Better Together: Partnering with Your Community

Is your church struggling to meet the needs of your community alone? You don’t have to. Learn from churches that have forged ongoing partnerships with their local schools or civic organizations to make a holistic impact on their community. 

Located in a wealthy bedroom community outside Washington, D.C., Loudon County’s Cornerstone Chapel (cornerstonechapel.net) had never considered a homeless outreach. That was until Assistant Pastor Mike Emerson took a church trip to rehabilitate houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. After seeing the devastation there, Emerson found a new passion to minister to the homeless people in his own community.

But when it came to actually addressing the needs of the several hundred homeless—many suffering from a housing shortage caused by a 50% population increase in the last five years—he was at a loss. The planning and logistics necessary to create this type of ministry were daunting. A longtime Loudoun County resident, he knew about The Good Shepherd Alliance (loudounhomeless.org)—a local, private homeless service organization providing shelter for the poor and connecting volunteers to those in need.

“I thought, Why not just find out what God’s doing there and get in on it?” Emerson recalls.

What resulted was a partnership between 2,000-member Cornerstone and Good Shepherd that now provides the church an easy avenue to serve hundreds of homeless.

Churches like Cornerstone are finding that formal partnerships with their local government offices, Chamber of Commerce, food bank, park district, community thrift shop or public school can make a much more powerful impact on the unchurched than they ever could alone. Successful partners complement each other, overcoming weaknesses and highlighting strengths. Hear from churches that have succeeded in partnerships and discover how your church and a local organization can be better together.

Cutting Through the Red Tape

When Emerson approached Good Shepherd about piggy-backing on their resources, he was welcomed by Mark Gunderman, Good Shepherd’s vice chair of board of directors.

“Churches that are intent on reinventing the wheel are often the biggest obstacles to civic programs like ours,” Gunderman says, indicating that having “too many cooks in the kitchen” adds confusion and fails to capitalize on combined resources. With Gunderman’s consent, Emerson joined the city and county governments, along with other volunteer groups and organizations in the area that were already volunteering to help and support Good Shepherd’s homeless ministry.

Soon, Cornerstone Chapel volunteers found instant projects with Good Shepherd’s connections. Members renovated a family shelter. They also tore down part of a donated house to prepare it for remodeling and use as a home for pregnant, unwed and homeless women.

“We have a sense that this might be our niche with Good Shepherd: construction and renovation for housing,” Emerson says, adding that recently he met a 17-year-old girl who reinforced that idea. Unmarried and pregnant, she was kicked out of her house and left to fend for herself on the streets. Now, Emerson’s church is able to house her at the shelter it helped build.

The same partnership mentality is working for other churches around the country. In Nashville, Tenn., 1,000-attendee Midtown Fellowship (midtownfellowship.org), also needed help to avoid getting bogged down in the details of starting a ministry for local at-risk children. In 2004, the downtown church created a partnership with the nationally known mentoring organization Big Brothers, Big Sisters (bbbs.org).   

“Our congregation, comprised mainly of 20- and 30-something professionals, couldn’t navigate all the red tape that matching kids from nearby public schools with mentors would involve,” says attendee Claire Emerick, who initiated the partnership.

But she knew Big Brothers, Big Sisters relied on volunteer support and believed busy church members would be more than willing to mentor at-risk kids as long as they didn’t have to spend extra time figuring out the logistics.

“I had visions of children building relationships with Midtowners,” Emerick says. “I wanted to see families of kids coming to church because of the role our congregation was playing in their lives.”

Her dream became a reality. In fact, Midtown Fellowship’s seven dedicated volunteers, the pastor’s encouragement and Emerick’s heavy involvement led to Midtown being named 2005 Church of the Year by Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and the partnership continues to flourish today.

Says Emerick, “When I think about our partnership, 1 Thess. 2:8 is so fitting: ‘We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of Jesus but our lives as well … .’ ”

Making the Connection

If your church desires to engage people outside your normal sphere of influence, a partnership could be a good connection point. Take Refuge Worship Center in Amarillo, Texas, for example. The church may only have 160 members, but it interacts with more than three times that number of people each week through an ongoing partnership with a local public high school. When Caprock High School needed a place to host its Thursday lunches—a fundraiser for the agriculture department—the church was there. Now, each week 500 to 600 students from the high school follow the aroma of smoked meat across the street to Refuge. When kids arrive, part-time Pastor Eddie Ortega ensures that volunteers are there, prepared to mentor and counsel them.

“Kids don’t hesitate to come to the church now,” Ortega says. “I tell our group to encourage these kids, to uplift them, not to bring them down.”

The partnership is now a forum for church leaders and volunteers to get to know high school students. A few have trickled into worship services at the church with their families, and some share personal problems with Ortega.

For the school, the church is now much more than a place to eat on Thursdays—it is a place of community.

“It’s basically an open-door policy,” Ortega says. “Originally, the school asked to use only the parking lot for its barbecue. But now teachers have their own key code for our building alarm, so they can come and go as they need to, using the facilities for after-school and extra-curricular groups and meetings.”

Wanting similar expansion of its circle of influence,  LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colo., (lbcc.org), also made community connections by serving its local school system. Though the 3,000-member congregation led by Senior Pastor Rick Rusaw had a long history of working with its rural and growing community, six years ago the church decided to become more intentional about partnering with its surrounding public schools.

