She’s here, there, and everywhere. Melissa Spas, the managing director of education and engagement at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, spends much of her time traveling and teaching religious leaders and congregations about the positive, impactful relationship between faith and giving.
She’s always been interested in addressing how religion can do good in the world. So, Spas focused on religious studies as an undergraduate, and attended divinity school for her master’s degree. Thinking she’d be an academic, she studied ethics.
However, she soon realized that she valued other ways to make a difference even more.
Over time, through hands-on work in the social sector and with religious institutions, she recognized that the funding model for faith-based nonprofits is a critical area to leverage for impact.
“To be effective, organizations have to be sustainable,” Spas said. “They have to figure out a way to be viable and vital to ensure their own survival and so that they can address external issues such as poverty and social inequality.”
After six years with Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and two years building new partnerships and initiatives at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, Indiana, Spas had the opportunity to join Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“Joining Lake Institute and the school was a natural next step from the previous experiences I had,” she said.
Now, she focuses on education and engagement, thinking about and analyzing Lake Institute’s strategic partnerships and its educational programs. You’ll often find Spas on the road, teaching the institute’s course for religious leaders, the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) and its course for congregations, Cultivating Generous Congregations (CGC). She also recruits and trains Lake Institute’s adjunct instructors, supporting and equipping them with information about faith and giving.
What’s in a day in the life of a teacher and trainer?
“For example, our ECRF course is four days long and they are full days! In addition to teaching and facilitation, I have conversations with participants across meals and at the end of the day. We try to create a focused learning community, and that is all about relationship,” Spas explained.
“I also try to stay in touch with the rest of the team as we’re thinking about what’s coming up next for Lake Institute.”
Over her three years at the Institute, Spas has seen an increase in the diversity of participants and their interests in the courses grow.
“Using the last course I taught as an example, there were two rabbis, and Catholic and Protestant leaders. We had people on the progressive end of the spectrum, and some on the more conservative end,” she said.
“With that being said, I’m struck by the leveling nature of the content of our work. Nearly everyone has a shared set of anxieties and concerns about financial sustainability for their institutions.
“The taboo of talking about money in faith community means that it doesn’t really matter your theological framework or position. We have more in common than we have different around this subject.”
Spas believes addressing questions and concerns about faith and giving is incredibly important.
“We have to open up our mindsets to see that the resources we need are available; shifting from a mindset of scarcity, anxiety, and constrained choices to a vision of abundance, finding diverse opportunities and solutions to help fund our mission,” she said.
“Once they’re able to shift that mindset, there’s a sense of freedom that focuses on mission and relationship, even if old sources of revenue and volunteer effort change.”
In the future, Spas foresees a time of remarkable growth in Lake Institute’s educational programs, as well as incorporation of insights from the National Study on Congregations’ Economic Practices (NSCEP) into educational material.
“I hope that we continue to be responsive to the needs of religious institutions and the people who lead them,” she said. “My goal for Lake Institute is to be an active participant in conversations about the impact of faith in the U.S.”
When she’s not traveling, Spas enjoys working with her fellow team members: “Getting to be a part of the collaborative work that we do is a source of great satisfaction and joy. I love working in a learning institution with individuals who are talented, smart, and thoughtful.
“With this team, I’m excited to continually equip individuals with confidence and knowledge to inspire them in their future work.”
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