Posted on

For love of neighbor–Lutheran Services in America

For more than a century, Lutheran social ministry organizations in the United States have existed out of an intention to recognize God’s love for humanity, and to respond to that love through service to one’s neighbor. For Lutherans, these “neighbors” have included persons with addictions; those in need of affordable housing; veterans; immigrants and refugees; the aged; the disabled; children and families; and more.

Today more than 300 social ministry organizations are united under Lutheran Services in America (LSA), which officially began in 1997 as an alliance of the two largest bodies within the Lutheran denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). So, while many of its members are more than 100 years old, the organization itself is relatively young.

LSA exists to be what Bob York calls a connector. “The single most important thing we do is find ways to bring folks together.” As Senior Director of Leadership Development and Member Engagement, it is York’s job to understand what LSA’s various members do and what they need to help them do it better.

In addition to an annual conference, LSA sponsors several other resourcing events, including a CEO Academy, a Leadership Academy for junior organizational leaders, and an executive retreat.

Half the benefit of events like these, York claims, is to provide places for people to share their commitment to faith; make their own good ideas available to others; and be reassured that others are facing similar issues.

The last point might seem surprising given the diversity of LSA’s members, which range in age from one to over 200 years old, and in size from “basically a one-person shop” to those who employ literally thousands.

But almost all LSA organizations rely on gifts—monetary and non-monetary alike. “You don’t operate for 100-150 years unless you have some genuine support,” asserts York, who goes on to articulate several ways various donors help to further the mission of a social ministry organization.

Volunteer labor and in-kind donations allow an organization to support projects it couldn’t otherwise achieve. Private donations can be used to invest in new programs or advocate for a cause that government funding might not support, like an enhanced chaplaincy or spiritual care program. Each year, new LSA members spring up when former organizations merge or multiple congregations cooperate to form a new entity. These new groups, York claims, are not typically rich in cash, but they can be rich in what they do within their community (i.e. tutoring volunteers, taking in food donations, or helping people find jobs).

An organization’s CEO is almost always involved in development. Those LSA ministries with development officers on staff share their ideas to help shape other organizations with less sophisticated fundraising efforts in place. Resourcing events like those mentioned feature strong speakers and presenters like AAI’s own Becky Drumm, whose presentation last year on “Growing Your Own Development Officer” (based on this article) provided relevant and timely advice, York believes, especially for many smaller organizations in attendance. Rich Gerig of AAI will present a session on “The CEO’s Role in Fundraising” at the February CEO Academy.

York also works with consulting services, which affords him the chance to connect members with services they may need, whether in times of fortune (i.e. when an organization wants to grow) or misfortune (i.e. when facing a shortage of funds). In addition to the expertise York and other internal staff can offer, LSA has named several additional preferred business providers; AAI is one.

That relationship takes on flesh through LUMEN Resources, a connection forged between Lutheran Services in America (“LU”) and its Mennonite counterpart (“MEN”), Mennonite Health Services Alliance. The idea originated with a friendship between CEOs of the two organizations, who led a small group of staff in some joint consulting projects and discovered they had much in common.

LUMEN visionaries contemplated how their two relatively small organizations could have larger impact if they combined forces. Since collaborating, the number of consulting and training projects has slowly grown. A recent venture was a joint presentation at the 2012 LeadingAge annual meeting in Denver, which has already yielded several new consulting opportunities.

Bob York believes there will be continued opportunity in the future, as social ministry organizations wrestle with how to best adapt development efforts in a changing world. LSA organizations, he says, are wondering what kind of investments they should make in technology and new media. “One third of Americans no longer have a land line. And everyone screens calls so it’s very difficult to even deliver a thank-you message directly.” Mail, he says, is much the same; who knows if it even gets looked at? “I see a lot of interest in the questions, ‘Is there a new donor profile?’ and ‘How do we best reach people?’”

York further points to the online availability of Form 990s and websites like, where he expects all charities will one day be rated. “I think sites like these will apply statistics—perhaps mindlessly—to any charity.” For instance, York speculates, a prospective donor might see that an organization’s operating costs are higher than average and, “because she might not be as familiar with our organizations as past donors have been (because technology allows her to get her information differently than past donors did) she may not look beyond that statistic when making her giving decisions.”

Service models are also changing. For example, within the last decade, continuing care retirement communities throughout the United States have seen a dramatic increase in the number of persons benefiting from home health services. At the same time, more and more residents are outliving their financial resources, requiring CCRCs to find ways to fund benevolent care. “Our [senior care] organizations are experienced with capital campaigns,” York says,” but what kind of campaign supports in-home services or benevolent care? These are models we are not used to.”

In the meantime, he continues to tout the importance of connections, both between organizations and between them and their donors. One similarity he sees among the many varied organizations with which he works is the incredible benefit that development efforts provide. “That gives [organizations] an opportunity to allow other people to join them in ministry, and that is valuable apart from any monetary contribution they may make. Pats on the back, prayers, and other forms of support are awfully important for sustaining any faith-based social ministry organization.”

And he identifies one more contribution loyal donors can offer: perspective. “The good news is that the people who run our organizations are working hard at it every day, and know every jot and tittle of the organization. That’s also the bad news. Your most public supporters can offer you a broader perspective of your history, how people view you, and what your future is.”

For all these reasons, social ministry is better served when strong connections are forged–and why the formation of LUMEN also makes a lot of sense to York. Smiling, he names another similarity between the Lutherans and the Mennonites. “We both relate to a few different church bodies who don’t always agree on things,” he concedes. “Many of our local congregations, [while diverse], see the same community need and share an instinct to respond to it. While our church bodies might at times differ theologically, this serving of neighbors is something they can agree on and provides a wonderful basis for cooperation.”

That cooperative spirit extends to donors as well. “Our many organizations offer donors a chance to use their resources to truly make a difference in the world. It seems kind of self-serving to say, ‘We’ll help you out by spending your money’ but, in a way, they can join in a mission that is really valuable and that it would be harder for them to do on their own.”