How to Build Up (or Break Down) a Great Mission Team
It’s January, already. Did the church’s nominating committee manage to fill all the slots on the mission committee for the New Year? Finding volunteers willing to fill vacancies—great, supportive people who will come to meetings and show up at events—seems to be a never-ending pursuit. “Where are these people?” we ask. “There are great people in this church—members with talent and passion. Why don’t they want to serve on this committee?”
Why indeed? Committees—developed over time and spanning the national, conference, district, and local church structures—served the church well for many years. United Methodist Women developed an intricate web of committees across district and conference lines. These committees functioned well and got a lot done, sending consistent messages that reached every member of each local unit. But do such institutional structures still work? Does a younger generation approach organizing and logistics in the same way its elders did?
“Why” is a difficult but necessary question for congregations to ask about their ministries. “Who are we serving?” is another good question, but let’s stick to the “why” for now. Because I have served in a leadership position as laity for my local church, I’ve found that I am expected to attend related district and conference events as well. If my “Why am I needed at this district event?” question is answered with “Because that’s required of your position,” then trouble is brewing. That is an institutional answer—a common and effective one when building and maintaining the church as an institution was important.
However, recent studies have shown that younger generations of church members have little loyalty and even less patience for maintaining the church as an institution. In other words, if I attend the district meeting and find that it is a pro forma annual event that involves the same worship services, officer installations, and committee reports every year, I will soon conclude that my presence is not really needed. I will not return, even if it is “required of my position.”
Another way to look at it is this. Even though my father is a United Methodist pastor, and I am a lifelong member, and my kids attended a vibrant and dynamic United Methodist church with the family every Sunday, I may not be passing on the Methodist DNA to my children. If my adult daughter doesn’t find what she’s looking for in the United Methodist church in her neighborhood, she’s likely to walk on down the street and check out the Baptists. So much for institutional loyalty.
Back to the filling of slots on the mission committee—why is the church filling those seats? Do the people serving on that committee have any specific responsibilities for mission beyond attending meetings and deciding on budget allocations? If not, is that the best use of the church’s mission energy?
A Tale of One Church
I attend St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It isn’t a big-city church. It is more of a medium-sized UMC, with about 500 members. The congregation supports a number of important mission ministries, including the largest food pantry in New York City, a women’s shelter, after-school tutoring, and our latest outreach: providing two hot meals weekly for the Gender Education and Mentoring Society (GEMS). GEMS works mostly with young women who are entangled in the sex trade to help them find a way out. In addition, our youth group plans a mission trip every other year and engages in local volunteer ministries for training.
None of these ongoing ministries was started by or is presently coordinated by the congregation’s mission committee. Our congregation seems to stumble into ministry all the time. (Some would call that the work of the Holy Spirit.) While we have firm committees, their membership is fairly fluid. It is not unusual to find members of the congregation who have served on all the committees in a serial sort of way. From mission, church and society, trustees, UMW offices, lay delegates to conference, pastor-parish committee, fellowship, finance, church council—we have individuals who have served on all of them. But no one remains on one committee permanently. After 3 to 4 years, you move on to something else.
Meanwhile, we have individuals who are passionate about one ministry or another. St. Paul and St. Andrew supports the women’s overnight shelter in the church in partnership with B’Nai Jeshuran, a Jewish synagogue a few blocks away. It takes a lot of volunteers to keep this ministry going every night, but one dedicated man coordinates that process for St. Paul and St. Andrew. The food pantry—the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH)—now has professional staff, but much of that ministry is also maintained by volunteers—some from the church, some from the neighborhood, some from other churches, and many being—or having been—clients helped by the ministry. One family has become the backbone of the GEMS cooking ministry, but a dozen or more volunteers gather once a month to do a mass community cook-off, preparing and freezing enough meals to feed 30. And while a couple of women organize and coordinate the afterschool tutoring program, the ministry depends on 60 or so volunteer tutors each week.
The Church of “Why Not?”
The mission committee’s role is not to oversee and develop the church’s mission ministries. If a church is alive and being used by God to spread God’s love, as proclaimed and lived by Jesus, then a majority of its members are involved in spreading that love through mission ministry. The mission committee members find ways to encourage all the church members to get involved in God’s mission, as each is able.
The Rev. K Karpen, pastor of St. Paul and St. Andrew, refers to the congregation as “the church of ‘why not?’” He adds: “That’s the congregation’s first reaction to a new idea—not a million reasons why we can’t do something, but rather, ‘why not?’
Why not try that, and if there is energy around a ministry, it will happen. And if not—not every venture works out. That’s OK too.”
So the man organizing the shelter, and the women lining up tutors, the volunteers stocking shelves at WSCAH, the mission committee allocating a few grants and encouraging volunteers, and the pastors, who also volunteer and serve in ministries run by laity—together they all form a dynamic mission team. In these interdependent kinds of ministries, everyone can find a niche, and people’s time and energy goes where they
feel called to serve.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine. This article originally appeared in the January-February 2014 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC youth from Manhattan help with recovery efforts from Hurricane Irene in Prattsville, NY.
Sister Brianna McCurdy, a Mormon missionary, church member Don Struchen (center), a retired UM pastor, and Richard Fine, a Jewish volunteer and retired business owner, all come to WSCAH every Tuesday to help stock the food pantry.
Youth at SPSA bake cookies for the GEMS ministry.
Jessie Floyd tutors a young student at the SPSA afterschool tutoring program.
Photos: K. Karpen
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