Dave Odom: What does financial sustainability mean in the midst of inequity?
What does having a financially sustainable ministry mean? The one-size-fits-all answer is simple. The revenue coming in is consistently more than the expenses going out. But this simple answer obscures the gap between those benefiting from generations of building wealth and those in Black and brown America who have had wealth stolen across the years. Calculating sustainability needs to account for this gap.
I hope that the current pandemic, economic recession and renewed attention to racial inequity is teaching those in the dominant culture that one size does not fit all. When “we” talk about money, the field is never level.
African Americans were treated as property for generations while white Americans were acquiring land and accumulating money. The starting places for families in these communities today is not equal. Whenever we discuss financial sustainability, we have to examine the conditions that create, or that make it difficult to create, wealth.
Sustainability is a sought-after goal in new-program development. In financial terms, it refers to developing revenue sources that provide funding to keep the program going. Sometimes it is as simple as one funder asking the program to find other donors. Sometimes it means adding fees to the service or getting somebody else’s budget to pay the cost. Often it includes reducing the cost of the service to match the expected revenue.
As a white leader in a dominant-culture organization, I hear the talk about making adjustments and raising more money — and it all seems doable. The pandemic has thrown up a roadblock, so reaching sustainability will likely take more time, but “we” believe that “we” can be back to normal in six months or a year. A few think that “we” are in for a decade of economic difficulty.
The use of “we” covers up the different experiences in different communities. When listening to colleagues in organizations founded by and rooted in African American and Latino/a communities, I recognize that they hear talk of sustainability differently. They have learned to say what funders want to hear, but they translate the words into a different set of actions.
For example, I have encountered a handful of organizations in these communities that recently had applied for but did not receive a $1 million grant to serve pastors. Most of these organizations moved forward to develop and deliver as much as they could of the proposed program without the money. How? Mostly through unpaid labor. People affiliated with these organizations took on a second (and sometimes third or fourth) job to serve pastors. In economic terms, these organizations were investing sweat in place of money in order to do what was both most important and possible.
In financial terms, it looks as if these programs are doing great. In fact, they don’t seem to need the grant money. But when we listen to their stories, it is clear that valuable ministry is being performed by exhausted leaders.
The white-culture organizations where I have worked talk about priorities. These organizations have the privilege of deciding how to serve according to the financial resources available. But I have observed many organizations that are part of African American and Latino/a communities prioritize according to the needs of their communities and the world. The leaders of these organizations do what is needed regardless of the money.
How can I learn from this dedication and not participate in taking advantage of it? One element of privilege is not recognizing the impact of categories like sustainability on those without privilege.
This realization has made me more careful when planning a collaborative project with organizations from different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. For example, I now ask partners about pay equity across the project for the same work. I don’t assume that because employees at my white, dominant-culture organization are paid a fair wage, all the collaborating organizations are able to do the same. How do we plan the project so that people are paid equitably?
In fact, the concern starts in the planning phase. What creates the conditions so that all the organizations involved in planning a project have the resources to do the planning? Those with wealth have the option of choosing to shift their efforts to a new project. Those with no resources have to double up on their work to do something new.
If a project is underway, what would it be like to count the labor of these leaders as part of sustainability? What would it be like for donors to see that they are matching a contribution of labor and recognize that effort as part of sustainability?
What would happen if donors recognized the vast disparity between the assets accumulated by white-dominant organizations and white families when compared with African American and immigrant institutions and families? What if the funding levels were calibrated to address these disparities? What would happen if organizations in these communities had significantly longer to develop sustainability plans for donors?
In the midst of economic challenges, more complex and nuanced definitions of sustainability need to be used. All who donate and benefit from donations can learn to pay attention to the needs in communities, as well as who can be supported to address these needs. Moving too quickly to asking a program to “pay for itself” can continue a cycle that takes resources away from long-disadvantaged people.
