At the Alban Institute Consultation with Foundation Executives, held in March 2002 at the Bolger Center in Potomac, Maryland, the Institute’s vice president for programs, Gil Rendle, offered the following comments on the “potential and challenge” of building better working relationships between foundations and congregations.

Are Congregations Suitable Partners?
The conversation up to this point has been raising the question of whether the congregation is the right place for foundations to do their work. In other words, foundations are wondering whether congregations are effective and efficient enough partners to help them meet their goals. Much of the conversation has focused on disappointment with congregations and skepticism about their being equal to the task. There is a basis in reality for this attitude. It is born of the foundations’ experience.

However, the question also needs to be looked at from the other side. A number of years ago, Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV, offered his reflections about Generation X. Commonly, Generation X is described as having questionable values and an inadequate work ethic. However, from Freston’s perspective and that of a young organization like MTV, those same values and work ethic can be played out in positive ways. For example, while others disparage GenXers for not leaving home, Freston sees them demonstrating high trust in and regard for family—a value that many of their baby-boomer parents did not hold. Different interpretations are driven by different perspectives.

What has been missing in our conversation is an understanding of the relationship between foundations and congregations from the congregation’s point of view. Do foundations understand congregations enough to have the right relationship with them?

Paying Attention to the Spaces in Between
Musicians will sometimes comment that the best music is played when the musician pays attention to the spaces in between the notes. That is where music is given its spirit and emotion; without attention to those spaces a performance only demonstrates mastery of technique. The question is whether or not we need to pay attention to the creative space between foundations and congregations. This gives us the opportunity to look at the relationship not just from the side of the foundation, which has expectations of how the congregation may rise to meet its challenges, nor only from the congregation’s side, where there is an expectation that foundations will accept their levels of performance and less than adequate business practices.

I would like to identify several dynamics that get lived out in the space between the foundation and the congregation.

In part of the space between the foundation and the congregation, a cultural clash is lived out in which the two bodies not only do not share the same language or expectations, but in fact tend to confuse and confound the other by their language, expectations, and behaviors.

Much of foundation leaders’ language focuses on plans, business models, overhead, organizational stability, development of capacity to move beyond the grant, and measurable outcomes. These concepts are, in fact, contrary to congregational life. These are new terms and new requirements for most clergy, and not easily accessible to them organizationally. One of the comments in our conversation with foundation executives was that laity who come to a congregation quite often “leave their brains behind.” In other words, some of the people who have the best business sense and are most able to be helpful at developing a business plan for a congregation’s ministries or programs do not step forward with that skill. While I also appreciate foundations’ frustration when some of the gifts available to the congregation are not used, we need to remember that this is not the essential reason most lay people go to their congregations. To participate in the life of a congregation only to be asked to do business planning and market research is as frustrating to a business-trained member of a congregation as it is for a teacher to be asked only to teach Sunday school for 20 years.

One of the primary places in which I experienced this culture clash was on the board of directors of a construction company that had a mission to do construction for congregations. It was a remarkable idea, in which a denomination started a company that would live in the middle, between the construction industry and the congregation. Having someone available to interpret the congregation to the architects and contractors allowed for better planning and the saving of money. Having someone interpret architects and contractors to the congregation was equally important, since it could reduce confusion and once again save money.

The company lasted about four years. The primary reason for closing it was our discovery of how difficult it was to live in between two conflicting cultures. The construction industry worked primarily by contract and confrontation. People quickly agreed on what they were going to do and if they didn’t do it they would argue about it. Congregations, on the other hand, operated with very different standards, in which decisions were made by consensus and by committee. That meant that when there was a disagreement no one moved ahead until it could be worked out. Congregations were uncomfortable with any kind of confrontation, while contractors were frustrated that congregational committees could not make a decision and move ahead. While our company had a very good staff person who was spiritually sensitive, he clearly came out of the construction industry. We finally lost the business because of the difficulty of trying to breach the two cultures, which eventually seemed like an impossible task.

Similarly, I have been instructed by our exploration of the contradictory ways in which foundations and congregations use language and hold assumptions. One of the statements made here was that congregations are used to donations, not grants. I think that is remarkably accurate. Similarly, we talked about the fact that congregations think more in terms of charity than justice. These differences in language and ideas carry with them differences in assumptions and behavior. For instance, in business culture decisions are based on information and process, such as financials and market analysis. But within congregational culture, decisions are based on consensus, relationship, and passion. In fact, it is not uncommon for congregational leaders to point to financial or other kinds of information and then plead, often successfully, for a program to be taken on in spite of that information.

The second issue characterizing the space between foundations and congregations has to do with the jurisdictions congregations and clergy have within the larger community. Historically, these groups have been at the center of responsibility for social problems. In an earlier day, communities turned to their clergy and congregations for justice, help with health issues, or for any of a host of other social problems. However, over time this jurisdiction has eroded or been taken away. For example, churches that founded colleges and hospitals once had denominational or congregational representatives sitting on their boards. But as the complexity of institutional life increased, clergy’s roles in those very institutions that they helped to found were diminished and were picked up by other professional jurisdictions. Law, social services, community development, and medicine all have a voice in many of the issues that once belonged solely to congregations and clergy.

