Why is it that in nonprofit Christian ministry, the work sometimes seems to be valued more than the worker?

In my last column, I argued for a model of urban ministry that values beauty and rejects a utilitarian ethos. I mentioned the art commissioned by philanthropists Roberta and Howard Ahmanson for the Village of Hope, a residential facility for struggling families that is a ministry of the Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) in Southern California. What I didn’t mention was that I briefly worked for OCRM in 2006 when the Village of Hope was under construction.

My husband and I were probationary employees at what was known then as Mustard Seed Ranch in the remote high desert community of Warner Springs. Men who had successfully completed OCRM’s main program in Orange County could become eligible to live at the ranch for six months or more. There they would care for the many horses, goats, and other animals on the property and go through a discipleship program based on the Wild at Heart curriculum of author John Eldridge. Through its unique horse therapy program, Mustard Seed Ranch also served children who had been abused or neglected. I was the kitchen supervisor. My husband was the men’s case manager and, out of both necessity and passion, its resident handyman.

All of us on staff there regularly and gladly worked many hours a day more than what was required. Although my husband and I were invited to become permanent employees when our trial period was over, we couldn’t afford to stay. We had two sons whose financial needs exceeded the minimal salaries we were bringing in and OCRM couldn’t afford to pay us more. Our positions were perhaps best suited to young or retired adults without dependent children.

A problem that is not unique to OCRM is that workers are sometimes valued less by donors than the work they do. Although we enable the achievements benefactors want to support, we don’t always give back the ego gratification that some of them desire. So, when I recently toured the Village after not having been there for eighteen months or so, I was somewhat ambivalent about its increasingly impressive campus.

There was, of course, the dignified art given by the Ahmansons that helps create an uplifting environment for both residents and staff. In addition, I saw an elaborate children’s wing and a model child’s bedroom whose decor eclipsed its institutional setting. (Each unit was uniquely designed by an individual donor family.) I toured the gleaming dining hall that is being prepared for a new paint job, but bypassed the health center that my uninsured adult son had used a couple times to have blood work he couldn’t have otherwise afforded.

I deeply value the work of OCRM and rejoice in the thought of a child who has known hardship instead enjoying abundance, but it was also a challenge to focus on the ministry being done at the Village of Hope when, for example, I well remembered how it stung to see a brand-new monogrammed golf cart at the ranch on the day my husband and I resigned. Its purpose, if I recall correctly, was to comfortably transport potential donors around the rugged property. I learned when I lived there that the wealth of Orange County does a lot of good and surmised, therefore, that God may look more generously upon the ways it is sometimes spent than I am inclined to do.

As the young, pretty volunteer director showed me around, I wondered how much she is paid. Is it enough to meet her needs? I wondered if she ever resents having to accommodate the patrons who make her job possible. I wondered if, when she returns to what is probably a modest home at night, she has to surrender such thoughts and remind herself of her primary objective. And I wished that benefactors would value workers and their families as much as they do the work.

I am not suggesting that OCRM or its supporters devalue its employees. Indeed, my husband and I were treated well by both before we resigned, and our time at the ranch is something I will always cherish. The problem is much larger than any given institution.

What I am suggesting is that ministries enact holistic approaches to fundraising that carry everyone forward, not just clients. I am suggesting that they resist the temptation to market their ministries in ways that massage people’s egos. Perhaps this means finding creative ways to communicate their commitment to their staffs. Perhaps it means having the courage to tell potential donors that shiny new objects are good, but their dollar value invested in quality workers is wise, because without them, all that’s left is an attractive veneer.

Does it appear that I am contradicting myself, having argued previously for beauty over utility? I hope not. I’m arguing here for the worth of the human person, in this case the worth of those beautiful, Spirit-empowered men and women who bring our ministry visions to life.

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