As a white leader, I must learn more about the challenges faced by my colleagues in different racial, ethnic and cultural communities and advocate for adjustments that provide a path to more equity. I must not leave all the weight for making this case on these leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic will surely have a long-term impact on the financial life of congregations, regardless of their denomination, size or makeup. How can churches survive and even thrive in a post-pandemic landscape?
Faith & Leadership asked 12 church and ministry leaders in a variety of contexts across the country to share their views of the future.
They spoke about matters of dollars and cents — the need for online giving, for example. But they went beyond that, reflecting on the broader challenges and shifting roles facing churches on the other side of the pandemic.
No one knows the answers. But the question, as one participant put it, is clear: “Is this the death of the church or the rebirth?”
‘Making your case’
Karen Lake Buttrey Director
Lake Institute on Faith & Giving
The Lake Institute on Faith & Giving had been preaching about the importance of addressing money in theological terms long before the pandemic. Now more than ever, said institute director David King, churches that shy away from the subject do so at their own risk.
“The time for being humble and shy in making your case is over,” King said. “The time for talking about money as if it’s taboo in a congregation should also be over.”
The Lake Institute is part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. Its 2019 National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices found that revenue growth was more prevalent among congregations that regularly discussed the theological importance of giving through sermons, money management classes and the like.
For example, 12% of the 1,200 congregations surveyed indicated that they addressed financial matters monthly. Of those churches, 73% reported increases in revenue.
It is crucial, King said, for churches to lift up online giving not just as a convenience but as a theologically sound way to give. The 2019 study (reflecting 2017 data) found that 46% of churches offered online giving — a number that likely has risen with the recent shutdown — but that 78% of revenue still came through worship.
Managing how people give, King said, isn’t as pivotal as articulating why their giving is a vital part of a life of faith. The pandemic just raised the stakes.
“On any day, but particularly today,” he said, “religious leaders avoid at their own peril the full lives of those entrusted to their care.”
‘Local churches can lead the way’
The Center for Healthy Churches
Clemmons, North Carolina
Bill Wilson predicts that up to one-third of U.S. churches could be out of business by 2025.
He points to LifeWay Research that says 5% of U.S. churches will close within the year because of the pandemic. That’s five times the average closure rate for churches, according to The Christian Century magazine.
Wilson, who directs The Center for Healthy Churches, acknowledges that this is all conjecture, given the unprecedented nature and unknown length of the pandemic shutdown.
His best guess is that churches will suffer a 33% decline in giving in 2020, in part because there was no live Easter offering. It’s possible that the traditional surge in giving in December will help make up for lost ground, he said, but there’s no way to know.
Drawing on his experience with his organization, which has worked with several hundred churches during the past decade, Wilson estimates that one-quarter to one-third of churches operate on thin or no reserves.
Yet despite evidence of a looming financial disaster, he remains hopeful that the church can rise to the occasion.
In a March 18 post on the center’s website, he wrote: “The Church has an opportunity to show the world what healthy people do in times of crisis. Rather than panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection, we run toward the needs in our culture rather than away from them. We refuse to demonize others, but act out the story of the Good Samaritan on a daily basis. Local churches can lead the way to show their communities what ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ actually looks like.”
Wilson believes that our response to the crisis will help determine what happens next. “Is this the death of the church or the rebirth?” he said. “We’ll see.”
‘What are we not doing?’
Union Baptist Church
Durham, North Carolina
As pastor of a 5,000-member church and third vice president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the Rev. Prince Rivers takes a short and long view of the shutdown.
In the short term, Rivers said, churches need to appreciate the importance of adopting online giving if they haven’t already, and convince members that it’s a viable alternative to the Sunday offering.
That may be a particularly hard sell in the African American faith community. According to the Lake Institute’s 2019 National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices, African American congregations receive 88% of their revenue through worship services, compared with 78% for all congregations.
Rivers said that giving lagged at his church during the shutdown until they scheduled times for members to drive by and drop off their offerings. Many people do not feel comfortable giving online or even mailing their checks, he said. They want to practice the physical act of giving at the church.
