Brian Becker is not your run-of-the-mill grant-maker. A vice president for ministry programs at Wheat Ridge Ministries (www.wheatridge.org), a Lutheran organization located just outside Chicago, he has, since 2006, overseen the grant programs and resources aimed at supporting budding health-related ministries. His background, however, is in neither medicine nor ministry. It’s in leadership consulting and fundraising, and this has prepared him well for many aspects of his work—evaluating congregations’ grant proposals, and analyzing their capacities to execute their plans. But what of knowledge about congregations and their ability to deliver health-care solutions? And the distinctive role that congregations play in this work? He certainly has learned a lot along the way about these questions, but a recent brush with a potentially life-altering—or life-ending—health emergency has added both a richness to his understanding and a greater urgency to see congregations realize their potential.
Congregational Resource Guide (CRG): Wheat Ridge has a “special interest in nurturing new health and human care ministries developed by local congregations and new faith-based organizations,” according to your website. Why should congregations be shouldering that responsibility?
Becker: Ideally, who is better positioned than the church to deliver this message? The 103rd Psalm gets at this: “Praise the LORD , my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases… “
There’s a tendency among many to read the phrase “heal all your diseases” as physical ailments. But that’s just a small portion of what healing entails. And it fails to recognize the agents of that healing—us.
For example, in a congregation I’m familiar with, I know of a mother who, overwhelmed by the addiction issues confronting her son, began meeting regularly with several members of the church. Normally, these meetings consist of her talking and the members simply listening to her concerns. Within the group, however, there were questions raised about whether the minister should be the one engaging this woman. My thought is that what transpired with this woman is what the church looks like; it is congregational life at work.
Think about a food bank. There are many excellent food banks operated by non-religious operations. Likewise, many congregations do a great job of stocking and operating food pantries. At the end of the day, the people who attend these get fed—and that’s a good and necessary thing.
But when people come through congregations, they are collecting from a community that, if it is healthy and functioning in a vital way, has healing in its DNA. The congregation’s act of providing food to the needy is not simply based in its desire to feed people, it’s based in our response to what God is doing for us and through us. Because of this, interactions and relationships develop that are about more than the next meal. They are about healing the whole person. And it is this type of healing that sets congregations apart from a non-faith-based nonprofit organization.
CRG: You’ve recently had a direct experience of a congregation’s ability to heal in times of crisis, when you suffered a stroke while at work. First, how are you? And second, how has that experience affected your interest and work in nurturing health ministries?
Becker: I’m fine, thank you. But it could have had a very different outcome.
I was surprised to learn that my congregation was prepared for my stroke, because my congregation’s health ministry cabinet has long had a plan in place for assisting families facing tragedy. About 600 worship on Sunday, so hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t fall ill, find themselves involved in an accident, or face some other health-related difficulty. The health ministry cabinet makes it its job to handle these situations.
In my case, I was immediately placed on a prayer list. The committee’s offer to bring meals to my home made it easier for my family to focus on my care in the hospital and at home, and other types of assistance were offered.
The event has definitely had an impact on me. Most important, it has sharpened me. Though we all are aware that we are mortal, a brush with something like this drives home the realization that none of us knows how much time he or she may have. Consequently, I’m more driven to get to the core of a matter quickly. I find myself asking questions such as: “What’s the point of this?” “Is this really getting at the heart of the matter?”
The Christian church has become very soft in learning how to talk seriously about difficult issues—whether it be finances, or abuse, or another difficult topic. The challenge we face is learning again how to be honest with people, without being so in-your-face that we wreck the relationship.
CRG: It is interesting that you noted your congregation’s health ministry cabinet. This is a growing movement that owes much to the organization and formalization of parish nursing, thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Health Ministries Association (hmassoc.org) and the International Parish Nursing Resource Center (parishnurses.org). You attend a fairly large Lutheran congregation—Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Illinois—with significant resources at its disposal, such as a paid parish nurse on-staff, which is unusual. Is this type of work limited simply to large congregations?
Becker: Not at all. In fact, there are many smaller congregations that do this very well. A good health ministry cabinet can be as simple as a couple of people dedicated to being aware of the events in their community, and organizing responses to it. It’s possible to do this for practically nothing.
For example, in Ohio a number of congregations have partnered with the Ohio Association of Free Clinics (OhioFreeClinics.org) to provide free health care to low-income citizens or those without health insurance. The association coordinates with local medical professionals to staff the clinics, while the congregations provide meeting space. It’s a win-win for the community.
CRG: Let’s turn to your work—reviewing, assessing, and making grants to cutting edge ministries—which provides significant insight into the health of American congregations and faith. That congregations and their memberships have steadily declined for some time will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with American religion. What may surprise people are the number and variety of ministries individuals are discovering and launching.Can you talk a bit about what you see on the cutting edge that inspires you?
Becker: Let me begin talking about the traits of those people who are leading the charge in developing new ministries that resonate with society and show signs of being the wave of the future. There are four I’ve seen repeatedly. To begin, there are a number of inspired, motivated leaders. These are individuals who almost always begin their work within an existing community. They do not necessarily, or even very often, have the expertise to build the ministry they’re working in. But they do have a strong heart for whatever need has grabbed them.
