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Mission Arlington is taking church to the people

Tillie Burgin never envisioned creating a multimillion-dollar social services nonprofit when, 27 years ago, she started a Bible class in a low-rent apartment complex in Arlington, Texas.

Photo courtesy of Mission Arlington
Every day but Sunday, people come to Mission Arlington for assistance, both physical and spiritual.

April 23, 2013

Management theorists talk about five elements an organization needs to effect significant change: vision, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan.

But the First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, and Tillie Burgin, the resourceful leader of Mission Arlington, have stood that theory on its head for 27 years.

Burgin, 76, said she never envisioned creating a multimillion-dollar social services network when the church asked her to start a Bible class in a low-rent apartment complex in 1986. Resources, she said, tend to show up providentially when they’re needed. And she consistently, even defiantly, insists that she’s never had anything remotely like an “action plan.”

“If you can explain it, it’s not of God,” she said.

She even denies that Mission Arlington is an organization in the traditional sense.

“It’s not an organization,” she said. “It’s an organism.”

But skills, Burgin has in abundance. And the powerful incentive that drives her and more than 40,000 volunteers each year emerges, she said, from John 3:16 -- with a special emphasis on “whosoever.”

Launched by First Baptist Arlington as an effort to take church into the community, that small Bible study in one woman’s apartment grew into what is today a $5-million-a-year nonprofit organization that provides an array of social services. More than just a social agency, however, Mission Arlington is still, as its tagline claims, “taking church to the people.”

Along with free medical care, emergency assistance, summer camps and other programs, the organization hosts a huge network of Bible studies and other small, churchlike groups. The 329 groups, virtually small congregations, meet weekly in apartment complexes, mobile home parks and houses, bringing together volunteer leaders with groups of up to several dozen residents for study and worship.

Though Mission Arlington doesn’t keep precise attendance figures, it’s safe to say that many more people meet in these small groups than the 2,600 or so that show up on an average Sunday at First Baptist Arlington.

 

Questions to consider:

  • Do great organizations begin with an “action plan” or with good instincts and an act of providence?
  • The Rev. Charles Wade wanted church members to “fall in love with our community before we got afraid of it.” What are the potential fears or problems that your organization might move to embrace?
  • What does it mean to be “in control” rather than “controlling?” How can you better navigate the tensions between the two?
  • To what extent does your organization operate as a “semipermeable membrane,” allowing people to retain their own identities?

A healthy beehive

Every day but Sunday, Mission Arlington’s main campus, located across the street from the church, hums like a healthy beehive. People file into the “Front Room,” where they are triaged for their spiritual and physical needs. Out back, dozens of volunteers accept, sort and distribute donations. The waiting rooms at the dental and medical clinics are full.

But Burgin is no sedentary queen bee. “Miss Tillie,” as she is often called, is likely to be climbing in and out of trucks of donated material or driving around Arlington visiting the apartments that are part of the network.

A thousand people a day come to the central campus for food, clothing, medical and dental care, furniture, emergency transportation, and even a little cash.

Are they Baptists? Do they even attend one of the Bible studies? It doesn’t matter. There are no barriers to entry.

The volunteers at the main campus and the Bible study leaders come from all kinds of churches, too: Catholic, United Methodist, Churches of Christ, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Bible Churches, and some with no denominational affiliation.

“They just love, love, love people,” said Lt. Patrick Jones, head of the Arlington Salvation Army. “If I disagree with you about the necessity of baptism, we can still work together to build the kingdom of God.”

Mission Arlington holds no fundraisers and has no marketing budget. But its 2011 990 form, the annual report that nonprofits are required to file with the IRS, says it collected almost $5 million in donations and had assets of more than $15 million -- mostly buildings that were donated or paid for by specific donations. Charity Navigator gives Mission Arlington an unusually high score of 66.3 out of 70.

