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Outcomes Conference 2020: Meet Dr. Alvin Sanders

Meet Dr. Alvin Sanders: Outcomes Conference 2020 Keynote Speaker

Christian Leadership Alliance President and CEO Tami Heim recently interviewed Dr. Alvin Sanders.

In Nov. 2017, Alvin was named the President and CEO of World Impact, an urban missions organization birthed in 1971 to empower urban leaders and partner with local churches to reach their cities with the gospel.

Alvin’s Story

When people in under-resourced communities experience trauma, the local church can be a beacon of hope. Alvin Sanders learned this from firsthand experience. While serving as an urban leader in the second most violent neighborhood in the country, a tragedy took place. A police shooting with racial overtones rocked the neighborhood.

As a response, Alvin planted an innovative church that continues to care for, serve and encourage people from all walks of life. Through this experience he discovered his personal mission: to follow hard after God, to love his family, and to invest in those who invest in the poor.

Alvin is a churchman at heart. After church planting and pastoring, he served as a denominational leader with the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) for seven years. While there he directed the EFCA All People Initiative. Under his leadership the EFCA went from 13% of their congregations classified as urban, ethnic, or multi-ethnic to 22%.

Alvin is author of Bridging the Diversity Gap (Wesleyan Publishing, 2013). He writes regularly for World Impact’s blog. His educational background includes a BS in Biblical Studies from Cincinnati Christian University and a MA in Religion & Urban Ministry from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Miami University. Since 2004 he has served as an adjunct professor at a variety of seminaries across the nation.

About World Impact

Since 1971, World Impact has had a laser focus on working with citizens in communities of poverty. This partnership with the community is reflected in our mission statement: World Impact empowers urban leaders and partners with local churches to reach their cities with the gospel.

We have three core competencies, the first being we are champions of the ability of the poor to own and lead ministry. Another is we are theologically friendly, which allows for a wide range of partnerships. And third, we have accumulated unique expertise from doing holistic ministry among the urban poor for close to 50 years.

We believe the local church is the foundational element for personal life and community transformation. Our ministry training programs are designed to be affordable, accessible, and affirming of ministry calling, utilizing the “train the trainer” model. Our value is we build relationships, add resources, and offer space for renewal to assist urban church leaders in accomplishing her or his ministry vision.

Our short-term goal is urban church leaders receive effective training for ministry among the poor. Within five years we hope these churches and leaders are self-supporting, self-sustaining and self-multiplying. Long term, we desire to see these ends achieved in as many geographic locations as possible.

The World Impact Distinctive

We empower leaders in a population not many serve. Our typical program participant is bi-vocational and ministers at a church with fewer than 50 people and a budget under $50,000. Far too many read her or his situation as a failure. They are far from it.

People erroneously view what we do as “competition” with seminaries and Bible colleges. It’s not accurate. Reality is most of the population we work with will never have the privilege of attending either one, like I did. I’m a proud graduate of both. We scale ministry training through affordability and accessibility.

Productive urban ministry is compassionate in nature, such as food pantries, community development, tutoring, etc. Doing such activities builds a platform of goodwill, which in turn provides an opportunity to share the gospel. What most don’t do is ask what happens next?

Say the goodwill opportunities and evangelism are so successful that it’s possible to form a church. What follows? Hopefully a vibrant church that is self-supporting, self-sustaining, and multiplies. That only happens if the leader of the church is effectively trained. More options for ministry training are needed beyond seminaries and Bible colleges.

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are between 2.2 to 3.4 million pastoral leaders. Only 5% are trained for pastoral ministry. If we filled all the brick and mortar seminaries to full capacity, that number would rise to 6%.

A typical total seminary educational cost can range from $35,000 to $50,000. Seminary at that hefty price tag guarantees virtually very few graduates will deploy to urban poor neighborhoods. It’s asking more than most can bear to minister to a poor congregation with a large amount of personal debt. And on average, urban churches cannot provide high enough salaries to provide for both a living wage and debt service.

There also is the issue of the courses offered. Most are not relative to life in an urban environment, as most traditional seminaries have a suburban bias. Curriculum, affordability and accessibility are no small matters when we consider that most of the world’s church leadership resides in urban, poor communities.

Glocal Efforts

World Impact has a presence in 20 countries with no international staff. In my opinion the expansion has almost been accidental. I am excited about what could happen when we put more purpose and intentionality behind our glocal efforts. Glocal is a term that refers to tailoring products and services to both local and global markets.

Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on training leaders in urban centers within the United States. What we’ve discovered is our trainings organically go global. An example is in 2018 we met Rev. Joseph Biswas who pastors the Evangelical Bengali Church in the Queens borough of New York City. He has a vision to reach the global Bengali population, which is 95% Muslim.

His team was trained, and in less than a year, Pastor Joseph had already multiplied three more church planters for New York City as well as trained 27 leaders within his native country of Bangladesh. One of our latest partnerships is with India Gospel League, who will utilize our materials among their network of 95,000 churches. Our innate ability to be glocal is huge for our future.

Traditioned Innovation

We’re nearing completion of the “World Impact 2.0” project. In 2021 we’ll be 50 years old. One thing I know for sure – whatever sustained us for the first 50 years won’t sustain us for the next 50. I don’t want to lead an organization that is beautifully equipped to serve its past.

The project started in 2017, my first year as CEO. We’ve been on a journey of traditioned innovation. I don’t believe there needs to be a war between “We’ve always done it that way” and “The future is best.” There is a middle ground that honors the past and brings improvement to move towards the future. That’s what traditioned innovation is. It requires redesigning around opportunities both internally and externally.

Utilizing policy governance, our board and executive team developed one clear organizational purpose. This created the structure to focus on the right results, right people and right worth (ROI) and avoid unacceptable risk. We also rewrote our mission and vision statements, which had not been refreshed for some time. We borrowed from Google, Inc., and implemented the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) system of stretch goal setting among our leadership community. And come January 2021 we’ll be unveiling a three-year strategic plan.

This process has brought maximum clarity. It has not been without some leadership pain. It’s led to significant budget cuts, a few hard feelings and some misunderstandings. Yet at the end of day, we’ve laid a strong foundation for both our present and future. We’re trending towards being a much healthier organization because of it.

Encouragement for Other Leaders

Every staff member, whether they realize it or not, has agreed to follow our leadership every time his or her paycheck is cashed. Therefore, we owe it to our staff to make working on (not working in) the organization our primary leadership task. Working on the organization involves pursuing personal holiness, strategic planning, talent development and developing resources. Of these four, personal holiness far outweighs the others.

1 Peter 1:16 states

For it is written: Be holy, because I am holy.

We’re instructed to be like God — holy in everything we do. Holiness means to: 1) display the character of God, and 2) be set apart for service by God. By doing so, we gain the privilege to influence situations for God’s glory. Holiness is the road to victory. If we don’t believe this then we don’t believe our organization belongs to God.

Crossing the line from leading the organization to owning the organization is a sure pathway to disaster. We are not capable of giving the staff we lead everything they need to be successful. For the organizational leader, that’s okay, because they don’t belong to us – they belong to God. The foundation of Christian leadership is personal holiness.


This post first appeared in Outcomes Magazine – Winter 2020.


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