The church I lead has a café. We renovated our fellowship hall 11 years ago to welcome and bless our neighbors. And we have undoubtedly done that. But two years ago we closed the café for Christmas and had serious doubts about whether it would ever open again. Some difficult and extreme measures had to be taken if we wanted this treasured place to continue. And after two hard years, we are thrilled to find our café thriving. More than ever before.
From the beginning, the café was to be different from businesses whose main goal is to grow themselves. We wanted to be generous in all we did. Which almost ran us into the ground. Generosity is undoubtedly a goal we still have but we have come to define it in new ways, ways that I have found helpful for ministry, on both an organizational and a personal level.
The purpose of a business is to earn more than it spends. To provide for the business’s needs. To continue. It reinvests in itself for the purpose of sustaining itself and growing itself. It requires choices that will keep itself alive. This is good and normal for a business. But it can seem self-centered and inward-focused compared to ministry.
A ministry exists to bless, to give, to serve others. And so in everything we do in ministry, we empty ourselves, give away more than we receive. That's why they're "non-profit." Serve much and ask little in return. Which looks very outward-focused, very selfless. And it is. Until we run ourselves out of business. And then what help are we to anyone?
If we believe it is good for us to be here, doing what we’re doing (whether we’re a Christian café, a church, or an individual who serves), isn’t it an important part of our call not only to bless but to continue to bless? And so we’re learning, in our decision-making processes, to bring this dual calling into play. We’re learning to ask: What will help us not only to bless, but to continue to bless?
What did this actually mean? It meant that we had to say no to anything that limited our ability to bless and continue to bless. Which meant that anything that kept people from feeling welcome we had to resist, including behaviors of other guests. Some regulars felt so welcome in the café that it felt like home, and for some that meant bringing their dogs inside and for another that meant clipping his toenails in the café! This meant that those few people were so comfortable that it made many others uncomfortable. It threatened both our ability to welcome everyone and our ability to keep welcoming everyone. (If we lost too many customers, it would affect our financial sustainability).
So we had to say, “You are welcome. And your dog is welcome … on the porch” and “You are welcome. But your toenail clippers are not.”
So it’s a balance. We make sure we are blessing people now, and not just accumulating resources for later. And in our ministry plans, rather than storing away resources only to protect our continuation or giving resources to only empty ourselves, we ask how can we bless in a way that allows us to continue to bless, year after year? In our use of our personal time and energy, rather than keeping ourselves to ourselves to protect our personal continuation or giving ourselves to the point of exhaustion, how can we bless in a way that allows us to bless and to continue to bless, year after year?
A while back, a few members of our community raised the idea of starting a ministry to host a regular meal for homeless people in our neighborhood. As a church and café that is all about hospitality, it seemed like a natural fit. It’s a meaningful cause, there is certainly a need, and we have some resources to offer.
But as we explored the health and safety issues, and the time and energy of our staff, we had to say it wasn’t possible for us. It felt wrong to say no to a ministry to the homeless, but had to see that, if we were committed to our existing café ministry, to continue to bless in that way meant we couldn’t ask our café staff to both run a café and manage the ongoing demands of a weekly meal ministry.
We had to determine what our capacities could absorb and what would push us into unsustainable overload.
This divide sometimes seems to provide a choice of selfishness vs. selflessness. But that’s a false choice. Instead, when we understand that the best way to bless is to be here to bless long term, these issues are not “our needs vs. their needs” issues. Instead, if our ability to continue to be here means continuing to bless, even as we sustain ourselves as ministries, organizations and ministers, we are doing so for the sake of others.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.