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How to think about long-term viability in the face of urgent needs

“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.

“I’m not sure what I’m doing,” he said.

I’d never met him before, but the air of fragile confidence was familiar, this sense of being lost in the house you grew up in.

“I’ve been a pastor for 15 years, and most days I have no idea what I’m doing. It makes me nauseous,” he continued.

He seemed like a man struck with malaise, a chronic illness in which the source is hard to pinpoint.

He’s not alone. I find myself talking with more and more pastors stricken with uneasy nausea and fatigue that they can’t name. It’s as though their calling has been stripped of meaning.

This man could do a good job with the regular activities of being a pastor, he went on to say, but he wasn’t sure whether they meant anything to his people.

Of course, there have always been pastoral struggles, and they’ve shifted as time has unfolded. But throughout time, from Augustine to Thomas Becket to Jonathan Edwards, pastors and priests have at least served against a cultural backdrop with the shared understanding that the transcendent is real and our lives must interact with something beyond what we can see and touch.

Today, things are different.

We now live in a time where the very idea that God is real and present in our lives is no longer accepted. Indeed, it’s widely contested. Belief has been made fragile — for the pastor as much as for those in the pews.

Charles Taylor calls this “the malaise of immanence.” Now grounded in the material, tangible, rational realm, we’ve lost the sense that the ordinary flow of life has any meaning. The rituals of our lives don’t seem to point to anything greater anymore. And the pastor is at ground zero of this struggle, which is what I sensed this guy saying.

The malaise began in the mid-19th century, with pastors like Henry Ward Beecher, leading to Harry Emerson Fosdick. This is a time when the world became less enchanted, when technology, urbanization and scientific breakthroughs made it possible for realities outside the church to produce human flourishing.

The job of pastors like Beecher and Fosdick was to remind the titans of industry and society to make sure that the machines of industrialization didn’t prevent human flourishing, and to remind the individuals in the pews not to get caught in the traps of urbanization, and that God loved them. Beecher and Fosdick still held an incredibly important place within American society.

After World War II, the heyday of the pastor continued into the 1950s and 1960s. But like nearly everything else in the culture, the role of the pastor pivoted in the late 1960s. The pastor’s importance as a civic leader got upended when the unquestioned power and trust in institutions (church included) crumbled and the rising freedom to find one’s own way, seeking authenticity in all things, including spirituality, was born.

Culture revolted against the corruption of institutions, but also against the settled, suburban domestic-duty mentality of the ’50s and ’60s in which church was still central to American civic life. The Beecher and Fosdick model of pastoring was over.

In the years that followed, the cultural environment was perfect for a shift in pastoral identity; the spiritual markets were unregulated, the authority of established religion was gone, mainline Protestant America was over, yet the age of authenticity still moved people to seek spirituality. The monopolies were broken up, yet there was spiritual demand.

In this perfect environment for the entrepreneur, the model of the pastor shifted from Fosdick to Rick Warren, who started Saddleback Church in 1980.

Warren was uninterested in being the chaplain of a secular age. Born and raised in California’s air of authenticity, he formed a church that could speak to those who were searching, providing what many of the new spiritualities could not.

Warren knew that the alternatives people were trying in search of individualized flourishing were promising them purpose — offering overarching meaning, ritualizing their moments of passage and directing their ordinary lives. And yet these new options were often either too loose and undefined or too tight and domineering to actually provide what people needed, leaving them in malaise.

So he created a “purpose-driven church” and provided his people a “purpose-driven life.” Warren’s message was that Jesus was just the individualized spirituality that could actually fulfill its promise. The results seemed to speak for themselves. Within 25 years, Warren’s church attendance ballooned to more than 20,000 people on 120 acres in Orange County.

Soon, Warren created a network for other pastors, helping them take on the purpose-driven entrepreneurial pastoral identity he had honed. Warren gave purpose to scores of pastors who had felt lost after the Fosdick-type identity no longer worked.

