Church-centric Missions

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I am a missionary. That’s how I am listed on the annual missions report of a suburban church that supports our work in the city. My picture is placed on one of the bulletin boards that line their main hall, along with a score of other sponsored ministries and missionaries that serve all over the globe. My monthly newsletter is also posted there. I am prayed for regularly and am invited to give a field report at the annual missions conference. For years the financial support of this church body has been one of my most steady, dependable streams of income. I am enormously thankful for their support. They have played a significant role in enabling me to follow the call of God to serve among the poor of the inner-city. I trust that I have been a faithful steward of their investments. A while back I was invited to join their pastor and members of their missions committee for lunch at the church. It was for fellowship and encouragement, they said. Not far into the friendly chit-chat another agenda surfaced. They wanted to explore ways their church could be more personally involved in hands-on ministry in the city. Over the years, they reminded me, some of their members had volunteered with us but that was some time ago. They wanted to discuss new ways they could become re-engaged in service with us. They were re-evaluating their missions giving and wanted to allocate their funds in the most strategic ways, which meant having as much as possible the personal participation of members in the ministries they supported.

It was a welcome offer. We certainly need compassionate, committed friends to join with us to help shoulder the demanding workload. There are sports teams to coach, kids to tutor, houses to build, widows to visit. But as I went down through a menu of opportunities, I could tell by the expressions on their faces that I was not scratching quite where they were itching. What they would really like, it eventually came out, was a monthly listing of needs and service opportunities for church members to select from and someone from our staff to schedule and coordinate volunteer involvement. A volunteer coordinator to handle the volunteer needs of their church? Is that what they were asking for? Well, yes, they explained. In this way their missions dollars could both support their missionaries and at the same time meet the spiritual needs of their membership to be personally involved in missions. It was a win-win approach. They might even consider upping my support level.

My mind went to the growing stack of demands that awaited me back at my office, each with immediate priority. And the staff who were stretched thin trying to keep up with their pressing duties — the tense zoning hearing at city hall that would determine if we could start construction on a house a family desperately needs… intrigue at the school board meeting where a self-serving board member was attempting to torpedo our application for a new charter school… meeting with a banker who would give thumbs up or down on a property we had been working on for more than two years… and, of course, the predictable stream of crises — evictions, break-ins, arrests, runaways, fights, all laced into the routine responsibilities of running an urban ministry. I wondered where in my list of priorities I might insert the additional duties of a volunteer coordinator.

The thought of picking up the weight of one more responsibility made my stomach tighten. On the surface I remained cordial, maintained good eye contact, but inside I was beginning to seethe. Did these bright, efficiency-oriented, well-resourced church leaders really think that I should drop front-line duties in order to promote, organize and manage the urban mission outreach for their congregation? And the not-so-subtle offer of a potential increase in financial support? It somehow felt more manipulative than supportive.

I inhaled deeply, silently, and released a bit of the tightness (no, anger!) that was knotting my viscera. These were good people, friends, wanting to be faithful and intelligent leaders in their church. They were also busy people trying to efficiently expedite the good works of other busy people. Time is money in their world. Return on investment (ROI) was responsible stewardship. Getting a double return on their mission investment — support a missionary and support church volunteerism with the same dollar — this was good money management. What they were failing to take into account, however, was that someone was going to have to pick up the cost of volunteer management. Me! Had I been more desperate for their extra dollars, I might have agreed to their offer. After all, fundraising is a necessary discipline for missionaries. Instead, I encouraged them to create a position within the church — call it ministry of volunteer mobilization — that would take on this important mission. I would be delighted to coordinate urban service opportunities with that person.

The church dropped my support.

More recently I have been in dialogue with another church, a rapidly growing young congregation in an upscale in-town area of Atlanta. They are a “seeker friendly” church attracting thousands of young professionals to media-rich services with live contemporary music and winsome gospel presentations. The leadership recognizes the importance of a “love God, love neighbor” theology and is encouraging their congregation to become actively engaged in service, especially among the less fortunate of the city. And their theology is more than mere words — they have a full-time staff person whose responsibility is to mobilize members to active involvement beyond the walls of the church. We have had a number of meetings to explore how their congregation might partner with our inner-city ministry.