Taking a longer view, Rivers believes that sheltering in place will stir churchgoers to more deeply affirm the value of worshipping shoulder to shoulder, “the significance of gathering people together and building relationships you can depend on,” he said.
As the shutdown forces churches to examine their ministries and programs in terms of cost, Rivers hopes it also inspires them to reexamine, in a more profound way, how best to serve Christ.
“What do we really need to bring back?” he said. “And what are we not doing that we need to put more energy in?”
After the pandemic, Rivers hopes congregations will take a broader view that looks beyond their own steeples. His prayer? As we have sheltered in place as one, may we return to everyday life as one, bound by our hopes and needs, regardless of gender, color, class and culture.
‘Terrified of what the church might be …’
Massachusetts Council of Churches
Amid the current uncertainty, Laura Everett of the Massachusetts Council of Churches said she is certain only of her fear: “I am terrified of what the church might be on the other side of this. I am terrified that we will come out on the other side of this and there will only be wealthy churches.”
She calls the pandemic and its aftermath “apocalyptic,” revealing what she characterizes as “the great divide in the body of Christ.”
There are wealthy churches with strong financial reserves and the ability to survive even COVID-19, she said. Then there are smaller, struggling churches whose members now and in generations past have been held back by racial and economic injustice.
If the wealthy don’t reach out beyond their congregations, denominations and narrow self-interest to help the poor and vulnerable, she believes, these marginalized churches will suffer — or die.
Christians should understand that God’s economy is not the coronavirus economy, Everett said.
“We believe there is enough,” she said. And so the challenge is to share what we have with those who need it most — to live up to that yearning expressed in John 17:21, “that they may all be one.”
And if the church fails to do this?
“If we only take care of our own,” Everett said, “how can anybody trust us?”
‘How is it with your soul?’
Assistant professor of formation, youth and culture
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Reginald Blount says he is optimistic yet pragmatic about what the church might look like when it returns to a new normal.
He believes that virtual ministry will play a more powerful role, to the point that everything except Sunday worship will be conducted online.
He anticipates that churches will still be calming the fears of members 18 to 24 months from now, including those who will be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He hopes churches will expand their pastoral counseling and mental health outreach.
Noting that COVID-19 has hit black and brown communities especially hard, Blount wants churches to address personal health — exercise, hypertension and other challenges.
But he also wants them to address public health issues. Why do African American and Latino communities lack easy access to full-service grocery stores with ample fresh foods? Why don’t the poor have equal access to health care?
While on sabbatical this semester, Blount is studying the impact of current economic dynamics on African American churches, focusing on inequities in access to financial resources.
In addition to his academic work, Blount is senior pastor of the 150-member Arnett Chapel AME Church in Chicago. The challenge for his congregation and others, he said, is how to touch members without actually touching them.
Arnett Chapel AME is emphasizing FaceTime, phone calls and letter writing — not email, but old-fashioned pen to paper.
Blount is sending out a robocall to his congregants twice a week with a devotion or simple word of encouragement, “for the members to be able to hear their pastor’s voice,” he said.
His church hopes to revive the old Methodist tradition of class leaders — laity assigned to reach out to church members.
The question they will ask is the question we are all asking one another these days: “How is it with your soul?”
‘How long is our memory?’
The Church Network
When the pandemic hit, The Church Network offered its 1,500 congregations three pieces of advice:
- Take a deep breath.
- Communicate regularly to your church members about worship, giving, the status of ministries, meetings and more.
- Offer alternative ways to give.
This Texas-based interdenominational organization is made up largely of church administrators, so its focus during the pandemic has been on economic survival, said J. Phillip Martin, the network’s CEO.
Beyond that initial advice, Martin is urging congregations to launch or enhance online giving platforms.
One suggestion, from Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church, is for churches to send out regular emails on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings reminding those watching online — or not watching at all — to give, Martin said.
He hopes that church leaders now see the need to build up reserves for the next crisis that puts church life in peril. Should you have a month’s worth of money in the bank? A year’s worth? These questions can no longer be tabled for another day, Martin said.