In our own time, many congregations and their leaders have concluded that the only jurisdiction left to them is within their own membership. They have not been encouraged, and in fact
have not been allowed, to raise their voice effectively outside of the membership of those people who voluntarily step within the boundaries of their authority.

One of the questions that has been raised by our conversation here is whether or not foundations are inviting congregations back into the arena of claiming public jurisdiction of issues that go beyond the life and walls of the local congregation. Increasingly, there are both congregations and leaders who are searching for this role. But we need to ask how this invitation and response is best managed. And we need to look at the fact that congregations only tend to be invited back into the public arena subject to the requirements and practices of business professions or governmental guidelines.

Issue Orientation
Another space between the foundation and the congregation has to do with the form of the mission of each of those organizations. Foundations seem to have issue-centered missions. As I’ve listened to people here talk about the mission that drives their foundation, it is often expressed in terms of health, social justice, or community development. These issues give clarity to the area in which the foundation is to work.

In contrast, congregations tend to have person-centered missions. They increasingly see themselves as called to provide spiritual discipline and development, salvation, and personal support to individuals. “Charity” is not meant to be less than social justice. It simply offers individuals opportunities to engage in personal responsibility and thanks as a way of responding to greater community need.

From my experience as a consultant to congregations, my assumption is that a focus on issue-centered missions is characteristic of a subgroup of congregations rather than all of them. I learned from the research of Mark Chavez and the National Congregations Study that the percentage of congregations that have been involved in intentional mission (structuring or staffing themselves to reach out beyond their own membership) has been essentially unchanged over the last 100 years. This suggests that those congregations that adopt the issue-centered missions more compatible with foundations do so out of a sense of their own identity and call and not because the level of social need has changed within the greater culture.

My experience is also that those congregations that live in close proximity to uncomfortable and threatening issues are the ones that most easily focus on issue-centered missions. This is particularly true in my experience with urban and African American congregations. The fact that these congregations are often the ones most willing to learn how to manage relationships with foundations suggests that the relationship between the foundation and the congregation is an outgrowth of a pressing environment that makes some congregations learn new languages and ways as a mode of creative adaptability.

The third subgroup of congregations that can come closest to an issue-centered mission or practice are large congregations that have both the resources and the opportunity to specialize. The larger the congregation, the easier it is for it to claim a clear identity and a focused mission, if not within the whole congregation then at least within some part of it.

Internal Dynamics of Congregations
As foundations look to congregations as potential partners in their mission, the nature of ministry in contemporary congregations needs to be taken into consideration. Congregations today are dealing with the challenge of providing ministry to people who come with clear spiritual needs and questions. However, they also come with a very shallow theological language and a very deep preferential language. While these people may not have a language to express their own personal, spiritual, or developmental questions, they certainly have a language that is able to express what they like and what they don’t like as they encounter the congregation. This means that leaders of congregations have to be much more attentive and sensitive to the preferences of their membership. And they must do this within one of the few counter-cultural institutions that invite people into a common spiritual community across all of the differences our culture likes us to pay attention to. While other institutions invite us to be comfortable with those who are most like us, congregations ask people to join together across class, race, and certainly across lifestyles.

The primary effect on spiritual leaders is pressure to pay attention internally to the life of the congregation. The need for them to be able to build consensus (the primary tool of community development and decision-making within a congregation) in such an environment of preferences and differences leaves less time, energy, and attention for congregations and their leaders to look out into the larger community at issues of shared and public need. There is a question therefore of the energy available for a shared focus on the issues addressed by foundations.

The space that exists between foundations and congregations suggests that we have to address new questions:

  • How do foundations and congregations learn to understand each other in descriptive (not evaluative) ways?
  • What is a reasonable relationship between foundations and congregations that have overlapping, but not congruent, missions?
  • In this conversation in the middle space, do foundations have a voice in reshaping congregations by giving them an entrée into the larger community?

Concluding Note
I appreciated and enjoyed hearing my colleague John Wimmer once again describe the work of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations (ICC). However, listening to his description in this gathering with foundation officers has made me hear new things. At one time I may have thought about the ICC as being a grant-funder because of the work they do, particularly around computer grants.

However, the conversation today has helped me to more appropriately identify the funder as Lilly Endowment Inc. and the recipient as the local congregation. This means that the ICC lives in the space between the grantor and the grantee. What was interesting about John’s description was the way he was able to talk about the ICC as the entity that walks alongside the local congregation, preparing them to deal with the grant that is being made by the grantor. The ICC helps the local congregation identify the deeper issues of change they are trying to address and then helps them to discover appropriate ways to structure and use the resources they are receiving. Of course, the ICC’s program of computer grants leaves the question of whether or not the ICC focuses more on congregational development and the internal needs of the congregation while still not addressing the mission of foundations within the greater community. Nonetheless, the example of the ICC helps frame the question about what is needed to bridge the space between the foundation and the congregation.