The idea of shared ministry has been with us long enough for many to think that they actually do it! Some do, of course—and one of them is Judith Urban, whose new book, New Life through Shared Ministry, can help your congregation change the way it does ministry. A deeply practical book, it moves effortlessly from the conceptual to the actual steps needed to put an effective shared ministry system in place.
Shared ministry refers to what some people would call volunteerism in everyday life—activities such as helping out in a child’s classroom, working on a political campaign, giving time delivering flowers in a hospital, or doing unpaid work for a charitable organization. The term service is often used to refer to the work of volunteerism. The term shared ministry refers to a particular type of volunteering—all the many ways members of a congregation serve their faith community and the wider community. The statements typically made about shared ministry are such things as “People are invited into ministry, they share their gifts in performing their ministry, and the congregation has many ministry opportunities available to its members.”
Shared ministry creates a congregational culture in which each member is invited to participate in ministry and helped to do so through proven systems and processes. It brings new life and energy to the congregation. Members learn that all people have gifts and all are called to use them in building the reign of God. Shared ministry creates the environment in which this can actually happen.
Shared ministry has the potential to turn a congregation around. A faith community concentrating on building a culture that pays great attention to the gifts of all its members—that nurtures their growth and development and supports them in a systematic way—will find itself attracting more members and carrying out its unique mission more effectively than previously imagined possible. Let’s look at some scenarios in which shared ministry can help solve a problem.
Loss of Membership
Congregations that have lost a large part of their membership through the aging and death of many of their members, changed demographics, and various internal problems often look at the future bleakly. Denominational leaders and pastors may assume these congregations will continue to spiral downward and that the job of their leaders is to preside over a slow but inevitable demise. In some cases, this may be a realistic appraisal. But in others the potential exists for this struggling faith community to rediscover its historical roots. The faith community can reclaim its original energy and regain passion for the mission it now sees for itself. To accomplish this requires that the leadership delve into the history of the parish and note what gifts those early members brought to the life of the community. Similarly, the parish needs to make a concentrated effort to discover and nurture the gifts of its members, to research the needs of the surrounding community, and to draw out the potential hidden in the people yet to be invited to participate.
Stuck on a Plateau
Some congregations can reach plateaus on which they linger and then begin a downward slide, with loss of members and burnout among those left behind. A shared ministry system will encourage such a parish to revisit its purpose, expectations, and ways of doing things. In reimagining itself through this process, a congregation can find new meaning, direction, and energy to revitalize its identity.
A congregation may experience growing pains. As more and more people come to such a church, it struggles to keep up under trying circumstances, such as inadequate staff numbers, cramped physical space, and ineffective ways of doing things. In this situation shared ministry offers a way to cope with these challenges by establishing new ways to invite members into ministry, designing creative processes to organize and support them, and adapting the role of paid staff to equip more and more members for participating in the church’s work.
Loss of a Key Leader
One might assume congregations that seem successful by most measures have no need to change the way they do things. But I have observed that even these faith communities can face challenges. A leadership vacuum occurs when certain people leave. A new pastor may experience difficult challenges in encouraging more active participation from lay members. Building a system of shared ministry will help to bring about this increased involvement by parishioners.
Entrenched Lay Leaders
Sometimes lay leaders may be so competent and stay in their positions for such a long time that it is difficult to bring along potential new members to grow into the leadership roles. Issues of who “owns” the ministry of the faith community can arise. It may be impossible for new leaders to follow in the footsteps of these longtime superheroes. This situation may also mean that nothing is in place for bringing new members into ministry and making them feel not only welcomed but also important contributors to the community. Shared ministry can help to change this culture into a sharing one.
Getting too comfortable with the status quo may cause leaders to fail to notice and prepare for changing needs. Failure to constantly assess leadership turnover and to plan for future eventualities may cause volunteer ministry to shrink alarmingly. Shared ministry promotes a system where no one person or group owns a ministry; instead, the entire congregation owns all the ministries collectively. A plan is in place for creating feeder systems to provide new leaders as the need arises.