He also encourages congregations to be open to innovation. Many churches have found ways during the pandemic to care for the homebound via Skype and Zoom. Congregations should continue to look for fresh ways to preach and live the gospel virtually — worship, pastoral care, education. Certainly, this approach will speak to youth and young adults, the two demographics the church is losing in greatest numbers.
Churches can go in one of two directions after the pandemic, Martin said. They can find ways to be more stable in administration and innovative in ministry, or they can ignore the lessons of the pandemic and go back to business as usual.
“The question,” he said, “is, How long is our memory?”
‘I could be wrong, right?’
Professor and chair of sociology
Davidson, North Carolina
Gerardo Marti sees trouble ahead in the immediate days following the shutdown.
Churches with limited credit and fixed costs — mortgages, leases, maintenance — will have little room for financial flexibility. Marti foresees church attendance dropping when live worship returns, especially among occasional attendees.
With that, he anticipates a decline in giving. Ambitious plans, whether reflected in new ministries or in new or improved facilities, will have to be put on hold while churches worry about more immediate issues.
How much staff do we need and can we afford? How many chairs should we put out for worship?
With that narrow focus, innovation will likely grind to a halt, said Marti, who is co-author of the book “The Glass Church,” about the financial collapse of Robert H. Schuller’s megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral.
For example, a profound church innovation of the late 20th century was the start of contemporary worship. That sort of bold step, which draws newcomers and engages regulars, will give way after the crisis to a focus on returning to some level of normalcy, he said.
If any churches not only survive but perhaps prosper, Marti said, it may be the smaller Pentecostal and nondenominational evangelical congregations, those with fewer than 300 members. This size and style of church strikes a particularly strong chord in the Latino community, he said.
Their smaller size generally means they have less infrastructure, less fixed debt for capital projects, maintenance and the like, and are less dependent on a higher-up body for financial support. These congregations, already comfortable living on a shoestring, may be best positioned to continue their ministries with a fervor unaffected by COVID-19.
Given that all of this is uncharted territory for churches and the rest of society, Marti is quick to add a warning to his forecast: “I could be wrong, right?”
‘Unlock some different kinds of creativity’
Coordination program director
National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders
Elise Erikson Barrett fears that COVID-19 will force already struggling churches to lock their doors five to 10 years earlier than they otherwise might have. But at the same time, she hopes that it will stir those churches to seize this unprecedented opportunity to embrace change.
Barrett directs a program to help pastoral leaders facing economic challenges. The initiative, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., supports 43 grantee organizations, stewarding projects to equip pastoral leaders for financial literacy and leadership, as well as providing direct economic aid.
Many pastoral leaders engaged in the grant programs are men and women of color who lead small, rural congregations. Many struggle to meet payroll and keep the doors open.
When the shutdown is over, Barrett believes, there are at least two ways such churches can respond: offer a long, slow resistance to change, mired in the legitimate grief of losing the way church has always been, or rally around the need for dramatic change and identify what Barrett calls a church’s core purpose.
How might a church choose the latter? Become more focused on mission outside the church rather than difficulties within the church, Barrett said. Be willing to adapt, whether that involves the size and responsibilities of church staff, how the buildings and campus are used, or how the church can make itself invaluable to its neighbors.
Each church’s story — past, present and future — is different. But on the other side of sheltering in place, Barrett sees a blank canvas waiting for God’s people to bring it to life.
“This,” she said, “can unlock some different kinds of creativity.”
‘Many of our idols have fallen’
Director of NAE Financial Health
National Association of Evangelicals
Brian Kluth, who lectures and writes about generosity and finances in churches, foresees four options for churches faced with a difficult decision after the pandemic:
- Merge with one or more other congregations.
- Become a satellite campus of a larger church.
- Transform into a house church, where remaining members meet in each other’s homes.
- Close and disband.
Even churches that survive will have to examine giving and make adjustments in payroll, facilities and programs, he predicts.
Drawing on 2015 research by the NAE Financial Health initiative, Kluth said it’s inevitable that many churches will face wrenching choices. The median annual church budget in the United States is $125,000.
