“Where do we start?”
This is a common question raised whenever dreamers and ministry innovators gather together. The question is frequently leveraged after someone passionately outlines their vision for a creative and intentional ministry effort in their neighborhood. Then, after a few moments of excitement and a border-line hyperbolic monologue, the tone changes and zeal withers; uncertainty about how to get this idea off the ground overshadows the once prophetic and imaginative spirit.
So where do we start?
Maybe with the alphabet.
Over the last 15 months a few of us in the Presbytery of Philadelphia developed a framework in which to jumpstart ministry innovation and ease the angst that can so easily stifle dreams for new possibilities. In what we have called, “The ABC’s of Ministry Innovation and Grant Writing,” these helpful tips have aided our imagineers as they not only ask the critical questions, but also frame grant applications that can generate new funding sources of sustainability.
ABC’s of Ministry Innovation and Grant Writing
Awareness of Context & Community
Ministry cannot be done in a vacuum or framed by assumptions. Packaged programs no longer, if ever, work. As the church explores creative ministry within the complexity of the twenty-first century, key questions about both the story of the neighborhood and the story of the congregation must be asked. Consider, what is the demographic of your neighborhood? What is the history of the community? Where are the third places, beyond the home and places of work, whereby people gather for conversation and social activity? What are the real and urgent concerns of your neighborhood? Who are those who have been isolated and marginalized by both the community and (possibly) church? What assets do both the community and congregation possess to engage and work towards the healing of these issues and real concerns? At the very beginning of ministry innovation is the work of cultural exegesis- a variation of anthropological and sociological research that can help decipher what ministry can and should look like in a particular place at a particular time. This intentional, yet frequently-overlooked, period of questioning can leverage something both of value and of holistic impact alongside your local neighbors.
Budgetary Stewardship & Sustainability
Finances can be the great killer of dreams. Money can also be the means of grace by which the Spirit sustains new demonstrations of love and hospitality. That said, while budgeting for sustainability is essential, beware of allowing money to be the driving agent of ministry. Instead, develop a holistic and contextualized mission and vision first and then work to find funding partners. If dollars are where you start, the ministry dream will quickly die due to the weight of perceived limitation. Nevertheless, as budgets are crafted (and they must be crafted), look for resources beyond the congregation. Invitations to stewardship should not be limited to those who sit in the pews. Invite community partners, grant providers, and digital platforms like GoFundMe and Kickstarter to support the discerned ministry of impact. Creativity should flow not only through the idea, but also the search for financial sustainability. Even more, each investing partner becomes a sort of evangelist for the cause able to generate new interest and ideas.
Collaborative & Congregational Partnerships
It takes a village to leverage a new initiative. Even more, leadership does not only come from those who monopolize the spotlight and claim privilege at the front of the room. Invite those who are in the back of the room to have voice of influence; look beyond your congregation and to your community as a primary pool for generative leadership and new possibilities. Explore local neighbors, nearby faith communities, entrepreneurs, public officials, small business owners, teachers, community organizers, and field experts to be a part of the visioning and implementation. It can even be said that a board of directors is sometimes more pertinent than a council or session for the ownership and effectiveness of a given ministry. A board may be a means to empower and celebrate the gifts of your neighbors who do not frequent your church yet now find the congregation as a place of welcome and solidarity.
Distinct & Imaginative Initiatives
What can you develop that others may not have previously considered a vital need in your neighborhood? What makes your congregation uniquely poised to engage your community and extend the love of Christ through compassion, hospitality, and a real willingness to serve alongside others. Do you have a building with adequate space to host a computer lab for after school programs amidst broken education systems, a gym that can be utilized to provide recreational programs for neighborhood kids, local artists willing to celebrate creativity alongside those struggling with addiction and loss, open space that can be transformed into community gardens in contexts of food insecurity, members passionate about social justice with connections to those who can work towards holistic change, etc. All of this and more will require risk and a willingness to try, fail, and try again. It will also assume relationships have been developed with those who live and work in close proximity to the congregation.
Evaluation & Communication of Ministry
"Reformed and reforming" is not only a theological mantra, but also the very undercurrent of church mission. As new ministries are leveraged, a key to sustainability is the willingness to undergo raw and honest evaluation. At some point, all churches were innovative and intentional plants developed by disciples called to that place and time. Those churches that continue to exist and bear witness in their communities, some 300 years later, are those who have been willing to live into the evolution of their neighborhood, congregation, and available mediums for community formation. There are no sacred cows and nothing is immune to change. So evaluate, adapt, adjust, and reframe as the Spirit leads and as the context demands. Even more, as you evaluate, look for creative platforms and new media to tell your story to both church and world; be willing to listen to those who offer constructive feedback. Who knows what new initiative may be birthed out of your no-longer-new initiative?
Faithfulness to the Gospel & Mission of the Church
Ministry is not creative programming for programming’s sake. Instead, mission is the very lifeblood of the church and the call of Christ’s gathered and scattered people. Innovation has been a part of the work and witness of the church from the very beginning, “…I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh and your youth shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17, translation mine). As all of God’s people collaborate together across various lines of age, race, ethnicity, culture, orientation, and theological conviction, good news is sure to bubble up in the midst of our wearied world.
Now you know your ABC’s- it’s time to dream in your communities.