Most congregations engage in social ministry to some degree, and most feel that their efforts could be better. But planning for ministries that seek to serve or influence the world beyond the sanctuary can be challenging. Because the world’s needs are so large and complicated, outreach efforts are especially vulnerable to criticism. How, then, to have a positive, constructive conversation?

One way to begin is to pose good questions and invite people to discuss them while a planning team takes notes. Make it clear that the purpose is not to critique your current ministries or to make decisions about the future. Decisions can wait for another time. At the outset you want to get people thinking more creatively about the basic reasons for the congregation’s community-outreach ministries.

Here are some examples of the kinds of questions I have used in affluent, white, Protestant churches interested in updating their social ministries. In order to use them in your situation, you will need to adapt the language to fit the theology and social circumstances of your congregation.

  1. Why does the church engage in social service? Is serving those in need part of the church’s mission? Or does the church serve the needy for the same reason a medical school treats patients? The mission of a medical school is not to heal the sick—it is to train physicians, but it can’t do that without treating the sick. Likewise, it may be that the social mission of the church is not to serve the needy but to create Christian disciples, who will in turn serve the needy. You would design a social ministry differently depending on which way you understand your purpose.
  2. How do we understand our relationship to those we help? This is a theological question. Some possible answers: “Charity is a Christian duty.” “In serving those in need, our hearts are transformed.” “We identify with the oppressed.”
  3. In what ways does this congregation’s social ministry move beyond service to advocating for justice? What are the main forms of social injustice now in our community? Are there ways that the justice dimension of social ministry could grow?
  4. How does this church inspire or encourage members of the congregation to engage in social ministry in their occupational roles? A lawyer might swing a hammer for Habitat, or she might give free service to a small nonprofit in a poor community. Do we offer pathways for both kinds of service?

After inviting people to converse in this way, it is important to repay those who participate by making use of the information the planning team collects. Simply publishing a summary in the newsletter will establish that you are paying attention. Then the planning team can reflect on the data, pulling out common themes and identifying differences. No doubt some ideas will require research to flesh them out. Those ideas, in turn, can be shared more widely for comment and elaboration. After two or three rounds the planning team will need to take the risk of shaping a proposal, floating it as a trial balloon, and then proposing it for action by the congregation’s leadership.

Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute.


Featured Resources

AL246_SMCommunity Ministry: New Challenges, Proven Steps to Faith-Based Initiatives by Carl S. Dudley

In this volume, Carl Dudley revises and updates his earlier book, Basic Steps toward Community Ministry, which Loren Mead called “the most valuable book on parish ministry I’ve seen in a decade.” Once again, Dudley offers guidance for congregational leaders who need to create tools, get started, and take next steps to respond to God’s call to extraordinary ministry in their community. With thought-provoking discussions about congregations as learning organizations, the relationship between ongoing faith formation and social action, examples from outstanding new ministries, and an updated resource list, Dudley rounds out this essential, practical, and readable manual.

AL276_SM Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann

Popular Alban consultants and authors Gil Rendle and Alice Mann cast planning as a “holy conversation,” a congregational discernment process about three critical questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do or be? Who is our neighbor? Rendle and Mann equip congregational leaders with a broad and creative range of ideas, pathways, processes, and tools for planning. By choosing the resources that best suit their needs and context, congregations will shape their own strengthening, transforming, holy conversations. They will find a path that is faithful to their identity and their relationship with God.