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

“Will I have a job in five years?”

“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”

I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.

Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.

Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.

In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.

At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.

We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.

Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.

They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?

Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:

  • Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
  • Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
  • Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
  • Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.

Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.

The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.

Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.

Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.

While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.

In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.

  • Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
  • Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
  • How will we serve? What activities are needed?
  • What capacities do we need to do “it”?
  • What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?

If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?

Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.

Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.

As a millennial who came of age in the early years of Facebook, I hold a complicated relationship with social media. While I appreciate the connectivity that it creates — the ability to meet people from around the world and sometimes build genuine relationships — I dislike how it serves as a vehicle to present images, videos and messages that can push me to a place of envy and low self-worth.

Recognizing that social media was created as a form of self-directed mass communication that allows people to bypass the channels set up by institutions, I also understand that it affords extreme creative liberties that can cultivate toxic desires to appease an audience in hopes of affirmation.

In a season of ever-increasing division, social media presents an opportunity for Christian leaders to share their perspectives on policies, legislation and social norms in ways that direct people to their understanding of what God is saying.

These platforms allow people to rapidly publish their thoughts, ideas and opinions, relatively unencumbered by censorship — or checks for credibility. While the immediate feeling of uninterrupted thought may create some sense of freedom, in reality, no one can express opinions without consequences.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat — you and your congregation probably have at least one of these. Technology has always been a useful medium for faith leaders to spread the gospel to communities, so it is not surprising that we have embraced social media platforms as an essential tool in our ministry.

The mandated COVID-19 lockdowns made social media a necessity to communicate with faith communities while physical gatherings could not take place. But with an uptick in our posting, tweeting and creating reels to stay in regular contact with our congregations, this rapid expression of published opinion calls for a theological ethic that guides faith leaders’ involvement on social media.

How can social media be ordered to generate a common life with God and neighbor as we seek to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the world? This task should be grounded in the virtue of humility.

It has taken me years to remember that my identity is not affirmed through what I post or share on platforms. As a Christian leader, I have had to recognize that embracing the world’s affirmation can lead to a life and ministry of trying to please everyone, allowing my public witness to drain the energy needed to accomplish the work of God’s desired plan.

Social media platforms are an extension of voice that must be managed as such. Our voices are tools for how power is wielded in society. Audiences can perceive our voices through the offices we hold, so we must always use them as instruments to give witness to God’s involvement in our communities and our lives.

Humility is essential, because it is the recognition that all we are, all we have and all we will ever be or obtain is a direct result of God’s provision and sustenance. Christian leaders should not disregard how, even in social media, a posture of humility is a tool to reject the false notion that success is possible without total reliance on God. To embrace humility is to fight against the celebrity culture often associated with social media, which can entice modern-day Christian leaders to boast of their social media following and the expansive reach of their digital platforms.

As our audience grows, our impact is amplified. By office, Christian leaders have an inherited audience on social media, which gives us the ability to influence users and even change their mindset, character and attitudes. This influence can go toward good (what some researchers call “reality perception”) and ill (what they call “deceiver perception.”)

Audiences can perceive our voices through the offices we hold, so we must always use them as instruments to give witness to God’s involvement in our communities and our lives.

Positively, leaders can present solid facts and data through social media that illuminate reality — informing people and helping them learn to give their opinions appropriately. Negatively, leaders can present false “facts” and data that promote deception — misinforming people and encouraging them to malign others’ character, sowing chaos and cultivating an environment with limited tolerance.

Christian leaders have always been influencers, and as such, we have participated in either illuminating reality or promoting deception. The voices of Christian leaders have always carried a burden of responsibility. In “Three Books on the Duties of Clergy,” St. Ambrose wrote, “Let there be a door to thy mouth, that it may be shut when need arises.”

The influence that Christian leaders carry on social media platforms is another form of power that can be used responsibly or manipulated. If Christian leaders are called to help curate and cultivate systems and communities where people can bear faithful witness to God, then our social media engagement needs to be seen as a place where we express faithful discipleship.

In speaking for God, the prophet Isaiah recounts, “The Lord God has given me a trained tongue, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4 NRSVUE).

In using our voices to speak to societal ills, we need to cultivate a practice of humility that allows for prayer, reflection and intentionality. Just as we prepare our sermons, presentations and publications, our social media posts should seek to sustain the weary with a word.

Tito Madrazo spent four years visiting Hispanic/Latinx churches for his research on preaching in North Carolina immigrant churches.

He visited various congregations, using semi-structured interviews, focus groups and participant observation to understand the lives and practices of immigrants in Hispanic/Latinx Protestant churches.

The approach, called collaborative ethnography, allowed him to gather information and understand the culture of the churches while being transparent and working with the people he was studying — his collaborators — to ensure accuracy and to decenter himself.

