Sustaining Missions


It was a cri de coeur.

Rev. Margaret Mullin, executive director of Winnipeg Inner City Missions, posted a question to the Presbyterian Record’s Facebook page and to a page for friends of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. She wrote: “Please help a not-so-small, not-for-profit executive director by thinking through and responding to this post. I am open to any suggestions. How does someone who is responsible for fundraising, marketing, communication, finances, budgeting, program, and all the human and physical resources—not to mention being the lead pastor of an inner city church—work smartly towards finding sustainable funding?”

Rev. Paulette Brown, currently minister at St. Andrew’s, Humber Heights, Toronto, and previously executive director of Flemingdon Gateway Mission, sent Mullin a private message stating that there is no way she can manage all those things without killing herself.

Brown immediately followed with a more substantial response, opening by apologizing for her flippancy. Mullin had taken no offense. She admitted that her post had been a way to blow off steam.

Margaret Mullin has been at WICM’s tiller since its inception in 2003 following a merger of two existing ministries. The mission serves (mostly) Aboriginal people in Winnipeg. It provides immediate needs—a meal, a hot drink, guidance, some financial assistance; and also housing, worship, counselling.

The opening sentences from its website ( tell the story: “Michele was a street worker seven years ago. Now she has a diploma in Child and Youth Work from a community college and is working as the Child and Youth Program Co – coordinator at Winnipeg Inner City Missions. Michele’s three adult children have all returned to school. If Mom could do it, so can they.”

That the work done by Mullin and her team at the mission is good and worthy and that the mission is a jewel within the Presbyterian Church in Canada is not contestable. Congregations from across the country support the mission; as does the local presbytery and Canadian Ministries.

The same was true of Flemingdon Gateway Mission, which worked with inner city immigrant youth in a high density neighbourhood near the PCC’s national offices. (I was on the board of this mission.) Over the course of its seven years the work done by Paulette Brown and her team was remarkable. The mission closed last year due to financial stress.

But … money!

A few weeks after Margaret Mullin’s post, she met Paulette Brown and me on Skype.
Both of these women have been trained as spiritual leaders, but as executive directors they find they do not have the corporate skills required by an agency.

“These are not skills that you are taught as a minister,” says Brown. “These are skills that are found in the corporate world. It’s not exclusively about preaching the gospel and interpreting the gospel for our times. It’s about running something that is financially accountable and sustainable. Those are big words and fully loaded and a lot more than what I found I could offer.”

WICM needs a development officer. As soon as Mullin mentioned that, both Brown and I nodded our heads. All the differences between a mission and a church congregation, between a session and a board, are perfectly illustrated in the concept of a development officer.

The Christendom model of church grew into a self-sustaining budget model—build it, fill it, and the congregation will pay for it. Folks in the pews want to be good stewards; they are open to being asked to give more of their time and resources. They in turn ask for a certain amount of managerial skill but not a great deal.

A congregation has to live within its budget and that budget is raised within the congregation. It’s a tight internal cycle.

A mission often has no internal funding options. Its budget is raised from outside sources—from national offices, from presbytery, from Presbyterians Sharing, and increasingly from governments and foundations. Competing in the secular marketplace for money is a full-time job. The applications are complicated and require a great deal of information; the reporting (if you’re lucky enough to get some funding) is detailed. Everything requires attention and a mission needs a development officer to take on this load.

Paulette Brown spent an inordinate amount of time meeting with potential funders. Some funders had complicated protocols. One funder demanded that all applicants take a weeklong course on vision analysis. (If approved the funder was known to give $25,000 per annum to general funds, as opposed to specific programming, for multi-year agreements.) Brown and I took that course together (they wanted the executive director and a board member) and it was useful in part in helping us learn the language of the not-for-profit community and in focusing our vision statement. Flemingdon Mission wasn’t approved for funding in that cycle and that week took a toll on both of our day jobs.

So, Mullin needs a development officer, but that could add up to $50,000 (or more) to her budget—you can see the problem. You need to raise a substantial amount of cash to hire somebody who can then (a year later or perhaps more) help steady your cash flow, keep it in line with the cost of living and perhaps even develop new initiatives.

Foundations and governments are careful about working with faith-based organizations, which are seen in some circles as having particular social mandates. At the same time, faith-based missions have to be careful about the source of some foundational and government funding.

“We operate out of our gospel call,” Paulette Brown says. “When you are doing that as a mission you are walking a line. It is difficult to remain within the church and to galvanize the resources you need. You have to step out of the church, galvanize that support, and at the same time, you have to make certain that whatever is happening is something the church can accept.”

Lottery-generated funds, for example, a common resource for many secular agencies, are a no-go for many faith-based organizations. Mullin works with people who have turned to gambling to support their drug habits. She can’t as a minister of word and sacraments turn to monies raised from gambling.

And so it is with foundations as well; monies that come from the sale of liquor or tobacco perhaps. Finding a development officer, who is conversant with the non – profit jargon, and is sensitive to the mission’s gospel call and to the moral and ethical values of a church-related mission, is not easy. Even if a mission has the cash, finding that person is a task unto itself.

The Flemingdon Gateway Mission was born from the dissolved Gateway Community Church; the closing session of the church became the opening board of the mission. We were all church people with church thinking. We were prayer-filled and well-intentioned but ill-prepared for the realities ahead of us.