Such churches, Kluth said, have little margin for a decline in giving, especially if they lack online giving and livestream capabilities.
Kluth is worked with a number of national organizations and ministries to conduct an online poll of church leaders to gauge the economic impact of the pandemic. The poll indicates that about six out of 10 churches have seen a drop in giving.
But rather than seeing the pandemic solely as a crisis, Kluth sees it also as an unexpected sabbatical season, free of distractions, with time for churches and their members to search their souls.
“Many of our idols have fallen in this season,” he said, citing sports, shopping and travel. “We have to reassess what our commitment is to God and to our families. It’s no longer about the big Sunday production but how we [show] care and love for people.”
In that sense, he said, the pandemic shutdown can be a gift from God.
‘A true digital stewardship’
Chief development officer
In her role with Leadership Roundtable, Josephine Everly helps U.S. Roman Catholic parishes, schools and missions with strategies for raising funds, building endowments and engaging donors.
And she has experience dealing with the aftermath of a crisis. Having grown up in New Orleans, she brought a personal passion to managing disaster-relief giving after Hurricane Katrina.
Everly believes that it will be 18 to 24 months before parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions see a return to normal levels of giving.
With so many parishioners facing possible layoffs and declining investments, it will likely take that long for many donors to recover from the pandemic, she said.
Everly anticipates closings and consolidations among Catholic institutions, especially in communities on the margins.
She knows of 13 U.S. Catholic parishes that launched online giving in the first week of the pandemic. But giving remotely is a tough sell for Catholics, she said, because the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, including Holy Communion, are shared within the four walls of the church.
The physical act of passing the plate at Mass, she said, is a deeply spiritual experience that cannot be replicated online. Nor can mailing a check provide the same experience.
The church must expand digital giving but also expand how it shares the word of Christ online, offering the broader, deeper spiritual experience for which Catholics yearn — or at least the next best thing.
“A true digital stewardship,” she said, “does this.”
‘I gave online’
Carmel Baptist Church
Matthews, North Carolina
Tim Wishon oversees the business side of a megachurch with the resources to survive the pandemic.
Carmel Baptist has 5,000 members, an average of 2,500 worshippers at Sunday’s three services and a $10 million annual budget — $23.6 million if you include its K-12 private school and preschool.
But the church has a challenge in common with smaller churches: convincing members that giving online can be as meaningful a part of their faith life as dropping a check or envelope in the offering plate.
The church has robust, cutting-edge technology, from online giving to the livestreaming by which Carmel has been reaching its congregation during the pandemic.
Carmel’s constituency is largely suburban, middle-aged and professional. Members are comfortable living their lives online.
And yet, Wishon reports, 50% of the church’s giving pre-quarantine was put in the plate on Sunday mornings. Another 35% was mailed in, and 15% came in online.
Passing the plate endures as a powerful, sacrificial act, he said, from farmers offering fruits and vegetables generations ago to children tithing part of their weekly allowance today.
Still, the pandemic may at least have introduced people to the ease of giving online. Post-quarantine, 45% of Carmel’s giving has been online, Wishon said. But 55% still comes the old-fashioned way — through a check in the mail.
For those who need a little help in the long term pivoting away from a tradition as sacred to them as a hymn, Wishon has a suggestion. When Sunday worship returns, churches can provide cards bearing a simple statement for members to put in the offering plate: “I gave online.”
‘A gut-check moment’
The Ministry Collaborative/Macedonian Ministry Foundation
The message of the church must be bigger than “We’ve reopened the doors, and the machine is up and running,” said Mark Ramsey, the head of a ministry that offers pastors a chance to meet with peers.
Yes, churches will have to become leaner organizations after the pandemic. And it’s not just small churches at risk, he believes. Larger churches with big buildings and big staff will face big financial challenges, too.
All churches will have to inspire people who have worshipped online for months to return to the church on Sunday mornings.
But if the church doesn’t seize the moment and examine the essence of its place in this world, do matters of finance matter?
