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.

Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.

“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.

At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.

What does a candy bar have to do with courage?

At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.

We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.

It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.

People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.

How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?

There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.

I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”

Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.

I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.

“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’

“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’

“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.

“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.

“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”

Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.

Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.

Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”

The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.

Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.

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?

A local church is facing a number of pressing decisions over the next several months.

Attrition and the “Great Resignation” have created opportunities for budget revisions and have prompted much-needed discussions about staff responsibilities and mission alignment.

Identity conversations have required consideration of worship styles and outreach partners.

The potential sale of campus property has generated questions about impact, legacy and stewardship.

Denominational shifts have raised inquiries about tradition, affiliation and authority.

After listing these cascading challenges, the pastor told me, “There is so much coming at the church at once, I don’t know that we can handle all of it. No matter what decisions are made, there will be some sort of loss along the way.

“I worry that we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make so many important and different yet related decisions one after the other. It feels like there isn’t a break in sight.

“And we are just getting our stride back, figuring out who we are again in the same space. Then bam! — we are hit with this mountain of deferred decisions we couldn’t make in the last two years, in addition to whatever was coming our way in the normal course of the year. I wish we could just rest for a while. I wish we could just be together and regain our strength for a season before we have to address what feels like a spewing fire hose of major challenges that all need attention right now.”

“What would happen if you did that?” I asked her.

She was flummoxed. “We can’t just stop. People are relying on us. We have to…”

Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents. Some forms of urgency limit our vision of the opportunities before us and create false binary choices.

“We have to do this now or never.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“If we don’t act on this, someone else will.”

Sometimes urgency makes sense. Emergencies and crises necessitate expedited decision-making practices. Thanks be to God for our leaders who know how to do this well.

The season that follows a crisis, however, requires a different kind of leadership and decision making, as well as alternative timelines for deciding.

It’s like in the movies. After a storm or an alien invasion or some other form of devastation has come through an area, those who reemerge are timid, unsure whether the environment is as safe as it once was. Will infrastructures still bear weight? Is the ground safe, or might it collapse? Is all the bad stuff gone? What is different and what is the same in the places we love, where we share history? What will our future be like?

In those grand cinematic moments, a leader predictably rises up to reassure the people: “We are here. We are OK. This isn’t the world we left, but it is the world we have. Our future will be bright. We are strong, and we will prevail.”

Triumphant music swells to a crescendo, and the people cheer in gratitude, affirmation and hope.

Perhaps the church should live into Oscar Wilde’s saying, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

It is OK to emerge from this season slowly. Taking time to be together and renew relationships is good and holy work. Reinforcing the church’s relational foundation in order to be able to better serve the surrounding community is vital and slow labor. And rest is part of the equation, not a future reward for reaching a benchmark. Resting in and with one another is part of God’s perfect vision of Sabbath.

There are very few “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities when we worship a God of abundance. What might happen if we fully trust in God’s timing and generosity when we feel the tyranny of urgency pushing us to make decisions before we are ready?

What might happen if we delay or stagger making some decisions today to refocus our efforts on healing, resting, renewing relationships and re-becoming who we need to be in order to serve as the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors tomorrow?

We’ve seen the end of the movies. With a slow and steady pace, we discover that the infrastructures do bear the weight. The ground does not collapse. The church is strong, and we will prevail.

Certainly, some decisions have nonnegotiable timelines, but we often let outside forces determine the urgency of others. In yielding to such forces, we relinquish our agency in making the wisest and best-informed choices for our constituents.