Key Actions for Ministry and Strategic Planning in Any Community
by Manuel Padilla
AS A MEANS of spreading spiritual holiness around the world, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, developed what we now call the United Methodist “connection.” Wesley recognized the need for an organized system of communication and accountability. Connection serves as a means to link and interlock ministries undertaken at the local, regional, national, and global levels.
Today, The United Methodist Church continues to be organized as a “connectional” system, which “provides us with wonderful opportunities to carry out our mission in unity and strength.” (2012 Book of Discipline ¶701) Every local church is a contributing part of a network of organizations that work together in mission and ministry. This structure allows the church as a whole to achieve far more than any single church or person could accomplish alone.
In the United States, as throughout the world, United Methodism is becoming increasingly diverse in its outreach. In recent times, through efforts to attract individuals from a variety of cultures—people coming from different backgrounds and speaking different languages but sharing a common faith—the US church has created a number of national plans for ministry. One of the first such plans was the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry—the plan in which I am engaged.
Four Programmatic Agencies
The United Methodist Church has four programmatic agencies—all classified as general boards and each assigned a special set of duties. The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) deals with and provides resources for issues of social justice. This agency works with the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry to affirm and protect the rights of immigrants. The General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) provides leadership and resources for spiritual growth—focusing on Christian education, evangelism, stewardship, and lay ministry. It is involved in planting new churches and revitalizing existing ones. The General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) connects the church in mission, training missionaries from all parts of the world and sending them out to serve all over the globe. This agency also trains and works with volunteers, responds to issues of global health, and provides aid in natural and human-caused disasters. The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) prepares new generations of church leaders by increasing access to education, resourcing United Methodist-related colleges and universities, and overseeing ordination and campus ministries.
All four agencies equip local churches for ministry and help provide a common vision. The National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry works with the agencies and annual conferences to live out that unified vision while answering God’s call to the church.
Developing an Action Plan
The local church—that is, you and me—is called to minister to members of the surrounding community (2012 Book of Discipline ¶202). On a local level, we answer God’s call by transforming lives in our church neighborhood. However, before we begin to make plans, we first must listen to our neighbors to learn about their own perceptions, needs, and dreams. It is out of such Spirit-led findings that we can develop effective strategies for positive change.
The National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry uses the term “action plan” to identify the steps needed to address a particular community’s needs and has an action plan to follow for its work with annual conferences and local churches across the connection. Our vision is to create “a church for all the nations, where all can hear the mighty works of God in their own tongue.” This calls us to embrace people throughout the church who want to undertake work with Hispanics and Latinos or to assist those already engaged in such work in their own communities. Such Christian service is undertaken without regard to race, language, social status, or national origin.
Each local congregation needs to develop an action plan that is specific to its own community. To be effective, the plan must be designed based on a clear vision of local circumstances. Your annual conference probably already has a vision statement for Hispanic/Latino ministry—one that can guide your congregation in creating a vision statement of its own.
A church’s vision can grow out of its members’ assessment of local reality as compared to gospel teachings about neighborhood dynamics. In the very process of interpreting your community’s strengths and shortcomings, your congregation will become better able to discern God’s will for your ministry.
Once the congregation has a clear vision and an understanding of where that vision might lead, the next step is to establish your action plan’s priorities. You can do that by answering three simple questions about community life.
Where Is God Already Working?
God has been working in our world since its creation and is already at work in every community. So your congregation’s first priority is to discern where God is already at work in your area. This can be done through a study of places where people gather—ranging from homes, schools, and other churches to offices, restaurants, and coffee shops. Also look for a network of community leaders with whom you can consult.
Everywhere in town that church members go, they can identify and get to know more local leaders. When finding a leader willing to talk with church representatives, set up a 30-minute meeting. Ask about the community’s strengths and the leader’s vision for the area. Encourage church representatives to ask the leaders for the names of two or three other local leaders and visit each of them in turn. Soon, your congregation will get a sense of what God is up to in your area and where your congregation might join an existing ministry rather than starting a new one.
In Wesleyan terms, we are searching for God’s “preparing grace,” also known as “prevenient grace,” which is already at work in your community. God has already raised up people who are helping our communities not only to survive but to thrive. Often, we need only to join in the work of salvation and discipleship that is already under way.
What Are We Doing Well?
All too often, we begin planning our ministry research by asking the question: “What are this community’s problems?” Though all communities have their share of difficulties, we shouldn’t expect to build a vibrant ministry on a list that highlights problems. Every community is home to complainers who harbor the idea that somebody “out there” should come in and “do something to fix things.”
Instead, the congregation needs to begin its task by talking about the community’s gifts and strengths. By asking community leaders about their own sources of pride and ideas for improvement, the church builds up the leaders’ ownership as part of the listening process. Some present or potential leaders may want to join with your church in the process of conducting meetings and identifying the make-up of the local leadership contingent. Afterward, church leaders can report on what they’ve learned from others even as they watch positive energy grow. In church language, we’re inviting the Holy Spirit to come into our community and lead us in our work among its people.
In Wesleyan terms, we are searching for God’s “preparing grace,” also known as “prevenient grace,” which is already at work in your community. God has already raised up people who are helping our communities not only to survive but to thrive.
What Does the Community Need?
There are two ways of assessing the needs of a community. Demographic studies (such as the US Census or the Pew Hispanic websites: http://pewhispanic.org/ and http://factfinder2.census.gov/ ) can help provide a bird’s-eye view through which some of the community’s problem areas can be identified. In addition, the city planning commission and the board of education may also have helpful statistical data on hand.
Then all of this demographic information must be balanced by an “on-the-ground view” obtained by compiling all of the local leader interviews. Those listening sessions held with local leaders serve to supplement the available demographic and statistical information. What has been learned from the local leaders will help the church pinpoint the places where the community’s most pressing needs lie.
However, discovering what is needed or what can be improved upon is more than an intellectual exercise in compiling facts and figures. We are primarily searching for places where the Holy Spirit is already moving, and we’re reaching out to others willing to join in opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. The more a group’s members engage in dialogue with one another, the clearer becomes their picture of the present and their vision for the future.
Where the answers to these three basic questions intersect, your congregation will discover its priorities and can create a process based on them. Such an action plan should outline the steps that the church needs to take to improve the community—one priority at a time—slowly changing the community to look more like the vision the church has dreamed it could be.
Manuel Padilla is a missionary for strategy and ministry with the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry. A native of Mexico, Padilla is based in Nashville, Tennessee. He works closely with annual conferences to develop more effective ministries with the rapidly growing Hispanic/Latino population in the United States. This article was first published in the July-August 2014 issue of New World Outlook magazine.
Artwork: Lisa Katzenstein
Graphic: Manuel Padilla
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