Recently I took a trip to Colorado Springs and had the honor of meeting Joel Vaughan, the Chief of Staff of Focus on the Family. In my research for the meeting, I discovered that Joel had spent over 10 years on staff at the Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1999 and had written a book called The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition.
I went online and bought the book before I walked into Joel’s office that day — not because I wanted to impress him but because I genuinely wanted to get insights and wisdom from an organization that made a huge impact on the political landscape during the 1990s.
Learning from the Past
Though it was published in 2009, I want to recommend this jewel of a book to non-profit leaders all of this nation — whether you are running a (c)3, a (c)4, or a church community. There are keys in this case study for longevity of our ministries, leadership lessons in what they did right and what they did wrong, and great nuggets that could save us all a lot of pain in the future.
Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (NKJV)
That message of learning from the past applies even when it isn’t scripture. As leaders in this generation, if we don’t learn from the highs and lows and successes and failures of past leaders, we miss out on an opportunity for growth and will most likely be doomed to repeat those same mistakes.
What Really Happened?
As the publisher wrote on the back of this history book, “The Christian Coalition experienced a meteoric rise in American politics in the 1990’s only to see its profile and impact vanish into embarrassing irrelevancy at the end of the decade, leaving many to ask, ‘Whatever happened to the Christian Coalition?’”
Joel D. Vaughan gives a full behind-the-scenes look at the pro-family movement during that time frame, the inner workings of the organization itself, as he went from volunteer to Deputy Field Director to ultimately a dual position of Special Assistant to the President and Director of Administration, highlighting key insights as he narrates the story of this non-profit’s rise and fall.
Christians Engaged in a New Generation
Here’s why I found this so fascinating. I founded and run day-to-day Christians Engaged — a 501(c)3 discipleship ministry that teaches people in all 50 states about the importance of prayer, voting, and engagement for the well-being of America. We don’t endorse political parties, candidates, or specific legislation, but we have built the only 501(c)3 voter mobilization communication system in the nation from a Christian perspective that sends 4 texts and 4 emails around every election. We want to make sure believers don’t ever forget an election again.
We are also building an on-demand video library of materials to empower the Body of Christ with practical civics education to get involved for America with a biblical worldview and perspective on the issues of our time.
What our team is doing today to activate Christians is distinctly different from the past Christian Coalition’s mission, but we get compared to them all the time.
In their prime, they were building state grassroots teams with state directors and activists in different Congressional districts and even down to the precinct level. They pushed out voter guides, millions of them, highlighting the differences of certain candidates on the pro-family issues. They also had a team in Washington DC lobbying the Hill for their members around the nation.
Even with all our differences, I knew I could learn much from this book; and learn I did.
A couple things this book confirmed for me:
Multiplicity of Leadership is Key
First, leadership matters, but leadership of an organization cannot be dependent on one person.
Ralph Reed took the Christian Coalition to a whole new level during his tenure, with his speaking skills, his savvy with the press, his prowess for fundraising and organization, and his ability to use events to propel the organization’s influence and growth. When he left, he was hard to replace, and the organization felt the fallout.
It is incumbent of us as leaders to operate as much as we can in a team leadership model — highlighting other voices, raising others up and teaching them our skill sets, and making sure our organizations can be sustained if we ever exit the picture.
This ideal is extremely hard in a culture that believes we all need to have a “brand” and that leaders are marketed for the growth of their organization’s influence. But ultimately it can’t be just about us. We must be leading a movement of leaders.
Ralph Reed was doing his job and doing it well. One message of the book, though, is that the board and the senior leadership didn’t do enough to make sure other leaders were being raised up. Others should have been developing skills and positioning for fundraising, speaking on behalf of the organization, and nuts-and-bolts leadership.
The complexities of hiring are always hard for non-profits. They hired some great people, such as former Secretary of the Interior (under Ronald Reagan), Don Hodel. He helped sustain the Coalition after Reed’s departure. Others, though, were hired based on their relationship with Pat Robertson, maybe not from the depth of their resume. Organizations live or die by leadership so those decisions are critical for us to learn from.
