Last week I was a presenter at the Leadership Nexus event in Shreveport, along with Rev. Tyrone Gordon of St. Luke’s Community UMC, David Wetzler from Natural Church Development, Bob Whitesel, Brian Bauknight, Jessica Moffatt-Saey, and several others. At these kinds of learning events (just as in reading a book) I usually feel richly blessed and deeply satisfied if I walk away with one new insight or learning that shapes my ministry. Last week, I received several.
One of the presenters was Claudia Lavy, co-author of Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation. She briefly outlined her understanding of the pathway to discipleship using many helpful examples. At one point she said that when a person who is new to a church community says, “How can I help?” what they mean is, “How can I fit in?”
This brought forth a rush of memories from my days as a local church pastor. So many times I watched people who were new to our community of faith take their first tentative steps toward further engagement and involvement by showing up to help pack and deliver Thanksgiving Baskets, work with a set up crew, or volunteer for a cooking team. Other new persons would attend the first fall rehearsals of the choir or praise team, or appear at a training for ushers or greeters. They’d stand toward the outside, offering to help, wanting to join in. Most of the time, the longer-term members and staff would do a great job of giving them a role, inviting them in, and putting them to work alongside others. They help connect them up and engage them personally in the community. They’d weave them into the body of Christ.
But every once in a while, the experienced volunteers would be so focused on the tasks—packing the baskets, setting up the chairs, cooking the food—that they would get all the work done without the new persons having a chance to do anything. One time a whole group of new and eager volunteers showed up to help with a service project only to stand by as the experienced and efficient “old-timers” got all the work done before the scheduled beginning time for the project! And I remember one woman who had been the lead cook back at her previous church before moving to our community. She showed up to help at one of our church dinners, and was handed a stack of napkins to put on the tables. And that’s all. She passed them out, and then spent the rest of the time standing around feeling pretty useless.
In these examples, the questions on the minds of the leaders were about the task—are the food baskets all packed and the napkins on the tables? But the questions on the minds of the first-timers were different—“Is this a community where I can feel at home? Do I have anything worthwhile to offer that they will value? What do they think of me? Can I connect with these people?” The leaders’ focus on the task overshadowed a larger and more pervasive purpose, which was to help connect people to the church, engage them in ministry, and foster a sense of belonging.
Claudia Lavy is right. “How can I help?” really means, “How can I fit in?”
Congregations have to keep a duel focus to virtually every ministry. First, there is the practical, immediate task to be fulfilled…the chairs to be set up, the music to be performed, the dinner to be served, the work project to be completed. But second, there is another and deeper purpose that continues throughout all we do…how do we form people into community, weave people into the faith, build people up for ministry, and help them to connect to Christ and others while exercising their gifts for ministry. The best projects and ministries manage to keep an eye on each of these essential elements of congregational ministry.
What’s been your experience with this? How does your church keep the duel focus? How could we do better?
Yours in Christ,