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.
The melodious voice of Howard Thurman bellows through the room: “How good it is to center down,” he says. His voice is filled with gravity, but it is not without a sense of joy. It has an almost incantatory quality, a cadence both warm and mysterious. Each time I play a recording of Thurman reciting one of his many meditations, I smile. Like Landrum Bolling writes, many of us feel like Thurman speaks directly to us — “vividly, intensely, personally.”
Once I started reading and listening to Thurman, I stopped feeling strange for seeking silence, stillness, and solitude. My awkwardness as the only African American on a silent retreat or at a spiritual conference dissipated. In him I found support for my desire for intimacy with God and hunger for spiritual community, and I began to consider him a mentor.
Thurman personally mentored and inspired many social and political activists, among them Pauli Murray, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Vernon Jordan, and Vincent Harding. Legions of individuals — faculty, staff, and students at Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Boston University; members of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples; those in attendance at Sunday worship at Marsh Chapel; and the readers of his books and listeners of his catalogued lectures and sermons — have absorbed his quiet and determined direction. Something in his rich, poetic voice and profound wisdom speaks to the deeper places within us.
Being mentored by Thurman or someone else, however, does not mean we simply stop there. As those who have been mentored, we are called into mentoring others.
Born into a community of trusted guides, Howard Thurman understood the importance of having a spiritual mentor and, eventually, of being one for others. “For Thurman, real learning always required the intimacy and intensity of personal mentoring,” write Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. “He had always sought out teachers who could provide this, and he would try to be that sort of teacher himself, giving several generations of students the same sort of close spiritual encounters that had been so important to him.” Howard Thurman needed spiritual mentors to reach the apex of his potential, and he blossomed into his role as mentor. Prominent people dotted young Thurman’s surroundings, including the family physician, John Stocking, and renowned educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Yet his grandmother Nancy Ambrose, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, George Cross, and Rufus Jones served as his chief mentors. Let’s look at how these individuals molded and shaped him and his thinking.
Grandma Nancy served as Howard Thurman’s first mentor. She pushed him to develop his mind and live from his spirit. A close friend of Thurman’s, George Makechnie, notes, “Grandmother Nancy was Howard’s rock. Her spiritual strength, wisdom, and good sense had a profound influence upon his growth, shaping, and development.” Makechnie highlights, as Thurman himself did, the way he would read to her from scripture. I imagine him sitting beside her, how proud he must have felt, how precious were these moments he shared with her. She could not read, Makechnie writes, but “she firmly believed an education was of primary importance, and especially so to Blacks. ‘Your only chance,’ she told Howard, ‘is to get an education. The white man will destroy you if you don’t.’”
A tale about Grandma Nancy’s redemptive love demonstrates something of what she modeled for Howard. The story circulates today in sermons and lectures, although it’s hard to know whether it actually happened. Still, the story holds value for what it evokes of Grandma Nancy’s character. When Howard was a child, a white woman who lived adjacent to their home apparently resented having Black people live near her. Each night she dumped chicken manure she had scraped from her chicken coop over the fence onto Grandma Nancy’s garden. Young Howard wondered why his grandmother did not become enraged at her neighbor’s hateful act and exact some sort of revenge. Grandma Nancy chose instead to rise early and mix the manure into the soil and use it as fertilizer. This practice continued for years.
One day the old white woman, who lived alone, became ill. Being an authentic Christian, Grandma Nancy stopped by her neighbor’s house with some chicken soup and a bouquet of roses. The woman was deeply moved by Grandma Nancy’s acts of kindness and asked her where she had found the beautiful long-stem red roses. Grandma Nancy Ambrose told the neighbor that she herself had played a role in growing the beautiful roses. She reminded her about the chicken manure she had dumped regularly in her backyard.
The God Grandma Nancy worshipped showed her how to turn hate into love. Thurman espouses this form of redemptive love in Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he reminds his readers that Jesus treated people not in proportion to who they were but to who they could be. Thurman knew that healing a fractured nation would require this type of transformational love.
