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10 lessons I’ve learned in leading a nonprofit to serve orphans, widows, and vulnerable communities

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November 4, 2021

In December, 127 Worldwide will celebrate a decade of ministry. We exist to connect and equip the global body of Christ to restore hope to orphans, widows, and vulnerable communities. And we work with Christians and churches in the West and with respected, driven, and visionary local leaders in Kenya, Uganda, and Guatemala who are taking care of vulnerable people in their communities. 

God has exceeded every expectation I had for starting a nonprofit organization in 2011. This was certainly not my plan in life. I used to think this was a unique element of my story, but does anyone’s life actually turn out exactly the way that they plan? The last 10 years have been full of  the hardest and simultaneously most rewarding adventures that God has ever invited me to join. 

Recently, someone on our team suggested that I reflect on 10 lessons that God has taught me during 10 years of leading our organization. This list is not exhaustive, but I hope it will be encouraging and useful to you as you seek to live out true religion in the various ways God has called you (James 1:27). 

1. Trust that God will open and shut appropriate doors

As an executive director of a nonprofit organization, so many decisions wait for your input. Many times I have prayed, “God, you know me, and you know where I most need help. Please make it obvious to me what you’d have me do.” I rely on the faithfulness that God has demonstrated in the past to grow my trust that he will open and shut the correct doors in his perfect timing. I have learned to walk through open doors and not to push through shut doors. Sometimes this has not been easy to learn, but my confidence in God’s faithfulness has definitely grown in the last 3,650 days.

2. Self-awareness is key and will keep you humble. 

Vulnerability is somewhat tied to this lesson, too. I have degrees in counseling and psychology, so I have always enjoyed personality inventories to learn more about myself. I’ve learned that you have to be honest with yourself and your team as you consider what is the best use of the time you devote to your work. I know where I am strong, and (just as importantly) I know where I am weak. I make it a goal to spend 80% of my time working in areas where I am the best qualified person on staff to do the task. I want to invest my time wisely in things no one else can do as well. Likewise, I am very aware of the areas where I am not the best person for the job. 

3. Surround yourself with people who are gifted in your areas of weakness. 

This was a lesson that my dad taught me at an early age, but it has been consistently reinforced in the last 10 years. It takes self awareness and vulnerability to admit your weakness. However, this has been a huge shaper of our culture at 127. I am quick to announce my weaknesses and even recommend other people on our team who would be a better fit for some tasks. Just as Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 12, we are one body with many members. We need each other to accomplish our best work. Humbly embrace that you need other people to work to your full potential.

4. Trust your gut

Now this isn’t an “always rule.” We know that the heart is deceitful above all else (Jeremiah 17:9) apart from Christ. Of course, we have to examine what the Holy Spirit might be doing and walk confidently in the way that we sense God leading us. There have been times, though, when the logical solution didn’t feel like the best solution. I have learned what “trust your gut” looks like for me. It is not a card that I play very often, but I have grown in confidence when this tactic is appropriate. 

5. The (lack of) rhythm is going to get you. 

Healthy rhythms in ministry leadership are a must. It’s okay to calendar time for reading, writing, and spending time with God, family, and friends. Boundaries are healthy. Saying no is healthy. Maintaining rhythm in your life and work is crucial. The quickest way for me to spiral downward is to lose sight of the disciplines that are tethering me to a firm foundation. Solitude, prayer, and journaling are just a few habits that encourage routine. Prioritize routines as much as possible. 

6. Stop. Collaborate. And Listen

Technically, these could be three separate directives. Before executing your new and fresh ideas, wisdom and maturity requires you to pause, see who else is doing similar work, and make an attempt to work together if possible. Ask good questions, but then do less talking and more listening. Ministry should not be a competition. Find like-minded people who make you better as you spend time with them. Learning this lesson has been truly life-giving for me.

7. The leader in a group may be the quiet one. 

One might assume that the loudest voice in the room is the strongest leader. To that, I say one of the few French sayings that I know, “Au contraire mon frere!” A colleague once noticed that I direct conversations even though I am usually not the one who is doing the most talking. People love to talk about themselves, and you can learn so much if you learn to ask good questions. Also, if you are quiet until you really feel compelled to say something, then most of the time people will listen intently as you provide evidence to support that you have something worth listening to. 

8. Beware of burnout

Burning the candle at both ends will lead to a puddle of wax. I definitely learned this lesson the hard way. I hit the 7-year wall where I woke up one day realizing that I was spending most of my time doing things that I was not gifted to do and that I wasn’t passionate about doing. I was cranking out essential tasks purely out of obligation. Somewhere along the way, I lost my joy for the work. 

You will always have tasks in your job that you don’t love, but operating the majority of your time outside of your giftings greatly increases your chances of burnout. Compassion fatigue is a real struggle in this work of empowering local leaders who are serving vulnerable populations. Taking time out for rest and self-care is essential to prevent the previously mentioned puddle of wax.

9. Don’t shy away from hard conversations. 

I am markedly more comfortable with conflict and difficult conversations than I was a decade ago, and I am definitely better for it. God can use the process through difficult discussions to make both parties look more like Christ as the end result. Advance, don’t retreat. Spend time building trust and respect among your team and ministry partners. Then, when tough conversations are necessary, you have established a baseline for the message to be received on top of a firm foundation.    

10. Stay in a posture of openhandedness. 

Choose carefully the hills that you are willing to die on. These hills should be few and far between. The last few years have been years of growth and clarity for 127 Worldwide. As God has expanded our team, I’ve had to figure out my nonnegotiables for the direction of the ministry. One of my most important jobs as the executive director is to guard the mission and vision of the organization. It is okay if others are forging a path that looks very different than the one you would have taken. You should expect that. 

What is important is that the team is passionate about the work and equipped to succeed in building their path. The results are up to God. Freedom grows as open hands release people, plans, and expectations. Disappointment comes when we hold too tightly to any of these. Open hands are not capable of holding on to anything, but they can easily receive what God has for you.

I am grateful that God gives us opportunities to grow in Christlikeness through every step of obedience that we take. I look forward to seeing all of the new lessons that await me in the next decade. And I encourage you to pray about what steps of obedience God might be leading you to take. 

Sara Beth Fentress

Sara Beth Fentress is the founder and executive director of 127 Worldwide, a non-profit organization that helps Christians tangibly live out James 1:27. God has grown a passion in her heart for orphan care, advocacy, education and discipleship. She lives in Raleigh, N.C., and is a covenant member of Imago … Read More