Phil Miglioratti Interviewed Tony Danhelka and Jay Curtis, Two CEOs Who Reimagined The Same Ministry
PHIL >>> Today's culture is changing rapidly and many of the changes are radical ("from the root") in how we think about our institutions and guiding ideologies. These changes are impacting education, the workplace, social relationships, and how we function in community.
TONY >>> Yes, Change is inevitable. We are creatures of habit and most of us resist change. Yet change is not new, ‘maybe’ more rapid and radical. My experience over 45 years in Church and Para-Church leadership is wakeup and embrace change. Internet, Wifi, Social Media, Smart Phones, iPads, laptops have accelerated how fast we can learn and communicate.
JAY >>> There is no question that we are living in a time of unprecedented social change. 30 years ago American culture still generally embraced “traditional (Biblical) values.” Even those who wouldn’t claim to have a Christian faith, still largely supported basic Christian values. Today, that has changed radically, to the point that even the church in many instances has lost a solid commitment to Biblical truth.
As a ministry committed to the Gospel we have to be aware of the temptation to “drift” from our commitment to the truth of scripture. As a practical matter, in the past few years we have found it necessary to bring more complete definition to our Statement of Faith and beliefs as an organization. We’ve also had to be more intentional to make sure that our Board and staff are in agreement on the issues of faith that are being tested. These are just some of the steps that we are taking to guard our hearts and stay true to God’s calling in our mission.
Loving God. Changing Lives
The master objective of Fox Valley Christian Action is to partner with the local Church in discipling people in the under-resourced communities of the Fox River Valley into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
PHIL >>> Tony, you birthed a grander vision for Riverwoods Christian Center when you became CEO. What prompted you to lead with a reconceived vision?
TONY >>> Grander and reconceived visions are in my DNA. We came to start a new ministry in 1976. The former board leadership were good, sacrificial, and God-fearing men that survived the Depression and WWII. I came along as a young early ‘Boomer’ with new paradigms and visions of what transformational ministry could look like. They had an 85 acre almost condemned facility that was built in the 1930’s. The then board believed it to be a Camp and the one staff member back then had camp money in one pocket and his personal money in the other pocket. It took me three months to ‘Change’ the boards vision from ‘Camp’ to a training ‘Center’ that could work beyond the camp. Over the years we birth grander visions to adapt to the times and best practices. We went from a Camp with a heart for the Poor, to a Camp that went home with the Poor, to a ministry that works in Economically Stressed neighborhoods that happens to have a 85 acre training Center with 800 yards of River frontage. Our first years budget was $30,000. With the new vision we raised $90,000 but I spent $110,000. In fact the former Camp owners told me that from 1935 to 1976 there total income, each year added to the next, did not total $110,000. I was a Co-founder with two other men, a dynamic businessman and a Pastoral mentor to me. I was the full-time developer and Executive Director with a CEO mentality from the beginning. There were many times over the first 20 years that I walked into Board meetings not knowing if I would have a job at the end of the meeting. The Good Lord kept prompting me to raise the bar and step out in faith. It took courage and much much patience to keep adapting to change, but God rewarded us greatly over the years.
PHIL >>> Jay, after years of serving on Tony's staff, he handed you the baton. What was the process of reshaping the ministry into Fox Valley Christian Action?
JAY >>> One of the things that I celebrate, and I believe is true evidence of the Lord’s leading in our ministry, is that the mission we operate today is really the fulfillment of everything that was envisioned 45 years ago when Tony and others founded the ministry. Programs, activities, and how we go about things may change as time moves forward, but the foundational commitments have stayed the same: 1) sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ; 2) serving people in low-income communities; 3) a commitment to long-term relational ministry. These have remained unchanged.
It is the practice of our ministry to maintain a 1-year, 5-year and 20-year plan which are annually updated and approved by our Board. The introduction to our current 5-year plan contains a small excerpt which was actually scanned and inserted from a strategic plan document which Tony presented to the Board in 1977. This excerpt was specially inserted to recognize that the primary vision and values of FVCA in 2022 are still the same as they were in 1977. That’s not to say that we don’t do new things. The actual day-to-day ministry may look very different than it did in 1977, but the same values and mission that God established in 1977 still exist today and I believe that is great evidence of God’s leadership in the ministry!
PHIL >>> What did you learn about reimagining ministry? Rethinking prevailing perspectives? Reassessing foundational assumptions? Recalibrating how to best serve the ministry's mission?
TONY >>> I came to learn over and over that reimagining ministry is all about relationships. Genuine heartfelt relationships with the people we served and enabled, board members, donors, staff, volunteers, vendors and more than them all, The Lord God Almighty and his son Jesus Christ via his Holy Spirit. I learned and re-learned that it takes face to face time to hear the hearts of those involved in the vision and mission’s future. I learned that I had to resist getting caught up in the day-to-day demands and fires. I learned I had to delegate and ‘selectively neglect’ certain priorities to have time with God and the people of the ministry. It wasn’t easy nor free of critics. I needed to lead by teaching the team how to prepare or recalibrate to climb the next mountain to which I introduce them.