“If the church feels like my homeowners association in how they do things and what they offer,” Ramsey said, “what’s the point?”
Lessons learned must go beyond how to livestream a funeral. People are frightened. Our way of life has been turned upside down. Now is the time for the church to reintroduce itself as a place of care, connection, community and depth, he said.
“God loves the church,” Ramsey said. “But God loves the world more. Do whatever you can to love the world now, and don’t worry about your infrastructure. If churches focus on the money, they’re going to have a hard time. If they focus on what they can do culturally, I think they’ll have a fighting chance.
“I think this is a gut-check moment,” Ramsey said. “Can churches really love into that?”
Most houses of worship, denominations, seminaries and other faith-based institutions are sharing on their websites a broad offering of resources and reflections on COVID-19. Here are four that are featured in this article.
The Church Network: This national association focuses on church administration. Its COVID-19 presence offers church and government resources and articles.
Lake Institute’s National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices: This 2019 survey of 1,200 congregations explores financial practices relevant to the current crisis.
Leadership Roundtable: This Roman Catholic organization offers leadership, pastoral and government resources for the COVID-19 crisis.
Massachusetts Council of Churches: This site has resources related to public health and doing the work of the church (funerals, finances, pastoral care and more) during the shutdown.
Sustaining a program is a heavy burden. The program may bring in less money than it spends. Some constituents may question its worth. Additional funding sources when grant money runs out can be difficult to find. Plus, sustaining a program means meeting people’s future needs, which can be hard to predict.
The urgency of discerning how to sustain a program forces leaders to examine every detail: Could we charge more? Do we have to serve lunch? Could the program be shorter? What elements are costing us the most? Could we trim those larger expenses?
If such adjustments to revenue and expenses are possible, congratulations! But for many Christian leaders, the overall budgets of our organizations are so constrained that the minor adjustments we are free to make might not result in sustainability. In these cases, assuring the long-term effects of a program requires revisiting foundational questions about its purpose and impact. For example:
- What constituents does this program serve? What needs does it meet?
- How do constituents say this program helps them? How does it change the way they do their work?
- Why is the program important to the organization offering it? How it is aligned with the organization’s mission?
These questions must be answered at an institutional level, but they are individual questions, too. Why is this program important to you? How is it related to your vocation and the vocations of your key program leaders? Would the program fall apart if you or another team member left? Does the institution’s senior leadership support this program, now and into the future?
With a clearer sense of the program’s purpose and impact, it is time to envision and plan various scenarios. I find it helpful to peel apart the question of sustainability by looking at what is required to sustain specific program elements. For example:
- What is required to continue the most significant and high-impact activities?
- What is required to continue the jobs the program created?
- What is required to support constituents and outside partners?
- What is required to sustain the ways of thinking, feeling and working the program is encouraging?
Almost 20 years ago, I was part of a grant-funded program to support pastors in my newly formed denomination. As the team evaluator, I was responsible for stepping back from the day-to-day and helping articulate the difference the program was making.
Initially, our focus was on how the program’s activities — the peer groups, sabbaticals and seminary graduate residencies — were affecting the people involved. Participants reported that the activities were life changing, but the donors we pursued were not excited about funding the program.
After a few years of asking questions, our team realized that sustainability was less about the activities of the program and more about a shift in mindset for congregations and clergy.
Our new denomination had inherited from its predecessors a view of pastors as replaceable parts. When a congregation felt disappointed with any aspect of the pastor’s leadership, the easiest adjustment was to simply replace the pastor. That denomination had large seminaries that graduated hundreds of pastors each year. There were plenty of available replacements.
We began to see our program’s goal as encouraging congregations to see pastors as renewable and renewing. The metaphor we used was that a congregation was a garden and the pastor a plant that both needed and provided nurture. The program would be sustainable, we realized, when congregations began changing policies to grant sabbatical time and increase continuing education funds. We hoped to see clergy forming peer groups without the encouragement of money.
In our case, sustainability was not determined by fundraising. We were hoping to see shifts in behavior and priorities — a purpose we recognized only by asking questions about impact from multiple points of view.