In particular, he developed an ongoing relationship with “Iglesia Agua Viva,” a Pentecostal congregation in the Raleigh-Durham area. (Madrazo uses pseudonyms for the individuals and churches to protect his collaborators.)

His findings have been published in a new book, “Predicadores: Hispanic Preaching and Immigrant Identity.” In it, he argues that although there is great variation within and among Latino congregations, the experience of migration itself shapes the pastors’ preaching.

“The God they came to know in that time was the God they proclaimed. The aspects of the divine that they found most compelling in their own migration journey became the focus of their preaching,” Madrazo said.

He noted that their “ministries are shaped less by perceptions we might have of Hispanic/Latinx evangelicalism and are much more deeply shaped by their own experiences with God in the crucible of migration.”

Madrazo, himself an immigrant from Venezuela, a fluent Spanish speaker and an ordained Baptist pastor, conducted this research as part of his doctorate of theology work at Duke Divinity School.

He also earned a master’s degree in English from Baylor University and an M.Div. from Gardner-Webb University. Madrazo serves as a program director in the religion division of Lilly Endowment Inc.

Madrazo spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about his research and its implications for the broader church. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is your takeaway from your experience of visiting these congregations and hearing the preaching?

Tito Madrazo: Ultimately, it is really the formative experiences of migration and, for many of these individuals, coming to faith through their migration journeys or during their migration journeys.

Tito Madrazo portrait

Many of the ministers here experienced conversion. Sometimes that conversion was from a secular background. Sometimes they described it as a conversion from Catholic upbringing to Protestant or Pentecostal identity. But it was almost always connected to their migration journeys as well.

It was the way that they experienced God’s deliverance or redemption or help in the midst of that process, or the way that they experienced new community within a church family when they arrived in what for them was an alien landscape.

In that sense as well, their preaching always resonated with the lived experiences of their first-generation congregations. Because of the recency of migration in North Carolina, these were first-generation pastors preaching to first-generation adults and their children — some of whom were native, born in the United States, some of whom were in the situation of DACA recipients.

All of them were still closely connected to this migration experience. For instance, some of them had dramatic stories of God delivering them — sometimes from ICE, sometimes miraculously allowing them to come into the United States against all odds.

When they preached about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, there was also this echo of the alienation that they had experienced as a result of migration — the importance of knowing and being known by Christ in a situation in which they felt themselves entirely unknown, in which some of them were denying themselves, using different names.

Church was a place where they could use their real names and they could be known for who they were. There was significant preaching about the role of the community of the church, God regathering God’s people in this new place, and that was a strong factor in their preaching.

But along with that, there was also a lot of moralistic preaching, in terms of behavior and sexual ethics, all of these kinds of things.

The way in which I understood that connecting with this experience of migration is when you’re forming a new community in a new place — and we see this in Scripture as well, throughout the Hebrew Bible — one of the first things God does is to provide new laws and moral codes to hold together these people that have just come together.

We think monolithically, sometimes, of a Hispanic church. [But] for instance, Iglesia Agua Viva, in which I did most of my participant observation, had members of seven different nationalities. And even from the seven different countries of origin, some were from urban centers and some were from the countryside, and they had had different experiences and different levels of education.

You have just this wild diversity within a church that from the outside just looks like, “Oh, they’re all speaking Spanish.” Right, but aside from that, so much diversity.

Gerardo Marti writes about the danger of “ethnoracial essentialization” — that sometimes we paint with too broad a brushstroke and we lose sight of the variety that exists within these communities.

F&L: One of the phrases I noticed is that you describe both the preachers and the congregation as “recovering from wounds.” What do you mean by recovering from wounds?

TM: I owe gratitude to Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who identifies this in “Places of Redemption.”

I focus on the wounds of migration. Again, they’re going to connect with some of these preaching themes, because the wound is alienation. The wound is loss of family. In some cases, the wound is a physical one.

There are several preachers in here — one is a paraplegic who was injured because he was thrust into this adult migrant worker world at far too young an age. One young man came to the United States because a family member was wounded in an agricultural operation and they were just looking for someone else to fill his spot.

There’s this woundedness, and there are stories of dramatic healing that both inform faith and sometimes authorize ministry.

But the key here is not just the woundedness; Fulkerson talks about these wounds being the site of theological discernment and thinking. So these wounds became places where they were not just damaged by the wound but ultimately they experienced the healing of God in some way.

Sometimes this was physical healing. Sometimes it addressed the social needs in their lives. It always incorporated some spiritual dimension. But it was because their wounds had been healed that they were then able to go into ministry and speak to these particular wounds that they understood.

Again, it was this close connection between the lived experiences of the preachers and the lived experiences of the hearers that made such a powerful dynamic in this preaching.