JAY >>> Honestly, this is really challenging. There are lots of factors that pull ministry in different directions. Board and staff have slightly different visions, needs in our communities are always far greater than our apparent resources, funding sources often have specific ideas of how they want their funding to accomplish their priorities. We also operate in a ministry that is multi-cultural, multi-denominational, and multi-generational. So the challenge is, how do we hear God’s voice? When do we really need to make changes in how we do things versus when do we need to “hold fast” to projects and functions that rarely progress as fast as we want?
I have no easy answers here, but I have a couple of principles that I would suggest:
1) Stay prayerful. Constantly submit the organization, plans, ideas, “what-ifs” to the Lord and keep seeking to see where He is working, what doors is He opening?
2) Hold plans loosely. I am constantly learning that I need to hold plans loosely. I can try so hard to force things, whether it’s raising funds, building a new part of our facility or hiring a new staff member. I am constantly reminded that I need to be diligent and take proactive steps in all of these things, but I can’t control them.
3) Listen to others. I interact with a lot of people, staff, donors, volunteers, community partners, pastors, etc. I try to listen to see what “common themes” am I hearing among these different groups? There will always be far more ideas and opinions than we can possibly respond to. But it really gets my attention when 3 different people tell me the same thing in a short period of time, that’s usually a sign to me that the Lord is speaking through them and I want to hear how He’s leading.
PHIL >>> How did you communicate a reimagined approach to ministry with your governing leadership team?
TONY >>> We consistently had 8 to 12 men and women board members. They mostly were people who gave over a $1000 a year to the ministry and volunteered with at least one fund raising project each year prior to be asked to serve on the board. It was our aim that 75% were business owners and CEO’s or people in high corporate positions. Then 25% were specialty people like pastors, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. They were all active Christians. We learned that the business owners and CEO’s were the visionaries and risk-takers that knew how to work with a CEO and not get caught up in the day-to-day operations. The 25% helped with specialty care and they would cautiously check-balance the visionaries with the realities of budgets and Goals. We learned that when we had this balance on the board that the communication to reimagine the future was greatly enhanced and strategic. They would challenge us at times to look for new ways to adapt to the changing times. Reimagining Risk taking is challenging when you have staff members’ salaries and family responsibilities to meet.
JAY >>> I think that one of my biggest challenges in this area was learning to say “no.” No, we can’t do that; no, we don’t have the resources to do that; no, that’s not what we’re called to do. A few years ago we faced a “mission crisis” in our ministry. It was a really painful experience and one where I made many mistakes. We were trying to move some things forward in our community ministry, but there were very different ideas of what that looked like. It was painful and we lost some good people during that time. As we emerged from that, one of the things that I recognized was that we (and I, as the CEO) were saying “Yes” to too many things. They were all good things, and for the most part even fit within our mission. The problem was that we were spread way too thin and we couldn’t get momentum in anything we were doing. Everyone was disappointed and everyone was frustrated. (Did I mention that it was really painful?)
One of the ways that God brought us through that time was refocusing on some core programs and eliminating lots of other things that we had been trying to do. Eventually this led to some crucial conversations with our Board to more specifically define what we are called to do and what we are not called to do. It was then helpful to go back to our staff to say, this is what the Board has affirmed as our focus and this is where we will put our attention and resources.
I think this is also where the 5-year and 20-year plans bring value. It’s sometimes hard to have strategic discussion when the time horizon is too close because we don’t think of positions, functions, and strategies; we get too distracted thinking about specific people, programs, and functions as they are right now. When we push out the time horizon to 5 years and 20 years, we aren’t hindered by our current circumstances, but we have the freedom to think clearly about how this should really work if we aren’t “bound” to today’s constraints. I find that having these plans and discussions are really helpful.
PHIL >>> How did you implement a revised approach with your ministry team staff?
TONY >>> Let’s face it staff can make or break a ministry. Each ministry has three basic needs… program, facility, and staff. One of these 3 make up 70% of the success of a ministry. Yes…Staff. When we hired a highly trained experienced staffer for a certain position with a clear position description, they would put their creativity to work within those boundaries. However, change happens over time. New mountains to climb that they were not originally signed up to climb. Position descriptions are re-written and not everyone can change at the same pace. Taking time for Relationship, listening Relationship, affirming Relationship and lots of early communication over time allowed. Changing our ministries approach to how we need to be doing things was always difficult for me. No one likes change.
JAY >>> I find this to be really challenging. I know that one of my key roles is to constantly reinforce “the vision” with our Board, staff, donors, volunteers, etc. When it comes to our staff, I struggle because I feel like I am being repetitive or telling them things they already know. But I continue to learn and re-learn that communicating mission and vision is every bit as important with our staff as it is with our other stakeholders. I’ve also learned that when we’re making changes, we need to constantly assure our staff that we’re changing our methods (how we do things) not our mission. We’re not changing who we serve or our commitment to the Gospel, but we may definitely need to re-think how programs operate, what staff structures are needed or how we engage volunteers in new ways. These are things that we need to consistently be evaluating and thinking about how we can be more effective and how we can eliminate distractions or functions that consume a disproportionate level of resources.
