Acknowledging the past to chart a course for the future
On a trip to celebrate a friend’s installation as president of one of the world’s most influential Protestant seminaries, I experienced a master class for those who are beginning a ministry assignment.
David E. Goatley is the sixth president of the 75-year-old Fuller Theological Seminary, which has its main campus in Pasadena, California. I had already witnessed David’s exceptional leadership over two decades at Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society. More recently, I had a front-row seat as he served at Duke Divinity School in multiple leadership roles under three deans, including recruiting faculty and inspiring students as director of the Office of Black Church Studies and as academic dean. I was expecting to learn something from both him and Fuller at his installation on Jan. 21. They did not disappoint.
In the 20th century, some experts advised that new leaders not make any changes in the first year; introducing the peculiarities of a new leader would bring change all by itself. In this approach, the new leader should not intentionally introduce additional changes while learning the organization, the community and all the personalities.
Almost equally common guidance from the same era advised that new leaders make as many changes as possible in the first year, treating it as a grace period, with no expectation of knowing history, tradition or past practice. Enacting a version of “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” the new leader, if confronted, could say, “I had no idea.”
Both approaches can work. The key to positive influence is not a particular strategy itself but how it addresses the needs of the institution at the time of transition. For example, if the institution is stuck in the past, then change is likely essential to moving forward. If the institution’s people are fearful, then building trust through relationships might be best accomplished with minimal change.
The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.
David takes the helm of a flagship seminary whose faculty and graduates have influence across the globe. Yet these are challenging times for nearly every school and for most congregations; standing at the intersection of academy and church, Fuller is thus buffeted on all sides.
Significantly, David is a newcomer to Fuller Seminary. Unlike his predecessors, he is not a graduate, faculty member or founder of the school. Much of the last 30 years he has spent traveling the globe with bases of operations on the East Coast of the United States. As a Black man, David is the first person of color to lead Fuller. In so many ways, he has embodied change from the moment he was elected.
The installation of a president often occurs months after the president has begun work. The associated pageantry involves so much coordination and support that many, many preparatory meetings are required. Yet I noted that Fuller chose to install David about three weeks after he started at the school. Such speed signaled something, but what?
When I arrived in Pasadena for my first visit to the campus, everything was carefully prepared. I had no sense that anything had been rushed. The smallest details were curated to communicate meaning. For example, the location of the ceremony was a church. That congregation had hosted the first class meetings of Fuller Seminary 75 years ago, in their kindergarten rooms. There had been a switch at the last minute from a building the school had prepared because of a delay in permits from the city. The congregation has held a significant place in the school’s life ever since.
The installation service was in a beautiful sanctuary that was well equipped to livestream the service to Fuller’s many constituents. Both the congregation and the school have matured and expanded over three-quarters of a century.
The service included expressions of faith and culture that make up the diversity of the Fuller community. Every move was filled with beauty and meaning.
David’s presence and words were most notable to me. He impressively embraced Fuller’s history and brought it to the present moment. In his address, he quoted from speeches given by all five of his predecessors, in several cases from their installation addresses. Rhetorically, he drew a through line from the commitments of all the presidents to his own priorities.
Doing such historical work is not very popular these days. But David was demonstrating that in the midst of a changing guard and the emergence of new leadership, he respected the past even as he was urging the community forward.
Some leaders believe that an institution’s history starts anew when they arrive. David demonstrated the art of learning the history so well that its telling can point to the future. He spoke the truth about the history in a way that was charitable and future-oriented.
Yet even as he named and honored history, he signaled a fast pace. The quick installation launched a tour across the country in which David met alumni and donors. Leaders often need to signal enthusiasm for the work by picking up the pace in the first few months. The goal is to connect with and bring energy to the system. Once connections are made, the leader can slow to a more sustainable rate.
I have found that the aftermath of lockdowns and social distancing has made many aspects of leadership more difficult. Shaping culture in an organization requires new strategies. At Fuller Theological Seminary, I witnessed an inspiring mix of classic tactics with a freshness and vitality that held promise for shaping culture. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Fuller. God be with them and all those who are beginning ministry together in this season.
The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.
“Will I have a job in five years?”
“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”
I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.
Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.
Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.
In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.
