A Shared Services Environment for Ministries: Riding Out the Storms of Change Together

by George Brown

To most effectively deal with the changing culture and worldview, ministries and mission agencies must join hands and share services whenever possible.

My father’s passion for sailing afforded our family many opportunities to learn such things as teamwork, reading charts, navigation, scanning the horizon for our destination (as well as potential obstacles), using our bodies collectively as ballast to counteract the forces of the wind, use of appropriate safety precautions, how to obey orders and perhaps most importantly, how to navigate stormy waters.

One particularly vivid memory is of an outing we took sailing up the coast of New Jersey to Sandy Hook, into New York Harbor, up the East River and into Long Island sound. The journey from Pt. Pleasant was enjoyable enough; however, the return home was another story. An infamous nor’easter kicked up its heels and gave us a wild ride back down the coast. With the waves and swells hitting us broadside, we decided to drop sail and fire up the little engine on board our thirty-foot vessel. As we pitched and rolled, the propeller would come out of the water and we could hear the scream of its aerial cavitations. Soon, Manasquan Inlet appeared on our horizon and we anticipated the change of our southerly heading to that of a westerly one. With the surf on our transom, we would have the ride of our lives. Our major concern was that we not be thrown into the rock jetties that formed the narrow inlet. With that in mind, my dad (sometimes fondly referred to as Captain Ahab) barked the order and I quickly manned the tiller with him to do battle with the forces of nature.

Like the nor’easter that battered our little sailing vessel, ministries are facing problems and challenges that threaten to throw them into the rocks. For the past two or three decades the storm has been brewing for Christian missions and ministry.

In North America, ministries are struggling with a number of converging issues that threaten the Church’s ability to be an active and effective participant in the task of world evangelization. Jim Engel’s 1996 landmark study highlights the strength and role of the emerging non-Western Church and growing pressures on the relationship between traditional agencies and churches in North America. At stake is whether or not the Church in North America will be an effective participant in the task of world evangelization. He writes,

North American Christian commitment to world evangelization is in sharp retrenchment. Unless there is an intervention by God leading to across-the-board willingness in churches and agencies to cope with changing paradigms and realities, North America will become a secondary force in the world Church. (1996, 4)

I dare say that Engel’s remarks also have application to the entire Western Church which would include those of European origin. As I have discussed these issues with mission leaders from Europe and Australia, there is no doubt that the pressures outlined in Engel’s work are perhaps even more pronounced in sending countries like England, Australia and New Zealand.

As Stan Guthrie observes these conditions, he notes, “Some smaller mission boards have been forced to merge with larger ones in order to survive” (2000, 22). It has certainly been our observation as well that the underlying requirements to support ministry and missionaries on the field have grown in complexity from the days of Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, William Carey and Adoniram Judson.

In an increasingly globalized society, the questions of how we effectively support ministries and missionaries become more difficult and challenging to answer. How do ministries address the expense related to things such as technology, the regulatory environment imposed by governments, changing donor and candidate expectations, missionary care and the evolving relationship between the local church and mission societies or agencies? How do we fund such infrastructure when the cry of donors is to send all the funds to frontline ministry?

Scripture offers us some perspectives that help guide our thinking as it relates to the problems and challenges ministries face today. Although the current environment for ministry and missions indicates stormy and challenging times ahead, scripture speaks clearly to principles for possible solutions. Jesus’ own words echo the sentiment that we are not to do this in isolation from one another. In John 17:21, Jesus prayed that we would be one, just as he and the Father are one, so that the world might believe.

My wife and I spent over twenty years with Greater Europe Mission (GEM). Admittedly, during our seven years spent in France we were often involved in initiatives and projects where we collaborated with churches and God’s servants of differing evangelical persuasions. I am sure this gave some of our supporting churches cause for pause; however, God was glorified and people came to Christ. Upon our return to GEM’s headquarters, I began to observe some of the challenges that agencies face in providing supporting services and wondered why there was so much isolation and so little collaboration among ministries when it came to these types of operations.

There are typically three fears that keep ministries from cooperating in ways that will help them become more effective in ministry:

1. The fear of losing fiscal control.
2. The fear of losing doctrinal distinctives.
3. The fear of losing ministry identity.

While these are legitimate concerns, we often confuse the core of who we are with the functions and tasks required to support what we do. While functional areas such as finance, technology and regulatory compliance are critical to sustaining one’s operations, they are not core to one’s identity. Many businesses learned long ago that there are great advantages to collaboration and outsourcing. They have transformed outmoded hierarchical command-and-control structures that inhibited innovation and growth and adopted principles of collaboration and partnership that have led to unprecedented growth and innovation (Engel and Dyrness 2000, 147-148).

