Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Learning From Others in Ministry Design

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with hundreds of ministry leaders who reflect on how, in the early years of their work with the materially poor, they did as much harm as good. That’s understandable. Much of the learning we do in many areas of life is trial and error—yet that shouldn’t be our only approach.

Take medicine, for instance. True, research and technological advances are based on theories researched, refined, and perfected. But no one would allow a doctor to treat them if they learned he or she spent years making mistakes and was “just now getting the hang of it.” We rightfully expect medical professionals to avail themselves of medicine’s best practices in order to render the best possible care. That approach demands they take advantage of knowledge—gained from other professionals doing the same thing over centuries—through extensive schooling, and then working under the supervision of experienced practitioners in years-long residency programs.

In similar fashion, many church and nonprofit leaders have discovered much of their trial and error could have been avoided had they taken advantage of the knowledge and skills developed by others doing the same kind of work in other churches and organizations.

Indeed, if we want our ministries to be healthy, proactive learning from others doing similar work is essential. In other words, we shouldn’t waste time “reinventing the wheel.” While there is always room for best practices to get better, we should start from ideas that have worked elsewhere. Learning about others’ success doesn’t stifle creativity, it fuels it.

Sadly, many of us have a tendency to act to meet needs in our community as though we’re the first person to run a benevolence ministry or developmental class, starting everything from scratch. Here are a few ways to avoid that trap:

1. Make learning an essential, non-negotiable priority

The tyranny of the urgent makes holding to this difficult. However, we must realize that making time to learn is foundational to humbly regarding others as more important than we are (Phil. 2:3). If we believe they are, we’ll take advantage of every bit of wisdom needed to serve them well.

Valuing others also means valuing the insights of those doing the same or similar work. It readily admits “I don’t have all of the answers” and freely seeks out those who may have wisdom to share.  As Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Ultimately, making time for counsel is a spiritual discipline. It will pay off in the end, but requires an investment.

It’s also important to schedule learning ahead of time. That may mean blocking off a few days for strategic planning once a year and a morning every month for research. At a minimum, be intentional about learning from others on some kind of regular basis.

2. Lay a solid theoretical foundation

When wading through a sea of information based on others’ experiences, you need a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. Start by familiarizing yourself with important biblical passages that deal with compassion, mercy, justice, and charity. Isaiah 58, Matthew 25, and 1 Timothy 5 are good places to start, then continue on to look at how the thread of God’s heart for the poor is woven throughout Scripture and reflected in the life and work of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9).

Reinforce that Scriptural grounding with good books that articulate God’s story of change, like When Helping Hurts and Becoming Whole. Round that out with resources from other disciplines like psychology, economics, business, and sociology. My organization has put together this library of book synopses to help ministry teams think through their work. Consider making time regularly to read and discuss helpful books with your staff and volunteers.

3. Learn what similar ministries are doing

None of our ministries are truly independent of each other. We’re all “franchises” of God’s mission and should freely share what we’ve learned with other “franchisees” with hopes they will do the same for us.

Every time you want to start something new, ask, “Who else is doing this?” While it can be challenging to find ministries doing things well, your theoretical foundation will help you identify them.

Because of how important we at True Charity think sharing wisdom is, we’ve built extensive resources to help you in your search. One such resource to explore is our database of ministry features. Once discovered, many ministry leaders are happy to take a call or let you tour their facility to learn how they do what they do.

Conferences are a great place to uncover best practices for specific ministry models like rescue missions, community development, or pregnancy resource centers. If you’re interested in effective service to the materially poor in the US, you can take advantage of our national conference for effective charity.

4. Adapt best practices to your situation

Culture, demographics, and resources vary, so every model should be adapted to work for you. In most regions, it’s possible to find ministries working in a similar context, which will make adapting their model easier.

In the U.S., models like awards for growth programs, transitional housing, entrepreneur kids clubs, and work shuttles have been successfully adapted by numerous organizations. Refined programs like Faith and Finances and Work Life will also enable you to run an excellent class from day one. In other words, innovation builds on innovation.

How can you tell if a transplanted program is working? Our members have found that intentionally measuring outcomes is the quickest way to discover what’s working and what isn’t.

5. Share what you’ve learned

It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35)! As you innovate, you’ll have plenty to share with leaders new to their ministries. That might involve having lunch with a new leader, sharing at a ministerial alliance meeting, or being quick to forward copies of operational documents.

You may think lessons learned aren’t that special or won’t work in other contexts. That’s why it’s important to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress. If your model is good enough for you, someone else can learn something from it. While it’s wise to restrict third parties from using your name (i.e. logos and phrases that would cause confusion about whether another ministry is operating under your management), you should feel free to release ideas with an open hand. In doing so, you’ll share in the growth of the Kingdom.

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Nathan Mayo

Nathan Mayo

Nathan Mayo is the VP of Programs for True Charity. The True Charity Network is a national coalition of churches and nonprofits working together to amplify their impact. True Charity Network members learn effective ways to serve people in material poverty, connect with like-minded peers, and influence the communities they serve. It provides extensive practical resources for designing and operating programs with excellence, helping members turn their compassion into lasting results.


  1. Jim Morgan on February 23, 2024 at 7:18 pm

    Excellent article, Nathan! As a strategic planner who came from management consulting where knowledge sharing and leveraging best practices were prerequisites for all professionals, I’ve been beating that drum in ministry for the past 20 years.

    • Nathan Mayo on March 13, 2024 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks, Jim! And thanks for all that Meet the Need does to help ministries work together.

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