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.
The question, “What is your mission?” sends waves of panic through many Christian congregations and other institutions. Why? Do we not know what to do? Are we so confused by the rapid pace of change that even our basic purpose feels unsettled?
Many congregations are caught between finding meaning in the worship, study, ministry and missions that have sustained faith through several generations and addressing the concern that young people are not coming to church. We read about the rising number of people with no religious affiliation (the “nones”), and many of us realize that our grandchildren and their friends are not in church.
This situation leaves many with doubts about what our congregations are doing. We wonder whether the church down the road has things figured out.
The vocabulary also trips us up, with people using “mission,” “purpose,” “vision” and “strategy” to mean different things. The simplest approach defines “mission” as the completion of the sentence, “We exist to …” Mission is action-oriented; purpose is more about being. The two are closely connected.
Another challenge is that a clear mission does not always result in a specific strategy. The mission of a congregation might be to “make disciples,” using the phrase from Mathew 28’s Great Commission. The statement is short, memorable and rooted in the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, it does not indicate to a congregation how or where to do that work.
Seminaries also have this challenge. At one level, the mission of a seminary could be simple: “We exist to train pastors.” A denominationally owned and operated seminary trains pastors for that denomination’s congregations. The denomination wants the education to be accredited so that students can get federal loans. The accrediting agency determines the objectives of the curriculum through its standards. The seminary hires a faculty that meets the standards of both the denomination and the accrediting agency.
But what happens if congregations don’t need as many pastors? What happens if congregations decide to train their own leaders? What happens if the cost of education is beyond the ability of the students and denomination to pay? In light of changing conditions, seminaries are revisiting their missions and strategies. Everything is getting reshaped.
Effective strategies are focused on activities with specific people and places. But determining and following those strategies can be a challenge. The ways that we have lived out the mission don’t seem to be having the same impact as before. We feel a need to do something different, yet many of our current strategies have meaning for us and our communities.
In some ways, congregations have the most complicated challenge. Congregations exist to bear witness to God’s love shown in creation, the gift of the Son for salvation and the Holy Spirit. Communities need that witness, but in the current moment, the witness is not systematically welcomed.
What do we do when the ways that we witness bring us comfort but no one outside the church is paying attention? How does it affect strategy when the mission is clear to us but those outside don’t understand it?
Along with this concern, the fact is that changing a strategy in a congregation is very difficult. Every single element of the strategy includes choices made at some point in the congregation’s history. Every strategy includes activities that are meaningful to some of the members. All the choices took time to become habits. Members feel loyalty to one another, to the place, to the activity and to their experience of the activity over a lifetime. It is challenging to help them learn to see how an activity affects those outside the congregation.
Rather than wringing our hands about the clarity of a mission statement, we might make more progress by discussing the impact of our strategies. How do we know that we are bearing witness to the Triune God? What is the evidence? If it takes a long time for the evidence to show up, what are the signs that are early indicators of the evidence?
These questions require conversation among the leaders and members, along with people outside the church. Do principals, teachers, judges, public health professionals, police officers and social workers see the evidence of your congregation’s impact? If not, why not? Who outside the church should be noticing the impact you have named?
With the mission in mind and the impact articulated, the most difficult challenges are ahead — imagining new ways to increase the impact, giving less effort to activities that are contributing less and staying consistent on activities that are making a difference.
The art of leadership lies in discerning when to press for the new, when to maintain speed and direction for the established, and when to let go of the no longer effective — and then bringing others along in executing these moves.
Circling around and around a mission statement is a way to delay all the other important conversations and decisions. For Christians, mission statements matter, but from a human standpoint, faithfulness is measured by our deeds, our impact in the world.