There is a wonderful example in scripture of collaboration and partnership to counteract a logistical problem that was threatening the effectiveness of proclamation ministry. In Acts 6:2-6, the Church faced a problem that was distracting the apostles from carrying out their core ministry of preaching the word and devotion to prayer. How did they respond? They appointed men that were spiritually gifted to take care of the tables. This passage is often cited as the institution of the office of deacon; however, if one were to exegete this passage carefully, we find that one of the primary themes is that of serving in support of proclamation ministry. The result is astounding. Verse 7 indicates, “The Word of God kept spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly.” By outsourcing the waiting of tables, the Church experienced unprecedented growth. There may not be a word for “outsourcing” in my Greek New Testament, but the point is this: effective proclamation ministry requires effective supporting ministry.

As we have pointed out earlier, the logistical issues of today are more complex than those faced by the apostles in Acts 6; however, the solution should be the same. We should be looking for men and women full of the Spirit who are gifted to manage the complex issues we face today.

So what are the possibilities of working together? VisionQuest Alliance (VQA) is the story of several ministries coming together to find common solutions to common problems. Initially, two ministries tested the idea of sharing a finance department. GEM and Inherit a Blessing (now merged with BEE World) shared resources in such a way that initially led to ten to fifteen percent savings for both organizations.

Subsequent to that, GEM, OMS International and International Students found themselves unable to fill their respective Chief Financial Officer positions. The three came together with the idea of sharing that resource. From that need, VQA was formally incorporated in January 2001.

Alliances can take on many forms (Arsenault 1998, 33-34). They can be as simple as a joint project. The Jesus film is one such example. Or, they can be as complex as a full merger of two organizations where the loss of control and identity is typically the reality for one of the merging organizations. In North America, it has often proven painful and difficult for ministries that do merge (see Hardy 2007 for an exception to this).
In the middle is something called a “management service organization” (Arsenault 1998, 50ff). This is the model VQA chose, and which God has graciously prospered. To preserve its ministry focus, VQA incorporated as a nonprofit organization and currently serves more than fifteen mission agencies and ministries representing some three thousand missionaries stationed around the world. We have seen the Lord develop five major areas of shared services. The organizations we serve participate in one or more of these services:

1. Shared financial services, including: accounting, payroll, donation processing, human resource administration and financial analysis.

2. Shared technology services, including: shared integrated enterprise software licenses, professional hosting, technical support staff and web portals for missionary access to critical, real-time information.

3. Shared advancement services, including: fundraising, planned giving, communications and mobilization.

4. Shared advisory services, including: governance and board development, strategic planning, organizational audits and process improvement.
These services are not just about saving money, although this is a significant impact of collaboration. One organization we serve has had a vibrant overseas ministry; however, six years ago it was on the verge of bankruptcy. After several failed attempts at merger with other ministries, in a bold decision the board of this organization adopted a restructuring proposal that included outsourcing its entire finance operation to VQA. The organization had incurred internal debt that had ballooned to $1.4 million, leaving less than thirty cents on the dollar available in missionary accounts. Today, nearly six years from the time of that decision, the internal debt has been eliminated and their field ministry continues to thrive. The VQA contribution to those savings has been approximately $400,000.

Through shared advisory services, one organization was able, through a process improvement exercise, to restructure three departments from a staff of forty-two down to twenty-four. All but two of the eighteen reassigned staff were able to be deployed to other critical areas of ministry need. Another organization that participates in shared financial and software services will have saved a projected $1.2 million over four years. These savings are available to be used for critical ministry areas of missionary preparation and care.

By sharing resources, missionaries are now able to affordably access in real-time important support account and donation information over the Internet. As a result, they are able to more effectively manage their relationships with donors and make timely and important ministry decisions based on current financial information.

This is also a story about making sure organizations stay out of trouble with government regulatory agencies. It is not unusual for our team to spend significant amounts of time making sure that an organization’s policies and procedures conform to applicable regulatory requirements. Shared services allow us to economically engage professionals who are experts in various fields such as: planned giving, technology, tax, employment and payroll law. You might say that one of the value-adds of shared services is keeping ministry out of jail!

But the story is not just about saving money or staying out of jail. It is also about missed opportunity. One critical ministry leader was able to return to Thailand because VQA took over several of the organization’s non-core administrative functions that required his presence in North America. Today, he is able to train nationals behind the bamboo curtain.

For the small mission organization, the task of setting up and maintaining operations to support field ministry can be overwhelming. The days of keeping the books on green ledger paper are gone. Donors expect to be able to give electronically. Missionaries want to be able to respond to the gifts of gracious donors in a timely fashion. The IRS expects the electronic transmission of records and funds. Sending funds overseas has grown in complexity as governments give greater scrutiny to where funds are coming from and how they are being used. Compliance, tax, payroll and employment laws continue to grow in complexity. What one sincere volunteer might have been able to accomplish in the past now requires a battery of experts in a variety of disciplines. This is where collaboration and a shared services environment provide significant advantage to the small agency.

