#103 – Business As Usual in “Ministry”

ESSENCE:  In this post we look at some special “culture” challenges that can lead Biblically faith-based non-profits down a seemingly business as usual path.  These organizations are born with “faith-work integration” but can have cultures that stray far from God’s design for work–good work on the outside with unhappy people on the inside.  People tolerate unhealthy cultures in faith-based non-profits because they believe so strongly in the vision or in the vision or authority of the leaders, which is why it is even more critical for leaders of faith-based non-profits to conduct an honest assessment of the organization’s current culture.

For those who have been following our blog, you know we have used the last 102 posts to drip out and map what we call Integriosity®–faithfully “doing right” through business a better way.  Throughout, we have used the term business as usual to describe business in the way of the world and business a better way to describe business as God intended in accordance with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities.  Although we say “business”, we have been talking broadly about organizations of people working together, whether for-profit or non-profit.

In the next two posts, we will reflect on two seeming anomalies.  In this post we will look at some special “culture” challenges that can lead Biblically faith-based non-profits down a seemingly business as usual path.  These organizations are born with “faith-work integration” but can have cultures that stray far from God’s design for work–good work on the outside with unhappy people on the inside.  For example, in describing the culture that once existed at The Gideons International, Executive Director Craig Warner said:

We were killing our staff . . . .  Folks were not happy.  Yet, it was the mission of the ministry that kept them dedicated to the work that they did even though they knew that it wasn’t a healthy work environment.

The Unique Challenges in Biblically Faith-Based Non-Profit Culture

Faith-based non-profits are organizations of flawed humans just like secular organizations, which means that their leaders face all the culture challenges faced by any organization of humans.  The underlying assumptions of Scarcity and Self-Interest and the dynamics of power, influence and status we discussed in post #021 (Work As Usual-Money and Power) can exist as they can in any organization of humans, but in the faith-based non-profit they can be shrouded in faith beliefs.

A faith-based non-profit is unique among organizations, and its culture challenges can be exacerbated when compared to a secular non-profit, because the faith-based non-profit can fall back on God as the source of its vision, God as the source of authority for the leader, and “calling” as the source of unquestioning commitment from employees and volunteers–all unique “tools” that can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to manipulate (sometimes through guilt) good-hearted and well-meaning employees who are desperately miserable and disengaged.

The secular non-profit does not have these tools.  A business following business as usual also does not have these tools, and its vision is unlikely to be as heart-pulling as the vision of a non-profit, which means that vision will not go as far in compensating for people’s lack of feeling valued or having a voice.

Another exacerbating factor is that the faith-based non-profit and its unhappy employees often fail to understand (or don’t want to believe) that ALL ORGANIZATIONS have intrinsic Kingdom value and ALL WORK is ministry.  They have not crossed the Sacred/Secular Gap.   If they did, the organization’s leaders might not be able to give themselves a “pass” on culture.  If employees saw that they could be “building for God’s Kingdom” in work that paid them fairly and treated them with dignity and respect, they might tolerate less and speak up or leave more quickly.  When that happened, the faith-based non-profit might need to look in a mirror and realize that its faith-based Purpose was being undermined by a decidedly un-faith-based Culture, which is poor stewardship that needs to be RE-IMAGINED.

A Refresher on Culture

Back in post #084 (Re-Imagined Implementation-Culture and People), we asserted that God created humans to create organizations to organize humans to work together in relationship to create products and services that serve humanity.  God cares about people (God’s image-bearers); God cares about relationships (an attribute of Imago-Dei); and God cares about work (essential to living out Imago Dei).

Because organizations are about people, organizational Culture needs to about people.  We believe it only follows that an organization committed to Re-Imagining its Culture in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities (prioritizing relationships, community, human dignity and flourishing of all people) MUST examine how it’s Culture treats the people it touches (owners, employees, vendors, customers, communities), whether its Culture encourages healthy or unhealthy relationships among those people, and whether its Culture leads to work being experienced by its people as a blessing of flourishing to be embraced or a burden to be minimized.

In post #084, we also shared some concepts from Michael Stallard’s book Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work., which is the best tool we know for understanding human engagement at work in an organization.

According to Stallard, a healthy culture of connection exists when people have:

  1. Vision:  When everyone in the organization is motivated by the mission, united by the values, and proud of the reputation.
  2. Value:  When everyone in the organization understands the needs of people, appreciates their positive unique contributions, and helps them achieve their potential.
  3. Voice:  When everyone in the organization seeks the ideas of others, shares their ideas and opinions honestly, and safeguards relational connections.

Stallard identifies two common types of unhealthy organizational cultures.  He notes that a distinguishing feature of these unhealthy cultures is that their sole focus is task excellence, with little focus on relational excellence.

