Faith at Work: An Interview with Matthew Elliot (part two)

This is part two of a two-part interview (read the first part here) in which Barnabas Chicago Managing Partner, Tommy Lee had an opportunity to speak with Matthew Elliot, President of Oasis International. Matthew helped develop the Africa Study Bible and is involved in key ministry throughout the globe. 


MatthewElliotTommy: I am going to switch gears and talk a little bit about you and Oasis International. How long have you been leading the organization?

Matthew: Well, I started as a Ph.D. student in Aberdeen, Scotland, just doing the accounting and trying to feed my family while doing some work that was good for Africa. So, I worked part time then, and now full time, pretty much since the beginning of the organization in 1994.

Tommy: When you all first started, how many employees did you have and how many do you have right now?

Matthew: For quite a while I was the only one in the US and there were a few others in Africa. Now we have about six of us working.

Tommy: What have been some of the growing pains you have had to lead the group through? Like for instance, at what point do you know when to hire full-time staff. What full-timers do you hire? What are your priorities?

Matthew: Well, that has really been a process. And I guess how I will describe it for us is moving from a family, heart-oriented approach to a more process oriented and vision-oriented system.

My dad actually founded Oasis, so his was the earliest vision, and then he and I together formed the vision for a while, and now the board take the responsibilities for that vision. So, a lot of it was knowing the need for the work to be bigger than ourselves and then really having an open heart to let others do that.

I, along with a couple of others, founded the first board and mentored them and shared the vision from the beginning. But then when you grow, you have to be willing to let those board members who you originally taught bring that change to the core of the organization. That dynamic can be a little hard.

I think where some people get caught up is they say, "Well this is my vision, and I founded it." And we've really worked hard against that, saying, "No this is God's vision and He brought these board members to us. We trust them." And you know what? We're letting them, with open hearts and open hands, take possession of this organization. And our board, from the very small founding and the roots of just a few people, has really taken possession of the organization. Instead of saying, "Oh no, this is no longer mine..." we have the attitude of, "Hasn't God blessed us to have a board that can give us such great advice?" And so, you know I think that's really a big part of it, to be open to growing beyond yourself and beyond who you are as a founder.

Tommy: Yeah. And so, as the leader of the organization, what is your interaction with the board? Is it just coordinating board meetings or do you spend a lot of time with different members of the board on regular basis?

Matthew: Some of both. I wish I could have more time one-on-one, but board meetings are foundational for us, and especially the planning of those board meetings because you know we probably have forty to sixty hours and then all day before the meeting when they're here for six days. We meet a lot before-hand to make sure that every minute that we're in that board meeting is productive and worth the effort and commitment and time that they're giving. I think it changes as the organization matures.

One of the most important things that I've learned over the years is to really commit to making that board meeting as productive and valuable for the board members as possible. One of the things that we do a lot of now is reporting on paper and inviting the board to ask questions. It may take our staff 30 hours to put together but we'll spend half an hour clarifying and answering questions so we can then spend four hours on something really important that we really need the board's input on. So it's all about getting the balance right and really valuing them as board members, as people, and as contributors to the organization.

Tommy: You just recently brought out Laura Livingstone to help with your Donor Development. At what point did you realize you have to transition from you specifically taking care and cultivating all the donors to bringing someone to help you also with that?

Matthew: I think she is the third person who's come in to help me with development but hers is a bit of a new approach. For us, it's realizing we're on a seesaw as a little organization, and we're trying to understand at what will the value pass the effort needed to get this going.

It's about being a good steward. We have to be able to do the financial calculations as well as see the organization in its formation alongside its vision. For us, when we look at the Africa Study Bible, it wasn't until the beginning of the Africa Study Bible when we started to say, "We need to have somebody working on this full-time." We knew the vision was so big and so important for God's kingdom in Africa and it simply has to be funded."

I think it is a Holy Spirit-led process to have the understanding of where you are and what the needs are. Do you have a vision that's big enough to carry somebody who can do the development for you, and do you understand where are how you are going to get over the line of what's faith and what's good stewardship? The donor doesn't want to spend fifty percent of their money just to raise money to get an organization over that hump

Tommy: At what point is the Africa Study Bible project over, and what's next in the future? Or is this something you guys will be working on for the foreseeable future?

Matthew: Well, the Africa Study Bible was a multi-million dollar project with three hundred and fifty authors from fifty countries. It's a kind of book that, in the publishing world, sells for twenty years. I mean the Life Applications Study Bible is thirty years old and it's still the best selling Study Bible. So, it's a kind of project that we hope would be a foundation for a publishing company for years and years to come. It has been translated into French already, and a group is working in Angola and Mozambique to get it translated into Portuguese. We expect this project is going to be with us for twenty to thirty years, or longer as it’s revised.

The other side of it is, as an organization, is we want to use that project to leverage what's next. What we are doing now is both with the authors we found in the first project and saying, "how can we use the knowledge, the vision, the understanding now to help Africans write great books for Africa?" We have fifteen plus manuscripts in development right now with African authors and leaders.

We're looking at new resources to help pastors understand things they've not had to minister to in the past. We have one on divorce, for example, divorce is the upcoming crisis in the African church. They haven't really experienced it before. As they're urbanized and they're culture changes, it's a new thing for a pastor to understand divorce and minister to divorced people in his congregation. How do you do that in the African context? Those kinds of more relevant, more culturally sensitive things are what's coming down the line.

Tommy: Where can someone go to learn more about Oasis, or Africa Study Bible?

Matthew: If you go to you'll find out everything you need to know. And you can also find it in bookstores in the US, go out and get yourself a copy or order it online.

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