Why I want to take more ‘holy risks’ in 2023

Cathedrals were the space programs of the medieval period.

Designing and building a cathedral was an act of daring, vision, boundary-pushing, and determination.

Cathedrals were more than “fancy churches.” They were emprises.

Emprise is an older English word meaning “an adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise.” And “chivalric” makes a lot of sense, since this word came into the English language in the 13th century — smack dab in the middle of the Middle Ages, an era of knights and castles. It’s an era that continues to capture our imagination today, almost a thousand years later, as so many of our most popular fantasy literature’s settings are in remarkably similar, though imaginary, places.

Cathedral builders weren’t just creating a glorious building for worship; they were trying to do things never before done. Designers endeavored to create the highest structure yet built. They invented flying buttresses for function and beauty. Artists created stained glass windows on a scale never before conceived.

The resulting artistic value of these astounding emprises remains self-evident today. But the breathtaking nature of these cathedral building projects also caused rapid economic growth in the towns and cities where they were built. Just as everyone on July 20, 1969, was glued to their televisions to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, everyone in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries traveled to gawk at these stunning feats of architecture.

[Don’t worry, I’m about to explain what cathedrals and “emprises” have to do with growing your organization.]

The Christian nonprofit space is a really mature market. Nearly everyone is doing good and worthy work. And nearly everyone is funding that work by seeking donations the same way. We’re all doing 1-to-1 major donor fundraising, mass channel fundraising to small donors, and something in between for mid-level donors. It’s what we all do — because it works.

Let’s be honest, we all like to do what works. Especially if it’s safe. Well executed, safe marketing that works keeps our nonprofits growing by a few percentage points each year. It enables us to keep doing what we’re doing at our current level, even with some actual expansion now and then.

But isn’t there room for bigger efforts?

In the midst of all this safe, predictable stuff that (usually) keeps us chugging along, shouldn’t we also be — perhaps in the spirit of Jesus’ parable of the talents — taking some “holy risks”? Might these holy risks grow our ability to do our Kingdom work at a far greater scale?

This year marks my 25th year in consumer, B2B, and nonprofit business. Like most folks, I came into business after years spent as a missionary to the former Soviet Union and as a police officer in the DC metro area.

Wait, that’s not how most people come into business?

No, of course not. And each of you has your story. Some of these stories are linear — you knew what you wanted and enjoyed a laser focus from early on. Some were less traditional and more eclectic (a nice word for “confused”), like my own. In any case, though, we all have most typically enjoyed the moments in our career that were bolder, that fought for good, that embraced the unknown. Some of those moments led to success; some led to failure. But all were formative.

Even the failures are formative. We need to stop fearing failure and embrace its inevitability and the important role failures play in our eventual success.

This year, I’m going to try to convince you that there’s more to your marketing and fundraising calling than playing it safe. That, as children of the Creator of the world, you are made in His image in many ways — certainly including that image of creator, artist, builder, even if you don’t feel you’re a particularly creative person. I’m going to try to convince you that we badly need emprises in the Kingdom, and that its King just might want you to be such a builder.

I hope you dream a bit about spires, gargoyles, flying buttresses, and to what kind of brave, creative emprise the Creator of the universe might be calling you.

What holy risk might you find the courage and determination to take this year? I’d love to hear your answer. Email me at athornburgh@masterworks.agency