Churches widen impact, relevance by working with outside groups
Partnering with existing ministries and community groups is helping churches fulfill their missions in their local communities.
By Jeff Brumley
Flanked by two of her three young children, Virginian Brenda Espinet broke into tears Saturday morning before about 35 Floridians, giving thanks for their generosity and admitting a little embarrassment at needing their financial and other assistance.
“I’m usually the one doing the helping,” she told the audience gathered for a building dedication at United Community Outreach Ministry, or UCOM, a faith-based nonprofit that provides food, monetary help, Meals on Wheels, summer lunches, tutoring and other services to some of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Fla.
After moving to Florida last fall, Espinet, her husband and three childen — ages 11, 5 and 3 — found it harder to get on their feet than planned and needed money and food donations to get by until food stamps and wages started coming in. The family of five lived in a one-room motel for months before finding an apartment.
“We never had to ask for help like this,” Espinet said, adding that she plans to volunteer for UCOM as a way of giving back what was so freely given to her.
Her attitude of grateful action, pastors and other experts say, is one that is also helping keep many churches alive and healthy in an era of congregational and religious decline.
Connecting with and helping existing nonprofits and other local ministries can multiply a church’s influence in its community, said Kyle Reese, pastor of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, one of UCOM’s major supporters.
The church is one of several Jacksonville congregations that donate money and provide volunteers to help with the organization’s food bank and other programs. Reese said that makes more sense than HAB trying to become a food distribution center.
It doesn’t mean not taking on some missions directly. The church serves as a furniture distribution center for families leaving Jacksonville’s main homeless shelter, the Sulzbacher Center. The project has turned HAB’s gym into a furniture warehouse.
“It’s like a big, big garage sale,” he said.
But there are other endeavors others already do — and do better than HAB probably would. UCOM is one of them, he said.
They “magnify our impact in the city,” Reese said during Saturday’s event celebrating the restoration of UCOM’s small headquarters building. “We can do more together than apart.”
Earlier this year, Reese joined Rachel Gunter Shapard, associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, and Susan Rogers, pastor of a CBF missional church plant in Jacksonville, to connect UCOM with Passport, Inc.
‘Raved about it’
Campers with the Birmingham, Ala.-based mission camp program descended on the UCOM’s headquarters in July to repaint the historic church building and construct vegetable beds to grow food for clients.
Shapard said the visiting Passport youth, and their project planners in Alabama, “raved about” the UCOM project in Jacksonville. Helping outside organizations not only boosts churches, but state-level organizations like CBF Florida, as well.
“It’s our job to be a resource to our partners and to connect them with projects and resources like this,” Shapard said.
Such help is, of course, vital to the organizations being helped by HAB and Florida CBF.
“Without our church partners, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” said Heather Mauney, UCOM’s executive director.
Nearly 100 percent of its funding comes from churches, the rest from individuals, Mauney said. As much as 85 percent of the food in its pantry also comes from congregations, she said.
HAB, she added, hosts an annual crop walk that collects food donations and raises awareness of hunger issues in Jacksonville, Mauney said.
She said UCOM was founded on a model that relies on outside help for its operations.
“The idea is that people can make more of an impact in a community by working together,” Mauney said. “If HAB and other churches used those resources to do their own food pantry, the funds wouldn’t go as far, they wouldn’t be able to buy as much or serve as many as they do working with UCOM.”
That approach to ministry isn’t anything new — but it is one increasingly recognized as a key to the future survival of churches and ministries in an increasingly post-Christian, post-church culture, church planters say.
It’s the model that’s benefited the hospitality ministry of Grace and Main in Danville, Va. The house-based, inner-city ministry provides some housing for addicts and the homeless and advocates for their rights in housing and other issues. Meanwhile, it depends on financial, food and other support from tradition churches in the city.
At The Well at Springfield in Jacksonville, Fla., Rogers encourages congregational involvement in neighborhood preservation, animal rescue and a range of other educational and civic initiatives in the urban core neighborhood where they worship.
That approach to ministry helps a church become a part of the everyday life of the community in which it’s located, said Travis Collins, director of mission advancement for the U.S. operations of Fresh Expressions, an international effort to help churches navigate a rapidly changing postmodern culture.
It helps congregations meet the people and learn what the challenges are in their communities, Collins said.
“When thinking through the strategy of beginning a new church, think service, not a service,” Collins said. That means putting worship attraction and attendance behind being of use to surrounding neighborhoods.
If there are just five founding members, they should join a local service group, even secular ones, if it can tie them into the community, Collins said.
And don’t go in with answers and solutions, Collins added. Instead, volunteers should ask where they can be of most help and then throw themselves into that work.
‘What it means to be Baptist’
That’s been the way HAB and other Jacksonville churches have helped at UCOM, Mauney said, and with tangible benefits to the city’s struggling residents.
In July, HAB volunteers and those from other churches delivered 1,300 Meals on Wheels to the elderly. Nearly 9,000 have been delivered this year.
More than 1,300 received food from the pantry in July, including 820 meals for the summer lunch program for youth, Mauney said.
That kind of impact, Reese said, enables HAB to be the hands and feet of Christ in Jacksonville.
“It helps us live out what it means to be Baptists every day,” he said.
© 2015 Baptist News Global