Maximum Ministry

How churches can successfully discern and answer God's call to serve.

Grace Church (not its real name), a relatively large church in a medium-sized Midwestern city, had a rapidly aging congregation. Church leaders determined to counter this trend by boosting their youth ministry. The young, newly ordained man they hired as a youth minister could have stepped out of a Ralph Lauren clothes ad. He had tremendous charisma.

Within weeks, the ministry flourished as the youth minister recruited teens to be trained and developed for peer leadership. The ministry setup seemed perfect. Everything was going as planned. But it soon became apparent that these peer leaders were loyal to the youth pastor, not to the church. All of the 150 teens involved in the ministry attended services led by this pastor, but very few attended regular church services.

The senior pastor and the church board became very uncomfortable with the lack of connection between the youth ministry and the rest of the congregation. But when they made their concerns known to the youth pastor, he shrugged them off, saying, "I'm getting results. That's what you wanted. So if you don't like what I am doing, find someone else."

Within a year, he left the church for another ministry opportunity. Lacking a strategic and personal connection to the congregation, the church's youth ministry collapsed.

What went wrong? Was the failure of Grace Church's youth ministry avoidable? What steps, if any, could the church have taken to ensure the ministry's long-term success? We'll answer these questions as we look at a proven step-by-step method for developing successful ministries.

Choosing a Ministry

Every church is confronted with an endless choice of ministry opportunities. One of the toughest jobs church leaders face is to decide which opportunities to address with the limited resources they have, and which opportunities to pass by. What criteria should church leaders use in making these decisions?

The first criterion is to assess the ministry opportunity against the church's unique vision and mission. While all Christian churches share a universal vision and mission, every local church also has a unique ministry vision and mission in its community. Churches that have not explicitly stated their unique ministry vision and mission are subject to starting ministries that never seem to go anywhere.

As evidenced by its aging congregation, we can assume Grace Church's unique vision and mission over the years had not included an emphasis on youth ministry. Not every church needs to emphasize youth ministry, but when Grace decided to invest heavily in a youth ministry, its strategy was inconsistent with its established mission.

Churches sometimes assume that an individual's passion for a ministry is a signal from God to support that ministry. Be careful here. Brian McAuliffe, the chief financial officer and director of operations at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, stresses the importance of ministry discernment.  "A critical step in evaluating a new ministry is to match the call in a person's heart to serve and the vision and direction of the congregation."

Another criterion in choosing a ministry is to define the community that will be served by the new ministry. In some churches, ministry extends only as far as congregational support: Sunday school teacher, choir member, or worship greeter. But ministry must be directed outward at the same time.

Was Grace Church's interest in youth ministry a response to a community need (outward focused) or to a congregational need (inward focus)? Be aware that churches sometimes develop ministries and outreach programs in order to counter a slow decline in membership and attendance. In these cases, the church may be reacting to a crisis more than responding to a clear call from God or a clear sense of ministry direction as discovered through fervent prayer.

Choosing a Ministry Leader

Ministries are not always embodied in an office or an ordination. In other words, while it is sometimes necessary to let the pastor or staff member lead a ministry, it's best in many cases to start a ministry with a core group of enthusiastic volunteers. There are two reasons for this.

The first is to avoid the "top down" structure of ministry, where the ministry is treated more like a job with employers telling employees what to do. The second reason is to reserve the pastor's time for addressing larger questions of vision, mission, strategy, biblical teaching, and theological reflection regarding the entire congregation.

Whether the person chosen to lead the ministry is a paid staff member or a volunteer from the congregation, he or she should have the passion and energy to get the ministry started. The person under consideration for ministry leadership must also accept accountability to church leadership, including the pastor and governing board. In this regard, character discernment is essential.

"A passionate person in a church often is a new Christian, who has a new sense of urgency in responding to a perceived call from God," says McAuliffe. "They may not have the spiritual maturity to withstand ministry challenges. Or they may start the work, and then move away. Then the fellow workers and church members are left holding the bag and must decide whether and how to continue the work."

As a congregation grows, ministry development may require the addition of part-time or full-time compensated positions. Often the transition from a volunteer to a paid position occurs when the weekly time demand for a ministry leader exceeds 10 hours a week.

Did Grace Church need to hire an energetic, passionate, and charismatic leader for its youth ministry? Church leaders might have been better off starting with volunteers passionate for youth ministry but firmly committed to the larger church mission. Ministries sometimes grow best from small beginnings.

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, a Spanish-speaking ministry developed into a part-time and then a full-time position when new Hispanic residents in the area needed more assistance than the bilingual pastor could provide, or that volunteers could give. The church hired a Spanish-speaking associate pastor, and now the ministry is tremendously effective.

Will Grace Church ever be able to launch a successful youth ministry? Of course it can, but it will need to address its unique vision and mission, and get the right people involved to launch the ministry with the proper foundation.

Start With a Vision

McAuliffe points out that Willow Creek's statements of vision, mission, and values provide the essential framework for new ministry development. New ideas are assessed in light of these statements and their perceived contribution to the strategic plan. Volunteers need to understand and buy into the long-term goals to be considered for ministry leadership.

If your church does not have a clearly articulated, unique vision and mission for itself and the communities it serves, apply pressure to get the process started. This takes time and effort, but ministries can reach their full potential only when the congregation truly understands and supports God's unique calling for their church.

Look for the Need

If the proposed new ministry matches the church's vision and mission, the next step is to assess the specific needs addressed by the proposed ministry. The assessment should look in the congregation and in the target community or communities to find out if the proposed ministry addresses real needs.