  • Cultures of Control:  in which “people with power, influence, and status rule over others. This culture creates an environment where people fear to make mistakes and take risks. It is stifling— killing innovation because people are afraid to speak up. Employees may feel left out, micromanaged, unsafe, hyper-criticized, or helpless.”
  • Cultures of Indifference:  in which “people are so busy chasing money, power, and status that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop healthy, supportive relationships. As a result, leaders don’t see value in the relational nature of work, and many people struggle with loneliness. Employees may feel like a cog in a machine, unimportant, uncertain, or invisible.”

We were killing our staff. . . . Yet, it was the mission of the ministry that kept them dedicated to the work that they did . . . . (Craig Warner)

Special Challenges Faced by Faith-Based Non-Profits

As much as the concepts of Vision, Value and Voice, as well as the idea of an organization prioritizing relationships, community, human dignity and flourishing, are based on Biblical beliefs, values and priorities, faith-based non-profits are often no better (and sometimes worse!) at living out those concepts than secular businesses.  We believe these are some of the unique cultural challenges that faith-based non-profits (including churches) face (these are largely based upon an “outsider-view” looking in or hearing the laments of those on the inside).

  • Spiritual Vision. “Vision” is BIG and EASY–they are working for God doing “God-things” to make the world a better place.
  • Spiritual Calling. “Value” can be ignored or even openly rejected if people are “called”.  Their employees have the privilege of working in “ministry”–they shouldn’t expect to be paid a fair compensation (or “we will pay you so long as you raise your own salary”)–they are doing “God’s work”, which should be reward enough.  If they are truly “called”, then Vision should more than make up for the absence of Value.
  • Spiritual Leaders. “Voice” is particularly absent in the face of a controlling founder/leader who was given “God’s vision” for the organization or a leader seen to have “spiritual authority” as well as managerial authority.  Questioning the founder/leader or spiritual leader is close to questioning God.
  • Tolerance of Leaders. Leaders who create Cultures of Control (frequently “founders”) or Cultures of Indifference are tolerated, either because they are the “founder” with the Vision, the “spiritual leader” (e.g., senior pastor) with unquestionable spiritual authority or because they are good fundraisers.
  • Tolerance of Performance. What sometimes substitutes for Value is a lack of accountability in performance (“I may not be valued, but at least I am not criticized or corrected”)–the old phrase “close enough for government work” can become “good enough for non-profit work”.  After all, you are not being paid what you are worth (and you may effectively be paying yourself through your own donors).  In addition, many people (including those who have risen to a level of leadership) drawn to non-profit work may have never worked in a “for-profit” organization in which performance and results were measured and reviewed.  (Of course, the most toxic combination can be a “business as usual” leader “retiring” to a non-profit and imposing a layer of performance without fixing the “no-Value”, “no-Voice” culture).
  • Value Misdirection. The lack of Value coming from the organization and its leaders may be compensated for by convincing employees that their Value needs to come from recognition by their donors and those they serve.  I recall one faith-based non-profit staffer who was taught that he was serving his supporters by letting them do things for him–take him to lunch and you felt (or even heard) him say “you’re welcome”.
  • Leadership Misdirection. Not only can people be underpaid, they can be overworked for their below-market compensation and shouldn’t complain, because they are really “working for God” and not for the demanding leader creating a Culture of Control or Culture of Indifference.

We are not suggesting that most or even many faith-based non-profits suffer from these cultural issues to this extent, but all faith-based non-profits are subject to the unique challenges that can lead to these issues.  People tolerate unhealthy cultures in faith-based non-profits because they believe so strongly in the Vision or in the vision or authority of the leaders, which is why it is even more critical for leaders of faith-based non-profits to conduct an honest assessment of the organization’s current culture, as reflected in its policies and practices related to areas such as hiring, termination, discipline, performance reviews, compensation, ethical behavior, training, vacation, family leave, customer service, and vendors. Such an assessment must also dig underneath the culture to examine the business as usual and faith as usual assumptions and motivations (such as Scarcity,  Self-Interest and “Can We” Ethics) that may have underpinned the current policies and practices.

SPOILER ALERT:  In our next post, we will look at the other anomalous situation–business a better way without faith.

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):   I first became involved with the workings (rather than just the benefits) of faith-based non-profits in 2005.  Since then, I have served on boards and in leadership positions with several organizations and witnessed (and perpetrated) broken human behavior and leadership.  I have also had the privilege of many honest conversations with people who were working for faith-based non-profits and many who had left.  It wasn’t until 2015 that I came to understand some of the unique dynamics that can be at play in a faith-based non-profit.  I attended the 2015 C12 National Leaders Conference in Orlando, and one of the speakers was Craig Warner, Executive Director of The Gideons International.  With remarkable tranparency, Warner described the toxic culture that existed at The Gideons and the courageous steps he took to begin a transformation.  A link to the video of Craig’s talk is below.  I highly recommend watching it, particularly if you lead a faith-based non-profit.

Craig Warner - C12 Talk

Copyright © 2022 Integrous LLC.  Integriosity is a registered Service Mark of Integrous LLC.

Photo Credit: Original photo by Carine L. on Unsplash (photo cropped)