|MINNEAPOLIS — As a for-profit entrepreneur, Paul Bertelson never could consistently make a profit. But when he entered the world of nonprofit ministry in 1994, “the strange thing is we’ve always had a surplus,” he said.
Nearly 20 years later, that bit of irony is still not lost on the founder and CEO of Real Resources, the parent organization for several locally based ministries.
In 1994, Bertelson was a missions pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina. He had an interest in taking kids on mission experiences and found that the trips could be a powerful tool for youth ministry. That interest compelled him to found YouthWorks, a nonprofit organization designed to provide youth mission trips to those between 12 and 19 years of age.
“We had about 300 kids that first summer of 1994 that went with us to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Juarez, Mexico and then in Minneapolis,” Bertelson said. “We just sensed that God was moving in this way and creating resources for churches.”
That first trip revealed to Bertelson the interest—and need—in helping churches and youth groups plan mission trips. YouthWorks partners with individual churches and helps them with the logistics of planning and carrying out mission trips for their youth groups.
Churches began calling YouthWorks after that first trip and a statewide mailing, “and all of a sudden, we realized that there is a huge interest in having somebody help them create youth ministry experiences,” he said. “We were able to grow and continue to offer more trips, and we really kind of caught a wave there in the mid 1990s. A lot of youth workers really wanted to see the kids go on youth mission experiences.”
This year, nearly 20 years after its founding, YouthWorks will provide 584 weeklong trips at 72 locations across the U.S. and Canada—including about 33,000 participants.
In 2000, Bertelson said YouthWorks began to have an abundance of financial resources. That began a process of discernment on the part of its leaders: trying to determine what to do with those resources and how best to utilize them.
The answer was to begin a foundation. Through the foundation, YouthWorks began to invest “financial resources back into the communities we were serving and also other nonprofit ministry entrepreneurs,” Bertelson said.
And since he had an entrepreneurial mindset, Bertelson began to look for ways to support other ministry ventures—and possibly even to acquire some.
“It was then that we realized there weren’t a whole lot of entrepreneurial type ministry people out there,” he said. “So we started our own incubator back then. As we had some other opportunities … basically in 2009 we had the opportunity to use some of those financial resources to acquire a ministry called Youth Specialties.”
Youth Specialties was founded in 1969 and is now the largest youth ministry training organization in the world. The ministry trains youth through a national youth workers convention, regional conferences and books and other content, according to Bertelson. The organization has also developed a discipleship ministry called PlanetWisdom.
According to its website, PlanetWisdom is a “dynamic two-day conference for students. Its goal is to help students move from their spiritual adolescence into a mature faith. Focused on solid biblical teaching, worship, skits and teaching, students leave PlanetWisdom with greater knowledge of the Bible and deep understanding of how to apply it to their daily lives.”
Through its acquisition of Youth Specialties and some of its other efforts, YouthWorks was now faced with brand confusion: who was the organization and what did it do?
That confusion led to a reorganization that ultimately created the umbrella organization Real Resources. Youth Specialties, YouthWorks, the foundation and any future projects would now be included under this structure.
“Real Resources took care of the back office side of things,” Bertelson said. “It took care of the finances, the organizations, the HR functions, the IT [and] marketing functions of the organizations so that the executive directors could really focus in on developing and delivering their ministry service.”
Each organization has its own executive director and its own staff, but each also relies on the office support of the umbrella organization, freeing them up to concentrate on their areas of service.
The Table Project
Perhaps Real Resources’ most visible endeavor is the Table Project, which was developed through its foundation’s incubator ministry. According to its website, the Table Project is an “online network designed to engage and support the church community, empower leaders and move people beyond the pews and into authentic, life-changing relationships.”
The online network was developed out of much conversation several years ago.
“One of the things that was brewing was this idea of a social media tool that would create in essence an opportunity for churches to have an alternative to Facebook, something that would be more private, more group oriented, less individual …” Bertelson said. “[We were] trying to create a tool that would help churches … we like to say ‘do church 24/7.’ [Bring individuals together as a church] through prayer wall, through serving, through being able to connect with each other, share needs.”
In 2011, the Table was offered free to churches around the U.S.; in 2012, it was offered to churches around the world.
Today, many local churches including Bethlehem Baptist Church and Substance Church are using the social networking tool.
The silo effect
After working with nonprofits for many years, one thing Bertelson notices is how most of them are what he calls “silo-ed” from each other, meaning they operate separately and without confluence with other nonprofits.
“Obviously they have their own purposes, but there seems to be kind of a loss of a kingdom purpose by the silos,” he said. “And our sense was could we invite ministries to work together to have their own unique purposes but to be able to share resources? But also to try to create relational synergies between the ministries. So rather than us doing this, we’ve invited organizations that have the same one they’re serving—which is the Church—and to be able to share.”
That mindset has led Bertelson to keep an open mind about inviting other ministries into the Real Resources stable.
“We are open to other nonprofit ministries that are like-minded that might be interested in walking alongside of us and us walking alongside of them and serving the Church,” he said.
Because in the end, Bertelson said: “Everything we do is designed to serve the church. We in no way want to replace the church, but we want to walk alongside the church.”
ACTIONPOINT: For more information about Real Resources, including YouthWorks, Youth Specialties and the Table Project, visit www.realresources.com.