At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.
We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.
Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.
They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?
Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:
- Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
- Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
- Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
- Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.
Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.
The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.
Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.
Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.
While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.
In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.
- Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
- Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
- How will we serve? What activities are needed?
- What capacities do we need to do “it”?
- What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?
If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?
Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.
Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.
What does having a financially sustainable ministry mean? The one-size-fits-all answer is simple. The revenue coming in is consistently more than the expenses going out. But this simple answer obscures the gap between those benefiting from generations of building wealth and those in Black and brown America who have had wealth stolen across the years. Calculating sustainability needs to account for this gap.
I hope that the current pandemic, economic recession and renewed attention to racial inequity is teaching those in the dominant culture that one size does not fit all. When “we” talk about money, the field is never level.
African Americans were treated as property for generations while white Americans were acquiring land and accumulating money. The starting places for families in these communities today is not equal. Whenever we discuss financial sustainability, we have to examine the conditions that create, or that make it difficult to create, wealth.
Sustainability is a sought-after goal in new-program development. In financial terms, it refers to developing revenue sources that provide funding to keep the program going. Sometimes it is as simple as one funder asking the program to find other donors. Sometimes it means adding fees to the service or getting somebody else’s budget to pay the cost. Often it includes reducing the cost of the service to match the expected revenue.
As a white leader in a dominant-culture organization, I hear the talk about making adjustments and raising more money — and it all seems doable. The pandemic has thrown up a roadblock, so reaching sustainability will likely take more time, but “we” believe that “we” can be back to normal in six months or a year. A few think that “we” are in for a decade of economic difficulty.
The use of “we” covers up the different experiences in different communities. When listening to colleagues in organizations founded by and rooted in African American and Latino/a communities, I recognize that they hear talk of sustainability differently. They have learned to say what funders want to hear, but they translate the words into a different set of actions.
For example, I have encountered a handful of organizations in these communities that recently had applied for but did not receive a $1 million grant to serve pastors. Most of these organizations moved forward to develop and deliver as much as they could of the proposed program without the money. How? Mostly through unpaid labor. People affiliated with these organizations took on a second (and sometimes third or fourth) job to serve pastors. In economic terms, these organizations were investing sweat in place of money in order to do what was both most important and possible.
In financial terms, it looks as if these programs are doing great. In fact, they don’t seem to need the grant money. But when we listen to their stories, it is clear that valuable ministry is being performed by exhausted leaders.
The white-culture organizations where I have worked talk about priorities. These organizations have the privilege of deciding how to serve according to the financial resources available. But I have observed many organizations that are part of African American and Latino/a communities prioritize according to the needs of their communities and the world. The leaders of these organizations do what is needed regardless of the money.
How can I learn from this dedication and not participate in taking advantage of it? One element of privilege is not recognizing the impact of categories like sustainability on those without privilege.
This realization has made me more careful when planning a collaborative project with organizations from different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. For example, I now ask partners about pay equity across the project for the same work. I don’t assume that because employees at my white, dominant-culture organization are paid a fair wage, all the collaborating organizations are able to do the same. How do we plan the project so that people are paid equitably?
In fact, the concern starts in the planning phase. What creates the conditions so that all the organizations involved in planning a project have the resources to do the planning? Those with wealth have the option of choosing to shift their efforts to a new project. Those with no resources have to double up on their work to do something new.
If a project is underway, what would it be like to count the labor of these leaders as part of sustainability? What would it be like for donors to see that they are matching a contribution of labor and recognize that effort as part of sustainability?
What would happen if donors recognized the vast disparity between the assets accumulated by white-dominant organizations and white families when compared with African American and immigrant institutions and families? What if the funding levels were calibrated to address these disparities? What would happen if organizations in these communities had significantly longer to develop sustainability plans for donors?
In the midst of economic challenges, more complex and nuanced definitions of sustainability need to be used. All who donate and benefit from donations can learn to pay attention to the needs in communities, as well as who can be supported to address these needs. Moving too quickly to asking a program to “pay for itself” can continue a cycle that takes resources away from long-disadvantaged people.
As a white leader, I must learn more about the challenges faced by my colleagues in different racial, ethnic and cultural communities and advocate for adjustments that provide a path to more equity. I must not leave all the weight for making this case on these leaders.