A second trait, which is not to be underestimated, is leaders’ creative use of assets. Some folks have an innate ability to leverage what they have around them to build their work—they can leverage people, assets, or whatever is at their disposal to get their vision off the ground.
And then there are those particularly adept at listening to their communities. These are people who are dialed in to what those in the communities around them are saying, what they’re asking for, and how to do ministry with their communities that resonates with those citizens.
Finally, some excel at demonstrating their desire to demonstrate the love of Christ through their service. I’ve heard this best described as “Jesus with skin on it.” These are people committed to the extension of the grace they have received from others.
The umbrella over all of this is the belief that their work and efforts are about life, not death. Not in any eternal sense, necessarily, but in a determination to not let death define who and what we are, as Gary Gunderson has stated in Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life.
Among the best example of this that I’ve encountered is Mary Kay Baum, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is suffering, along with her sisters, from a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. This horrific disease understandably set her and her sisters on a journey to learn what they could do to delay its onset. But at a certain point, they turned the issue from a problem to be solved to a ministry to help others facing the same issue. They began in their own congregation. Today, Mary and her sisters have launched a separate 501c3 nonprofit ministry—ForMemory(www.formemory.org)—through which they travel across the country showing congregations how to better understand the issues around early memory loss and what they can do to create an environment that assists those with cognitive issues.
Theirs hasn’t been an easy journey. At first, their efforts were dismissed because they weren’t physicians or cognitive psychologists. But through persistence, that tide has shifted. Today, they’re connected to the Alzheimer’s Association and numerous medical associations.
Also of note, all three are doing remarkably well, and doctors are watching to learn more about how their approach to the illness may be aiding their health.
Phil Zielke, like Mary Baum and her sisters, also began his ministry in a congregation. He was diagnosed with Stage 4B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2004. Given nine months to live, he beat the odds by following aggressive chemotherapy at the University of Chicago hospitals. He then beat it again in 2005 when the
During his treatment, he discovered that there were many support organizations for cancer patients, but precious few faith-based groups. So in response, he founded Phil’s Friends (philsfriends.org), which delivers care packages to hospital patients and their families, in addition to spiritual assistance. As the movement grew, he transitioned his ministry to a separate 501c3 nonprofit organization. Today, it serves over a 2,500people a year.
CRG: So you see congregations serving as “incubators,” if you will, of burgeoning ministries? Does this not have a negative impact on the local community, as these creative people leave for larger audiences?
Becker: I do see a lot of movement from congregation to separate 501c3. I don’t see the move harming the local congregations, however. Just the opposite. This is not a fixed-sum game. Yes, you may lose a strong leader as a new organization blossoms within your community and then moves on. But almost always this work will lead to new connections, new people, and growth in other areas.
You can count the apple seeds in an apple. What you can’t know is how many apple trees that might come from just one apple. And so we’re frequently amazed at how God blesses these new ministries that grow from just one inspired leader’s idea.
CRG: So is helping members to be innovative and grow their own nonprofits something congregations should be actively doing?
Becker: This is tricky. While I see many good organizations grow, I do see some failures. One of the biggest challenges I face is helping people understand when not to make the leap from local congregationto nonprofit. It’s a big, big step. Beginning in the 1990s, the formation rate of new nonprofits surged. That has begun to slow, I believe, thanks in part to the economy, and in part to the government bringing more scrutiny to bear on these organizations.
If individuals and congregations are not careful, they can quickly find their best intentions subverted by costs they never imagined—accounting and legal fees, and accountability work, for example.
Phil’s Friends is a great example. When Phil first came to us looking for support, he had a plan for growing from a Chicago-based organization to one with ten chapters in ten states within a year. We had to encourage him to slow down and realize that he simply wasn’t ready for that kind of leap. Today, they’re doing so well, in part, because they took a more strategic, and realistic, approach to growth.
CRG: In closing, could you talk about how all the innovations that you see make you feel about the future of the church in particular, and congregations in general?
Becker: Let me answer that two ways.
First, I am absolutely concerned about the future of the church, as well as the state of spirituality in this country. In the big picture, the church in America is in dire trouble. The boat is going down slowly. But the statistics make it clear that in a generation or so, if something doesn’t change, it’s going to go down quickly.
There is an unhealthy dose of fear and skepticism among too many congregations. Some have simply lost their way theologically, while others have become too overtaken by their emotions. Clearly, there are problems.
However, in general, I am optimistic. Not about the church as a whole, but about congregations individually. Where inspired leaders make creative use of their assets, good things happen. Where congregations display optimism and hope, care for each other, and manage their conflicts, vitality exists. And where there’s good stewardship, stability lives and communities thrive. Note that “stewardship” has nothing to do with size, but with how well a congregation handles what it has.
Peter Steinke once said that of the hundreds of congregations he’s consulted with over the years, 100 percent of those with unclear missions were struggling. In clarity, and in a desire to get to the heart of the matter, hope lives.