Many Christians are aware of those living in poverty in their own community or somewhere nearby. They’d like to help, but they don’t know how. A number of churches and some church-related agencies in Western Pennsylvania are actively in engaged in ministry WITH the poor. During the Laity Academy at Annual Conference 2015, the WPAUMC Poverty Team facilitated two panel discussions where those in ministry with the poor offered suggestions for churches that want to start ministries in their communities.
Building relationships is key to successful ministry with the poor. In order to begin to meet needs, you have to first discover what the needs are.
“As a church, we can send money,” said Chip Rowan, executive director of Connellsville Area Community Ministries. “But for your church to get the real blessing, you have to be close enough to start a relationship.”
By first building relationships, churches are able to discover exactly what needs are greatest in their community or for those individuals and families they hope to help.
“What we see in others may not be their most pressing need,” said Rev. Larry Homitsky of UM Church Union. “Ask the poor what they need. This is a huge difference in approach and it’s harder because first you have to establish a relationship.”
Homitsky breaks ministry with the poor into three stages – discovery/design/do. The process seems deceptively easy. Identify a need (discover); create a ministry to meet that need (design); and carry out the ministry (do). According to Homitsky, however, it can be difficult bringing the process to fruition.
“Many churches get paralyzed by designing it and never get around to doing it,” he said.
Resources are available to assist churches with this process. The book Bridges Out of Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, Philip E. DeVol, and Terie Dreussi Smith is one of these tools. The book offers case studies, helpful charts, exercises, and solutions to help churches not only learn how to work with those in poverty, but also to better understand their challenges and strengths.
Though the goal of any ministry is to ultimately help as many people as possible, the panelists suggest starting small.
“Do what you would like to do for everybody and do it for one person,” said Kara Ketley, executive director of United Methodist Human Services in Johnstown area.
Starting a new ministry not only means building relationships, but also making a commitment. Oftentimes, a church will find itself going in too many directions to be effective.
“An unspoken consequence of relationship is commitment,” said Stephanie Gottschalk, WPAUMC Missions Coordinator. “It means that it’s not necessarily doing what is on the news at the moment or what strikes our fancy. It’s like choosing to marry instead of just date.”
An idea for ministry with the poor that can be started on a small scale is a backpack program where bags or backpacks are filled with shelf-stable items and seasonal produce (if available) for children to take home over the weekend when they won’t have access to government-subsidized school meals. Church Union has backpacks that churches can fill for kids in need.
Asking church members to clean out their closets for a back to school clothing drive can provide local children with a “gently used” wardrobe to start the new school year. Volunteers sort and display the items for families to browse on a designated shopping day at the church.
Another ministry idea is a “shoes for kids” program that offers gift cards to school children that can be used to purchase shoes. Ms. Ketley’s organization works in partnership with Payless shoe stores. Her local store gives a 10% discount and bills the organization when the cards are used.
Churches don’t have to do it all on their own. There is power in numbers and partnering with other agencies and organizations in the community is another key to success. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank will partner with churches in running a monthly food program offering deep discounts on food items.
Collaborating with agencies and even other churches also increases the odds of receiving grant money. The Poverty Team issues grants to churches in the Conference that can help fund new ministries. Local corporate entities are another avenue for support and collaboration often overlooked by churches.
Ministry with the poor is not just providing food and other resources to meet immediate needs. Using your voice and your vote to affect political change is important, too.
“You might be surprised at how much influence you might have with your state legislators and representatives,” said Rev. Dai Morgan, coordinator for United Methodist Advocacy in Pennsylvania. “If you feel strongly about an issue, approach your Senator or Representative. Doing a letter writing campaign can be very influential. When you’re dealing with issues of poverty and other social issues, think about that avenue.”