What Urban Ministries Taught Me About Management

by Stephen Day

I learned to be a manager in a very non-traditional way.  I thought I was a pretty good manager. After all, I had run a real estate construction and development company, building single family houses and mixed-use shopping/office centers.  But in 1991, everything I thought of my management abilities flew out the window. That was when I became the Director of Urban Ministries for the United Methodist Churches of Washington, DC. 

First some background

Let me go back a bit.  I had been dividing my time between DC and Florida, where I was born and raised. My family was non-church going Christians and like many of my generation, I totally was turned off by church and organized religion. But somewhere in the 1980s, I realized that there had to be more. A well-known politician in Jacksonville recognized my situation and led me slowly and patiently into becoming a Christian. But that is another story.

In Washington, I had the great fortune (blessing) to have the Chaplain of the United States Senate, Dr. Richard Halverson, befriend me.  Dr. Halverson was a world famous Presbyterian minister, the founder and Chairman of World Vision, and Young Life. We spent a lot of time together after he would open the Senate in prayer each day. His real mission was to minister to the spiritual needs of the one hundred Senators and the several thousand of Senate staffers.  He was way too busy to devote time to me, but he did.

I volunteered to work for him for one year for free. He told me he did not want me there, which greatly disappointed me. Then he told me of another position that he had been considering for me. Maybe it was not what I wanted, but it was what I needed.  He told me that to grow, I needed to step out of my comfort zone and deal with a different class of people.  Dick Halverson saw that I was accustomed to working with people in power, but I needed to learn to learn to deal with people without any power, the poor and the disenfranchised.

I was sent to visit a Methodist minister who would become my boss for one year.  I told him I was not a Methodist, he told me that did not matter.  I said that I had never been to seminary and my Biblical knowledge was not strong.  He said that might give me a fresh approach.  Then I told him I was a divorced man and I liked girls. He laughed and said, “We’re the Methodists. You will fit right in.”

My role was to reach out to the Washington, DC community and work with the homeless, the poor, the alternative lifestyle people, but also the professionals in Washington, DC.  I learned there were many homeless, but many more spiritually homeless. Those were the folks that had good incomes with often great careers but were feeling lonely and apart from the community.  My job was to bring all of them into the embrace of a collective group of loving believers, who could offer either physical support or emotional support.  


I built groups and brought together many people which we organized into small groups. I set up programs and agendas for the groups and even goals. I appointed certain people who I thought would be great team leaders. I thought I would easily manage them.  But that turned out not to be the case. I had run construction jobs and managed every phase of a shopping center development, so I must be already skilled at managing these small groups. Right? NOPE! Wow, I was so WRONG.

When I had my prior business experience, I was in charge. I was the one holding the purse strings. When an employee did not follow my instructions, I could either correct him or I could fire him.  But now I was working with ALL VOLUNTEERS, who did not see me as the Boss but just an organizer or group coordinator. Everything I tried just did not work. When I said, “let’s take this hill.”, I would start running up the hill and suddenly see that no one was following me.  I was a total failure at managing people.  I was shocked and humiliated. 

Now some wisdom I gained

What I learned is that everything I had thought about managing people was nonsense.  What I learned from that year in the ministry taught me what really essential in managing people in business.  Here are some key points that I learned the hard way:

1.  Stating your vision is fine.  But remember, it is just YOUR vision, not the employees.

2.  State the ultimate aim for your company or your project. Then let the team create a joint vision for that. You just might be surprised at how they will augment and improve your vision.

3.  If the team creates the vision with you, they will have ownership of that vision and make it happen.

4.  Allow the team to create smaller collaboration groups.

5.  Even if you spot natural leaders, let the small groups decide upon their group leaders.

6.  Your team members each have their own ideas of how their tasks should be accomplished.  Leave them alone except to check on progress and to offer support only if needed.

7.  Do not expect your employees to do work that you assume they wish to do. Just because someone has an accounting degree does not mean that they want to be involved in accounting activities. Perhaps they would like to explore another area.  Ask them.

There is much more I learned that year.  But if you keep these few principles in mind, you will discover that any obstacle you face, your team is facing it with you.


Posted on August 7, 2016 .