“While I was in the fly shop, I heard stories about the people who tied flies,” says Corban alumnus Jeff Coffey. They’re often women living in places like South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand, and they earn about $2 a day—$5 on the high end.
“There’s nowhere in the world that’s a livable wage,” says Jeff.
Meanwhile, the people purchasing flies often bring home a six-figure income.
“We’re talking about educated people—95% college grads.” The people buying flies are passionate about fighting for the protection of the environment—“for salmon, for trout, for waterways,” says Jeff—but nobody’s thinking about where their flies come from or how the people who tie them are treated.
Working in a small fly shop in Bend, Oregon, Jeff began to ponder what he could do to turn an exploitative industry into a healing one—while still running a successful business.
Turning a profit and doing missions haven’t always been seen as compatible. Business owners are often told their role is to write a check and let missionaries do God’s work. Meanwhile, missionaries are expected to rely on those checks for support and never see a surplus penny for their efforts.
“You either serve God or you serve money,” Jeff was told over and over again in his early days in ministry. Earning money while doing missions was deceitful. Irresponsible. Impossible. For years, Jeff tried to adhere to the idea that missions should be free from the bonds of business. But his creativity and entrepreneurial mind kept insisting otherwise.
Jeff remembers the first time he encountered the tension between missions and business. He was young and newly married to his wife Lori, and they were ready to dive into the mission field with “reckless abandon.” With some Bible training from Corban (then Western Baptist), Jeff and Lori headed to their first assignment on a reservation in British Columbia.
“It wasn’t Vacation Bible School and paper puppets,” says Jeff. “Our first week there, I was tasked with cleaning up from a shotgun suicide.” His life was threatened multiple times, and there were moments when he was sure he’d either end up in the hospital or dead.
Slowly, Jeff and Lori began to build trust and relationship with the tribe.
At one point, Jeff successfully fixed the chief’s computer. Another time, he used his previous experience on search-and-rescue teams to find a girl who’d disappeared in a freak snowstorm.
The chief began to see Jeff not as an outsider, but as an asset. “We want you to start a computer repair business,” the chief told him. “And we’d like you to start a search-and-rescue team.” He would be provided with whatever funds he needed.
Jeff called his sending agency to share the good news.
His manager said, “Jeff, we’re really proud of you and how you’ve integrated into the community. But if you take a penny from the tribes, you no longer work for us.” This would be the first of many times Jeff heard some version of, You either serve God or you serve money.
“There’s a time when we’re supposed to honor leadership,” Jeff says, “and maybe I did the right thing, honoring my leadership.”
Jeff never started a computer repair business or a search-and-rescue team for the reservation in British Columbia. But God used the invitation as a picture of “business as mission” that would simmer in the back of Jeff’s mind and provide the impetus behind an idea that would later help him transform the fly fishing industry and countless lives.
When his time with the missions agency came to an end, Jeff joined an outdoor education organization in Washington. Once again, God would use Jeff’s experience in a traditional support-based ministry context to shape his view of business-as-mission.
He had always envisioned himself using God’s creation to serve the Kingdom, and white water rafting while sharing the Gospel with young people seemed like the perfect fit. “We managed 6,000 students a year going down white water rivers, and 45 volunteer guides. It was a wild ride.”
But Jeff soon learned it wasn’t sustainable. He was on the river 121 days of the year, and despite the fact that he’d initially managed to raise enough support from the small missionary churches where he and Lori grew up, their support was slowly—literally—dying off. “Little old ladies had been writing $50 checks apiece to get us in the mission field,” Jeff explains. And the younger generation taking their place was saying, “Wait a minute. I’m working all day long and writing checks so you can take kids white water rafting?”
Jeff’s entrepreneurial mind began to turn. He approached the executive director and said, “We’re not thinking about sustainability.” Staff were exhausted trying to raise support that was harder and harder to find. What if they changed their business model, charged enough per person to keep the organization afloat without support, and spent more time recruiting, training, and retaining quality staff? “Think how many more students we’d serve—we’d still be sharing the Gospel every time we got in the boat!”
But what he heard in response was, “You either serve God or you serve money. And Jeff, you too often want to serve money.”
Once again, Jeff struggled with what his superiors were telling him. In his mind, the numbers simply didn’t add up to provide a quality, sustainable, Kingdom-building experience for students. But once again, he grudgingly accepted their decision.
Three and a half years on the river had left Jeff tired—tired, and a little resentful. When he got a call from a friend asking him to come to Bend, Oregon, to plant a church, he decided to go. Perhaps in the back of his mind, he was making one last effort to serve God the way he thought “good Christians” should: through full-time ministry.
Jeff and Lori arrived in Bend to plant a church six months before 9/11. “A week after 9/11, we got the call: the funding was gone, the church plant had been pulled.” Jeff’s only other income had come from working in a local fly shop. He had moved his entire family to another state in what he’d thought was a step of faith. Instead, he “felt tricked by God.”
