Radical turnarounds are made of these

By Mark Rutland

Trust, confidence, leadership – but the greatest is vision.

I have been the leader/CEO through three institutional turnarounds over the last 25 years. One was a megachurch and two were universities. While each one was unique in some of its challenges, there were issues as well as leadership and management tools that were common and applicable to all three.

Calvary Church in Orlando, FL, had been a beacon of spectacular growth in the 1970s. High-octane worship, cutting-edge innovation and unbridled hubris were the volatile cocktail that first fueled Calvary – then blew it to pieces. Scandal rocked it like a bomb before steady decline dragged it into debt, diminished attendance and finally, bankruptcy.

When I became the pastor in 1990, its cash reserves were gone; its debt was $14.7 million and Sunday morning attendance was down from more than 4,000 to less than 1,200. For the first six months I served there, the church was unable to pay my salary. We were 120 days behind to our vendors the day I first walked in my office. Worst of all, the survivors in the pews were angry, hurt and disillusioned.

In 1999, I became the president of Southeastern College in Lakeland, FL.  No scandal had rocked Southeastern. No financial collapse. It had simply lapsed into a coma. The deferred maintenance was horrific. The buildings were in shambles. The grounds were untended, the enrollment of 910 students was in annual decline, and the faculty was demoralized.

When I became the president of Oral Roberts University in 2009, it was an institution that was closer in many ways to what I found at Calvary than the sleepy academic village I inherited at Southeastern. ORU had been hit hard by faculty lawsuits and scandal and endured the forced resignation of a president who left behind $50 million in debt and at least that much in deferred maintenance.

Each of these three institutions experienced radical turnarounds. The dysfunction was different in each place to an extent, and the practical tactical steps needed for turnaround were not exactly the same. But there were essential steps that had to be taken in each place.

Restoration of trust. Broken trust has to do with betrayed relationships. When trust is broken it is because of ethical disappointment. Scandal and misappropriation of funds shreds trust. So does manipulative and abusive style of leadership. The only way to restore trust is to lead ethically long enough and firmly enough to rebuild the emotional bridge that has been burnt.

The problem is that the more wounded the trust factor, the more painful the process of restoration. Even as the new leadership attempts to make ethical decisions, disappointed followers are slow to believe and will be suspicious and even accusational.

I remember in one difficult board meeting at Calvary, an attorney said, “Give us time, Pastor, we’re just not used to ethical leadership and it’s taking us time to adjust.”

Restoration of confidence. Restoring confidence is not so much about ethics as ability. When a new coach takes over a perennially losing team, his hardest task is not to get them to believe in him, but to believe in themselves. Southeastern had lost hope for itself. New confidence was needed badly. We leveraged to build a new building, hired new staff, replaced resistant, demoralized faculty with new and energetic professors, and changed the name of the school.

After four years a re-energized professor said, “For the first time I feel like a college professor and not a counselor at a church camp.”

Southeastern needed confidence. We needed to win. We celebrated every tiny percentage of enrollment growth like we had grown by multiplied thousands. In the long run we actually did grow by several thousand (from 900 to 3,100 in 10 years), but at first we celebrated incremental growth. Southeastern had to win in the little things to believe in itself as a winner capable of big things.

Renewal. A trusted mentor told me, “What was damaged at ORU was not the institution; it was the dream.”

We had to dust off the vision. That which had become dull and lackluster had to shine again. Before I took over at ORU, a patron family of phenomenal generosity paid off the huge debt. Then later gave millions more. We used it on the campus. You can get a pretty mighty shoe shine for $50 million bucks!

I cranked up chapel. I talked joy and modeled joy until joy saturated the atmosphere. ORU needed to laugh again. To live and rejoice and shine again. A billionaire on board didn’t hurt anything. The New ORU had to build again. We raised $11.3 million from our alumni and built the first new building on ORU’s campus in 30 years.

Semantics experts may argue that I am splitting hairs in making a difference between restoration and renewal. I see restoration as two-fold – to restore trust and restore confidence. Renewal is to make it shine again, to make it dream again.

The realities of a church turnaround, especially in a large church, are distinct in some aspects from a business or a university. In many other ways, however, the similarities outnumber the differences. The principal leadership roles of a large church pastor are strikingly similar to those of a Christian university president. In making the turn in a substantial church, the whole network of systems must be attacked with a comprehensive passion to help the institution believe in its dream. A turnaround, no matter what its unique challenges, is based on these:

  • Our leadership is trustworthy.
  • We are capable and good at what we do.
  • The vision is still wonderful.

And the greatest of these is vision.

Dr. Mark Rutland is the third president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK. He is a distinguished educator, charismatic leader, businessman and a nationally recognized figure in Christian higher education. www.globalservants.org

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Transformational leadership

Let me tell you about a year of study in transformational leadership – the 2013 National Institute of Christian Leadership. The first of four sessions in 2013 is Feb. 4-6 at Strang Center in Lake Mary (Orlando), FL.

In the past 40 years, I’ve been involved in non-profit leadership in small churches, megachurches, missions organizations and two universities. In that period of time, I’ve learned some things. I decided I needed to take my experience and break it down into manageable pieces that are helpful and teachable for people at any point in their career or ministry.

At the National Institute you can learn how to lead with quality and toward quality, how to get the right people in the right position, and how to guide an organization in a transformation shift. This leadership training is intense, personal, practical, relevant and full of real-world applications. This is not just a two-day event. It’s a life-expanding and leadership-expanding process over the span of a year to transform your life and leadership and encourage you to get back into the flow of higher education.

I know this leadership training will not only help you lead your church, business or ministry in the direction you want to go, but will positively impact your congregation and community. One man told me after the first day, “If I never came back, this one day has been worth all the money.” I pray for you to feel that after each session. I truly believe that your decision to join in this intense year of study will be a moment you look back on with great satisfaction.
— Dr. Mark Rutland

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