoma, Karen took the opportunity to withdraw from the speaker’s circuit. Due also to a self-appointed group of “heresy-hunters” in ultra-conservative evangelicalism, Karen’s creative approach came under concentrated fire. This forced the ministry of The Chapel of the Air, due to a mounting debt of some $20,000,000, to close down the media outreaches. Thus, the national platforms of David and Karen Mains were retired.
As someone once said to Karen, “Twenty years ago, everyone in evangelicalism knew who you were. Now, no one knows who you are.” Karen actually considers that anonymity a gift. It has been years since she last heard the question, “You mean you are the Karen Mains?” Looking back on their years of public broadcasting, telecasting, and public speaking, this ministering couple frequently consider the cessation of these media enterprises to have been a blessing in disguise. These closures have given them the gift of time. They no longer have to be concerned about raising donor dollars of some $10,000 a day! However, their “let’s-try-this-idea” motivation has not diminished.
For instance, one of the most entrepreneurial ventures Karen has undertaking, post-media communication years, is the establishment and testing of the concept of Listening Groups. Over the period of seven years, Karen has led some 70 groups with three to five participants each. Using a simple formula she developed, two or so hours are set aside for the participants, one by one, in an uninterrupted fashion to share what is going on in their lives, to identify their struggles and joys and to know that they have been completely heard and understood.
What Karen did not understand when she launched this recent venture is that God designed the human frame to respond psychologically, emotionally, and physically in a most positive manner when it has been listened to, heard, and understood.
What Karen did not understand when she launched this recent venture is that God designed the human frame to respond psychologically, emotionally, and physically in a most positive manner when it has been listened to, heard, and understood. Now heading into her eighth decade of life, with a trail of accomplishments behind her, Karen thinks this discovery and its potential impact may be one of the most exciting developments in her life. She is now writing a book tentatively titled, Tell Us: How Listening Groups Heal, Free, and Empower Those Who Feel Heard and Understood.
She prays for ideas enough and time enough and health enough to finish this latest project.