Posts Tagged ‘non-profits’

Hello, again. After a lengthy hiatus, I plan to start writing again. We’ll talk about the hiatus later, but today, let’s just jump into the deep water!

 Relay-race_02It’s Friday—the day before the Saturday board meeting—the BIG Saturday board meeting!  Ten board members will begin arriving tonight, though most will just drive to the meeting in the morning. Even though it is not yet noon on the day before, I’m confident that all of these men and women have already been thinking—and, I suspect, praying—about this Saturday’s board meeting.

Tomorrow, the Let’s Start Talking Board of Directors is interviewing the two finalist candidates to take Sherrylee’s and my places as the new Executive Director.  We—Mark and Sherrylee—began this ministry in our home 36 years ago—a lifetime ago. Sherrylee was the first paid staff member. Our three kids were born into it and raised in the backseat of our many rental cars that we drove around Europe each summer of their lives, organizing and supervising those early LST teams.

This short-term missions ministry which we started with a very small, limited vision for working in Germany (actually, still West Germany in 1980) has now sent Christian volunteers into over 60 countries—including some countries that were not even countries in 1980. Literally thousands of Christians have shared their faith with more thousands of people who asked those Christians to tell them why they were so happy and what made them believe the Story of Jesus.  God has truly done greater things than we could have ever imagined.

Three years ago, Sherrylee and I told our board that it was time for us to give the leadership of the ministry to the next generation.  We were not pressured to give notice, not by board politics, not by financial crisis, not by scandal, nor for health reasons.  No, many years ago, when we were young missionaries in Germany, we watched the painful struggles between older missionaries who had planted churches in Europe after WWII and those same churches who needed to break away from their “parent” in order to mature.  My memory is that at least one church changed the locks on their building because their founding father refused to give up his key, aka “control”, of his church.

His church? Really?  Watching those missionary giants rejected by their spiritual children is how we learned not to believe that we possessed, that we owned a ministry just because God used us to start something that He wanted done.  Not owning LST made it easier to start the process three years ago of giving up the keys to the building!  It isn’t our building; they aren’t our keys! They never were!

Tomorrow, we believe we will begin the final step of stepping down. And that’s just the beginning!

What has brought me back to writing again is the opportunity to share with you this transition. I want to share with you what happened when we gave notice three years, what didn’t happen, and what probably should have happened! I’d like to talk about processes, choices, and feelings. And I wish to share this information, not as a history, but perhaps as a case study for those of you who are in non-profits, ministries, or small organizations that will face this same kind of transition sooner or later.


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Strategic-PlanningStrategic planning for a faith-based organization raises different questions and  . . . well, I just don’t think it looks the same as strategic planning might look for a for-profit enterprise of the same ilk.

About 18 months ago, the board members of Let’s Start Talking brought up the idea of developing a strategic plan. Just now, we have begun the process, and even getting to this point was not without some pain. For the next nine months, I will be working on this, so I thought it might be helpful to some of you to share the process with you.

Let’s start with some of the questions:

Why go to the trouble and expense of doing a strategic plan? 

As you probably know, my wife and I founded Let’s Start Talking in our living room 33 years ago. LST was first organized as a ministry of a local congregation, answering directly to the elders of that church.

In this start-up phase, the ministry had no employees, no regular donors, and no plan for the next year except to meet the needs that were placed in front of us, which for LST meant, recruiting students and training them to go with us on short-term mission trips at the invitation of a handful of European churches with which Sherrylee and I had a relationship because of our previous mission work in Germany.

By the end LST’s first decade (1980-89), we were taking about 50 students, who raised all their own money plus enough to cover the small cost of organizing the projects, training the workers, and overseeing them in the summer. Financially, we were a zero-sum organization, starting each year at zero and finishing each year at zero.

The only plan was to recruit enough workers to do the work that God had placed in front of us.

LST mushroomed in the 90s, going from 50 workers to over 300. The breakup of the Soviet Union generated a huge desire among Christians to share the Gospel in these many countries where Communism had attempted to suppress and eradicate faith. But no one spoke these many languages, so LST’s strategy which involved working in English but was also direct evangelism became one of the most successful ways to work. LST, which one couple could manage in the 80s, now needed to become much larger.

The strategic plan was the same as it had been, i.e., to recruit more workers to meet the greater need!  As we recruited more workers, we generated more income, so we hired one office assistant and one recruiter. As the numbers grew, we added first volunteer office help, then hired office help, so that by the end of the 90s, we had 12-15 employees. The ministry was growing to meet the need.

But the dimension and scope of LST’s work was creating some issues. The 150-member congregation that had provided our legal status and oversight for almost 20 years decided that we were too big now and that the liability was bigger than the church wanted to take on. God had a big change in front of us!

And what was my plan for the ministry?? To continue to recruit more workers to meet the growing number of invitations from mission sites—now all over the world. But to do that among Churches of Christ, we needed a sponsoring church.

In 1999, a Fort Worth mega-church assumed our oversight, organized us into a Texas non-profit, and generously supported the ministry. But, of course, in this new arrangement, LST was required to have a board of directors.

Now after another decade, LST has continued to expand into China and the Muslim world, the budget has doubled in size, and the ministry is now an independent non-profit. LST now sends out more church members than college students and the funds all workers raise only cover about 70% of the annual budget, so outside fund raising is a necessity. All of these changes have been pretty dramatic!

What was our strategic plan that got us through these changes?  To continue to recruit more workers to meet the vast need of the world to hear the story of Jesus!

As you have probably deduced, the first obstacle to formulating a strategic plan has been this strong sense I have had of having always had a very simple plan that has always worked! I have always stated it as “following God and trying to do the tasks he puts in front of us to do!”

About six months ago, the LST board insisted that I get serious about strategic planning.  So, I’ve worked pretty hard to get my head around the idea. Here are the thoughts that have helped me:

  • Planning is a way of letting other people know what I believe God wants to do with LST.
  • Planning is an opportunity for people to look objectively at the ministry and make helpful suggestions.
  • Planning can suggest new ways of measuring outcomes that might be helpful.
  • Planning is good for donors who want to see measurable steps toward measurable goals.
  • Planning helps board members perform their duties better because they have a better definition of ministry activities and goals.
  • Planning should help us anticipate potential changes and prepare better for them.
  • Planning may force me as Executive Director to define both the vision and the means more precisely than I am inclined to do otherwise.

What would you add to this list?

Next I want to talk about the search for a consultant/coach to help us work through the strategic planning process.

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