Efficiency vs. Exceptions (or, Frugality vs. Sanity)

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine. I printed 100 of these at Walgreens for $19, then stuck them on cards I got at Hobby Lobby. Having a stack of cards handy facilitates quick notes.

Let’s just say… it could’ve been worse. The worst-case scenario could have happened but (praise the Lord) was averted simply by me forgetting a stamp.

I was working on a special ask and was preparing a batch of 40 letters. I had them all printed and ready to go and took them with me in the car to stuff while my son was doing something else. But alas, I had forgotten the stamps, so I had to wait until the next day.

Imagine my shock, then, when the very next morning I received a response with a gift from one of those 40 people. How did this happen? How did I almost send the same letter twice without realizing it? It’s because of a term I call Exceptions. (I’ll share the story below.)

One of the most significant philosophical changes I made in my missionary career was to remove personalization from our monthly newsletters.

In my early years, I would write little notes on some letters, add a p.s., etc. Or, even more commonly, I would personalize special ask letters with a little note. I had received some training early on that “Readers read the p.s. first, so always write one.” Or I simply hand-signed them with a real pen. The logic is that some personalization might increase the response rate or strengthen the relationship.

Over time, I found that personalization became a real burden. As my life got crazier with more ministry work, more church involvement, and more kids, the time I could devote to partnership development became, well… more focused. In other words, I had to accomplish more in less time.

To reflect the title of this post: It was the exceptions that were killing me. The regular letters were fine, but every time I would produce a letter and pull some aside for any reason, the whole production line fell to pieces. (And I have proof, as you’ll read below.)

One of the greatest inventions ever, in this genre at least, is the missionary prayer letter services like Chalkline, Prayerletters.us, and internal ones within an agency. By using these, I cannot personalize at all unless I have them send the completed package to me (a service they also offer but I’ve never taken advantage of). Most importantly, all of the production work is outsourced. Outsourcing, by its very nature, is more expensive. That is, I am paying a company to do what I used to do … “for free”. In other words, I’m exchanging money for time. And believe me, as a Scotsman, that is a painful proposition!

Do I feel that my letters have become less personal because I permanently stopped ever writing any notes? Or even if I (gasp) don’t hand-sign the letters? Or even because I occasionally use a newsletter service? Not anymore.

Instead, I opted to step up my handwritten cards, independent of responses to Automatic Actions in TNT. I’ve shared before that we letter writers are actually in a golden era because personal mail is a rare gift for most people now. In the last month, two partners specifically told me they really appreciate the handwritten notes, and one even went so far as to say how much she liked the lighthouse cards (such as the picture above I took last summer); I’m a sucker for lighthouses.

Putting my accounting hat on, I determined I only had so much time budget, so I exchanged the less valuable (to me) scribbled note in favour of the more valuable personal note. This is slightly different from mass-producing or outsourcing solely to take less time (which is also a valid reason). It was also a good exchange for me because I enjoy writing letters, which many people do not.

Many missionaries serving for decades still produce their own letters and jot personal notes… because they enjoy it. They have developed a rhythm that works for them. Indeed, I know many people who use TntConnect exclusively for producing their monthly newsletter (e.g., using Mail Merge to Word), using no other features.

For some, the moment taken writing a hand-written p.s. is value-added because they are praying individually for their partners at the same time. The physical effort of producing the newsletter also keeps the connection fresh…

  • Hey, didn’t I just read on Facebook that this partner moved?
  • Their child just won a trophy in hockey, say ‘Congratulations!’
  • Her birthday is next week
  • [Or, unfortunately and yet fortunately—and this happened to me—”Bob, his wife recently passed away… we need to reprint this envelope and letter and correct it in TNT.”]

Potential Catastrophe Averted

This isn’t true for everyone, I’m sure, but as I said at the start, when I try to do exceptions, things can go wrong quickly. That is, instead of being better, it’s worse. One special ask I wrote had some different wording for the different groups of recipients. As a result, I ended up not printing them at the same time. Then I ran out of paper and had to order more, further delaying the mailing for some recipients. In the end, it took more than two weeks to get the letters out. Imagine my great gasp when I discovered that—because I had not done it systematically and all at the same time—one of the sub-groups ended up having their letters done twice. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: The day I was getting ready to mail this group of 40 letters, I actually received two responses from the first time I mailed to them just days earlier (and forgot). These partners’ prompt generosity saved me from the embarrassment of sending these letters twice. (But it was a reminder, yet again, of why, I, Bob, have to do these things in a single effort and NOT customize!)

The Irony

Here’s where theory and reality collide.

While I was mulling over and creating this post, I was simultaneously in a situation where I decided to do mass personalization. My college student son is preparing to go to Alaska on a summer mission with Cru. We shared a list of contacts with him as he is raising funds for this trip, his first foray into partnership development. Some of our partners are so much like family that they are closer to him than his own aunts & uncles, while others are complete strangers. To help him customize his letters, I broke the list up into six different saved groups so he could personalize the letters appropriately.

I’m not shy about asking, so if you would like to help send him to Alaska, you can do so at give.cru.org/1153643. 🙂


Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee


A year ago I posted about my “word for the year”, and the word I chose was Stability. Pandemic aside, 2020 had been a pretty chaotic year for me in my regular work. The week I wrote that blog post I started a new role that has proven to be the most challenging one vocationally in all of my years of serving in my organization. But I’m pleased to report that despite many changes in my work, compared to 2020, this past year has been a moored ship. Stability.

