“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.
Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.
Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.
In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.
Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.
Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.
Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.
Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.
But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?
This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.
For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.
Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.
Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.
If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.
Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.
I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.
In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”
When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.
Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.
The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?
As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.
Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.
Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.
In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.
Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.
What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?
More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.
In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.
The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.
They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.
What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?
This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.
For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.
COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.
Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?
Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.
In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.
But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.
If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.
This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.
In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.
They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.
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.