The pastor and leaders at Christ Church in Streator, Illinois, prayed for discernment regarding God's call to serve their community, which was struggling with plant closings, job losses, and the resulting economic hardship. Church leaders suspected that people were so hard pressed that proper nutrition had become a problem in every age group. This need was confirmed by a church member who served as a community nurse. She also confirmed that no other church was meeting the need.

A nonprofit group in the community had a food pantry, but no church or organization provided a community meal where anyone could come and eat free of charge. The church had a historic and abiding commitment to community service as part of its mission, and members put on congregational meals from time to time, using the church's well-equipped kitchen.

As church members prayed about this potential ministry, a woman came forward to offer help. She attended the church, but never found her niche for serving. She was well-organized, and knew how to separate community meal preparation into manageable tasks. The church went ahead with the ministry plan, and its Community Meal today draws 50 to 75 community residents every month.

Sometimes, church members' secular work helps them to know first-hand of service gaps in the surrounding community. Angela McCann, director of children's ministries at Cascade Covenant Church in North Bend, Washington, recalls how Rest Stop, a ministry to special-needs children and their parents, first began.

"Our pastor's wife is a special education teacher in the school district," McCann recalls. "She knew that these children were not participating in any particular church ministry addressing their special needs. She also knew that the parents could not find any help with respite care so that the husband and wife could have time for each other." And, of course, the pastor's wife had the professional ability to oversee such a ministry. "So we knew that this was a niche in the community that we could fill."

The Rest Stop ministry takes place one Friday evening each month. Parents bring their special-needs children for care by 35 trained laypeople and fellow Sunday school students. Then the parents can go for a "date" with each other.

"Our church not only has blessed our community," McCann says, "but we also have gained many members among these families because we offer something that no other church in the area offers." Now, she says, the church is considering a similar ministry outreach to special-needs adults.

Prioritize in Prayer

When a church is blessed with active, engaged, and creative members, decision-makers are often presented with many ministry opportunities. Choices are easier when a church has predetermined its ministry paths. As an example, leaders at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, felt called by God to serve not only the surrounding communities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, but the global missions community as well. But in what way?

Through intensive prayer, church leaders discerned God's call to get involved in an HIV-AIDS ministry locally, nationally, and abroad, especially in Africa, where in some areas the disease affects nearly one third of the population including men, women, and children. The church formed Wooddale Worldwide, an organization now involved in financial and prayer partnerships with African churches through World Relief Southern Africa. The church's congregation supports strategic partnerships in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The church also will commission missionary families from its own congregation to serve in relief and development ministries in southern Africa.

Tom Carrell, pastor of Wooddale Worldwide, talks about how this ministry was strategically developed: "First, we wanted to launch an effort to engage other North American churches in AIDS-related ministry in Africa. Second, we wanted to find a country or area where Wooddale Church could be significantly involved in strategic partnership with African churches. Finally, we wanted to connect with AIDS ministries and organizations locally."

Prayer is essential at every point in the process of ministry development, but perhaps most important when setting priorities. With finite resources, not every proposal can be accepted, and people may approach this process with a sense of competition. Prayer will keep people focused on listening for God's answer, rather than man's, to determine which ministries to develop.

Create Ministry Descriptions

Before people will commit their time to a ministry, they want to know what will be expected of them. Ministry descriptions that are specific and written are important because they give people the information they need to make a commitment.

Some years ago, Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas, created a 112-page booklet called Opportunities for Ministry. In it, the church provides descriptions of all the ministries within the 5,200-member congregation, and lists "job descriptions" for every ministry opportunity. Each description contains six concisely-worded sections:

  1. Position Description
  2. Skills Required
  3. Training Provided
  4. Number of Volunteers Needed
  5. Time Commitment
  6. Benefits to Volunteers

These six sections create a nice outline for your ministry job descriptions, which can be written specifically for volunteers or part-time or full-time paid ministry employees.

Identify Ministry Giftedness

The nature of Christian ministry requires that church leaders identify spiritual giftedness of ministry workers, as well as their skills and abilities. That's what happened at Christ Church Limestone, a historic congregation just outside of Peoria, Illinois, where I served as pastor for nearly 10 years.

As the small congregation rapidly grew, church members did not want to work in a program-oriented church; they wanted something deeper. After a strategic-planning process that was bathed in prayer, many members completed a spiritual-gifts inventory. The community outreach vision would be grounded in the gifts provided through the Holy Spirit.

The church identified several members with the gift of compassion. Some of these people also taught in elementary schools where children came from desperately poor homes. These gifted people also had administrative skills. The church developed a ministry of compassionate outreach through the local public school administration. The congregation was inspired, and gifts of food, clothing, gift cards, and supplies started to pour into the church.

Commission

Finally, for ministry development to take root in effective service in the name of Christ, it is essential to initiate, consecrate, and motivate the new ministry. One compelling method is through commissioning new ministry leaders.

In my time at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Chillicothe, Illinois, a youth ministry developed to such a point that we created a youth minister position. At a Sunday service, the first person to take this position came forward to be installed and to receive the laying on of hands by church members. God prospered this ministry with tremendous congregational support. When a ministry develops to the point that the leader becomes a member of the church's staff, that leader should be recognized and blessed by the members.

Through all these steps, it is essential to undergird ministry development with focused and fervent prayer. Pray for the congregation to discover God's unique call. Pray to discern God's timing for new ministry opportunities. Pray over the selection of ministry leaders, whether full- or part-time, paid or volunteer. Pray that ministries chosen for development will be successful in meeting real needs. And through all the work and struggles of developing new ministries, pray joyfully and in thanksgiving for the opportunity to be involved in God's work.

Dr. John R. Throop is a management consultant and trainer. He also assists at the LaSalle County Episcopal Cluster, a four-church ministry based in Ottawam, Illinois.

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