Congregations do amazing things in their communities. From tutoring programs and legal clinics to health care and food drives, I’ve seen the way churches can help meet community needs.
The stakes are high. Our communities -- urban, rural and suburban -- are facing tough issues. Churches can help. But they have to do it in ways that are careful, effective and sustainable.
Strong lay leadership is critical for those ministries. Rather than launching and running them with paid staff alone, churches can empower lay leaders to add the gifts, perspectives and hours of labor that are needed to truly serve the community well. Strong lay leadership can also keep ministry sustainable and growing even when the professional staff changes.
I’ve spent many years helping churches develop and launch new ministries, and I can attest to the importance of strong lay leaders. One church I served was located a few blocks from an elementary school that was the lowest-performing school in the state. Out of conversations within the church and with people at the school, a reading skills tutoring program was born.
Volunteers from our church went into the school each week to work one-on-one with students. The result was that, on average, students were improving their reading scores by two grade levels each year they were in the program.
Lay leaders played critical roles in designing the program, recruiting and training the volunteers, working with the school to set it up, promoting the program in the church and the community, and evaluating progress. When I left my job at the church several years later, the program continued without a hitch, largely because of the passion, skills and investment of lay leaders.
What could your congregation do to develop lay leaders in community ministry? Here are a few thoughts.
Create a culture of service. In my experience, the churches that are most effective at community ministry have made service a way of life. Great ideas often spring up in a climate where generosity is emphasized and there is regular teaching on our call to service as Christians.
In addition to preaching and teaching, many ministries of your church can incorporate the call to serve -- youth service projects, small-group studies, an advocacy focus for women’s ministry, to name just a few. Make service a theme you always come back to.
Engage leaders in the community. Community ministry leaders are most effective when they understand the issues, assets and struggles of the people who live in the neighborhood. By going out into the community to listen, your leaders will be more informed and possibly more motivated to respond to the needs and opportunities that they see.
Form a small group to start a “listening process” in your community. Group members can conduct short interviews with institutional representatives such as school personnel, law enforcement officials, and business and nonprofit leaders, as well as informal leaders who may not have titles but who know a great deal.
Interviews should focus on three short questions: What are the top concerns in this community? Who is addressing them? How can our church help?
Invite leaders to develop ideas. This can be difficult for staff-driven organizations, but it’s important to invite laypeople to come up with new ministry ideas to respond to the needs and opportunities in the community. Staff may be used to asking for input late in the process, but they should understand that lay leaders are often much more engaged when brought to the table early on and, as a result, are more willing to put in the hard work to launch a ministry. They are also much more likely to be “evangelists” for the ministry in the congregation, drawing in other laypeople as volunteers.
The role of staff in this situation is to help lay leaders shape their ideas to fit the church’s mission, vision and values and then to develop a plan for moving forward.
Create opportunities. If you really want to develop leaders, give them something to lead! Lay leader involvement ought to be much more than rubber-stamping staff efforts. Empowered lay leaders strengthen ministry by bringing their many gifts and perspectives to it.
Laypeople can serve in many roles, including leading planning processes; serving as liaisons to community organizations; planning events; speaking; writing; posting on social media; working on a website; recruiting and leading teams of volunteers; handling logistics like setup, tear-down and transportation; leading a prayer effort; and raising money.
Set clear roles and goals. Choose a few straightforward goals to pursue each year. Be focused and be strategic; a goal like “Involve 50 percent of all church members in volunteering” might not be realistic, but “Recruit 50 volunteers for three pilot projects” or “Teach about service and justice through small-groups ministry” might be both motivating and attainable.
Developing job descriptions for lay leaders is another essential step. These descriptions should specify the leaders’ volunteer duties, when they are expected to serve, where, and how often. Volunteers are more likely to come through for you when they know what’s expected.