Drop in Financial Giving
Frequently a congregation will experience both a lack of volunteer ministers and a drop in financial contributions at the same time. Another key benefit of shared ministry is that the more people are involved in volunteer work in the organization, the more financial contributions increase. People who feel a strong connection to the work of their faith community, who experience partnerships with staff members, and who are encouraged to play significant roles in the planning and decision-making process will often increase their financial support as well.
Fixation on Hospitality
While it is true that hospitality is an important issue in many churches, hospitality alone will not necessarily achieve ministry participation. The shared ministry system enables a congregation to build processes that not only welcome new members but also help people identify their gifts and how they can best use them in the church. Shared ministry deepens and extends the hospitality theme by helping newer members become involved in small ministry groups in which they can begin to develop relationships as they contribute their gifts to the work of a ministry and thereby feel more a part of congregational life.
Building a New Congregation
A congregation just beginning its life has a wonderful opportunity to build in this comprehensive system right from the beginning. Shared ministry presents a proven method of gathering the gifts of all members, building ways to design ministries, creating new ministries, and supporting existing ones. It fosters mutual respect and sharing in the work of the church, according to God’s direction.
This article is excerpted and adapted from New Life through Shared Ministry: Moving from Volunteering to Missionby Judith A. Urban. Copyright ©2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
New Life through Shared Ministry: Moving from Volunteering to Mission
by Judith A. Urban
In New Life through Shared Ministry, Judith Urban creates a pathway for building a shared ministry system. She assists readers in transforming their congregation into one where members are invited into volunteer ministry; people are matched according to their gifts and interests with ministry opportunities; volunteers are offered support, training, and appreciation; and all grow to spiritual maturity through that ministry. This comprehensive guide is based on Urban’s consulting, training, and planning with shared ministry directors and teams the past 12 years, her experience building a shared ministry system in a congregation, and her own studies in the field of volunteer management.
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Beating Burnout in Congregations
by Lynn M. Baab
What is burnout? What causes congregational volunteers to burn out? How can congregations become oases of peace and nurture while still carrying out their mission and ministry? After reflecting on these important questions and dozens of interviews with congregational volunteers, Baab suggests, “We must not fear burnout; instead, we need to do a better job coming alongside people as they experience burnout and help them figure out what they are learning.”
Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning
by Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell
This book draws on more than two decades of collaborative worship planning by pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma deWaal Malefyt of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life-enriching weekly worship. The authors enter into the trenches of weekly congregational life with this book, offering helpful insights into the process of how worship services are planned and led.
Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry: A Vision for New Spiritual Community
by Marcia Barnes Bailey
Craig Satterlee helps congregations learn to articulate their convictions about the Christian faith and share them in a nonthreatening manner. This prepares them for broader conversation about how people’s faith convictions shape both their lives and the congregation’s worship, life together, and mission .
Congregational Fitness: Healthy Practices for Layfolk
by Denise W. Goodman
When serious conflict surfaces in a congregation, lay people are usually stunned. They feel frightened, angry, and helpless. Congregational Fitness explores why congregations are prone to conflict and describes healthy behaviors lay people can practice to manage conflict constructively. Goodman argues that since it is members of the congregation who carry on from one pastor to another, it is important for them to know and practice positive behaviors continually, rather than reacting out of emotion and anxiety to an unexpected situation.
Time to brush up your leadership skills?
Broaden your mind, increase your confidence, and gain skills and tools you will use every day:
Leading Adaptive Change
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
July 23-25, Simpsonwood Conference Center
Dealing with Congregational Discord
Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
July 30 – August 1, Roslyn Retreat Center
Dealing with Difficult Behavior
(repeat of February 2013 event)
Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban senior consultant
September 17-19, Fransiscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale, AZ
Motivating and Equipping Leaders and Volunteers: Understanding Personality Type in Your Congregation
Leader: Linda Rich, Alban consultant
November 12-14, Holy Family Retreat Center
West Hardford, CT
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