F&L: You sort of touched on this, but in what ways is the vocational discernment of these preachers particular to their experience in community?

TM: Some of the literature that talks about vocational discernment really centers a predominantly white, graduate school experience.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that or that people don’t experience calls in those ways. But there’s almost this sense of ennui, this, “I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life; I’m looking for meaning; perhaps God is calling me to ministry” that becomes the spark in that direction.

Whereas for some of these ministers, it was much more tangible and much more rooted in lived experience and even exigency. For one minister: “I’ve experienced dramatic healing, and now they’re inviting me to share my testimony. And as I share my testimony about this dramatic healing, I begin to take on the role of a preacher; I can seriously imagine this vocation for myself.”

For another: “I’ve been dramatically delivered from deportation, and this becomes my platform to begin sharing a story.”

For others — and this was really interesting — in many of these churches, because pastors are very rarely full time in first-generation immigrant congregations, they are transient to a much greater degree.

I mean, they really are, many of them, itinerant ministers. If their secular job requires a move or if it falls through and they have to find another job, that congregation is looking for a new pastor.

Many ministers from the very beginning start to train their laypeople in pastoral functions. One minister talked about being thrown in the fire. His minister, as soon as he converted him, began teaching him how to preach, along with a few others in the congregation.

They took preaching classes the way that others might take Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Then suddenly when the preacher was gone, moved out of state, the congregation kind of looked at him, and they said, “Well, it’s got to be you. You’ve got the most experience preaching.”

Which was terrifying for him, and I imagine it would be terrifying for most of us. But there’s nowhere else to turn. There’s no pipeline of well-educated ministers who have already discerned this to be their vocation.

Now, I would say that this is becoming more and more the case, not just for first-gen immigrant Hispanic and Latinx churches, but this is happening more and more in lots of churches. So the need for churches to really think about being spaces of vocational discernment for future members — both their own and for wider networks — is important.

F&L: Are the ministers worried about the future of the Hispanic/Latinx church as the second and third generations mature?

TM: It depends. I think that many of them see their own ministry largely as being to the first generation and their families — because in the United States, there has been continuous migration. It’s not just one wave. It is an ongoing wave.

But the other thing is, when you look at the growth of the Hispanic population of the United States from 2000 to 2015, only 25% of that is due to continued migration.

Seventy-five percent of that growth reflects a native-born population. So all of [the pastors] were aware, and all of them dealt with the tension of trying to make sure that they were a place where first-generation people could put down roots and grow in faith, but also where they were continuing to be relevant and meet the needs of Generation 1.5 and Generation 2. This was a challenge for them.

Iglesia Agua Viva had its main services in Spanish, but it conducted all of its youth and children’s Sunday school and ministry activities in English. Because as children went to school, they became more familiar with English and more comfortable communicating in English, although then those same youth would get up and lead worship in Spanish.

All of them also understood that the church was going to change moving forward. So part of investing in youth was investing in people who, because of their bicultural and bilingual formation, would have that similarly close connection to congregants that they as preachers had to Generation 1 congregants.

You might consider it as new wineskins and new wine as they were moving forward, but with the same spirit of ministry.

They were less concerned that future generations carried the same culture that they did from their countries of origin and more concerned that they carried this culture of Christian faith in which they’d been formed in a congregation.

From the very beginning, churches aren’t trying to specifically make a community of faith Hispanic in a particular way or Latinx in a particular way. They’re trying to form Christian faith in a particular way while still honoring and giving space for these expressions that more closely reflect Hispanic and Latinx origins.

F&L: As we close, I usually ask people, is there anything I didn’t ask about that you would want to add?

TM: There is a feeling that Latin American liberation theology and the tenets of Latin American liberation theology are — or should be — present in this preaching.

I went in, having read much Latin American liberation theology, expecting to find some of it. I did not find it in large part, except among those preachers who had had the benefit of study in Anglo theological schools.

But I think that one of the distinctions here is even though the preaching might be traditional in many ways, it is also still really liberative within these contexts — spiritually liberative, but also liberative in terms of giving Hispanic and Latinx congregants a place to appear and to be valued in the sight of one another and in the sight of God.

That in and of itself is an act of resistance for a population that is experiencing vulnerability and marginalization in many ways. There’s a chapter here specifically about female preachers in this context.

There is much liberative work being done by these preachers, even when they’re preaching in somewhat traditional ways. I mean, just standing in the pulpit in some of these places is liberative, and naming the worth of women both within the congregation and in the role of preacher and minster.

I think that there’s this balance that preaching and ministry can be liberative, even if it is not always liberative according to certain ideals, that there are many ways in which it can be liberative and life giving.

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?