Can building a healthier culture actually strengthen your Christian witness and improve your bottom line at the same time? The answer is tucked inside the remarkable story, below.
In 2004, Vann Ellison, the incoming CEO for St. Matthew’s House, in Naples Florida, quickly knew the organization that helps lift people out of poverty, hunger, drug addiction and homelessness was in trouble.
- Financially, things were shaky, including making payroll.
- The food didn’t taste great.
- Thrift shop donors grew increasingly hungry for swifter pickup of their donated items.
Vann had felt a call to working with alcoholics and addicts on the street. As an experienced hospital administrator and jail chaplain, he sensed the challenge and opportunities of ministry in the marketplace. “If I was to ever run a ministry, I wanted it to operate like the best business in the country–efficient, smart and excellent. And I wanted to manifest the heart of God’s love for the people I serve.
Over time, Vann and his leadership team grew the health of their culture. These strategic insights help drive their transformation:
Live your values and become your brand
“Everything we do to better the health of our culture, is measured against our brand promise, “Touching Hearts, Transforming Lives.” We asked our people, “What do we want our organization to look like?” We came up with 50 different suggestions, grouped them and finally embraced four core values: Helpful, healing, God-honoring, and excellence.
“Most people come to a homeless shelter because they have nowhere else to go, so in many ways, St. Matthew’s House is a shelter of last resort. Residents who realize God’s people love them are much closer to the hope and promise of a transformed life. The hemorrhaging woman who touched the garment of Jesus was not only healed, she became a woman of faith and inspiration to others. We didn’t want to just touch a person’s heart, we want to see that person transformed.”
Problems can point to solutions
In St. Matthew’s commercial kitchen, Vann and his team saw a creative recipe for success, as they hired a chef and started a catering service that, today, is the largest and highest-rated business of its kind in the region. By refocusing on its thrift store as a ministry first and a business second, pick-up teams combined compassion and efficiency as opportunities to care and pray with customers. The thrift store that once accounted for 10% of St. Matthew’s revenue, now generates 70% of its annual revenue.
“When we started losing truck drivers who left us to try and make more money elsewhere, our leaders looked and each other and asked, ‘What do we need to do to become both a great social service agency and a business that seeks to lead the industry in southwest Florida?
“With a strong team of committed people who are bought in, we can face any adversity and achieve whatever is in front of us.”
The power of Scripture, story, and prayer
“We sought to become a Christ-centered culture by inviting team members to open meetings with a short Bible study, their testimony and prayer. These have been powerful change agents. Instead of quarreling about facts, we’ve created our own cultural mandate to glorify God.” And Vann has seen what happens when people pray:
“We were facing a monthly budget shortfall of $150,000, instead of immediately considering layoffs and trimming organizational fat, I prayed, ‘God, I don’t know what to do. Help me.” That afternoon, a donor called me from out of the blue asking, ‘What are your current financial needs?’ I told him, and he replied, ‘Years ago, I lent some money to a person who is now able to pay me back.’ And then he made a monthly donation of $156,000 to St. Matthew’s House.’ We celebrated the fact that God is the source of everything.”
With a strong team of committed people, we can face any adversity and achieve whatever is in front of us.”
Cultivate leadership accountability
Vann was quick to tell me, “C12, the group I’m a part of helps hold each of us accountable to faith principles and administrative excellence. Through mutual prayer support, we’ve strengthened each other. I’m a better leader because I meet with other CEOs in different industries.”
Get connected on the inside
Every culture—including St. Matthew’s House, which is very healthy—has room to improve. “The BCWI Employee Engagement Survey revealed some of our 230 staff felt disconnected from our senior leadership. So, I made a conscious commitment to leave my office and get out among our people. We also launched an internal podcast to better inform and connect with all of our people on a regular basis. The results have been very positive.
After 14 years as CEO, Vann Ellison has stored up more than a few moving examples of why building a flourishing culture is also transforming the broader community:
“Not long ago, a man phoned me, and his first words were, ‘I’m a lawyer.’ The only thing he could have said to make me feel more anxious was, ‘I’m with the IRS.’
“He told me that his father had just passed away; after 65 years of marriage, his mother’s world had turned upside-down. He said our team of guys were in the midst of doing their work when one of them noticed his mother’s slow manner. A simple question of, “How are you doing?” soon became a conversation in which each man listened to this new widow and then briefly shared with her how their lives had been transformed through St. Matthew’s House.
“One of our guys then said to her, ‘Your husband provided well for you, and now, through the things you’re donating, you and your husband are helping provide for people like me. Do you mind if we take a moment to thank God for your husband?’”
In that moment, a few employees of St. Matthew’s House were touching a heart and transforming a life, yet again.
It’s Your Turn!
When you step back and survey your culture, where do you see strengths at work? Where do you see areas of improvement? Are you sure?
“What Pillars Are Supporting Your Culture”
Doug Mazza, President
Joni and Friends
The Employee Engagement Survey
Click here to learn more!