Many people expect leaders to have all the answers, have it all figured out and be perfect, but that is simply not realistic. At least not for me. A family doctor once told me that medicine is a practice; meaning doctors do not know everything and sometimes they have to take the information they have and proceed with what they believe is the best course of action given the facts they have at their disposal – research, patient history, experience, etc.
Five years ago I began my career with Mel Trotter Ministries as the Vice President of Programs. After three years I had the opportunity to lead the organization as the CEO. Our organization was in turmoil. We just had a significant leadership change and our staff culture, high turnover, and morale was not where it needed to be. The hard truth was that we were not doing a great job fulfilling our mission and vision statements. When I stepped into this leadership role, all eyes were on me. The staff, donors, community and our guests at the Mission were looking to me for answers.
I felt like the best way to get answers was by asking questions. I relied on my experience, the wisdom of those I had been surrounded with for many years, scripture and writings by Covey, Lencioni, Collins, Drucker and more. I also surrounded myself with a strong and passionate executive leadership team who were more gifted in their areas of expertise than I was. I think a leader worth anything understands their own strengths and limitations and is secure enough to surround him or herself with strong leaders who are excellent in their areas. This then begins to cascade as leaders start building their departments with the same philosophy and the entire organization gets better.
We began to develop what I call the “5 questions that changed everything.” These questions, I believe, are useful for any kind of organization: for profit, non-profit, ministry, as well as personal introspection and goal setting.
Question 1: If our mission no longer existed, what difference would it make in our community?
This question forces you to figure out if you are doing anything that matters and if it is needed and valued. If the doors of MTM closed tomorrow, there would be hundreds of people with nowhere to go; on the streets, in tents or living in their cars. A related question could be, “Why do people choose to either spend their money or donate their money to us?” This answer led to the next question.
Question 2: As an organization what are we called to do? Why are we here?
For Mel Trotter Ministries, we were challenged to take a long look at our mission and vision statements. We needed to start grading ourselves on outcomes. As a ministry it also meant asking ourselves tough questions about whether or not we were doing what God called us to do. We determined that we are called to serve anyone who is experiencing homelessness….period. There are no conditions to whom we accept through these doors. Jesus is our example for this. He loved everyone and was drawn to those who were most broken. He wasn’t always popular. MTM is called to serve all people, even those that the rest of society has given up on; people who are struggling with severe addiction, chronic homelessness, mental illness, physical disabilities and other challenges. I spoke with one business leader who said about his company, “Our purpose is not to manufacture our product, anyone can do that. Our purpose is to provide jobs and careers for our employees, so they can provide for their loved ones and live a good life. So in doing providing jobs for 1,000 employees we are creating a better and stable life for all of their families as well and the community impacting tens of thousands. We do that by manufacturing our product.”
Question 3: What are our core competencies, our strengths?
If we now know, based on the previous questions, what difference we make in the community and what we are supposed to be doing, are we the best at it? What are we good at and where are we failing? Answering this question requires humility and discomfort that will lead to growth and creativity.
The first three questions served as Phase 1. The answers were enlightening and also concerning. Two quick examples of many, we found that we are quite good at running a food pantry, however, if we closed our food pantry there would be more than enough other pantries in our community to meet the need, so there would be little to no negative impact if we closed it. So why are we pouring time and resources into something that is good to do, but we are not needed to do it?
On the other hand, we found that our addiction recovery program fits perfectly with our mission and is one of the only free recovery programs that serves a severely addicted population in our community. The hard truth was, we were not good at it. It was not a core competency. So now what?
Question 4: Now what?
Given this information, what will we do with it? Do we dare to make some tough decisions and risk change? Can we afford not to?
We have been studying what it is the community does need by talking with and surveying the people who use the pantry. It is likely that in the near future we will be changing and improving our food pantry model. We are working to partner with other organizations to eliminate the duplication of services while meeting an unmet need around food scarcity in the city.
In 2015, the addiction recovery program closed temporarily. We still provided ministry and services for the guests who were struggling with severe addictions, but we didn’t call it a recovery program or try to make it one. Rather, we took almost a year to develop a program that was needed and a program that fit with our competencies and our calling. The new program, Step-Up Recovery, was launched in 2016 and God is blessing the many guests who utilize the services.
Overall this new model has produced outcomes that we have never seen before. In 2017, over 525 people found permanent housing including 72 families. Over 130 people found full-time sustainable employment and dozens moved forward in their faith journey.
Question 5: Where are the gaps?
Once we sorted through our value, our calling, what our competencies are (and what they are not), we made changes to reflect these answers and then we asked ourselves: “Where are the under-served people who are experiencing homelessness in our community?” We asked this because at our core we believed Jesus when he said “to whom much is given much is required?” In the great commission Jesus tells his followers to “go and make”; go into all the world, don’t wait for someone to come to you and do something– walk with them on their journey. In our greater Grand Rapids we identified six under-served populations:
- Families (led to a collaboration with Family Promise and creation of Pathway Home)
- Unaccompanied youth (led to partnership with 3 agencies and the creation of a youth shelter and now youth housing)
- Elderly, chronically homeless with severe mental illness (led to creation of Pilgrimage Program)
- The LBGT community (led to dialogue and partnerships and opening of shelter and programs)
- Those in the rural areas of our community (led to hiring of staff specific to rural areas and partnerships with schools and other organizations to walk alongside families experiencing homelessness in rural areas)
- Those being discharged from hospitals with no place to recover (still working on this plan)
The answers to the questions above led to a new strategic plan and significant change in program development in our organization. It also pushed us to partner and collaborate with other like-minded organizations because one organization cannot solve this issue alone, nor should we.
These questions – and more importantly their answers – if you act on them, are not without risk. There are positive and negative consequences with staff, volunteers and donors. Everyone embraces change until it impacts them directly. What I learned was that if you follow the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind, with humility and giving glory to God, He will bless it and do even more than you can ever ask, think or imagine. The results: more people are coming to and growing in faith than ever. More people are being housed and recovering from addictions and getting jobs than ever. The staff culture turned around. Our staff took anonymous external surveys that resulted in MTM being honored as one the best places to work in West Michigan two years running. Amazing!
We don’t have all the answers and this is a practice in many ways. However, I believe if we rely on the God, who does hold the answers and we are brave enough to ask and answer tough questions, move forward in faith and are willing to take some risks, great things will happen. More than we can ever ask, hope for or imagine.
Dennis came to Mel Trotter in early 2012. He served as the Vice President of Programs, and his responsibilities included the Emergency Shelters, Residential Programs, Day Center, Food Pantry and Public Inebriate Shelter. Van Kampen was selected as the CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries in Spring 2015, and officially began his position as Mel Trotter’s leader on June 1, 2015.