I was contemplating this a little bit over the New Year’s Weekend while returning from a holiday trip to the sub-zero temps of Minnesota. The word that came to me, surprisingly, was Joy. I suppose in part that is because I have a lovely Christmas sign outside our front door:

As I reflected on this in the airport and on my flight, and since then, that one word has stuck with me so far. I don’t have a lot of margin right now, so I have to make quick decisions. I’m sticking with it.

My paperback dictionary defines Joy as, simply,

n. 1. A feeling of great pleasure or happiness. 2. A source of pleasure.

v. To rejoice.

Wiktionary.org takes it a step further by emphasizing, “A feeling of extreme happiness or cheerfulness.” (italics mine).

Joy is an interesting word because it is so closely linked to happiness, cheerfulness, or pleasure. It plays a prominent role in the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22): The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…”. The ESV Study Bible says, “[In importance in the list,] Joy comes in at a close second, for in rejoicing in God’s salvation Christians show that their affections are rightly placed in God’s will and his purpose.”

Another commentary says, “‘Joy’ (chara) is the virtue in the Christian life corresponding to happiness in the secular world. On the surface they seem related. But happiness depends on circumstances, whereas joy does not. In the NT a form of the word ‘joy’ becomes a typical—and the most popular—Christian greeting. Joy is particularly full when what was lost spiritually is found.” [Referencing five separate stories in Luke 15 where Joy is expressed when the lost item, person, or soul, is found.]

How does this relate to my partnership development and TntConnect? In my communications with partners. When I see a Thank You task pop up, that often brings me joy because it indicates something special has happened. But can I return the favour? Can I change how I communicate so that when a partner sees my envelope, it brings them joy, even before opening the envelope? (That is, I want my communications to be sprinkled with joy, so that future communications will elicit joy in them just seeing a letter from me; they will want to open the envelope because they know it will be worth their time.)

In the Bible, joy is not reserved for me. In Esther 8:17, the king’s edict saving the Jews naturally elicited joy among them. In Nehemiah 8:10, the Lord is joyful: “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’” And John shows that it can be shared: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12)

It’s been a rough couple of years out there both from Covid and politics. Conversations are frequently littered with challenges and frustrations. Over the holidays I asked a relative about a trip he had taken, and after a few short highlights, he spent the rest of the conversation detailing all of the things that went wrong… all of which were minor. Ouch. I am becoming more conscious recently of when I go down a non-joyful bunny trail that does not “bring grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

As I am looking at writing newsletters and personal notes this year, it is my goal to ground them in a desire to spread joy. How can I write in such a way as to bring joy to the person reading? And maybe, even in my blog posts too…

The Year of the Partner


Hello and welcome to 2019! When I took a Pause in September, 2018, I had no idea what God had in store for me in the Fall. I mentioned in that post that my life was a bit crazy due to a new donation system we’re rolling out in our ministries around the world (um, next week). I did not know at the time that between then and Christmas I would be in Budapest, London, Paris, and Auckland doing design work on the system.

I confess that simply naming those cities brings a different response than if I say I am going to, perhaps, Bismarck (North Dakota), Peoria (Illinois), Schenectady (New York) or Brandon (Manitoba). While it is my objective to make the most of any place I go to, going to those places without my travel-loving wife is only half as good.

But there is a downside to a busy season like I am going through: My relationships with my ministry partners really suffers.

Since 2002 I have tried to use TNT’s History Log to record all of my interactions with partners. I recently ran a query of my lifetime history in TNT and made a somewhat discouraging discovery: In those 16 years, 2018 was the dead last for my initiations with partners… # of appointments, letters, newsletters, and phone calls (actually phone calls was 15th out of 16, by two calls!).

I’ve also used TNT to log a pledge change for every partner since 1990, and of those 29 years, 2017 & 2018 came in 28th and 29th in terms of new support raised for our ministry work.

Clearly I cannot have another year with statistics like that!

In light of that, and in spite of my busy schedule, I have declared 2019 to be my “Year of the Partner”. I made three very simple New Year’s Resolutions just for partnership development:

  • Write a thank you everyday
  • Call every Financial Partner at least twice, just to say Hi
  • Write a newsletter every month (I went 5 months without a newsletter in 2018)

How am I doing? January just ended and I’ve written 32 thank yous. I had intentionally completed all of my 2018 year-end special gift thank yous before 12/31 to start 2019 with a blank list. I’ve had a handful of “have not thanked in some time” tasks pop up and a few special or annual gifts in January.

Without any pending thank yous in TNT, sometimes I’ve had to be creative: Last week I sent a thank you to the friendly person at Sam’s Club who helped me. This week I sent a co-worker a thank you… in the mail.

(Yes, they are not ministry partners. But I found that when I’m thanking every day, each new TNT thank you task gets completed promptly.)

One time a few years ago I discovered my thanking had plummeted way below normal, and I made a humorous discovery as to why: I had run out of thank you cards! So I have already purchased 200 cards made by a friend who is a professional photographer from some time she spent on the countryside in England. These are timeless, occasion-less photos of thatched roof cottages, doors in brick walls, rowboats in a canal, etc., so they are perfect for any purpose and also gender neutral which is good for a man who writes cards to women and men.

Do I think you should write a thank you every day and a newsletter every month? Not at all. My encouragement to you is to find one or two easily-accomplishable habits to help you just connect and love on your partners this year.

It’s good to chat again.


p.s.: As I go into 2019, I would love input from you on what questions I can address in this blog. Send your questions to http://www.tnt.tips@gmail.com and I will try to work them in to future posts.