Many stories exist where a friend of the ministry came to help, only to move on to other things. All the while, the ministry was left to figure out what was done and how they were going to move forward. This is not to minimize the sincerity or generosity with which these services are rendered; however, in today’s environment, good stewardship requires consistency and continuity. Large organizations can often afford this and are able to manage it. Smaller organizations often cannot afford it, or perhaps do not even plan for it, and they are still left having to manage it.

Mission organizations where many of the home office staff raise support face a crisis of a different sort. As older staff retire, these organizations find it more and more difficult to fill these positions with qualified individuals willing and able to raise support. Not only are they having difficulty filling the positions, but often those positions need to be staffed in such a way that accommodates time for visiting supporters and developing new support. (I speak from experience as one who has raised support for field ministry and who continues to do so for US-based ministry.) These challenges should not be minimized.

And what happens if the Lord blesses the smaller organization with significant growth? How is that organization going to accommodate and handle growth? Is another capital fundraising campaign the answer? In a shared services environment, the scale and the experts are already in place. How many computer and software conversions will an organization have to undergo as it migrates to each new level of needed capacity? What if an organization could start on software and systems that will take them well into the future? This can only happen in a shared services environment.

There is also the question of adopting new technology. The Internet revolution has raised expectations as never before. How does a small organization afford these new technologies? A recent example of this is found in Check 21 scanning and deposit technology. Even a $15 million-a-year mission agency would be reluctant to invest $100,000 in such technology. But, when this investment is shared across multiple organizations where the total monthly gift volume is more than twenty thousand gifts, this becomes a very reasonable investment. Even the smallest of organizations can take advantage of this.

Although a collaborative, shared services environment can provide all of this and more, the reality is that this costs money. Based on experience and benchmarking data, and depending on organizational size, an organization should anticipate spending three to six percent of its annual revenue on many of these back office services. As a former field missionary I understand the resistance to administrative assessments; however, having served on both sides, I now see the realities of what it takes to support ministry on the field. Missionaries, ministry leaders and boards must recognize that there are no shortcuts to meeting the complexities of this new world in which we live.

All of these issues amount to what I refer to as the “distraction factor.” These support service issues can be a significant distraction to ministry leaders who need and ought to be focusing on ministry strategies, not how they are going to support those strategies. Even larger organizations are spending far too much time and energy managing these issues. As in Acts 6, collaboration and sharing of resources frees everyone to accomplish what God has called them to do. In doing so, we, along with the apostles, will see the number of disciples increase around the world.

When my father and I joined hands to navigate the turbulent waters of the inlet, we were able to find the peaceful waters of the harbor. Going it alone could have resulted in our being thrown upon the rocks. In the same way, ministries and mission agencies need to join hands in ways that will enable them to navigate the turbulent times in which we currently live. Organizational transformation requires courage. The boards and executive leaders of ministry organizations need to be the ones leading the charge. If ministry is to adapt, as James Engel points out, it must be:

(1) sensitive to the initiative of God, (2) motivated by a vision of the reign of Christ as refracted through the multiple cultures of the world, (3) characterized by mutual sharing from multiple centers of influence and (4) committed to partnerships and collaboration. For this to happen among agencies, nothing short of top-down, bottom-up organizational transformation is necessary. (Engel and Dyrness 2000, 147)
Engel continues:

Our challenge now is to join hands with a growing Church worldwide, forsaking our past practices of independent initiative and full control of what happens….Are we willing to respond in creative and entrepreneurial ways to this period of turmoil resulting from shifting paradigms? The choice is yours! (Engel 1996, 133-134)

Arsenault, Jane. 1998. Forging Nonprofit Alliances. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Engel, James F. 1996. A Clouded Future? Milwaukee, Wis.: Christian Stewardship Association.

Engel, James F. and William A. Dyrness. 2000. Changing the Mind of Missions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Guthrie, Stan. 2000. Missions in the Third Millennium. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press.

Hardy, Steve. 2007. “Lessons from a Merger.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 43(4): 468-473.

Further Reading
Escobar, Samuel. 2003. The New Global Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Moll, Rob. 2006. “Missions Incredible.” Christianity Today. March, 28-34.
Peters, George W. 1972. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.


George Brown is senior vice-president of VisionQuest Alliance. Previously, he and his wife served as church planters with Greater Europe Mission (GEM) in France before George returned to the United States to assume a management role in administrative areas at GEM’s international headquarters.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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