And, we need to be prayerful, sensitive, and gracious as we implement changes. This is sometimes hard for me because I often feel the need for changes to take place much faster than they are happening, but that is almost always a mistake!
PHIL >>> What can we learn from your mistakes? Resistance you encountered? How you communicated to your supporters?
TONY >>> I made mistakes. The saying, “God did not call us to be successful, but faithful” rang all to true and often for me. We are going to strike out or we are not risking enough. My critics often said I was too patient with staff’s resistance. To be honest, there were 7 staff that one by one over the years were not able to change with us. I agonized and prayed earnestly on how to bring them along into the suggested new ways to minister. After 3 clearly defined in writing and face-to-face communications I eventually encouraged them to move on. It was never easy for me or them. Most of them did find new positions elsewhere and were happier in their new roles. Regarding mistakes made with supporters, there were plenty.
However, I am convinced that most of them were because I did not invest in the relationship. Some of them were very private or too busy for even basic friendships, but most were well-meaning and engaged. They wanted to know that their donations of finances and talent made a difference. That takes relational time.
JAY >>> I’ve already touched on some of my mistakes. The greatest resistance comes when people don’t understand WHY we’re changing things. When we don’t understand the “why” behind what we do, that’s when people tend to feel anxious, defensive, etc. One of the best things we can do, is keep going back to why we do what we do. We actually have a practice of printing our Master Objective at the top of our important documents like our 1-year goals and objectives, our 5-year and 20-year plans, and our Board agendas. This means that every time we look at one of these documents, we’re reminded that our ultimate goal is for the families that we are called to serve to be growing in a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
PHIL >>> What more can you tell us . . .
TONY >>> Two Points:
- One of the top ten lessons I learned over 45 years of organizational and cultural changes, was to keep the main thing the main thing. It was my job as the CEO to develop a mission statement that was approved by board and staff. Then to constantly remind the board and staff about that mission statement. Keep it clear and short. Make it a statement everyone can and will memorize. In 1982 (Six years after our founding) we hired a fund-raising consultant to help us with a special building project. He went out and met individually with each board member, staff member and 15 major donors. A few weeks later he came back to a joint board and staff meeting and reported his findings. He met privately face-to-face with 31 people. He discovered that there were over 25 different primary Mission Statements of our organization. He helped us forge a one paragraph mission statement. Half of the board and a few staff resigned not out of criticism or malice, but because they realized that they were not interested in the agreed direction of the ministry. Over time we rebuilt the board and staff with a unified Mission Statement that was more than words on a piece of paper. When times of change and reimagining came we always look at it through the lens of the Mission Statement.
- By-the-way… It is my opinion that FVCA’s greatest change and reimagined experience was in our Succession in ‘2011. As the primary Founder and Developer of Riverwoods/ FVCA I was able to build friendships with other Founders of other minsitries. Many of these dear friends ended poorly by retiring too old or retiring and still influencing the ministry from the background. Succession of the Founder is very delicate. FVCA is primarily donation funded and many of these donors had personal relationships with me. Jay was on our staff in various leadership positions for 20 years. He is 24 years my junior. He was amazingly patient as we appropriately visited each of the many primary donors. Jay is a Founders dream. He is a responsible self-starter leader, Faith risk-taker, dynamic Christian, and yet patient with me. We have prayed together every Thursday morning at 8AM for more that 20 years. When I retired after 35 years I resigned from the staff and board and moved to Tennessee for 10 years to give him space. The Jay, the board and staff did a great job at communicating to our donor base, volunteers, and community friends we serve that Jay is now in charge. Succession worked for us. Thank You Jesus!
JAY >>> I have found that our supporters are more forgiving and more gracious about change, or redirection when we share the “why.” When we share why we’re doing things differently or restructuring something, when we share the reasons behind it, they are very supportive. They want to know that we’re thinking about what we’re doing and why we’re making the changes and then they are quick to get behind it.
PHIL >>> Please write a prayer Christian leaders can make their own as they strive to lead in their place of service by being "transformed by the renewing of their mind."
TONY >>> Father God, you have called me into leadership ministry.
I am humbled by such a high calling. Grant me the passion to hear your voice and the courage to obey. Help me to better sense when you are motivating us to re-imagine in a new direction or better way to do our mission. Allow me to develop appropriate and heartfelt relationships with the people we serve, board members, staff, volunteers, and vendors. Teach me to listen with new understanding. May I learn each day how to ‘selectively neglect’ that which is less important and focus on the most meaningful. May the Holy Spirit continually flow from me even when I am not aware of his presences. I worship you in Jesus’ name. Amen
JAY >>> Lord Jesus you are the Good Sheppard!
You are the one who leads us, heals us, redeems us, and transforms our hearts and minds. Jesus, we confess that in ministry leadership, far too often our hearts and minds get distracted with budgets, fundraising, staff issues, and meeting others expectations. Jesus, bring our hearts and focus back to you. Show us again what it means to trust you and to see you transforming hearts and lives through the work of your Holy Spirit. Jesus, we pray that you will move in greater power and authority to transform lives, and for your Kingdom to break through in all of the places that you have called us to serve today. And Jesus, we trust You with the outcomes. We love you and we praise you- Amen!