Something that might be worth talking about is the increasing debt that a number of major ministries currently carry. In one case a Christian university was about $23 million in debt, and was only saved through a life insurance policy after the death of the founder. But a life insurance policy isn’t a long term donor development plan. Others that are considered popular in religious media are shouldering mountainous loads of debt – most likely, ministries that you wouldn’t realize. Is this a problem? And if so, what does this tell us?
First – we know that donors and supporters don’t give to erase debt. They give to build, expand, or otherwise accomplish a mission, but few people will give to eliminate debt. My experience is that they feel, “Hey- you got yourself into it, so get out on your own.” They also don’t feel erasing debt accomplishes anything positive, so the bottom line is, when you get into the red, you have to raise money for other projects and use some of it to keep your debt at bay.
Second – it tells me that some leaders haven’t been sensitive to changes in the culture. Right now, we’re going through the greatest generational shift in a long time, and many ministries who were very successful a generation ago, are struggling today. For instance, for the last generation, all you had to do was build a building, and people would give. But not so today. In spite of that, some older leaders still build, even though the money has dried up. The truth is, change happens. And if churches, ministries, and non-profits aren’t aware of those changes, they will suffer.
Third – It’s interesting that some of these ministries are the ones teaching prosperity. Apparently it works for the leader, but not for the organization.
Fourth – What do we do about it? I’d love to hear your suggestions, but here are a few thoughts:
— Don’t be afraid to liquidate and close the ministry doors. Nowhere does it say that a successful organization has to continue to another generation. One leader was famous for saying, “Success without a successor is failure.” Who says? Why can’t God raise up a great work for a particular generation and stop it there? Have the courage to say we’ve done a great work, and accomplished our assignment, and now it’s time to move on. But the problem with this thinking? Too many people are on the payroll. Too many are making a living off the donations of the partners. In those cases, the ministry has ceased to be mission driven and become payroll driven.
— Don’t be ashamed of scaling back. Evolve. Needs change, and perhaps your organization needs to change to meet those needs. Change. Scale back. Downsize. Nothing wrong with that.
— Re-think your purpose. Esso became Exxon. Cingular became AT&T. Bill Gates started out to build hardware, but when those doors closed, shifted to software, and changed the computer industry. Each generation is gifted in different ways. The problem is the founder needs to realize that, and value the gifts and talents of his or her children. Allow your strategy to shift as the landscape changes. Don’t be locked into a 30 year old vision.
— Get new insight. Leadership expert John Maxwell calls it “fresh eyes.” Sometimes it’s important to get outside opinions, advice, and expertise. Get a consultants opinion. Find someone you admire and hear them out. Never get so big you stop listening to smart people.
— Consider new leadership. If your organization is in serious debt, you need to radically re-think the leadership. How did that happen? Who on the board approved this? Being a spiritual leader doesn’t always make someone a good organizational or financial leader. The spiritual leader either needs to get a great business person he or she respects, or consider stepping down.
— Look for a new model. Bigger isn’t always better. The future is focus. Niche organizations to accomplish specific assignments. Create, do the task, dissolve. Don’t build a dynasty. Study movie production companies. They create a company for a specific project, and then dissolve it, and recreate one for the next one. Lean, mean, and controlled finance.