Ash Wednesday is still difficult for me to embrace. The churches of my youth did not follow the seasons of the liturgical year. I was in midlife before having ashes imposed, and in nearly four decades of ordained ministry, I have never imposed them.
The Ash Wednesday experience gives me flashbacks to the symbols that the evangelists of my home church would wear or give away — religious-themed bracelets, buttons and the like. Yet I am now surrounded by mainline Christian colleagues who find Ash Wednesday deeply resonant, so I try my best to appreciate its meaning.
Repentance is something that I do understand. Each Sunday worship service at my Baptist home church ended with an altar call. In every service, worshippers were urged to come to the front of the sanctuary to confess our sins, accept Christ as Lord, unite with the church and consider full-time service.
The call to confess was the loudest message. The church celebrated each public decision to confess and accept. The highest of honors was bestowed on those who committed to leave home to become foreign missionaries. Today, when worship ends without a public opportunity to respond to the gospel through confession and dedication, I feel as if something is missing.
When I hear friends refer to the Ash Wednesday service as the most significant service of a year, they may be pointing to a similar sense that the veil between God and us is pushed aside as we offer confession. We see what God has always been offering: acceptance and love. The imposition of ashes makes face-to-face and physical what was represented in my church by “walking the aisle.”
The regular encouragement to confess and repent has made its way into my practice as a leader. This is especially true in times of high stress and change. I find myself apologizing time and time again. When I have been leading a startup effort, genuine apologies and requests for forgiveness are offered daily.
Years ago, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” co-author Randall P. White consulted in an executive search for my boss. As we discussed expectations and the required experience, he noted that leaders develop quickly and deeply in two environments: startups and turnarounds. He urged us to consider such experience as more valuable than a calculation of years in a job.
Having been involved in several startups, I have seen what he meant. In such environments, everything happens quickly. So many things go wrong and have to be corrected that the setting is a perfect prescription for both learning and repentance.
When trying, failing and backing up are required over and over again, colleagues can lose patience and eventually confidence in their leaders. An apology is a way of acknowledging the pain caused by mistakes and naming what is being learned. In the early years of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I needed to apologize to someone for something every day.
I did not have a “strategy” to apologize every day. I was not trying to win people over. Each day, I realized that I had made a mistake or that a person had been asked to do an impossible task or that we had been overly optimistic with a stakeholder about what was possible. For each occasion, a fresh start was required. My understanding of apology was formed by the altar calls of my childhood and youth.
When serving as a team leader, I have found genuine apologies to be a crucial practice. The recipient of the apology knows that something is wrong and can feel isolated by the offense, as if no one else understands it. The apology acknowledges the problem and the pain; it helps distinguish between what “should be” and what “is.” And the apology takes a step toward improvement.
The apology can also mitigate the development of cynicism. When involved in a startup, I have learned to pay attention to how often I am apologizing. One mark that the system is improving is the need for fewer apologies.
This sort of repentance works best when the team leader takes responsibility for more than his or her personal mistakes, confessing the failings of the system as well. Any statement of what went wrong will surely include factors outside the team leader’s control. Yet statements that simply blame the leader can be a way to pass the buck.
There’s a difference between an explanation and an apology. An apology requires that the leader take responsibility for what has happened and acknowledge the pain caused, as well as all that contributed to it.
I wish that I could claim that once an organization is going, the need for repentance and confession becomes rare. I cannot. I make major mistakes in every stage of organizational development. I have not yet served in a place where apologies were not required.
The somber tone of an Ash Wednesday service and the heightened emotion of an altar call both remind me that repentance is serious business. Sin often leaves scars on the sinner and those around them. Apology might be a strategy or a technique in some circles, but as Christians, we have learned that confession is part of transformation.
The imposition of ashes is foreign to me, but the symbolism of branches from Palm Sunday being burned, their ashes then gathered and blessed, is powerful. The call to repent is needed. The church coming together across many traditions and focusing on repentance on the same day is a significant witness.
The power of a ritual is made real in how it shapes our daily practice. I pray that my participation in Ash Wednesday this year will encourage my daily and weekly practices of repentance and open me to participation in the resurrection and new life that is still unfolding.