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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.

As leaders, how do we decide what to fix and what to toss? Or put another way, what to mend and what to replace?

Over the past few years, I’ve taken up textile mending as both a spiritual practice and a practical skill to waste less in a sinfully disposable economy. In mending, I’ve found an embodied knowledge that has been missing from much of my life.

Christianity offers the promise of repair. My ministry is devoted to repairing broken relationships and repairing the wounds in the body of Christ. But some days, I have no idea whether I’ve done anything to aid in the repair. And some days, I fear I may be making things worse.

By contrast, when darning a sock, I can see and feel what I’ve done. Mending holds out the possibility of both utility and beauty, without the idolatry of the new or the wasteful disposal of the old. Mending appeals to our desire for visible results: Can we make this work again? Can we make this beautiful?

I recently ran across a guide for textile repair from the University of Kentucky. I love it because it walks me through a series of questions to discern whether to mend or not to mend. I see a clear connection to my work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, where I serve as the executive director.

Whether I’m dealing with the unraveling of a well-worn sweater or the unraveling of our council’s governance structure, these questions serve me well.

The first one is crucial: How extensive is the damage? Before I can repair anything, I have to acknowledge that it is broken.

At the council, I knew that our current governance structure wasn’t working, but I had been slow to respond to the signs of deterioration. We were struggling to gather a full board. We were straining to do the work. We had already suspended our constitution, piloted a nimbler structure and then made a massive constitutional change. Barely two years later, it was hard to admit that things were falling apart again.

The mending guide’s second question calls for self-evaluation: Do I have the knowledge and skill to repair the garment, or do I need to take it to someone else?

At the council, I struggled to see how frayed we were. It was only when I met with my board president and another trusted outside adviser that I could really see the extent of the damage. I kept thinking that if I just emailed more, or emailed less, or asked the question differently, or scheduled the meeting sooner or later, we would be able to make it work. I needed other eyes to see that we had already tried those changes and we needed to find another way forward.

The third question calls for evaluation of the item to be mended: Is it worth repairing? This is a tough one to answer honestly.

My years of stitching up moth-eaten sweaters have taught me that mending is an affirmation of worth. We mend what we value and what we cannot afford to replace.

For now, the council has decided that our current governance structure is worthy of repair — worth the time, skill and attention required to fix it.

My mending has taught me also that things we use fall apart. Things we love wear out, and there’s no shame in that.

This winter, for example, I repaired a jacket for my wife. It wasn’t her occasionally worn, formal coat that needed repair but her most loved, everyday hoodie. Because she puts on this hoodie every day after school, the cuffs were frayed and the elbows had worn thin. Moths had eaten some bits on the front, nibbling at spilled food.

The more I mend, the more predictable the places of repair become. Not surprisingly, seams and places of movement and strain are often the spots that first need fixing.

This is true of our churches and the structures within them as well. If they are in need of repair, it may be because they are often used. And that need isn’t something shameful. It’s natural, in the same way that our jeans wear out at the knees, not because they are bad, but because they are well-loved and useful.

To be sure, it is true that things sometimes fall apart because they were poorly constructed or made of cheap materials.

For those invested in leading historic institutions in matters of equity, inclusion and diversity, there is honest work to be done in examining how our institutions were exclusively and poorly constructed in the first place. If an institution was initially created to serve only certain people, a patch here and there will not be enough.

Working ecumenically gifts me with experiences of many different Christian communities. And even in my limited view, almost no part of American Christianity feels particularly stable right now.

Indeed, almost no institution in American life feels steady these days. Everything is fraying. God is still very present and, I believe, in control, but there is much that is unraveling and coming undone. It is not yet clear what is being remade.

I had a revelation a few weeks ago reading a 1960s-era mending guide. I stumbled on directions on how to strengthen the seams of a newly purchased garment. The guide anticipated that the garment would wear out and so was planning for repairs even before it was worn.

What if I prepared my heart and my organization for the need to repair again soon, without shame?