Always Messy When We Closely Align with Certain Actions
Second, it is a messy thing when Christian organizations align themselves too closely with certain candidates, legislation, or actions. The Christian Coalition saw the rise of the fall of their fundraising and growth patterns based on what legislation they pushed through and their influence, so they always had to pursue bigger and better victories.
The Christian Coalition’s grassroots leaders were leading the charge, encouraging Congressional Members who supported President Clinton’s impeachment procedures for perjury and obstruction of justice in the wake of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But when Pat Robertson, being very politically savvy and a former presidential candidate himself, praised Clinton’s State of the Union speech in 1999, activists around the nation took his comments as him calling off the troops. In his mind he was acting as a political commentator when he said on the 700 Club – “Clinton’s won! They might as well dismiss this impeachment hearing and get on with something else, because it’s over as far as I’m concerned.”
Speaking the truth as he saw it, he didn’t see any issue with the statement, but because he was so closely associated with Christian Coalition as the Founder and the Chairman at the time, it looked like an official statement from the organization. The volunteers and donors were extremely upset. The fallout was another nail in the coffin of Christian Coalition’s national influence.
Fear Motivated Fundraising Can’t Be Sustained
Fear-based fundraising methods are hard to sustain. They might provide quick influxes of cash as messages go out like “help us stop this evil legislation” or “we must fight back and win before everything is destroyed,” but this kind of messaging doesn’t build a donor and partnership base for the long-term.
When Christian Coalition’s direct mail program started failing them, the fundraising efforts of the organization couldn’t recover. Relationships with people with a long-standing commitment to the vision and mission are crucial. Providing a message of hope even in the midst of a current battle can have a more lasting impact on the overall strength of an organization. Christian Coalition learned that lesson the hard way.
Selling our Souls for Power
Selling our souls for a place at the table of power is not worth the exchange. Every Christian minister in the church world or non-profit world must ask themselves how far they will go for access.
Is it worth it for us to compromise the message that God has given us to deliver because we are afraid we won’t get invited to a White House function or a political strategy meeting?
We must really push into God’s leading and discover where our place is, what our message is, and how we stay true to that calling regardless of the temptation for power, influence, and access.
Some of us are called to build relationships with elected officials and minister to them for the long-term. Some of us are called to encourage and activate believers to get involved. Some of us are called to tackle a certain issue or problem in our nation, some of us are called to spearhead revival — “speaking the truth in love” regardless of the consequences.
All of these can produce organically the result of national leaders coming to us to hear from us about what we are working on. Any of these activities can help us gain influence naturally. But we must continue to ask ourselves daily if we are making decisions just to gain power or influence. This story brings some cautionary thoughts on this slippery slope for us to consider.
Big Questions for Us to Consider for the Future
It leads to important questions for the future:
How do we create organizations, ministries, and churches that are here for generations to come?
How do we bring the beauty of the Word of God into the places of influence without compromising for the sake of power?
How do we build up leadership to take our work to the next level after we are gone or elevate other voices in our organizations?
How do we make sure we keep our hearts right and always put Jesus’ work of sanctification in our lives first – regardless of the pressures of building a large organization?
How do we stay in the “good fight of faith” for the long-term and not become a shooting star that fades over time?
As leaders we must consider these questions and allow this story of The Rise and Fall of the Christian Coalition to be tool in our toolkit. I know it will be for me for years to come.
Grab it today!
Bunni Pounds is president and founder of Christians Engaged — a ministry activating the Body of Christ to pray, vote, and engage regularly. Formerly a congressional candidate and 16-year political consultant, she is a motivational speaker and bible teacher. Her book – Jesus and Politics: One Woman’s Walk with God in a Mudslinging Profession comes out nationally on 2/6/24. Preorder it now.
Bunni is also the host of “Conversations With Christians Engaged,” seen here on The Stream each week — a podcast dedicated to helping believers continue walking in faith while navigating the muddy ways of politics and culture. Connect with her on Facebook @bunnipoundsTX, X — formerly known as Twitter @bunnipounds, Instagram @bunnipounds, or her personal website bunnipounds.com.
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