Mullin is happy with the board she has now but that took time and care. “I had to talk to the board and tell them we need some specific skills to sustain and maintain this mission. It took about five years to recruit good people onto the board and to find people who were outside of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. We even had to get our bylaws revised through presbytery.”

A session is not a board of directors. If a session is built with any care, and more and more are than before, it is still a reflection of the insular Christendom model. It does not seek to go outside the boundaries of the church, of the particular congregation. A board cannot afford such reserve.

At the very least a board needs financial acumen, community contacts, fundraising prowess and hopefully networks, knowledge of legalities affecting the particular mission, human resources and managerial experience, and a gospel call.

WICM had to ask presbytery to allow non-Presbyterians on its board. It now has six professionals, three of whom are Aboriginal, four of whom have no knowledge of church structures. Like many executive directors of faith-based missions, Margaret Mullin is the liaison between the religious organization and its branches, secular organizations and their mandates, and various individuals who are not conversant with one or the other.

A church sends one of its ministers, Paulette Brown explains, into a community with a sense of call to pursue a mission. But once in the field, that person is not so much a minister as they are an executive director. Brown had to learn this the hard way—neither she, nor presbytery, nor her board (a former session), nor the community she was serving at both the church or in Flemingdon Park, understood the awkwardness of wearing the different hats.

Margaret Mullin is Ojibwa-Irish and can walk the tightrope between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. Prior to this job she was a nursing administrator and can walk the tightrope between church and secular systems. But as Brown argues, she shouldn’t have to.

The problem is, if I could word it that way, there is no villain here. Instead there is an eager collection of good intentions working on different models.

Canadian Ministries provides seeding and operating funds to many missions, congregations, church plants, and various efforts across the country. It cannot be all for any one; nor can it hold one above the others. Plus, given the declining rolls anguished over daily across the Presbyterian Church, it dips from a smaller pool each year. Its committee struggles over the discernment they’re asked to make annually.

Presbyteries want to be helpful as well. East Toronto was continuously kind to Flemingdon Gateway Mission; as were many of the congregations in the presbytery. Generous donations arrived each year. But the same truths apply here as well—can’t cover all the costs and can’t do it all the time.

Foundations focus their givings, as they must, not only for their own wellbeing but for the demands from the Canada Revenue Agency. Through complicated applications and reporting methods they seek to find not just the agencies doing the work they will support, but also those which have sound leadership and strong financial sense. Often an applicant must provide several years of audited budgets and have their own corporate entity along with a tax designation.

Governments—ditto. Plus they often provide funding only for specific programs, so portions of salaries, rentals and other administrative costs, including that development officer, would not necessarily be covered by those grants. In my years of volunteering on secular community boards—social services, legal or health, etc.—I often heard stories of agencies that had healthy program funding but were struggling to meet administrative costs.

Funders are not just about supporting worthy causes—there are so many of them. Funders want to support a sustainable organization. So they seek audited budgets, community networks, and a complicated list of accountable results. They ask things that churches have not asked of themselves for a long time: Do you have the skills, the connections, the acumen and the talent to work this worthy cause for a long time?

As Christendom continues to dis-integrate (many have argued it is dead and gone, except the Church hasn’t noticed) and as congregations move awkwardly from the comfort of their pews into the streets, seeking their gospel call in the community at large, new ways of doing church will be tested, tried, failed, modified and tried again.

As new models of church are developed, new models for funding must be found as well. The fact is there is a lot of money out there, in foundations and governments, and maybe even with presbyteries and national offices. Getting at it, building the relationships to sustain it, finding trained people to manage it, is a huge challenge facing the church.

A mission or agency needs to have a track record to access secular funds. And this is where church partnerships can really help. Within the boundaries of every presbytery are people who have the skills to meet these challenges. Those people don’t want to sit on committees, for if they did we’d know of them already. No, they first must be found and then asked to help in ways which may be foreign to our traditions.

Sessions have to be trained to be boards; teaching and ruling elders have to be trained to be executive directors and leaders; promoters of worthy causes have to be trained to complete funding proposals, to develop community networks. Presbyteries and the national offices can help in providing this training. We have to be open to learning—this may require restructuring our own institution. Inch by inch.

Think of Michele, the woman mentioned on WICM’s website. As Margaret Mullin explains, those few lines naming a transformation took many years. The blessed Michele had to be embraced and comforted, her lifetime of anxieties had to be eased. This required several people holding her hand over a long period of time; and then gently nudging her towards an education that would change her life, and make the lives of others better.

That costs money. And Michele is worth it.

Near the end of the Flemingdon Gateway Mission, when the writing on the wall was carved in stone, many members of the community gave their testimonials to the board and to the presbytery. Many were new immigrants who praised the mission for helping ease their entry into their adoptive country. One mother said her pre – teen daughter was headed into a world of gangs and drugs before the mission redirected her. Many, many powerful testimonies.

But … money.

But money, only because all of us decision makers were engaged in thinking in terms of the self – sustaining congregational model. Reflecting back on those meetings I realize there was a clash of cultures at play. Flemingdon Gateway Mission (its common name, though it changed to Flemingdon Community Mission in the last year) was formed as a mission and judged as a congregation; it died in the divide between those two models.

Mullin has been able to stretch herself, along with the board and WICM, over that chasm for many years, but as Brown warned her, it’s not emotionally or physically sustainable. And she’s not the only executive director within the church holding it all together. They need to be brought together into a room, feted and then heard. They already know what church will look like a generation from now.


About Andrew Faiz

Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record's senior editor.