In our case, the repair for our governance model is a patch for now. As we’ve intentionally sought to make the racial, generational, gender, denominational and economic diversity on our board reflect more accurately the diversity of the church, we have more leaders with less free time for long, in-person meetings. And we’re all under increased strain.

So we’ve narrowed the board job description to a scope that’s achievable, moving more of the big-picture work back onto our small staff team. I’m not certain this is the right fix, but it’s the repair we’re trying for now.

We likely will need to patch again soon. That is the nature of a well-loved, often-used garment in a season of high friction.

We need institutions, and they disappoint us. That puts all of us in a bind.

We depend on institutions to organize our daily activities, from driving to schooling to recycling. We may feel compelled to entrust our health care, our search for information and our spiritual vitality to institutions. Even when we don’t choose to interact with institutions, we rely on their structures, traditions and services.

Yet sometimes, the more we know about an institution, the less we trust it. Why? Because over and over again, we witness institutions acting to preserve themselves even as their employees and constituents suffer.

Occasionally, we get our hopes up that we can trust a particular institution. Maybe one champions a cause that is beyond itself, like universal clean water or freedom for the unjustly imprisoned or health care for the forgotten. Perhaps we see the institution reflect its missional commitments by selecting women or people of color as senior leaders. From the outside, we can see evidence that the institution is creating the conditions for all people to thrive.

But from the inside of the institutions where we serve, what does trustworthiness look like?

It looks, first, like predictability. In trustworthy institutions, workers and volunteers know how to do their work. They know where to go for resources. Effective, clear processes help them get the work done.

Second, it looks like transparency. Leaders within trustworthy institutions take time to explain the “why” of a decision. They describe who was involved, how options were weighed and the reasons for the final choice. This may not lead to universal agreement, but it does ensure that no one is surprised.

Once trust is established, creating a sense of agency among participants is the next step to helping all thrive. I have been reading about “flat” organizations — those in which people choose their own projects and have the authority to make decisions. For example, Valve, a game development company, describes itself as “boss-free since 1996.” The company’s new employee orientation handbook clarifies expectations and explains that employees are free to focus on their customers because, as a self-funded entity, Valve has no shareholders or funders to satisfy.

That points to a regular challenge in institutional life: so many people have a claim on the direction of the work. Institutional leaders must serve donors, customers, volunteers and longtime friends. That can create the impression that an institution has more bosses than the people who appear on the org chart. In response, employees will often trust a segment of the institution rather than the whole place.

When I worked for a 900-bed hospital, my job was once reclassified in a way that changed my vacation and sick leave. The director of payroll called to explain the change and its implications, saying she was reaching out to me personally because the policy seemed unfair to her. Her attention surprised me. She was responsible for the payroll for 5,000 people. She promised to remedy my situation as soon as the policy allowed and explained when and how I could follow up. Six months later, she did exactly what she had promised.

At that same hospital, the CEO once apologetically explained to managers that a strategy being rolled out did not make good sense but was necessary to comply with new Medicare and Medicaid procedures. He was transparent about the situation the hospital faced and the choices senior leaders had made.

This hospital was not perfectly trustworthy. Yet it had leaders like the payroll director and the CEO who explained decisions and how to navigate them. In my 15 years there, I came to understand how to do my job and whom I should approach when I was stuck.

I meet people who don’t want to go through the pain of figuring out whom and how to trust in an institution. They prefer to start their own organizations or to work with others in smaller, often scrappier enterprises. Such organizations can create and re-create services much more quickly. Such places are great learning environments.

At some point, though, even small places end up relating to large institutions, such as government offices, industry groups, suppliers or funders. Eventually, we all must evaluate which institutions we can trust and how we should interact with them.

Christian institutions that serve congregations are strengthened when they are embedded in networks of dependencies and partnerships. My current work involves creating opportunities to develop the trust necessary for those interconnections to form and grow.

I do this work because I believe that creating the conditions for human flourishing across generations requires healthy, mission-oriented institutions. Given the current state of the world, we need leaders who are renovating existing institutions as well as those who are creating new ones. This requires that we develop or reinvent systems that are predictable and transparent while also creating conditions that give participants the agency to clarify mission and work beyond an institution’s self-interest.