Warren found a way to revitalize the image of the pastor next to the individualized pursuits of flourishing. The pastor as entrepreneur provided a direct way to be in the age of authenticity, offering the appealing option of Jesus on the open spiritual market.

But this understanding of the pastor as entrepreneur had an inherent problem that leads us back to the pastor I was talking with at the conference, the one with a sick, uneasy feeling of what to do.

What made Warren’s perspective both genius and problematic is that he offered Jesus as one option among the thousands of others. Of course, Warren was not shy in claiming that Jesus was the best option that could actually deliver on providing purpose and individual flourishing. But once Jesus was simply a choice in the new market of spirituality, there was a silent but sure concession to the immanent frame.

The immanent frame is a natural order that asserts that our lives should be considered primarily material (or natural, as opposed to supernatural). It tempts us to block out any overarching sense of transcendence. There is no sense of a sacred time or space. In the age of the entrepreneurial pastor, the church building itself was as secular and utilitarian as any office complex.

Rather than an invitation to enter into a sacred reality, it presented a place to find the resources for personal flourishing (such as child care assistance, counseling centers, support groups, exercise classes and coffee shops).

Ironically, this made the building essential, for it was the place that held the material resources and programs individuals needed to flourish. The larger the campus, the more resources it could provide. The more resources, the more people were engaged. The more people were engaged, the more viable this spirituality became compared with all the other options.

It could provide meaning, shape people’s rites of passage and help ordinary life become a life of individually experienced flourishing. With this yielding to the immanent frame, transcendence — the presence and action of God in real lives — became difficult to imagine.

In the wake of this history, we are now pastoring, and being church, in a full-blown secular age. From curator of divine things to prodder toward holiness to chaplain of the secular age to entrepreneur, the role of pastor has shifted dramatically as we’ve moved deeper and deeper into a secular age, and farther and farther away from a sense of God’s presence and action in our ordinary lives.

This difficulty in imagining divine action is exactly why the pastor I was talking with at the conference had no idea what to do.

He had done a faithful job as a pastor, but he had a deep sense that he was supposed to be accomplishing something else, building something bigger, that he just couldn’t. And if he couldn’t, he had nothing else to offer in the immanent frame.

He had grown his church, but not to the level of Warren, not even close to being a one-stop shop for his people’s individualized flourishing. And this meant that there was no way to block the competing pitches of other spiritualities.

He knew that many of his people found more meaning in all sorts of other things — vacations, their children’s sports, yoga, celebrity, buying — which led him to be inherently frustrated with their supposed lack of commitment.

He found himself bouncing back and forth between blaming them and blaming himself, always feeling either guilty that he couldn’t be a better entrepreneur and grow a bigger church or frustrated that his people couldn’t just commit.

He explained that he tried for a while to recover a Fosdick-type pastoral stance, fronting social justice and marching for human rights, and while in itself this was good and right, it couldn’t provide pastoral identity. He knew he was no longer seen as the conscience of the culture. The full-blown secular age had only skepticism for a chaplain.

So he stood next to me stuck, feeling a depressing malaise laced with a hot, frustrated insecurity.

From this uncomfortable place, he finally articulated the crux of his issue.

Looking me in the eyes, he said, “Ultimately, I guess, I don’t know what to do because I don’t know how to talk about God in a way that people sense and recognize. I’m not even sure if that’s possible anymore.”

This becomes both our challenge and our possibility as we enter a new chapter in the life of the church.

Though we might behave otherwise, what confronts the pastor inside a secular age in this new era is not primarily the question of how to sustain an institution, grow a budget, authentically reach the “nones” or double membership.

These pursuits lead only to increasing fatigue and despondency. Instead, the pastor’s most pressing calling and deepest question has become, How do we help those who no longer need a God encounter the living God in their lives?

This question has its own inner dynamic energy, and pursuing it opens us to the Holy Spirit’s work to shape us in life-giving ways.

This essay draws from “The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God” (Baker Academic, 2019) and from research done in the John Templeton Foundation grant “Purpose, the Pastor, and Charles Taylor.”

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.