Brotherhood launches nonprofit to aid pastors

September 5th, 2017

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. wants to comfort the comforters.

The local company has donated $1 million to launch Full Strength Network, a nonprofit that will give pastors and their families free wellness advice and access to low-cost counseling.

Mark Robison, Brotherhood's president and chairman, described pastoral well-being as “essential for successful ministry.”

“Pastors face many unique stresses and a real risk of burn-out, so we wanted to do something that would not only support their physical well-being, but also their emotional, relational and spiritual health,” he said in a statement.

Brotherhood, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, writes insurance policies for 56,000 Christian churches and ministries in 46 states. The company covers buildings, vehicles, nursery staff, mission trips and more.

The insurer ended last year with more than $600 million in assets and $421 million in written premiums. As a mutual, Brotherhood returns excess profits to policyholders.

Rick Cohen, spokesman for the Washington-based National Council of Nonprofits, said it's not unheard of for a company to create an independent nonprofit.

It's more common, though, for a company to donate money to an existing nonprofit that aligns with the company's mission. That option eliminates the need to establish a new organization to handle the money and properly distribute it, he said.

Other companies opt to establish and support foundations that make grants to nonprofits, Cohen said.

If Full Strength Network is unable to attract significant outside donations and relies solely on Brotherhood Mutual for funding, it might have to change its status to a foundation, he added.

Hugh White, the network's executive director, hopes that won't be necessary. He plans to seek financial support from multiple sources and is optimistic about attracting support.

Brotherhood began asking its agents three or four years ago for suggestions on how to celebrate the company's century milestone.

“We decided that rather than spend a bunch of money to throw a party, let's use it to give back to the customers who make our company possible,” White said from his Florida home during a phone interview.

After researching smaller ministries that provide counseling to pastors, Brotherhood officials decided to bring them together into a network of vetted, experienced providers. The organization is kind of a clearinghouse for those seeking help.

Not everyone needs one-on-one counseling, however.

Full Strength Network, which launches this month, will also provide tools for pastors to monitor their well-being and devotional studies to explore six specific areas in depth.

MinistryPulse is a free software application, or app, that can be downloaded to a smartphone or computer. It asks users each week to rank their well-being in various categories on a scale from one to seven, White said.

Software flags very low rankings so the network can contact those pastors and offer counseling or other help, depending on individual needs.

The meditations are called Strength Journeys – or, as White described them, “devotions on steroids.” The counseling or coaching piece of the program is called Strength Care.

When designing the support network, Brotherhood adopted a model created by the Wesleyan Church, which has its world headquarters in Fishers. Russ Gunsalus, the church's executive director of education and clergy development, worked with White.

The Wesleyan Church created its program about four years ago to serve the 5,000 pastors on its rolls, including about 3,000 active in full-time ministry, Gunsalus said.

“God cares as much about the minister as the ministry,” he said.

An important piece of the program is providing support to pastors' families, he said. Ministers receive parishioners' appreciation directly, but family members often make sacrifices that aren't acknowledged, Gunsalus said.

The program also allows pastors to receive anonymous support.

“The people who have used it have loved it,” Gunsalus said. “It gives an outlet for people to be able to connect.”

Full Strength Network will begin by offering services to Christian clergy – including those who aren't Brotherhood Mutual policyholders.

In their early discussion, the organizers considered opening the program to other faiths, White said. But they decided to focus their limited resources for the launch. The network could expand later, he said, because rabbis and others also experience financial, physical, communication and other challenges.

Although the independent nonprofit was established to give back to those who support Brotherhood, the insurer could benefit in the long run if the assistance prevents pastors from taking some actions that would lead to claims filed with the company.

Financial advice could reduce the risk of embezzlement, for example. Or counseling could prevent an inappropriate relationship with a parishioner or staff member.

“Pastors do sometimes burn out. They are people like anyone else,” White said. “I do want to emphasize this was not the motivation to (create the nonprofit).”

Gunsalus described Brotherhood's $1 million gift to launch the foundation as “really brilliant and strategic.” He dismissed any suggestion of a self-serving motive.

Any good deed could be cynically interpreted as self-serving when it's performed by a Christian who, presumably, wants to go to heaven after death, Gunsalus said.

Full Strength Network is launching on a shoestring, with only four full-time staff spread across the country and working virtually. That frees the operation from leasing office space. Brotherhood's north-side headquarters, where more than 450 employees report to work, is the nonprofit's mailing address.

Much of the network's initial budget – and future donations – will be funneled into scholarships to allow pastors to receive counseling at reduced rates, White said.

He summed up the network's ambitious vision: “Healthy pastors lead healthy churches. Healthy churches change the world.” 

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