Jeff was done viewing traditional ministry as the only way to serve God. But he was also done relying on anyone besides himself for income.
In the wake of the failed church plant, Jeff took his finances into his own hands as he embarked on a series of business ventures. He developed software companies, grew them, sold them. Business venture after business venture succeeded, “to the point where we had the big house on the west side of Bend, the ski boat in the garage.”
Then one day Jeff’s tight grasp on control began to slip. A business flopped. The housing market crashed. His wife Lori began to struggle in her battle against Crohn’s disease.
Jeff realized he needed to submit everything to God—everything. Control. Direction. Lori’s health. The finances he’d need six months from then.
A new vision for his life began to grow in his mind: one that combined the wisdom and shrewdness of business practices with the complete trust and release of control that his walk with God demanded.
The thoughts he’d had while working in the fly shop began to resurface. Thoughts about the men and women who were being exploited in a $100 million fly-tying industry. His business-oriented mind began to see possibilities.
Flies could be the perfect commodity for a sustainable business-as-mission enterprise. Worth more than gold by weight, flies were the number one consumable in the fishing industry. Not only that, but “they’re high labor and high margin,” Jeff explains. He could pay people ten times the going rate and still earn profit from a 10x to 20x markup. This would allow Jeff to absorb extra expenses such as shipping costs, taxes and fees, and corrupt governments.
Rather than exploiting people through flies, he could liberate them from exploitation and hire people out of slums, orphanages, and human trafficking. He could give worth and value to the oppressed, and do it in a way that was financially sustainable.
A friend who oversaw an international nonprofit helped Jeff test his idea in Kenya, but it proved to be difficult. “We didn’t have feet on the ground; we didn’t have anyone to coordinate with.”
But Jeff’s idea continued to circulate among the fly fishing community. One day, a man approached him at a tradeshow and said, “Have you thought about trying this in Asia?”
“Turns out, he was the Retail Strategist for Cabella’s—and a Christian,” Jeff says. He was also prepared to fund start-up costs.
It was almost too alluring to believe: “All we’ve got to do is supply Cabella’s with flies, and we can go be missionaries?”
This time, Jeff would be given free rein to strategize, maximize, market, and turn a profit. But this time, he was going to have to trust God completely. He would have to trust God when his wife’s health became too poor for her to move to Asia. Trust God, when materials failed to show up on time. Trust God, when he only had half a payroll’s worth of money in the bank.
It was as if God were saying, I’m giving you this incredible opportunity, Jeff, but you’ve got to trust me.
Jeff started out with six full-time tiers in Asia. “My first employees had never seen a fly or gone fly fishing,” Jeff smiles.
Now, he has 46 employees, nearly all of whom are women hired out of safe houses where they’d been rescued from human trafficking. While he doesn’t live in Asia full-time due to Lori’s health, he makes frequent trips to oversee hiring, training, and other elements of the business.
“We’re not a rescue organization; we’re not a safe house,” Jeff clarifies, explaining that they provide the piece that comes after rescue, when women are asking themselves, “What now? Who’s going to hire me or give me purpose after what I’ve been through?”
On one of his trips to Asia, Jeff remembers meeting a group of women who had all been rescued out of sex-trafficking and now spend their lives helping others escape. They were going around the room introducing themselves, and when Jeff said his name, one of the women said, “You’re Coffey!” She stood up and almost started dancing.
“How do you know my name?”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “Our most difficult job working with these girls is convincing them that somebody else will give them something worth going to. We’ve sent seven girls to you, and you hired all seven of them. They’ve come back and said that Coffey has loved them like daughters, made the training easy, and pays them more than most men in their city can make.”
These are the kinds of stories Jeff gets to hear, over and over again. But they don’t come easily.
They don’t come from a perfectly executed business plan. They come on the edge of a thin wire. They come when shipments of materials don’t arrive on time, when he doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay the following month’s wages, when unexpected health problems arise days before a planned trip to Asia.
Finally, Jeff has found himself in a place where he can do business and missions exactly as he desires, and it’s terrifying. He can be efficient and innovative (Jeff actually invented a completely new way to sell flies—in long “brushes” rather than individual flies, allowing consumers to finish the flies to suit their own needs, while simultaneously saving on shipping costs), but he has also learned to lean into God’s provision and practice relinquishing control.
“I can blow the doors off of business,” Jeff laughs, “that’s not the problem. The problem is, God actually wants me to trust Him.”
For the past three years, Jeff’s encountered surprises, setbacks, and narrow escapes. And he doesn’t anticipate that changing. “Three years in, and it’s still just like that. But God shows up, every single time. When we’re out on the edge of that limb,” Jeff says, “that’s where He wants us.”
Written by Amelia Kaspari, Staff Writer