As its location suggests, Mission Arlington, though a separate nonprofit, remains closely associated with First Baptist Arlington. Burgin and her troops are largely autonomous. But Mission Arlington and its founding church still supply each other with resources, inspiration and ideas.

And that’s all fine with First Baptist Arlington’s pastor.

“My view of the church is that it is a partner with God in accomplishing the restoration God intends for his creation,” said the Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiles. “I believe that our church has bought into the fact that we’re called to be agents of restoration.”

When Wiles was called to the church more than 11 years ago, the search committee made it clear that support for Mission Arlington was not negotiable. The church continues to be a vital source of volunteers and financial support, currently providing more than $400,000 a year for the nonprofit.

Planting the seed

So how did it start? Why has it succeeded? Observers give two people credit for planting the seed: Burgin and the man who was the pastor at First Baptist Arlington in 1986, the Rev. Dr. Charles Wade.

Arlington is a city of 370,000 -- about the size of Raleigh, N.C., or Cleveland -- set between Dallas and Fort Worth. Then as now, it was a town with plenty of poverty and lots of low-rent apartments. According to the most recent census data, more than 15 percent of the residents and 22 percent of the children live below the poverty line. Conditions weren’t that different in the 1980s.

Wade and his church had been searching for a way to reach out to the apartment dwellers and invite them into the successful and mostly affluent church.

“I was hoping we could fall in love with our community before we got afraid of it,” he said.

Then, at a meeting sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Wade heard another pastor explain how his church had set up a chapel in a nearby apartment complex.

“It was like a light went off in me,” he said.

Wade knew just the person he wanted to run the project.

Burgin grew up near the church. She and her husband had been missionaries in Korea for 10 years before one of their sons got so sick they had to come home. She had been a schoolteacher and the personnel director and employee relations director for the Arlington school district. And she was running two very successful study groups for the church -- an adult ministry and a weekly meeting targeting women who were about her age and older.

Wade’s proposal matched exactly what she’d thought about ever since returning from overseas: “If we can do missions in Korea, why can’t we do missions in Arlington?”

But like much of what she’d seen and done overseas, his idea to take the church into the community was easy to talk about, harder to do.

The woman Burgin asked to host that first Bible study had neither furniture nor money to pay her utilities. Although Burgin solved those problems, the people who attended the Bible study brought their own urgent needs with them. That pattern was repeated in apartment complex after apartment complex.

“We started with a Bible study and then discovered there was a physical need,” Burgin said. “You can’t say to a person, ‘We’re going to pray for you. Hope you get better.’ You have to connect with that need.”

The need quickly outstripped the church’s financial ability to meet it. To help attract donors beyond the church, First Baptist spun the organization off into a separate nonprofit, one of several the church has since established for various ministries.

As with all the nonprofits the church has established, Wiles tries to keep a light touch, staying aware of the operations without interfering.

Tillie the traffic cop

Burgin’s leadership style is more about setting an example than cracking a whip. She shows up six days a week for a series of staff meetings at 5, 6 and 7 a.m. Although she has an unmistakable influence on her employees, she makes relatively few decisions -- her experienced staff, she said, needs little of that. But her cellphone constantly buzzes with messages keeping her informed.

“I’m the traffic cop. I want to know everything,” she said. “But there is a difference between controlling and being in control. I don’t want to control. But I want to be in control.”

While Burgin gives her workers plenty of freedom, if someone shows up with an ego, Burgin is likely to assign him or her to sweeping the driveways, Wade said.

“If they do that faithfully, she’ll give them the chance to do other things,” he said.

Over the years, Burgin has gathered stories about the work at Mission Arlington and uses them to inspire others to join her work. (For a great example, watch the talk she gave in 2001 at the Duke University conference “Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging and Healthcare in the 21st Century.”) The stories are tied together with phrases and key sentences that she still uses word-for-word.

