Seeing and serving

Winning racquetball players watch the court for an opening and take a shot. What might this teach us about strategy for Christian institutions?

In recent weeks, a friend has routed me repeatedly at racquetball.

In reflecting on my defeats, I have realized that it’s not just that she is a better player than I am, though that is obvious to anyone who watches us play. It is that she is a better strategic player than I am.

She watches the court in a way that I don’t. She notices where I am and, more importantly, where I am not. Consistently, she hits the ball to places on the court I cannot reach quickly enough to return the shot. She scores and wins. Again and again, she wins.

Whether you talk to a sports analyst or a business consultant, he will tell you that this is good strategy. Size up your competition, find the place where your competitor will not or cannot be, hit that spot again and again, and you will win. This has been a proven formula for corporate success; any of us can name company after company whose corporate strategy could be summarized in this way.

In the worlds of business and sports, it is fine to talk about competition, market share and winning, but if we try to use this metaphor with congregations or in other institutions with Christian commitments, it gets a little murky.

No one really wants to think of the Baptists or the Presbyterians down the street as “the competition.” Nobody wants to talk about ministry as a game of winning or losing, nor do we want to believe that mission is determined by the potential market share we could secure. As a result, there are those who are reluctant to think at all about strategy for congregations and Christians institutions.

Yet, in many ways, leaders in congregations and Christian institutions are called to wrestle with the same questions CEOs and athletes must ask. Fortunately for faith-based organizations, though, these questions can be asked in much more interesting, life-giving ways than they are usually asked in corporate boardrooms.

Rather than asking where our competitors are not, we as Christians have the unique privilege of considering: Where are the underserved, and how might our resources serve them? Where are there unmet needs? How might our gifts meet them? Where are the gaps in social services, and how might we bridge them?

While these are all strategic questions, not one gets asked for the sake of our own success or our own future growth but for the sake of the shalom of God. We ask them to hear the Gospel’s call in our own day.

Faith & Leadership recently featured two organizations that show the transformative power of these kinds of questions for institutions.

When the Nashville Food Project identified the enormity of the challenge of food insecurity in that city, not only did the organization find its own mission, but it discovered that it could create and catalyze an entire network of other institutions to respond, as well.

Likewise, when the Holding Institute saw scores of immigrants in need in its own neighborhood, its leaders heard a call and marshaled the resources to respond. Along the way, the organization found a renewed sense of organizational vitality and purpose, even as some of the most vulnerable were served.

Whether it is systematic or spontaneous, well-planned or emergent, Christian congregations and institutions must find ways of being like my friend on the racquetball court -- to see an opening and to take a shot.

Strategy for Christian organizations has never been about winning or losing; it’s about seeing and serving.