Randy Miranda/Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches
Embracing change, doing good
The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches is the largest council in North America, but it keeps a low profile. The council is a faith-based nonprofit that serves its community through ever-changing collaborative partnerships.
November 23, 2010 | Despite helping 358,000 people a year, the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches doesn’t get many thank-you notes. It’s not that people don’t appreciate having volunteers paint their homes, shovel their snow and plant their gardens. And they’re not being rude by refusing to acknowledge assistance that includes everything from providing food to helping people stay out of jail.
It’s just that the majority of the people who are helped don’t have a clue where the help is coming from.
“At least two-thirds of them have never heard of us,” said the Rev. Gary Reierson, the council’s president. “A lot of the volunteers don’t even know they’re working for us.”
With an $8 million budget, 700 member congregations and 25,000 volunteers, the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches (GMCC) is not only the largest local council of churches in North America, it’s also bigger than all state councils.
The council’s mission is based on the Christian admonition to help the less fortunate. Beyond that, church volunteers are asked to check their individual theological beliefs at the door, so to speak. The council is proud of the breadth of its membership base, which ranges ideologically from conservative to liberal and denominationally from Baptist to Quaker.
It might seem odd that such a massive operation remains virtually unknown, even in its own backyard. But Reierson isn’t complaining about that. On the contrary, he’s convinced that it’s the key to the council’s success.
“Taking credit is not what this is all about,” he said. “There are some organizations where getting credit is more important than what they do. That’s not the way we work. We want our partners to get the credit.”
He divides the council’s process into two parts: Make sure the volunteers have the resources -- including training and materials -- to succeed. And then make sure their success is noticed by the public.
In practical terms, it works like this: When a church decides to take part in the council’s Paint-A-Thon program, for example, the council sends a professional painter to teach its volunteers how to prep, prime and paint, and then the council provides all the supplies they’ll need, from paint to safety masks.
On the day of the Paint-A-Thon, volunteers come decked out in T-shirts with the church’s name on it. As a result, the homeowners send their effusive thank-you notes to the church.
It’s a win-win-win situation, Reierson maintains. The homeowners are happy because they’ve gotten much-needed help. The volunteers are happy because they’ve created good will for their church. And GMCC is happy because everybody else is happy.
“If you have support in terms of training and supplies and you have good will, it will always translate to a great result,” Reierson said. Last year 2,550 Paint-A-Thon volunteers worked a combined 22,500 hours and used 1,534 gallons of paint and primer on 132 homes, bringing the total number of houses painted since the program’s inception in 1984 to more than 6,000.
The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches’ approach to leadership:
- Let others have the spotlight. All that most volunteers want is for their efforts to be appreciated.
- Focus on building partnerships. A team can accomplish more than a collection of individuals.
- Foster deep collaboration. Truly collaborative partnerships build mutual trust and respect and discourage turf wars.
- Embrace change. You might be a nonprofit, but you still need to have an entrepreneurial spirit.
- Get the people on the job who will do the best job. And don’t be afraid to remove those who are wrong for the job.
In explaining the council’s low-profile philosophy, Reierson turns to breakfast cereal. In terms of this analogy, he prefers General Mills to Kellogg’s.
“Every cereal Kellogg’s makes has ‘Kellogg’s’ in its name, like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or Kellogg’s Rice Krispies,” he said. “General Mills makes Wheaties and Cheerios. But it’s not General Mills Wheaties. It’s just Wheaties, just Cheerios. Yes, the box has the company’s logo on it -- the big G -- but the company’s name is not part of the cereal’s name.
“That’s the way we are. We don’t need the words ‘Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches’ in large letters on everything we do. We have our logo there, and if people notice it, fine. And if they don’t, that’s fine, too.”
Change is good
When Reierson -- the former pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis -- was named president of the council in 1989, its budget was $1.2 million and it oversaw a dozen programs. Its current size is 6.6 times that. Ann Merrill, past-chair of the council’s board of directors, credits the growth to Reierson’s aggressive search for new opportunities.
“I like change,” Reierson said. “I realize that change makes some people nervous. But I believe that even though we’re nonprofit, we need to think like entrepreneurs.”
“This entrepreneurial spirit is a core strength for Gary,” Merrill said. “In my experience on several nonprofit boards over the years, I have seen many leadership styles and skill sets. What sets Gary apart is that he is not only able to make sure the mission is fulfilled each and every day in the trenches, but that he also is able to keep his eyes on the future. He and his team are always evaluating community need and then trying to figure out a way to address the future.”
That’s the sort of thinking that led to the Community Justice Project. It’s run by the Rev. Hillary Freeman, a retired Minneapolis police employee who is also a United Church of Christ minister. In what she calls “a perfect partnership of God and government,” the program draws half its support from the police department, the other half from GMCC, and spends all her time trying to keep people who have recently been released from jail from ending up back there.
She works with a team of volunteer mentors -- some of them ex-cons themselves, but most not -- who form one-on-one partnerships with offenders as their release dates approach. The program’s success rate is nothing short of astounding: on average, 52 percent of Minnesota inmates are returned to prison within a year of their release, while the rate for the project’s participants is 13 percent.
Reierson attributes the success to a “unique combination of accountability and grace,” rooted in his organization’s conviction that all human beings have dignity because they are created in the image of God.
Determining which new ideas to pursue depends on their effectiveness, not the potential to find sponsors, Reierson said.
“The important thing is whether it fits our mission,” he said. “If you come up with ideas and an effective way of implementing them, my job is to figure out how to find the resources.”
A new program this summer involved gardeners who used donated plants to spruce up senior citizens’ homes. Julie Casey heard about the program from her suburban church and not only signed up, but asked for the biggest challenge they had. With the help of her husband and two teenage children, she spent the summer completely redoing the yard of a Minneapolis resident named Mary, who had not been able to work on her own garden since suffering a back injury 19 years ago.
“At the end of a stressful day, I like to sit in my flower garden and contemplate,” Casey said. “Now Mary can do that.” She paused before adding with a laugh: “Plus, I like to dig in the dirt.”
His philosophy of crediting his partners is a boon in fundraising, too, said Tracy Elftmann, the council’s vice president for advancement. Corporate and foundation donors also appreciate that when GMCC solicits funds for a project, all of the money goes to that project, with the council absorbing most of the administrative costs.