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3 Secrets Successful Leaders Use to Cultivate Life-Giving Work

3 Secrets Successful Leaders Use to Cultivate Life-Giving Work

Imagine a group of employees who feel energized and engaged at work, work that constantly creates a true, sense of meaning and purpose.

What if your people, your organization, could experience the same thing, not just now and then, but rather every day throughout your entire workplace culture?

It’s all about life-giving work that can help transform a workplace culture, and it’s happening right now at St. Matthew’s House, a rescue mission in Naples, Florida.

CEO Vann Ellison told me the remarkable story that just might cause you to say, “I can relate.”

The Challenge


Vann Ellison, St. Matthew's House


St. Matthew’s House grew out of a Bible study 30 years ago, when a few people took seriously the words of Jesus:

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36).

A soup kitchen and a dormitory of 18-20 beds for homeless men has over the years, grown into a ministry that houses an excess of 350 nightly guests. St. Matthew’s House serves people currently experiencing poverty, incarcerated in prison, and battling drug and alcohol addiction. Today, an ingenious, strategic social enterprise arm funds 70 percent of the ministry programs of a $16.5 million annual budget.

But here was the challenge: “In our early days, we had a staff of 30 employees, there was a lot of disunity, back biting and jockeying for position,” said Vann who became CEO in 2004 and brought his own enthusiasm and change-life love for Jesus to St. Matthew’s House whose programs and impact continued to grow.

The health of every workplace culture starts with the senior leader, a reality Vann re-discovered one memorable day. “I came home from work feeling grumpy and my wife, Lisa, said, ‘You don’t seem real happy. You better check on your guys at work.’

“She knew the very people we serve gave me life, meaning, and a sense of purpose. When I connected with them the next day, it filled my tank. It showed me how I need to bring my soul to work.”

Vann had just put his finger on Life-Giving Work, one of the eight essential drivers of a healthy workplace culture. Vann’s “fill my tank” experience serves as a touchstone for how St. Matthew’s House (and perhaps your organization) could take practical, do-able steps that unleash people to enjoy their work  more than ever.

[shareable cite="Vann Ellison"]You owe it to the God you serve to take a look at your organization and ask, ‘What can we do to make it better?”[/shareable]

Under Vann’s leadership, St. Matthew’s House embarked on positive, practical changes:

1. Get closer to your mission

“The farther we became from our mission, yourself included, the less joy we had. We had to remind ourselves of what we’re all about: To change lives in a spiritual environment that is both compassionate and disciplined as we provide housing for the homeless, food for the needy, and comfort for the addicted and su?ering.

Action Step: Because Vann values their people and wants their work to be life-giving, he looks for opportunities to ask things like, “What brought you to St. Matthew’s House?” and, “What draws you to stay?”

How might you engage your  people to get closer to the mission of your organization?

2. Live your core values with the people you serve

Virtually every service St. Matthew’s offers—from pick-up-and-delivery drivers for their thrift stores, to food severs, to catering staff wanting to go into the food-service industry—learn a trained skill in the midst of meaningful work.

“I’ve come to see vocation as a sacred calling,” says Vann. “The reality of one’s vocation takes place as one finds a job that combines their skill set and their passion."

As you look at these four core values of St. Matthew’s House, chose one core value of your organization that’s being lived out daily.       


We are called to care for “the least of these”. We are helpful by providing food, shelter, clothing, and care for the sick and by visiting those in jail.


We work to provide healing words, resources, and structure to all who come to us. The homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and people wounded by life’s circumstances need the opportunity to find healing. We work to ensure this is a safe healing atmosphere for all.


We strive for the best business and ministry practices in every area of the organization. In our personal lives, we are expected to live a life that is blameless and carry ourselves with integrity.


Everything that we do is to reflect the knowledge that God cares for all who come to us. Customers in our stores, residents in our programs, volunteers, staff, and anyone else should see the goodness of God’s blessings in all that we do.

3. Communicate clearly. Repeat as often as necessary

The ability to laugh at yourself--and accept yourself in the process--is a mark of a confident, humble leader like Vann. “When I think I’ve said everything I need to say, I feel like I’ve over-communicated—but I haven’t, really. In an organization, to get the point across, you need to make the point, and then make it again. It’s one way we’re trying to improve the health of our workplace culture.

“Clear, constant communication reminds me of the story of the couple who had been married for 30 years. One day the wife tells her husband she wants a divorce. Startled, he asks, “Why?” “Because you never tell me you love me,” she says. The husband says, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day. And if that changes, I’ll let you know.”

The Results

By valuing Life-Giving Work through these kinds of strategic steps, the workplace culture of St. Matthew’s House is flourishing—with no immediate signs of needing to revisit the past.

Vann Ellison’s commitment for the organization to stay close to its mission, live out its core values and strengthen their ongoing communication, came shining through in a story:  “Our board meetings used to digress into heated disagreements. Those days are long gone. These days, every board meeting begins with a personal, powerful testimony by a person who is experiencing a new hope and a new life in Christ through the ministry of St. Matthew’s house.”

Then, as if looking back on where the organization’s culture had struggled, Vann paused.

“To be honest, I felt some anxiety inside leading up to our employees completing our first BCWI survey. How were we going to measure up? The results gave us the facts, and once we had got an objective look at our culture that gave us the facts, we could take action to improve our workplace culture.

“In my mind, you owe it to the God you serve to take an objective look at your organization and ask, ‘What can we do to make it better?’”

It's Your Turn

Think of an employee whose inspiring story of life-giving work would delight and encourage your senior team, your board, or your next all-staff meeting. Why is their story important to you and others who need to hear it?

Coming Up Next on our Continuing Series

“The Eight Ways to Build a Flourishing Workplace,
“Optimizing Outstanding Talent”
Tara VanderSande, BCWI

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