“We really wanted to see how we could support the schools in our area,” explains Tricia Richardson, director of involvement at LifeBridge. “So initially, we went to them and asked, ‘How can we help you? What school is in the most need?’”

The church’s approach—setting up a meeting with the school district board and presenting its desire to help with no strings attached—worked. However, Richardson says it’s helpful to have an ally on the inside, like the several former schoolteachers on LifeBridge’s community involvement team.

Richardson then met with the school custodian to do a walk through of the building, and asked, “What is your dream for your school?” The custodian submitted a list of prioritized projects, and over the next few weeks, LifeBridge brought in a few hundred church volunteers to tackle the tasks—primarily painting rooms. Volunteers now regularly do carpentry work and help in the classrooms as well.

“This summer we did two schools—painted every room in one of them, and in the other, did things like resurfacing doors that saved the school district a ton of money,” Richardson explains.

With each job, LifeBridge asks the schools to provide the paint, tools or tile, as materials are included in the school’s budget, and then the church supplies the manpower to do the work. Though they’ve been welcomed into the school system, LifeBridge is careful not to make evangelism the target in their service projects. But the ongoing partnership has built valuable relationships with school staff.

“It’s amazing to watch how at first, people are not involved in the church, but then they realize it might be something they’re interested in,” Richardson relates. And when their interest is piqued, LifeBridge is ready. New believers, many of whom were somehow impacted by volunteers from LifeBridge, now attend the church eager to join the congregation that helped improve their schools.

“Teachers and school staff have sought out church volunteers to discuss personal issues and problems,” says Rusaw, author of The Externally Focused Church (Group).  “And some faculty members have migrated to the church to worship and become a part of the community of volunteers they got to know at their own school.”

Breaking Barriers

More and more churches are discovering that a partnership can build bridges with civic groups that otherwise would have nothing to do with a church. Vineyard Christian Fellowship (vineyardboise.org) of Boise, Idaho, learned this lesson when it launched its environmental outreach initiative called Let’s Tend the Garden (LTTG) in 2005; an ongoing partnership with the area’s U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management soon followed.

“I realized there were people in our church who were waiting for someone to say ‘we care about creation,’ ” Vineyard Boise Senior Pastor Tri Robinson explains. “Not only that, but there were people in Boise waiting for our church to care about it.” So church leaders went to the fish and game, and forestry services to ask what their church could do for them.

“We said, ‘Do you need our help, and if so, how can we serve you?’ ” Robinson says. Vineyard Boise’s LTTG outreach and involvement with the city’s civic and environmental service organizations have provided the 3,000-member church multiple ways to bust negative stereotypes of Christians as people who don’t care about the environment, and build trust within the environmentally conscious community.

As a result of this partnership, volunteers from the church now serve in places like the city zoo, the parks and recreation department and local campgrounds doing conservation work, environmental clean up and trail work. Vineyard Boise’s attitude of teamwork and service is speaking volumes to people in the Northwestern city of 103,000 where the environment is one of the main barriers between Christians and the unchurched, says Robinson.

While he admits it took some time to build trust with environmental civic groups, the church has seen its faithfulness come to fruition. In 2005, the Forest Service commended Vineyard Boise for its volunteerism and, more importantly, Robinson reports, “I’ve built some rich relationships with people who don’t understand the Church, or who weren’t raised in a church and have no paradigm for it.”

Through these unconventional relationships, Robinson believes pathways leading toward sharing the Gospel with those working in civic organizations are built.

“People ask why we’re doing this. We say because it’s biblical. And that totally messes with them. It opens so many doors.”

A frequent contributor to Outreach, freelance writer and editor Rebecca Barnes resides in Littleton, Colo. For this piece, she listened to multiple churches’ stories to discover how forming a civic partnership permanently transformed their ministry.

Good Will, Then Good News

Ultimately, a partnership’s success is often based on the church’s ability to minister on another organization’s territory, with the possibility of never reaping converts or more church attendees. It requires a shift in ministry philosophy and a focus on building what’s most valuable—relationships.

“Good deeds create good will,” says Rick Rusaw, senior pastor of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colo., and co-author of The Externally Focused Church (Group). “Then we get the opportunity to talk about good news.” What’s important, Rusaw maintains, is that members stay focused on doing the work that needs to be done, building relationships with people and trusting God to do what He needs to do in the lives of the people they are serving. Get your church in effective community partnerships by following these simple steps.

Be proactive. Call your local civic organizations and ask what their needs are and how your church can help.

Secure congregation buy-in. Present ideas to your congregation to ensure everyone is on board before you forge a partnership with a civic organization.

Identify allies. People in your church who work in a civic organization may be able to help you get in the door more easily than a “cold call.”

Take baby steps. While consistency may be your goal, partnerships take time to develop.

Be specific. Once you forge a partnership, make sure both your church and the organization fully understands how you’ll work together.

Take it seriously. Once you commit to an ongoing partnership, do what you say you’ll do. The quickest way to build mistrust is to shirk your responsibility when people are counting on you.

Have a clear vision. Sometimes knowing what you want the end result to be helps you identify who or what you’ll need to get there. For example, if you have a vision for seeing homeless people in your community meet Christ and worship at your church, then you might want to partner with a city organization that’s already serving the poor instead of re-creating the wheel.   

A frequent contributor to Outreach, freelance writer and editor Rebecca Barnes resides in Littleton, Colo.

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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