Most congregations engage in some form of social ministry—or believe they should. Some call it missions, others outreach, social action, or benevolence. From relatively modest actions like collecting canned goods for the local food bank to major projects like building a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the collective contribution of churches, mosques, and synagogues to the welfare of the needy is enormous. By contributing, they set an example of generosity and faithful stewardship. But why do they do it?
If the question seems impertinent, let me rephrase it: Why, exactly, should a congregation feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, or free the oppressed? For Christians, I have almost answered my own question: in these words Jesus taught that service to “the least of these” was necessary for salvation. He was not saying anything especially original. For Jews, charity (tzedakah) is a basic part of being a good person. In these traditions, as in others, it is pretty clear that individuals ought to help others.
But why congregations? When other social agencies exist to help the needy, won’t they usually have more expertise and skill? Why not simply encourage members to give time and money to the best nonprofits in each field of service? Some congregations take a sort of clearing-house approach: they collect money and write checks and recruit volunteers but do not organize outreach ministries of their own. By soliciting their gifts and passing them along, the congregation sets a good example and guides its members’ stewardship of time and money.
Most congregations, though, feel called to organize for service on their own. Instead of—or in addition to—relying on other charities, they claim some piece of the action and engage directly. The Salvation Army puts service to the poor at the top of its priority list each day-and attains a level of professionalism rare in a church.
Typically, though, socially active churches cast a wide and shallow net: a soup kitchen downtown, a mission trip to Haiti, socks for servicepeople, quilts for hurricane survivors, plus a contributions budget dispensed to many worthy causes local and denominational. A few brave congregations go beyond helping individuals and families and advocate changes in government or corporate policies that are among the causes of the suffering they see.
What is Our mission?
Why do they do it? In budgeting and planning for this work, most congregations say their mission is to help others. That’s a good answer. For many congregations, though, a better answer is to say the purpose of social ministry is instead to change the lives of its own members.
The mission of a hospital is to heal the sick. I am suggesting that for many congregations, a better analogy would be a medical school, whose mission is to train doctors and nurses. Medical schools (and their associated teaching hospitals) treat lots of patients; you can’t train doctors without giving them a chance to practice. The purpose of the medical professions is to heal. The purpose of the school, though, is not to heal but to create healers.
Some of my church clients have found it fruitful to reframe their social mission from “We serve the needy,” to “We transform our members into Christian disciples who live lives of service.” It is a small but important shift. Some existing outreach ministries continue without change. But the criteria for initiating, evaluating, staffing, and funding social ministry change quite a bit.
For instance, if our main goal is to change our members’ lives, we will not be satisfied to write a check from the church treasury. We would prefer to send some of our people along with it so they can engage in the kind of service that may change their lives.
Few visitors arrive at congregations’ doors hoping to be transformed—least of all to be made generous. But most do have at least a vague desire to be of service. Once they are surrounded by people for whom generosity with time and money have become a way of life, in a congregation that offers manageable entry-point opportunities to serve, the transformation comes.
Many congregations already act as though the mission of their missions program is to change their member’s lives. They send people of all ages overseas on mission trips. Usually the work accomplished by the missioners does less good than a good agency or local leaders could do with a check for the cost of the trip. But the trips continue, largely because of the testimonies of those who return: “My life was changed.” How would the trip be different if transforming the participants were the congregation’s primary goal rather than a side-effect?
Building Personal Connections
In congregations that see social ministry this way, I see a greater emphasis on personally connecting with the “beneficiaries” of the work, person to person. Several congregations, for example this one, have built ongoing relationships with villages in Latin America, including mission trips, sustained financial support, and even pen-pal relationships between members and the people of the village.
When congregations focus on transforming their own people into servants, they may find ways to link their social ministries to members’ work lives. As good as Habitat is, getting a lawyer or physician or accountant to spend a day swinging a hammer, most of the time volunteer service remains a leisure-time pursuit. What would happen if a congregation partnered with a poor community nearby and offered to provide professional services? That is the formula used by the Jericho Road Project which links congregations in affluent Boston suburbs to social agencies and businesses in nearby Lowell. Volunteers do what they do professionally: “from board building organizational assessment, and strategic planning to marketing strategy, grant-application writing, and Web-site development.”
Linking Ministry to Work
By linking social ministry to members’ work lives, congregations can provoke reflection on how work itself might be transformed into a social ministry. Transformation becomes more than a change of heart—it extends into the economic sphere where a changed heart can sometimes find its greatest point of leverage.
Congregations can and do make a difference to the lives of those they help through the outreach ministries they sponsor. But they make an even greater difference in the lives of their own members. In planning outreach ministries, it is important to remember that the lives we can transform the most may be our own.
A version of this article was originally published in the Clergy Journal.