 

Mission Arlington 2012

The nonprofit served

  • After-school program 3,600
  • Bible studies/congregations 12,000
  • Christmas toy distribution 33,925
  • Rainbow Express Bible club 39,347
  • Medical clinic 9,462
  • Tent revivals 1,800
  • Recorded spiritual decisions 1,960

One of those words is “indigenous.” Burgin and others say one reason for her success is that she is native to the area -- and so are her volunteers. She adds new apartments by approaching complex owners, many of whom own other apartments Mission Arlington already serves.

Once the owner has signed on, she finds a specific location for the Bible study, such as the vacant apartment that one owner is providing for the newest study group. Then she finds a team of volunteer leaders, drawing from members of other apartment congregations or elsewhere in the community. Rookies are teamed with more-experienced leaders.

Jerry McCullough, a volunteer group leader since September 2012, exemplifies how well-connected the nonprofit is in Arlington. Until he retired last June, McCullough was the superintendent of the Arlington school district.

McCullough isn’t a Baptist, but that’s not a problem. Mission Arlington creates its own study curriculum that avoids most of the hot-button theological issues that can block cooperation. McCullough was happy to get with the program.

“The mission goes back to John 3:16. We just focus on that,” he said.

Semipermeable membrane

As the Rev. Andy Mangum, pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Arlington, described it, Mission Arlington operates as a sort of “semipermeable membrane” that allows people from different churches to go in and out without losing their own identity.

As with any organization, success breeds success. Scale has its benefits, Mangum said.

“They’re large enough and have enough resources that they are able to take just about whatever you’re willing to give,” Mangum said.

Some organizations have restrictive hours, he said. Others will accept only certain kinds of donations or volunteers. Mission Arlington opens early, stays open late and accepts pretty much anything useful.

Mission Arlington is, in part, a family enterprise. Tillie Burgin’s husband, Robert, an associate dean at Dallas Baptist University, helps out with the mission, and their son Jim handles some administrative duties, particularly those that are not his mother’s favorites. Like her, Jim Burgin rejects traditional models for understanding the mission’s operation.

“We’ve just pushed back against the corporate overlay that has been pushed onto the church,” he said. Often, the organization makes decisions that at least initially seem to go “against the flow,” he said.

For years, for example, the organization held a traditional charity Thanksgiving meal that served 1,000 hungry people. Though popular with volunteers, the event was regarded less fondly by the people who queued up to be fed.

So Mission Arlington did away with the “soup line” and replaced it with full Thanksgiving meals delivered directly to individual families, Jim Burgin said. Last year, the program fed more than 22,000 people, who were able to enjoy the holiday in their own homes.

“It protects people’s dignity,” he said.

Change, and stillness

His mother warns against getting too locked in to particular patterns. Even success doesn’t mean change isn’t needed. This year, she’s moving to create small “Front Rooms” in some apartment congregations that have space to store and distribute clothing and food.

“You never want to get into ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,’” Tillie Burgin said. “Things change; people change; hearts change. If we can get a little bit closer to people, reach more people, that’s what God keeps pushing us to see. But I don’t want to run out ahead of him.”

At the same time, it’s dangerous to change for the sake of change, she said. Wait, she said, to discern God’s will.

“Many times, it’s just, ‘Be still. Be still. Be still,’” she said.

Over the years, thousands of visitors have come to Mission Arlington to find inspiration and maybe an idea or two to take back to their own churches.

But can they create their own version of Mission Arlington without a Tillie Burgin -- either a clone or at least someone with her special passion, energy and skills?

It’s not easy, said Carol Childress, a Dallas-based church leadership consultant.

“Tillie models better than almost anybody else I know what it means to be a disciple of Christ and to live that out every day,” she said.

Childress was working at the Baptist General Convention of Texas when Mission Arlington was born and has watched it thrive. She’s not aware of another operation that has done so much for so many for so long. But that doesn’t mean Miss Tillie’s success can’t be repeated, she said.

“[Management expert] Peter Drucker used to say that all you need is one working model to demonstrate that something can be done,” Childress said. “She is the one working model.”