Building Sustainability in Ministry

Many years ago, I sat on the Board of a large international missions organization. At the time, they were struggling with a common problem that still plagues Christian non-profits today: raising enough revenue to continue Kingdom growth. I had been involved with multiple Christian organizations in different roles (board member, lay leader, and volunteer/consultant), and their historical model was similar. This model typically entailed praying for God’s hand in guidance, building the programming, implementing the program, and praying for God’s response to make up for any shortfalls (which were always common). Essentially, the mandate was that through prayer, the Lord was with the programming and because He was with the programming, the money would follow. To do anything different would be considered a lack of faith. Yet, every year there seemed to be surprise when there were not enough funds to cover the program bills. The organization would go into crisis mode.

Unfortunately, this organization is not alone nor is this story unique. Generally, toward the end of every calendar or fiscal year, Christian donors are flooded with calls to help make up the shortfalls of the previous years. I think we are at a point in time where Christian non-profits and churches need to start asking themselves why? Why does this need to be a consistent path each and every year? More importantly, why can’t we ask ourselves if it isn’t being just as faithful to ask the Lord to provide and then also provide the programming?

What is interesting is that no one would run a for-profit business this way, Christian or otherwise. Certainly, there are companies that start out with nothing and begin spending without revenue. But these companies can go no further than the amount raised in initial investments or their line of credit will allow. Any debt taken on by a for-profit organization needs to be backed by something or they need to find an additional party to take on the risk. Throw on the words “non-profit,” though, and organizations tend to take a different path. When I have questioned this in the past I have received a variety of responses: “What we are doing is Spiritual and cannot be dealt with in worldly ways” and “The need is now and we cannot wait.” As with for-profit business, these rationales carry no sustainability.

The church needs to continue to work at getting over its fear of employing business principles in order to grow ministry. This is not to discount the power of the Holy Spirit. In my own prayer life and ministry activity, I have seen work done that could only come from the power of prayer. Yet, in this same vein, it is the Lord that gave us the intelligence to make prudent organizational decisions. He has provided clear instruction to bring everything to Him. Scripture is clear that it is His hand that guides everything and that He is ultimately in control of all. My argument is not to discount this. I wholeheartedly believe in my soul and in my actions that I am to be on my knees in all of my decision-making.

Yet, I also believe that God has provided equal instruction on the types of stewards we are to be. It should not be lost on Christians that Solomon sought wisdom first beyond anything. Business principles and metrics are not something to be feared. Rather, they are tools that help us in our discernment process so that we can make the best decisions regarding the viability of our ministries. The Lord desires for us to share in the responsibility. Certainly He desires to show His movement, but He also wants us to know that His movement can and should take on many forms. When was the last time a Christian organization that felt a leading from the Lord took a step back and prayed for His leading, only to realize that the Lord’s hand was not with it all along? Isn’t it possible that some of our ministry is by our own thoughts and doings and not His? Do we have enough faith to wait and see if God desires for us to move? Too many times we move without His guidance under the crutch of “waiting would signify too little faith.”

Here in the United States, we are blessed with tons of information regarding organizational success and failure. Most of the information surrounds businesses and can range from financial data to case studies. Every day brings about new material in the form of books, videos, conferences, and more. While remaining faithful in prayer, Christian leaders should utilize this available data whenever possible. Non-profit ministry personnel should take advantage of what metrics are being used by successful organizations. Much can be learned simply by looking around us. Business ideas and principles are not something that should be feared by ministries. It is something that we should dial into to help ensure our sustainability.  

Romney Ruder is World Impact's Senior Vice President and COO.