All around the United States, congregations are reaching out to their neighbors with creative community ministry programs. Churches are providing after-school and job training programs, developing affordable housing, offering medical care, opening day care centers, and distributing food and clothing, among many other outreach efforts. In my experience, getting congregation members involved in community ministry programs is the key to their success.
The best community ministries that I have seen have "bubbled up" right out of the congregation. A small group of people may come forward with a vision for providing an after-school program, for example, or starting a free legal clinic (as was the case in one of the congregations where I served as a staff member). When people do come forward with an idea like this, it's important for staff and lay leaders to take them seriously, and consider what it would take to move forward. Not all ministry ideas are good ones, but over the years, I have found that God can move a congregation forward into new ministry by giving vision to a small group of laypeople.
Here are several ways to develop the planning and logistics that helps shape the churchwide strategy on community outreach:
• Get to know the community around the church (if you don't already). It is a key aspect of developing new community ministry. Be sure to involve congregation members in that process.
• Spend time in the community. It will help you gather data, and it will also lead to new relationships that will be critical to the success of your ministry.
• Attend community meetings and events. This can be a great way to get to know the neighborhood—you'll meet both leaders and "regular" residents and have a chance to talk to them about key issues for the neighborhood.
• Walk around the community. This is another great way to gain new insight, and church members can participate in this as well. You will notice things that aren't obvious when just driving by in a car—for example, the condition of buildings, where people are gathering, what it's like to stand at the bus stop, and who's coming out of the neighborhood public school at the end of the day.
• Ask church members to help survey the community or lead focus groups of residents. This works best with a short list of open-ended questions (maybe three) that allow residents to really talk about what's on their minds. Your congregation may also consider holding a special event for neighbors—a celebration of the community with opportunities for residents to talk to each other and to you about their dreams for the neighborhood and how they could see your congregation getting engaged. Place church members at each table to listen to residents and help guide the discussion.
Once the congregation has decided to move forward with a community ministry idea, be sure to engage church members in the planning process. It may be faster for church staff to plan and implement the new ministry idea, but getting church members engaged at this level often helps the church body to feel a greater sense of ownership for the program. That sense of ownership can be what sustains a ministry over the long-term, as church members are more willing to give their time and resources. The plan should identify who the ministry will serve, when and where it will be offered, the human and financial resources needed to pull it all off, and the key results the program is designed to achieve.
Community ministries often grow and flourish because of the energy of devoted volunteers, so be sure your plan for ministry includes a variety of volunteer opportunities for congregation members to plug in to. Volunteers can tutor, mentor, provide medical care, repair and construct housing, provide job search help and transportation, and distribute food, among other things.
You will have the best luck in recruiting volunteers if you develop "job descriptions" that outline the key duties of each volunteer "job." Be specific, so church members understand the amount of time involved, the frequency of the commitment, and the tasks they can expect to be involved in if they say "yes." Also, be sure to create a variety of volunteer opportunities—from the more demanding position that requires at least several hours a week to more occasional opportunities. For example, an after-school program for youth may need several kinds of volunteers:
• Tutors who are willing to put in 2-4 hours every week working directly with youth;
• Chaperones for field trips who can volunteer 3 hours a month;
• Volunteers who can help in November and December each year to plan and host a holiday party;
• People to help with mailings on a quarterly basis.
Breaking the volunteer opportunities into specific sets of tasks like this makes it easier for church members to say "yes" and to stick with their commitment over the long term.
This post first appeared on the Alban Roundtable blog.
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