In this story, I have the advantage of 20 years of hindsight. Developing sustainability plans seldom has such a clean narrative. In the early years of a program, I have benefited from using these first, foundational sets of questions to gain information and then formulate a few scenarios. In the case of my denominational pastor program, those scenarios might include:
- What if every pastor had a mentor? How would pastors need to be supported to engage in such relationships? Who would provide such support, and what would the cost be?
- What if every congregation provided sabbaticals to its pastors? What conditions would be required to support such time away? Who would need to support such efforts, and what would that look like?
Each “what if” question generates a plan. Those planning for sustainability are working to encourage the desired conditions while also watching for evidence that they are being achieved. Over time, the individual scenarios begin to come alive. Eventually, the scenarios can be combined to create a single plan for sustainability.
Sustainability planning requires intentional time and space. I recommend setting aside time at least twice a year to update answers to key questions and revisit the scenarios being considered.
Don’t do this work alone; sustainability is a team activity. Program leaders are most often responsible for raising the questions, gathering information and suggesting alternatives. But the work of future planning necessarily includes your team, participants and stakeholders. The more a program can engage its constituents and institution in the process, the better.
As I was driving on a family trip, I heard a re-broadcast of a “This American Life” segment on the great American adventure of summer camps for children and teenagers. The reporters were detailing the various rituals at summer camp, such as singing silly songs, competitions between cabins, zip lines into the lake and talent shows.
“Most of this simply has to do with tradition,” host Ira Glass said. “The special songs and ceremonies are a part of so many American camps, and it’s not just because they’re fun. A camp director in Wisconsin told us as we were putting together today’s program that financially, you cannot run a camp without lots of repeat customers. These traditions bring kids back year after year.”
The children at the camp are singing and scheming and exploring and learning all sorts of things about life. All the activities have some inherent value in the moment for the participants. The camp director knows that by encouraging the same activities over time, these kids will want to come back.
The director does not need to recruit thousands of kids every summer. The director needs a substantial percentage of this summer’s kids to come back and to bring their friends and siblings. The work at the camp is carried out in a way that recruits future campers, including those who become parents and send their kids.
In economic terms, this is a “virtuous cycle” or a series of events that have beneficial impact on the other events. Such cycles are often key ingredients in the financial model of an institution. The cycle creates an effective, low-cost marketing plan, camper recruitment effort and staff training program.
Creating a virtuous cycle isn’t only a key to running a summer camp. It’s a key to sustaining a ministry over time.
Consider what happens when first-year seminary students have such an amazing experience that they tell their friends at college about the seminary and encourage the friends to apply. In the classroom, the primary purpose is to introduce students to the primary bodies of knowledge and formation at the heart of the school. Yet, doing this work with excellence influences how current students study in future classes and how next year’s entering class is recruited.
Perhaps it is easier to see when such a cycle is interrupted. Let’s suppose that a summer camp decides to rename all of its cabins every year and write all new songs every season. The loyalties that campers build over time would be less. The cycle could be broken.
Once upon a time, congregations identified and encouraged their outstanding young people to serve in the ministry. The congregations financially supported their denominations. The denominations provided significant financial support to seminaries. The seminaries provided a very low cost education to students, who were encouraged by their congregations to apply to denominational schools.
Today the cycle has broken. Students are expected to pay to cost of education and often must borrow money.
Effective financial models require virtuous cycles. When old cycles break down, new ones must be established. This requires leaders to discern those activities that are most promising to create unintended positive outcomes. Those activities require doubling down, giving these activities priority in terms of talent, money or other resources.
Virtuous cycles take years to develop. Leaders have to stick with the choices over a long period and continue to encourage those involved. Once in place, a virtuous cycle can support the ministry for years to come. Eventually, the activities will be so ingrained that some of the people don’t even realize all the benefits of their work.
Because of the need many Christian institutions face in developing new financial models, today’s leaders have the unusual opportunity to set up the work of their institutions for a generation to come.