We all love a great ‘stepping out in faith’ story. Could that be me? Could I be brave enough? Would I recognise God’s calling? So often these stories seem big and overwhelming. But more often than not, they happen slowly, with pieces falling into place (and others disappearing) until suddenly God’s voice becomes unmistakable.
The Christian governance organisation, Christian Ministries Advancement (CMA) held its 20th annual conference in Melbourne this week and the 300 delegates were treated to one of those remarkable stories coming from perhaps an unlikely source.
Gary Williams, CMA National Director, has been the driving force behind this small influential organisation for those 20 years and he marked the anniversary with a keynote at the conference, titled Turning Vision into Reality.
Williams took the delegates back 25 years when one could perhaps describe admin/ops/HR processes within churches as a little “Mickey Mouse”.
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The problem of a two-class system
Working as an Administration Pastor for a church in Queensland, he became ‘acutely aware’ of two things.
“Firstly,” Williams said, “all of these things of an operational nature were quite different in a church context compared to in the business world, or even in the regular nonprofit world.
“This conglomeration of governing imprecision with boards, elders, deacons, staff teams, ministry staff teams, denominational overlays and theological nuances, 90 per cent of it undocumented by the way, was common in churches but pretty unconventional.”
The second was perhaps more disturbing, and one might ask if this still is problematic in some churches.
“It was as though you could either be managerially effective and successful, or deeply spiritual, but not both.” – Gary Williams
Williams again. “The second thing I became aware of was an unspoken notion that there was a kind of two-class system here – the spiritual stuff (looked after by the elders) and the operational stuff (looked after by the board).
“Nobody ever said it like that, but there was an undercurrent that said ‘if you’re a successful business person, you belong on the board and can help with all the operational stuff. If you’re theologically trained and perhaps not so financially successful, that’s probably because you love God more than money so you belong on the eldership.’
“It was as though you could either be managerially effective and successful, or deeply spiritual, but not both.”
As Gary Williams observed the poor planning, poor consultation and inadequate decision-making processes, he realised that many Christian ministries had great people but dire governance and management processes.
“They weren’t dying from a lack of spirituality or prayer – they were being tied up in knots by preventable failures in operational matters,” Williams told the conference.
Administration is ministry
A turning point for Williams was attending the conference of the USA Christian Management Association in Nashville in 1997. He still remembers the presentation by John Corts, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, talking about ‘Administration as Ministry’.
Corts shared a conversation with Billy Graham when he questioned Graham’s suggestion that his work was ministry, while Corts’ was not. This was one of Gary’s pivotal moments. No doubt you have had one or two yourself. He then recalled Billy Graham’s response, as Corts told it.
After thinking about it for a moment, Billy Graham responded, “Sorry, John, you’re right. We’re both doing ministry; mine is just more visible. In fact, if you don’t do your ministry with excellence, mine would fall in a heap.”
Administration is a spiritual gift and as Williams pointed out, Daniel was an administrator. (Daniel 6:3 “Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom … They could find no corruption in him because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.”)
You could be wondering how Gary stepped out in faith. Well, this conference played a significant part in that journey along with a few providential meetings with key leaders along the way, including the Chairman of the USA’s CMA and some key Christian leaders in Australia who, with Gary’s persistence set up a board, ready to work on the need to listen for God’s call.
Two needs were determined: to elevate the perceived spirituality and value of the spiritual gifts of administration; and to provide training, resources and networking for people whose roles are primarily operational/managerial/administrative.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing they say, and it is easy to plot how this unfolded looking back, but things are always way murkier and more confusing in the midst of change.
God chooses the young, the inexperienced, the inadequate
Williams was still in his full-time role as Administration Pastor. The board had met and they had a vision but nothing to underpin it – no money, staff, structure, or members. They needed a National Director to take this vision forward. Who better than Gary Williams? He was offered a three-day-a-week job for three months to a tune of $10,000.
The Bible is full of stories of people who feel inadequate for the task that God appears to have set them. Williams was no different.
“I didn’t feel remotely qualified. I was a moderately skilled church administrator, an expert in nothing, no entrepreneurial experience … I felt completely inadequate and was afraid that I would be giving up a full-time job for a part-time dream that, under my expert guidance, could crash and burn in no time.”
But Williams was seeking God’s call and dedicated himself to prayer and fasting, but as with all of us, how could he be sure he was hearing God’s call and not his own?
“When God is in something, it doesn’t matter whether the task is great or small, it doesn’t matter whether we’re an expert or a novice, God can use us.” – Gary Williams
He told the gathering that God then thundered to him from 1 Chronicles 29.
“Then King David said to the whole assembly: ‘My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God.’”
Apart from the ‘palatial structure’, all the other references fitted Gary. He was young and inexperienced. The task was great, but it was for God.
“And the wider lesson that I want to leave with everyone here is that when God is in something, it doesn’t matter whether the task is great or small, it doesn’t matter whether we’re an expert or a novice, God can use us, and it’s worth persisting with.”
The cost and the wonder of saying yes to God
However, Williams still had to say yes. And given all he had to give up, the cost to his family, he wanted double confirmation. And in his words, “God sent me my second clap of thunder. This time from Esther 4.”
Gary closed the Bible, drove to the church and handed in a letter of resignation. He knew the sacrifices and God knew the sacrifices. But in consultation with his wife Debbie, they took the leap. And in one very short sentence he named it.
“It got pretty stressful for a while as we sold our house, left the church and moved into my parents’ garage to live. And then the confirmations started rolling in, and the adventure really began.”
Fast forward 20 years, and CMA is still a small organisation having a big impact. Twenty-four Christian NFPs have been accredited with the CMA Standards Council, which means they have committed to nine standards of good governance, giving their supporters confidence in all aspects of their purpose and vision. Christian organisations continue to become CMA members and Gary Williams faithfully promotes the ministry of Administration through all aspects of CMA.
All because he noticed a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities within his church environment as a younger man and asked questions.