The reservoir of talent in this church is daunting. Released into society, this energetic, highly skilled force could have amazingly redemptive impact. The church leaders recognize this awesome responsibility and are taking it very seriously. They have rejected the traditional church missions model (missions committee, budget, conference, etc.) and have decided rather to put their energy behind mobilizing members to hands-on community service in a broad range of settings. Money follows vision, they have rightly concluded. As their members catch a vision for ministry in the community and the world, their giving will flow toward the causes that have captured their hearts. The church’s role is to raise their awareness to the needs, help connect them to opportunities and let God do the rest. Last Saturday more than a hundred of these eager young professionals converged on our neighborhood to repair a widow’s home, landscape a blind woman’s yard, paint a community thrift store, pick up truckloads of trash and old tires, and a least a dozen other community-enhancing tasks. The whole event cost our ministry nearly $4,000.

The church has made a decision not to give money to ministries like ours. On occasion they might offer a small donation to assist with a project their members participate in. But their major contribution, they contend, is the labor they provide. The real benefit to our organization is not only the free labor but the support their members will offer out of their own pockets as they become involved in our work. This “real benefit” almost always costs us money.

I understand their rationale. When a church is attempting to mobilize thousands of volunteers, it certainly isn’t going to have enough funds to support the plethora of programs its members are engaged in. Picking and choosing which ones to fund and at what levels — well, that could lead to all sorts of tensions and conflicts among members. Better to leave funding decisions to the personal discretion of individual members. Experience has shown us, however, that when busy people have sacrificed their precious Saturdays they are hardly eager to fork over an additional hundred or two to cover costs for supervision and materials. So for us it becomes a real challenge to raise funds from other sources to support the service project of an affluent church.

I offer this Tale of Two Churches to tee up a question. When a church makes decisions about serving others, whose interests are being considered — the church’s or the ones being served? Regardless of whether a church expects their missionaries to provide volunteer coordinating functions or whether a church expects urban ministries to organize, fund and staff their service project, the issue is the same. Are they helping to shoulder the weight of the front-line troops or are they placing additional burdens on the battle-fatigued?

I understand well the need for efficient systems. We face this challenge on the urban ministry end of the equation as well. Take our administrative team for example. Their role is to add-minister — that is, enhance the ministry of our staff by relieving them of the myriad details required to make an organization function responsibly. Handling a dozen different programs all with different accounting demands, cranking out payroll for 50+ staff each with different hours, pay scales and deductions, responding to scores of check requests all of which have immediate priority, monitoring company credit card charges, meeting audit demands and IRS reporting requirements…you get the idea. If they are to keep their sanity and maintain a semblance of control, they have to create systems to bring order to their work. Timesheets in by 3 PM Thursday, three-day turn around for check requests, receipts to accompany reimbursements — all reasonable requests to keep the ministry running smoothly for everyone. But over time these reasonable requests can begin to sound a bit more like dictatorial directives, like authoritarian regulations with penalties for non-compliance. No paychecks if timesheets not in by noon Thursday, no reimbursements if not submitted on proper form and accompanied by legitimate receipts, do not disturb bookkeeper on Fridays. In the name of efficiency the “ad-ministers” tend to devise all manner of forms and rules and procedures to make their job easier. When their goal is efficiency they can easily ignore the time and effort it takes the ministry staff to jump through an increasing number of hoops. The ad-ministers can end up adding burdens rather than lifting the load of those they are supposed to be serving. Believe me, I know the tension.

I do understand how this happens — how good people wanting to do a good job can end up creating self-serving systems. And how good churches led by busy people can devise ways to efficiently expedite their duties at the expense of others. But at some point, someone has to raise the question: who’s serving whom? Are administrators serving the staff or are the staff serving the administrators? Is the church enabling missionaries to minister or are the missionaries serving the church? Is the church lightening the load of the front-line workers or are the troops on the ground bearing the additional weight of the church’s efficiently-run service projects? There. I’ve stated it. I feel much better now!

Bob Lupton

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