Mordecai Wyatt Johnson
While attending the Florida Baptist Academy, Thurman joined the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Although highly segregated, the YMCA created programs for the uplift of boys and young men. His election as president of his local chapter during his sophomore year allowed Thurman to attend his first King’s Mountain conference where he heard the great orator Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Johnson had served as a former student secretary of the International YMCA Committee. Howard was so impressed and stirred by Johnson’s message that he wrote him a letter. Despite his earlier ambivalence about the church, due to how it scorned his father’s death, Howard pleaded with Johnson to become his mentor. “I want to be a minister of the Gospel. I feel the needs of my people, I see their distressing condition, and have offered myself upon the altar as a living sacrifice, in order that I may help the ‘skinned and flung down’ as you interpret. God wants me and His precious love urges me to take up the cross and follow Him,” wrote the young Howard.
Johnson wrote back, and they continued their correspondence and personal relationship for many years. Possibly the most important piece of wisdom that Thurman incorporated into his adult life came from Johnson. He told Howard, “Keep in close touch with your people, especially with those who need your service. Take every opportunity to encourage their growth and to serve them. School yourself to think over all that you learn, in relation to them and to their needs. Make yourself believe that the humblest, most ignorant and most backward of them is worthy of the best prepared thought in life that you can give.” Howard Thurman took this wisdom into his spirit, and it directed him throughout his life.
As a student at Rochester Theological Seminary, Howard Thurman took several courses taught by George Cross. He also had private conferences with him and was advised by him. Thurman wrote that Cross “had a greater influence on my life than any other person who ever lived. Everything about me was alive when I came into his presence.” In their personal meetings, held frequently on Saturday mornings in Cross’s faculty office, Thurman bantered with Cross, asking questions and making challenges. Cross would listen with great patience, Thurman later wrote, and then would “reduce my arguments to ash.”
George Cross believed in the brilliance of Howard Thurman, but as we saw earlier, he could not grasp the reality of racism, nor the extent to which it tries to annihilate unrealized potential in its victims.
As an instructor and mentor, Rufus Jones helped Thurman refine his thinking about the links between mysticism and social transformation. They spent many hours discussing how the inward life is connected to outward experience and how mysticism might expand efforts to remedy international conflict and poverty. Although they did not discuss race, which Thurman viewed as a blind spot in Jones’s analysis, Thurman knew he could use mysticism to alleviate the plight of Negroes. His intense kinship with Jones only deepened his intellectual grasp and personal experience of mysticism.
In June 1929, Howard Thurman wrote a note to Rufus Jones thanking him for “the huge share which you have had in the enrichment of my life during the past five months. I cannot now estimate the significance of the days with you at Haverford.” As a result of Thurman’s work on mysticism or religious experience, spiritual seekers and sacred activists continue to reap the benefits of this unique mentoring relationship.
Thurman carried the lessons and words of these spiritual mentors with him in his mind and in his heart. They would become models for him as he, too, became a mentor for others.
Howard Thurman serves as an exemplar for both the formal ministry of spiritual direction and informal spiritual friendship. Mentoring, at its best, is an exchange. Spiritual guides are vital beacons of light on the spiritual path, and once a person becomes spiritually mature, they naturally begin to serve as spiritual mentors for others. Maya Angelou instructs, “When you learn, teach.” Howard Thurman taught and mentored many, although not always in a formal classroom. Students found they could share their personal issues with Thurman and frequently sought him out for spiritual advice. His timeless sermons, public lectures, and written meditations endure because they continue to feed the hunger of the spirit. Let’s look at a few of the people he mentored.
Martin Luther King Jr.
