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August 6, 2013

Questions to guide organizational change during tough economic times

Five years ago, churches, theological schools and other Christian institutions were reacting in crisis mode to the financial crash that rocked the nation. At that time, conversation revolved around how Christian institutions were going to maintain desperately needed revenue.

Today, things haven’t changed all that much.

Churches and theological schools still need more money. Some institutions have closed; others have experienced drastic reorganization or cutbacks; others limp along, cautiously optimistic.

But how do Christian institutions make the difficult decisions required to thrive, much less survive, in a climate of scarcity? What questions do we ask? Some of the following questions might be on the list, as organizational leaders think about the conundrums they face every day:

Will we be all things to all people, or maintain a coherent identity? Institutions such as small seminaries feel pressure to diversify to appeal to a wider base, but acknowledge the difficult reality of keeping it all together with a full-time faculty of seven or eight. Some organizations are able to claim a distinct identity, saying, “This is who we are and who we will remain,” but they are rare.

With whom can we collaborate to better share and utilize costly resources? Several seminaries such as the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky have relocated to a church-related college campus, to share resources like classroom space or libraries. Organizations are moving away from being defensive or competitive with one another and moving towards articulating what the church can be. They are asking, “What unites us as institutions?”

How can we be influencers, rather than just reactors? It remains important to be self-critical and self-reflective before we change, even when we are in crisis mode. This is an especially poignant question for churches, who serve congregations and groups of people with very specific needs.

Who are the staff members or faculty who are best positioned to help our institution as it encounters financial difficulty? The nature of the staff or faculty is crucial now more than ever to the ongoing life of an institution. Sometimes those who have previously been in the margins of an organization are best suited to supply a new perspective in difficult times.

How can we continue to support staff amidst organizational crisis? Nonprofit staff members often go above and beyond their duty, bearing up amidst salary cuts and exhibiting deep faithfulness to an institution in times of trial and shortage.

Where do we find new organizational models that will better serve us in trying times? Looking to other nonprofit organizations, such as a symphony, can give us ideas for new models that might better serve new fiscal realities.

To what end are we working? Despite a sense of scarcity or perhaps especially in the face of it, it is important to remain focused on mission, so that we can maintain what theologian L. Gregory Jones refers to as thriving communities that are signs and foretastes of the reign of God.

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