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Development and Unplanned: Powerful Parallels

By Andrew Robison, President of Petrus Development

This past weekend, one of the biggest pro-life movies of our time was introduced to American audiences in theaters across the country. Unplanned is a biopic about Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director who underwent a radical transformation and became one of the most outspoken advocates for the pro-life movement.

I watched the movie opening night with my wife and was moved beyond tears for the families, women, and babies impacted by abortion. It was emotionally exhausting while also being incredibly powerful. So why am I talking about this movie? It’s because I believe that this movie and this story offers a treasure trove of lessons for anyone in ministry and especially in the field of development.


The Power of Story

Despite the movie being in theaters for just a few short days, you don’t have to spend much time on the internet before coming across stories of people sharing that they were transformed in their view of abortion after watching Unplanned. Whether it was movie critics or long-time abortion advocates, why were they affected so much by this movie? Because of the story.

Abby Johnson started volunteering for Planned Parenthood as a parking lot escort and quickly became the organization’s youngest clinic director. She advocated for Planned Parenthood for many years on the basis that they provided healthcare and services meant to reduce the number of abortions.

It wasn’t until Abby witnessed a surgical abortion first-hand that she was convicted of the truth and decided to quit and join the pro-life movement. She left her office and walked over to speak with the 40 Days for Life Director, Shawn Carney. In that meeting, she was shown compassion and love and made the decision that she needed to speak out boldly in defense of the unborn.

If this story doesn’t grab you, I am not quite sure what would.

So what is your ministry’s story? As Kate Sell shared, “What is your one overarching goal”? Who can you think of now who has been profoundly affected by your programming, your members or your message? Are you working for a campus ministry program? Surely you have a college student whose life was transformed after having a spiritual experience on a retreat.

Are you working for a Catholic high school? How many of your graduates have gone on to be successful doctors, lawyers, or CEOs while still maintaining their faith and trust in the Lord?

Are you volunteering for a faith-based addiction rehab center? How many of your clients have turned their lives over to Christ and taken control over their addiction and their lives?

Whatever type of ministry you are working in, you have those stories. Perhaps they are shocking like Abby’s story, or maybe they are more subtle but just as impactful. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about these stories and practice how you can best share them with others.

The Unplanned movie didn’t double expectations for ticket sales in its first weekend because it was full of charts and statistics. It did that because it is a powerful story told in a compelling and relatable manner. Think about that next time you sit down with donor who you know in your heart just wants to be inspired.


The Power of Invitation

All who believe in Christ should feel, as an integral part of their faith, an apostolic concern to pass on to others its light and joy.     – Pope John Paul II

Before the Unplanned movie came out, I was talking about it with my friends. One friend suggested that the idea of the movie was great but it probably wouldn’t be watched by the people who really need to see it. I think that without some effort, he is absolutely correct.

Therein lies the power of invitation.

For folks working on college campuses, this idea is central to all that your ministry is about. The idea of ministering to those kids who are already showing up to church is great, but that can’t be all your ministry is about. There must be intentional efforts made to get out to campus to invite people to learn more.

The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, FOCUS, is built around this idea and focuses 100 percent of their efforts on evangelization. Their mantra is “Win, Build, Send.” Without the sending out to invite, their work cannot continue.

The only way that people outside of the devout pro-life community will be inspired to go watch Unplanned is through invitation. It’s the friend, the husband, the co-worker, the sister –  the people who will be invited to see the movie who will be the transformed ones. But it all starts with the invitation.

So again, what does this have to do with development? Everything.

Annual fund gifts are given to organizations because of powerful letters and consistent communications. Major and transformational gifts are given because people believe in the cause and are invited to give.

In my work with ministries just getting started with a development program, the one thing that I consistently encourage development officers to do is to “get out of the office and meet people.” It is through consistently investing in personal relationships with our donors that we can be in position to extend those invitations to give.


The Power of Prayer

In the movie, there are a few scenes where groups of individuals are standing outside the Planned Parenthood fence to protest the abortions going on inside. It is painfully clear that the men shouting at the women and the staffers and calling them “sinners” and “murderers” are not converting hearts and minds. It is men and women peacefully praying who eventually end up connecting with Abby Johnson.

In fact, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie involves Shawn and his wife Marilisa praying with outstretched hands over the bodies of hundreds of aborted babies. As Shawn’s words are spoken, Abby is in Procedure Room 1 witnessing her first ultrasound guided abortion and her conversion is playing out before our eyes.

God hears our prayers and works through those prayers to transform lives and ministries. And as Soren Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” There is power in prayer and when we embrace it, we can effect real and substantial change.

In his book, The God Ask, Steve Shadrach reminds us that before we ever ask someone to financially support our work, we must first “pray to our God in heaven.”

This is a great way to incorporate prayer into our work in development. By first taking our requests to God, we are opening ourselves up to recognize and understand that it is only God who can sustain us and our work. Relying on our own strengths and our own merits won’t be enough to carry us when we need it.



Unplanned is a movie that will transform hearts and minds as well as a movie that will literally save lives. Your ministries transform and save lives every day as well. Our work in development allows us to do more ministry, but only through the grace and power of God will we be successful.

God bless.

Andrew N. Robison is President of Petrus Development. He has worked for over 13 years in development roles in Catholic campus ministry, higher education and academic medicine. Andrew works with organizations of all sizes to build sustainable development programs that allow them to better serve their constituencies.

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