We’ve already seen how Howard Thurman’s indelible mark on the American civil rights movement runs directly through his influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly, the respect went both ways. Thurman expresses his great admiration for King with these words:
As a result of a series of fortuitous consequences there appeared on the horizon of the common life a young man who for a swift, staggering, and startling moment met the demands of the hero. He was young. He was well-educated with the full credentials of academic excellence in accordance with ideals found in white society. He was a son of the South. He was steeped in and nurtured by familiar religious tradition. He had charisma, that intangible quality of personality that gathers up in its magic the power to lift people out of themselves without diminishing them. In him the “outsider” and the “insider” came together in a triumphant synthesis. Here at last was a man who affirmed the oneness of black and white under a transcendent unity, for whom community meant the profoundest sharing in the common life. For him, the wall was a temporary separation between brothers. And his name was Martin Luther King Jr.
Religious scholar Paul Harvey says, “Thurman was a private man and an intellectual; he was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take a specific social and political cause to transform a country. But he mentored an entire generation, including King, who did just that. Thurman’s lesson to King was that the cultivation of the self feeds and enriches the struggle for social justice. In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation, and prayer.” Thurman transmitted that message to the larger civil rights movement.
It was at Crozier Seminary where Martin Luther King took a class from George Washington Davis, one of Thurman’s classmates at Rochester Seminary, and also read and wrote about Thurman’s seminal work Jesus and the Disinherited. King would later incorporate some of Thurman’s notions into some of his own writings and speeches. Although King did not consider himself a mystic, he was moved and amazed by the mystical wisdom of Thurman. Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman expressed hope that King would consider becoming the pastor of Fellowship Church, but King felt called to Montgomery to begin active work in the civil rights movement. Working behind the scenes, Howard Thurman became his spiritual adviser.
One story illustrates their spiritual connection. In 1958, a mentally disturbed woman attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. by stabbing him. Thurman writes that he experienced a “visitation,” or vision, and knew he needed to travel to New York to speak with King.
Thurman found King at Harlem Hospital and strongly urged him to take a much longer recuperation period and to include some time for silence and solitude. He needed to assess his role in the movement, in a venture that had taken on a life of its own. King later wrote to Thurman about how their meeting had been “a spiritual uplift, and of inestimable value in giving me the strength and courage to face the future of that trying period.” Historian Taylor Branch points out that this time was a period of relative quiet for King, a unique season within the rest of his adult life. There were no talks or lectures, but just solitude. It was after this respite that King took a five-week trip to India, studied the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience, and laid a wreath at the grave of Mahatma Gandhi.
The ideas about a nonviolent religion and Jesus as a nonviolent liberator that Thurman developed in the years before and during his tenure at Fellowship Church received a larger audience through the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited in 1949. This book deeply influenced other leaders of the civil rights struggle. Thurman offered the vision of spiritual discipline that informed the moral basis of the Black freedom movement in the South. During these years, while serving on the boards of Fellowship for Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress of Racial Equality CORE, he spoke with leaders of these organizations and others — including Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Vernon Jordan, James Farmer, Pauli Murray, Jesse Jackson, and Whitney Young — about matters both political and spiritual. But Thurman always preferred offering quiet counsel and private intellectual guidance to garnering political visibility. His influence would extend into the future to touch the lives of many religious scholars and scores of spiritual seekers, including Alice Walker and Barack Obama.
Marian Wright Edelman
Like a river, Howard Thurman’s sway flowed along several tributaries, inspiring women and men who chose to devote their lives to important yet sometimes less visible causes. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, found kinship with Thurman in the ways in which they were reared. They both emerged from families of deep faith who worked to buffer them from the hostile worlds they would encounter. Edelman writes, “Still, as in the days of Thurman’s childhood and in the day of my childhood, countless children in these most difficult, unjust, undeserved circumstances are bolstered and strengthened, nurtured and protected by parents, and others who struggle to counter the world’s message and remind their children that they are sacred gifts from God and precious in God’s sight.” Her parents, like Thurman’s grandmother and mother, didn’t want her to internalize negative and damaging social messages. Their loving protection gave her a certain inner strength that enabled her to take her prophetic message about the care of children into adulthood.
