In 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, Paul explains that the Church is the Body of Christ—there are many parts of the body with different functions, but only one body. Usually, we apply this principle to our local churches: everyone has specific gifts and skills, but we are all a part of the same church. Although this is true, have you ever thought about these passages in the context of ministries supported by multiple congregations? Each denomination has different strengths and weaknesses, but everyone that confesses the salvation of Christ and the truth of the Word is part of the same Church. Ministries that are supported by such diverse congregations often enjoy an increased level of stability and excitement, compared to single congregation ministries within the community.
The success of multi-congregational ministries requires some essential components. Over the past three years, my local congregation has launched two different ministries in collaboration with other churches in the community. One is an after-school program at a local high school, and the other is a community food pantry that serves approximately 50 families each week. Although at the start, both of these were to be ministries supported by multiple congregations, the after-school program has failed to accomplish this goal, while the food pantry has experienced continued success. From these two ventures, I have learned how a community ministry should and should not be managed. These principles have proven true in my local situation and may provide a starting point for your own efforts.
First, ensure that the focus is on ministry and not on theological difference. When working with various theological traditions, it makes sense that beliefs will vary from one church to another. When you come together to accomplish a specific goal, it’s important to stay focused on that goal and not on the differences between churches. The volunteers for the food pantry believe that God has commanded us to care for the poor and feed the hungry, and that is what they concern themselves with while serving.
When ministries become open forums for theological debate, nothing positive is accomplished.
When ministries become open forums for theological debate, nothing positive is accomplished. For example, I once coordinated a ministry with an individual from a different denomination. Unfortunately, he felt that since I did not believe the same way he did that I was not a Christian and, therefore, he could not minister under me. Because this leader refused to minister with people from another denomination, his ministry actually ended. Let us save the theological discussions for ecumenical councils, and let us fulfill the ministry to which we have been called.
Second, a multi-congregation ministry should be staff-supported and lay-led. Our after-school ministry was originally supported by three congregations; all three lacked this key component. The first congregation was staff-led without lay support. After the pastor found himself too busy to be involved, their participation declined dramatically. The second congregation was lay-led without staff support, and it struggled to be a viable part of the church’s ministry, because no staff members helped it gain the momentum it needed. After the initial leaders moved on to another ministry, there was no one to continue the ministry. The third congregation (my congregation) was staff-led and lay-supported. Although we are the only congregation that has continued to be involved in this ministry, we have always struggled to find lay volunteers. Even now, in year three, there are no lay volunteers for this ministry.
After the pastor found himself too busy to be involved, their participation declined dramatically.
The food pantry at our church, on the other hand, has been lay-led and staff-supported since the beginning. This structure has allowed stability through pastoral changes, because it is not dependant upon church staff. Through the continuity of lay-leadership, this ministry has gained momentum, and the number of individuals who volunteer for this ministry has increased each year. In addition, because it is staff-supported, the church staff assists with ensuring that the whole congregation is supporting and praying for this ministry. Undoubtedly a lay-led, staff-supported ministry provides continuity and stability that cannot be offered in any other way.
Third, we should remember that often a multicongregational ministry takes time to develop. When we opened our food pantry three years ago, it was entirely staffed by members of our local congregation, and other churches nearby, from various denominations, helped by donating money and food to the organization. However, as the ministry developed, other churches began to see the importance of this ministry and desired to help in larger ways. One congregation, which once made weekly donations, now provides half of the pantry staff and promotes it in multiple community venues. This has allowed the pantry to increase its clientele by nearly 25%. Although this relationship took nearly two years to develop, the perseverance of the ministry birthed a multicongregational relationship stronger than we could have ever hoped for.
Finally, inviting others to help lead provides different congregations with an investment in the program. Throughout the three years of our after-school program, each year a different congregation took the lead role in the responsibility for the ministry. This conveyed the message that the ministry was from one church and all the other churches held supportive roles. The food pantry, on the other hand, has its own governing board made up of both lay-persons and clergy from multiple congregations. Every church, which has sustained the ministry by donations, was also given representation on the board. This meant that various congregations were not only helping with the ministry, but also leading the ministry. If a church has ownership in a ministry, it is much more likely to continue in it.
Our shared value is found in collaboration, not competition.
Nazarenes, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists, (and every other denomination as well) need each other to truly embody the Church of the Christ on earth. Our shared value is found in collaboration, not competition. May God continue to teach us how to be his church.
KEITH M. DAVENPORT is associate pastor of Victory Hills Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Kansas