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“Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (Proverbs 24:3, 4).
According to the counsel of Proverbs, building a house, a family, a business, a church, or a ministry organization of solid, enduring quality requires exceptional skill. The work of building goes beyond having a dream or a vision to thoughtfully designing and constructing a stable, functional structure. Ensuring a house’s sustainability requires not only sound engineering plans and solid construction practices, but also ongoing oversight. Anyone who buys a home quickly realizes how vital upkeep is to preserving the structure’s integrity.
Structural integrity can make or break a ministry. Recently, the sad tale of a mission organization’s death concluded with the release of a final statement by its leadership. Evangelical Baptist Missions has officially ceased its ministry. The mission has issued a dissolution resolution due to its irreversible financial situation. In the end, the mission returned 21.5 cents on the dollar to its missionaries.
Speaking to this issue is a difficult thing. I have friends who served as EBM missionaries, board members, and administrators. The pain and loss I have observed on both sides have been considerable. Also, rising in my thoughts are the roles I play in the GARBC’s administrative leadership and as a board member of another ministry. I am keenly aware of the complexities of running a not-for-profit business. It is no easy assignment. Day after day, tough decisions need to be made, requiring projections that are difficult to make. Sharing my thoughts on the collapse of EBM is something I could give a pass.
However, since assuming my role of national representative, this is the second time that the financial collapse of a mission has occurred in our Regular Baptist network. Not many years ago, Baptist Mission of North America released its final statement. Though this mission returned all of the principal and some interest to its investors, the tragedy was still great.
I admire the official EBM statement in which the board manned up by acknowledging poor decisions, rather than shifting blame or playing smoke-and-mirrors games. I commend the missionaries who humbly offered their forgiveness. This process of coming to terms with the close of their beloved mission and the ensuing loss of ministry funds could not have been easy for these servants.
It is customarily appropriate at the end of final meetings to tearfully hug, close in prayer, and turn out the lights. But the chairman of EBM’s board took an unusual step. He urged that we reflect on what happened so that we can learn valuable lessons and avoid repeating this story.
In reading the EBM board’s lessons learned, I found it interesting that the observations all related to business practices. The critique identified three categories of infrastructure-related weakness from which the problems stemmed involving the board, financial factors, and leadership. A missionary explained, “EBM was run as a family and not as a business. The spiritual leadership and the family spirit were excellent but the mission lacked business management competences, thus not seeing the severity of the situation developing, not making the appropriate decisions to correct the problems, not following through on some board recommendations, probably coupled with issues on who was making final decisions.”
Herein is the dilemma. At times, I hear people speak in a disparaging manner about organizations that are run like businesses and not like ministries. When I was preparing for ministry in college, the term “faith ministries” described mission organizations, Bible colleges, and compassion ministries. The epitomes of ministry leadership were the likes of William Carey and Hudson Taylor, whose stories of faith inspired a generation of us to trust God for impossible endeavors. In contrast, a genre of business empowerment gurus later surfaced, represented by Stephen Covey’s Effective Habits, Peter Drucker’s management principles, and Jim Collins’s Built to Last series. While traces of religion were found in these books, faith was not the driving force behind these business theories. It seemed as if we were to choose between the two approaches—either following the world’s business model or trusting God for the future.
What are we to think when we consider the debacle of EBM or BMNA and learn that their demise was primarily due to poor business practices? I don’t believe it is an either/or dilemma. To attempt to build a house solely on business principles is to build a house on sand. Jesus told us that it will surely collapse. However, to build a house on faith minus astute practices of wise financial planning, prudent HR techniques, and informed administrative oversight is to end up with a room full of missionaries tearfully saying to a board, “We forgive you for losing our retirement money.” As Proverbs 24:3 and 4 advise, a house that lasts and flourishes, and brings its residents joy, is a house that is built on the three-pronged approach of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Leading a ministry takes both faith and business skills.
How do we avoid the problem repeating itself? Skilled leaders need the twin competencies of deep faith and proficient business acumen. Bible schools are realizing this need and are shaping new programs to teach integrated models of Bible and business for not-for-profit organizations. Church leaders would benefit by enrolling in continuing education that seeks a proper balance in practices. Ministry organization boards would gain from orientation and training to not only trust God, but also to accept fiduciary responsibility in their governance role.
The Bible describes the work of a pastor using three words—shepherd, bishop, and elder. The duties of church leadership require the three-pronged, balanced approach of compassionate care giving, responsible oversight, and mature, godly character, all rolled into one office.
In our court system, no judge in a bankruptcy proceeding would dismiss a suit because the defendant said, “I believed it would all work out.” Do you think we will learn our lessons this time?
John Greening is national representative of the GARBC. Photo courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.