Edelman first encountered the words of Howard Thurman as a young girl exploring the books in her minister father’s study. Then as a college student, she heard Thurman speak when he visited Spelman Chapel. What kept her grounded in her work to save and support children, Edelman writes, were the urgings to pray, meditate, reflect, and be thankful for grace. In the centering moment, we find a “breath of renewal, and a recognition that we can only do our most faithful best and then turn it over to God. We cannot sustain this work if we are not centered.” Edelman took in Thurman’s words like a holy communion. Meditations of his like “Remember the Children” inspired her to hold “the big hope that never quite deserts me” and to continue in her struggles to end violence, promote love, and protect innocent children from needless suffering.
The deep waters of Howard Thurman’s wisdom also touched historian, educator, theologian, and activist Vincent Harding, who considered Thurman a surrogate father. Like so many others, Harding first met Thurman on the pages of Jesus and the Disinherited, which he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Many years later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a close and personal relationship burgeoned between these two great men. Thurman offered solace, care, and guidance in what Harding describes as the gloomy days following King’s death. During many long walks up the steep and winding streets of San Francisco, Harding and Thurman laughed and talked. Thurman invited Harding and his wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, to join him and Sue in their home for relaxation and fellowship.
Harding understood that Howard Thurman occupied the important role of mentor and companion to those summoned to the streets to march. As nonviolent demonstrators prepared for action, and when they returned victorious or defeated, Harding writes, “Thurman offered clarification, hope, and encouragement.” Thurman would sit with civil rights demonstrators and listen and pose questions rather than issue commands. He would ask them about what they were seeking and why and what means they utilized to achieve their goals. As a spiritual mentor, Thurman conveyed to them his firm belief that there could be no defeat of the movement if their motives remained oriented toward the oneness.
“I remember going to him in times of deep personal need, occasionally talking by phone, sometimes face to face,” Harding recalls. “He was always solidly present, listening, understanding, admonishing when necessary, sharing silence, surrounding and undergirding me with prayers, doing whatever else seemed helpful. We could feel Howard and Sue keeping our entire family and a special place of love and meditation between them. I remember our silences. They were filled with his wisdom and compassion. Indeed, it may be that he was the wisest and most compassionate man I have ever known.”
The wisdom of life exists to be passed on so that others will not suffer needlessly. A gifted mentor like Howard Thurman spurred people to refine who they already were and to recognize the strengths and talents they possess. Relying on some of Thurman’s words, noted author Sam Keen shares how Howard Thurman encouraged him to find his own vision: “Follow the grain in your own wood.” Peter Eisenstadt observes, “Throughout his career, Thurman was in demand as a mentor and advisor. Counseling is, of course, a core responsibility for all members of the clergy, but Thurman clearly had a special calling for it, less a matter of dispensing advice than assuming the role of a spiritual psychologist, to help others to find their inner voice, what he later called ‘sound of the genuine,’ and to assist them in formulating and answering their own questions.” One of the joys of being a professor for me was advising and mentoring students. I nudged them to try different forms of mindfulness, including meditation, to prevent test anxiety, spark creativity, and prompt innovative thinking. I highlighted the importance of retreats, especially silent ones, to re-energize and guard against burnout and stress. I enjoyed sitting and chatting with students, waiting for that special moment when their eyes would brighten and I would observe them “come alive,” as Thurman describes. The answers I have uncovered in the silence, the stillness, the quietness, the pausing, the “resting lull”: these answers emanate from the same Source Thurman drew from, the same wisdom that must be shared. He will remain my spiritual guide and companion, as his life and words lead me to the Light, to the Wholeness he knew.
Reprinted with permission from “What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk With Howard Thurman,” by Lerita Coleman Brown, copyright © 2023 Broadleaf Books.
“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.
Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.
“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.
At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.
What does a candy bar have to do with courage?
At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.
We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.
It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.
People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.
How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?
There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.
I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”
Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.
I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.
“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’
“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’
“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.
“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.
“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”
Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.
Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.
Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”
The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.
Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.