By Neal Michell
What do you do about outreach when you are in a small church with limited resources? Outreach is often an unmined treasure for the smaller church. I learned this in a church I served several years ago.
My first impression of the congregation was that it was fairly dispirited. It had declined in attendance for the previous four years. Because of limited volunteers, it had recently shut down two signature outreach ministries: a resale shop and a community-wide meal served at the church on the day before Thanksgiving. Typically, as a church moves through decline, there are fewer volunteers available as well as fewer leaders.
Every year the vestry would allocate 10 percent of the annual budget for outreach and missions. But with a decrease in attendance comes a decrease in giving, and that 10 percent ended up being unfunded in order to help balance the budget. (Members did not consider their diocesan assessment as giving to missions or outreach. That was simply support for the larger church.)
What Did We Do?
First, we noticed that, although the church was no longer doing these two signature programs, many parishioners volunteered in community programs and ministries. We were having a significant effect beyond our size. Although we were unable to contribute money to these programs and ministries, we gave something more important: we gave our people, our most treasured resource.
Second, for the next six weeks at our Sunday services, during the announcements, I would interview volunteers about the community ministry they were involved in. We had two members who traveled overseas with ministries as well.
The third thing was totally unplanned, but our response was crucial. Our community was hit by a 500-year flood. Our members stepped up to help others recover from the flood. We became known as “the church that cares.”
Fourth, when it came time to prepare the budget that next year, we allotted only one percent for missions and outreach and determined to fulfill that commitment. We established a missions and outreach committee that would disburse that one percent to community ministries with the requirement that a parishioner had to be a volunteer in that ministry.
Several members of the vestry objected to such a minimal amount because they used to set aside 10 percent. We responded that, although the vestry had been setting aside 10 percent for the past several years, they spent nothing. It would be better to budget one percent and actually spend it.
Each year for the next several years the vestry increased the amount for missions and outreach by one percent and fully funded it. From this practice we learned at least four things.
There must be an incarnational connection between the congregation and the ministry. One mistake that vestry members had been making — which many smaller churches make — is they did not seem to value their connection with people. With their two larger programs, as well as their budget for missions and outreach, they placed their value in the programs and in the money rather than the relationships that they represented.
Once we began to interview volunteers from the various ministries in which our parishioners were involved, people were able to connect a face to the ministry. Highlighting congregational efforts honored our parishioners for their volunteer work and the local ministry. We always interviewed a parishioner for that ministry rather than the director — who was not a parishioner. People bought into their fellow parishioners before they bought into the work being done in the community, regardless of the work’s nobility.
When we reached the point that we could contribute more funds to an organization, we required a parishioner to be involved in that ministry. As a result, the vestry — and ultimately the congregation — had more buy-in for that program. That is why the amount budgeted each year continued to grow: the vestry was contributing to our ministry, not their ministry. Limiting the growth of that budget line item allowed the budget to absorb the extra amount each year. It’s much easier to fund a one percent growth and honor it than a 10 percent growth in one year.
The size of the ministry must be appropriate to the resources of the congregation. We did not start adding money to the budget right away. We highlighted our members’ involvement because all we had at first was the volunteer hours of our people. We really could not afford to devote 10 percent of our budget to outreach. In my mind, I set a goal of five percent for missions and outreach. We accomplished that within three years. As funding followed parishioners, we tapped into the spiritual gift the congregation had: compassion for the poor and needy. We celebrated what we were doing before we tried to expand it. Growth in mission and outreach became organic in that way. If we had started by trying to find more volunteers — expansion of missions and outreach — we would not have been nearly as successful. We had to be faithful in the small things before our Lord would give us stewardship over larger things.
The congregation must be known for doing one thing really well. There is a Yiddish saying: “Man plans and God laughs.” That happened to us. As we were working on rebuilding self-esteem among the congregation by focusing our attention on outreach and missions, our town suffered the ravages of the 500-year flood. So, we made it a priority for our parishioners to volunteer to muck out houses, serve as Red Cross liaisons, and so on. I served in a high-profile way on the community-wide steering committee and became a public face of community efforts at recovery. I really don’t know how that happened, but I learned the importance of having a signature ministry for the church and linking the local church with one signature ministry in the eyes of the community.
Communicate effectively with members of the congregation. We backed into this lesson as well. Something amazing happened when we started interviewing parishioners about their involvement in community ministries: our congregation began to see itself as very active, with members involved throughout the community. Parishioners were no longer dispirited. They were much more aware of what we were doing than when I arrived.
When it comes to raising the missions and outreach profile of your church, remember that there are two target audiences: the congregation and the public. Communicating the missions and outreach involvement of the church to the congregation conveys that it is fulfilling its divine purpose. Our congregation’s purpose was to extend our Lord’s arms of love to a hurting world, to the poor and needy of our community. Ultimately, this raises the congregation’s self-esteem and makes the church a more attractive community of faith to invite friends and acquaintances. Here are some ways to raise the profile for missions and outreach within the parish:
Place a monthly article in the parish newsletter on an outreach ministry or mission opportunity that the church is involved in. Name names and quote people.
Place a short paragraph in the weekly worship leaflet about a specific ministry.
Mention the outreach ministry or mission trip in the prayers of the people with a specific request (that is, do not simply “file by title”).
Conduct a two- to three-minute interview with a parishioner who is involved in a specific ministry or who has just returned from a mission trip. The interview format is much more interesting than having the parishioner report on the mission trip or ministry. It keeps the parishioner from talking too long and being simply another talking head.
During a church service before a mission team leaves on a trip, commission the team members, praying for them and specific needs and opportunities that they will encounter.
Dedicate bulletin board space with a map of the world and show the places where the church has sent short-term missionaries or supports missionaries.
Do the same with a map of the church’s city or town, highlighting the outreach ministries that parishioners are involved in or the church supports.
Print thank-you notes or letters received from recipients of the church’s mission or outreach efforts in the church’s newsletter.
The second target for communicating the missional and outreach involvement of the church is the surrounding community. As the congregation becomes known as a church that cares for the local community and offshore missions, the church will become a magnet for those who aim to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Here are some suggestions for raising the missions and outreach profile of your church:
Have a regular missions-emphasis Sunday and invite a missionary or a local outreach leader to preach. Be sure to promote this event in the local newspaper.
Write an article on the church’s short-term mission trip or outreach ministry — with photos — for the local newspaper.
Invite a short-term mission group from another church to recruit members from your church — with the aim that your church will develop a team within two or three years. Again, write an article for the local newspaper.
Sponsor a community involvement day in which your church recruits parishioners to assist local helping ministries with four- to six-hour volunteers. In the United States, the fourth Saturday in October is known as “Make a Difference Day.” This is a great way for the smaller church to work with other churches to help their community.
The Rev. Prebendary Neal Michell is a retired priest and former cathedral dean of the Diocese of Dallas.