The Local Church and Non-Profits
Over the years we have started or spun off half a dozen non-profits from our church. The first two did not remain tied to the church. They certainly went on to do good work but in my opinion there were personal and ideological differences about them that affected our ability to support them. I think they would have been more effective if they had stayed connected with the church. Along the way we have come to some conclusions about how non-profits should relate to the local church. Here in Chattanooga we have a very large non-profit community. There must be hundreds of them. Most of them depend on raising money to survive, as do our own non-profits. We decided after the first two experiences to try and keep a church connection with each non-profit that we started. Let me tell you how we stay connected and then let me tell you why. When we establish a non-profit we ask that the by laws or charter spell out that at least 51 percent of the Board Members be members of New City Fellowship. The Elders of the church approve the nominated list of these members, as well as the other Board member names that are submitted. We encourage the Director to have a close relationship with the pastor and to meet with him on some regular basis for consultation. We don’t want the pastor to serve on any of the boards, we don’t want the Elders to do any management of the organization. The non-profit is a legally separate organization. We want the church to make a substantial contribution to each of the non-profits, and some get more than others due to their own history and relationships with the church. Legal connection will not guarantee influence, but money sure helps. We ask that the other Board Members be Christians, a member of some Evangelical church, and hopefully indigenous to the neighborhood. Some of our boards seek members who have some vocational connection, a gift mix that will help them, and the commitment and energy to help them both govern and raise money. As with all boards our non-profits have gone up or down depending on the faithfulness, industry, ingenuity, and unity of their boards. The skill of the director, his or her integrity, their passion and pursuit of support, and their ability to grow in organization excellence all play a factor in whether or not the organization is successful. Some directors were just not fitted for the role, some did not stay long enough to really learn their part, and some were lazy. Others were well fitted and worked hard, and when that happens it is exciting to watch. We sought to keep the non-profits connected to the church because we learned something from our first two experiences. We learned that there is ideological drift when it is a self-perpetuating board. We learned that raising money concerns affect how an organization stays, or does not stay, true to its purpose. We learned that personalities of directors can be problematical, and that integrity can be compromised. We learned that having a group of Elders available to handle disputes between a director and his board can be helpful. We learned that having someone to which to make an appeal can be helpful. We learned that sometimes organizations need an emergency bail out to survive. We learned that the local church is a grass roots organization and that indigenous control is more important than money connections. Why would we ever ask anyone else to help support such non-profits if they are connected to the church? We ask anyone and everyone to support them, without apology, because all of the non-profits we have started exist to help people in the neighborhood, city, and world and not the members of our own church. None of them were started or are maintained because they form an essential service to our church members but to the poor, the unreached, the marginalized in the broader community. We know that many churches appeal to the outside community to help build their buildings or help them with their budget. We see nothing essentially wrong with that, and many benefactors have given to churches that they did not attend or were not members of, but our non-profits do not exist to help New City Fellowship. Do we ever refer the clients or participants to New City for worship or church services? Of course we do, but not exclusively, and many or most of the folks who use these non-profits never attend New City. We encourage all the folks to get into a church, and if one is nearby them or they have a relationship with that church we encourage their participation. Many faith based non-profits say they do that, although we don’t see much fruit from such claims. We never withhold services from the people our non-profits help due to their attendance at our church, the services are given to all without discrimination. Many Christians are not used to a church that actually helps people outside of itself except by sending mission money or teams, we do it by creating entities that are needed and missing from the community, for the benefit of the community and the glory of God. We happen to have a view that churches need to be a city set on a hill that collectively does good works in their community so that people will give glory to God. In more affluent communities such services as we provide are not necessarily needed, but they are needed among the poor. They also need to be directed by people who have a vested interest in that community. We don’t want the government, foundations, the business community, or any outside group to have veto power over the direction and course of these non-profits. We certainly appreciate their help when they can give it as true help, as a servant, and not an outside dictator. New City has sought to share the ownership of its non-profits by asking the Presbytery to license and support them. The Tennessee Valley Presbytery has a procedure for licensing mercy ministries and adding them to the mercy budget. We have sought to have Board Members from other churches, to include non Presbyterian congregations. The non-profits have hired staff from other churches as well. There is nothing inherently anti-Biblical for a faith based non-profit to have no connection to a local church. It does however foster a climate of competition with local churches, so that some people never enter a church or become part of it but only experience ministry from and through a non-profit or para-church organization. This is not Biblical discipleship. There are even those who think the only effective ministry is from a non-profit. We certainly don’t claim our non-profits to be perfect, and in fact have suffered from many struggles including poor management, ineffective fund raising, and lack of training. Yet we think our ministries are some of the best in the city for really reaching people who have need, and giving them an organic connection to the only Biblical organization mentioned in the Bible, and that is the church, the Bride of Christ.