How Do We Best Serve Our Neighbors?

bird and cage tattooAs a strategic planner, I encourage congregations to look for places where their gifts and skills can meet the particular needs of their neighbors. As a human service provider, I watch my clients trudge all over town, piecing together services they need. I worry that despite our good intentions, sometimes congregations make life harder for our neighbors than we should.

The problem may lie in the gap between our wish to serve our neighbors and our need to build a signature program or service that can constitute our congregation’s special “brand.”

We all get the need for a brand. Many congregations of the former mainline are declining already or in danger of doing so. Not all will survive. Congregations that do survive do so for of a variety of reasons, but usually one reason is that they become known for some special aspect of their life together —a charismatic preacher, committed outreach to the homeless, or great LGBTQ community. Each congregation needs a “brand” to convey who they are and what they value, and denominational affiliation and physical identifiers (like “the church with the red doors”) no longer create the kind of reputation that attracts participation.

Outreach As Branding

Some congregations seek to form identity through service to the community. For this to work, each congregation’s service has to be unique, or at least special in some way. It might operate the only clothing closet in town, for instance—or the only one that serves formerly homeless women, teen-agers seeking prom dresses, or men re-entering the workforce.

But here’s the rub. If every congregation wants to serve in a unique special way, and as a result each service is offered in isolation from the others, then people need to travel to get help. And most people in need don’t have the time or the resources to manage a disjointed delivery system.

For example, last March the food pantries I work with served 16,000 people. A third of these were 17 or younger. Of the adults:

  • 26% were employed full- or part-time.
  • 5% lived with children or others needing care.
  • 15% were on disability or had applied for disability.
  • 19% were retired or receiving Social Security.
  • 4% were students.
  • 4% had significant language-based barriers to work.
  • 26% were either looking for work or had medical or mental health issues that currently prevent them from working.

In addition, most food pantry clients have transportation challenges—cars that don’t work or work sporadically, bus routes don’t go to the locations that provide services, and friends and family who can’t always be depended on for rides because their lives, too, are complex.

Most of these individuals are forced to take advantage of an array of human services in order to survive—clothing closets, food pantries, and community meal sites; federal programs like WIC and SNAP and Commodity Supplemental Foods; public and private providers of rent and utilities assistance; free clinics; publicly-supported hospitals and community health centers; and providers of free dental or eye care—not to mention all the childcare providers, workforce development and training sites, community colleges, and training programs that help the working-aged portion of this population to improve their lives. And by the way, each of these services requires office visits and at least some waiting in line.

Helping Our Neighbors

The people I serve do not live easy lives. The safety net we’ve built over the years meets many needs, but for the most part we’ve built it out of leftovers and good intentions. To an embarrassing extent, we have designed it to meet our needs—to be open when it’s convenient for us, and located where it’s easiest for us to volunteer. We have not designed it as an easy-to-use, one-stop shop that helps minimize the time people spend getting assistance and maximize the time spent working or caring for children or learning something new.

When congregations build our separate identities by proliferating stand-alone programs, we magnify this problem.

We don’t need to address social needs in such a scattered way. In my own community, an emergency shelter first created 30 years ago by a ten congregations occupies a new, three-story building across the street from a new, efficient warehouse for a food pantry network started 40 years ago by 150 congregations. Virtually every congregation that participated in the creation of these programs still exists and still participates in their work.

Yes, each congregation needs a brand—I get that. Fewer and fewer people are interested in affiliating with a Christian congregation, and those who are interested want to know what distinguishes us from each other. But as we think about serving neighbors in need, we should think first about their need for a better life, not our need to feel useful or be celebrated. Rather than complicating the difficult lives they already have, we can work together to design a system that creates new life for our neighbors.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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