When it became clear last fall that the Promise Keepers Christian men’s movement was running out of money, founder Bill McCartney gathered his staff in a church.
He would not cut salaries and he would not lay off staff one-by-one, he told them.
“This is the team,” the former University of Colorado football coach said. “It’s this team or no team. If we don’t make it, if we have to go, then we all go together.”
He kept his word.
Promise Keepers on Wednesday announced that all 345 employees will lose their jobs March 31. The ministry, which began with four men in Boulder and became an international evangelical movement, is foundering. In April, the Denver home office and seven field offices will be run with volunteers and donations.
This year’s 19 conferences will go on, McCartney vowed.
“Keep going,” a determined McCartney said Thursday at a news conference in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He called upon every church “that uses the name Jesus” to donate $1,000 to help Promise Keepers regain its financial footing and continue its mission of turning men into better fathers and husbands.
The layoff came because McCartney and his board of directors decided in September that the $60 conference fee was deterring Christian and non-Christian men. So they decided to drop it.
With that, Promise Keepers turned its back on tens of millions of dollars a year. In 1996, for example, $70 million of the $87 million the ministry made came from admission fees.
“It was a decision not made easily,” said Tom Fortson, Promise Keepers executive vice president. “It was tough, it was risky, but it was one made with lots of prayer and fasting. We did not want the fee to be a barrier to any man.”
One of its first free events, “Standing in the Gap,” drew nearly 1 million men to Washington’s National Mall last October. It was hailed as the largest religious event in national history. And it cost Promise Keepers $8 million, Fortson said.
In January, the organization received $3 million in donations, not enough to pay bills and the $1.2 million monthly payroll.
“Certainly there is debate about whether we should have dropped the fee,” Fortson said. “We considered reducing it to $30, offering scholarships to men who needed help, but the decision has been made, and from that point, you just trust God even though the consequences seem to be hard.”
On Thursday at the Promise Keepers headquarters, a modest brick building in Denver, employees spoke of faith and trust and hope.
“Everyone understood the ramifications,” said Chuck Lane, one of the four men who founded the ministry. “Where we are today is the same place we were back then. We started on faith, we started with volunteers. I think God is saying, ‘Now I want to take you someplace much greater.”’
It won’t be easy.
“This is a test,” said Ed Nava, the volunteer coordinator. Nava was hired by Promise Keepers last year. He was laid off in July after attendance dropped at several conferences. After five months of unemployment, he was asked to come back as a volunteer, and was rehired a month ago. Now, at 48, he’s facing unemployment again.
“I’m struggling with maybe some anger, maybe some fear,” he said. “It challenges your commitment to the ministry, to your family. God is asking me, ‘How far will you go? Either you believe or you don’t.’ Yet I’m looking at bills to pay and a family to take care of.”