Changing Lives II: Old First E-pistle 04.30.15

Changing Lives II: Old First E-pistle 04.30.15

At the Outreach Standing Leadership Group meeting, we were talking about how to get more people involved in Old First’s social service ministries. It’s a recurrent theme in discussions around our shelter, Saturday morning breakfast and cupboard, and our service camps.

In the last couple years we’ve added a significant advocacy effort to our social service ministries. Recognized the social conditions that continue to leave the least advantaged without adequate food, clothing or shelter, we have begun to work on changing the ways society and injustice leave our neighbors in the lurch and us scrambling to make up the deficits. Our involvement in POWER has been particularly focused on jobs and our schools. But these community organizing activities have added a significant new demand for volunteers’ time, talent and effort.

Overall, Old First is actually startlingly effective when it comes to attracting volunteers. One can see this success reflected on how much we get done. This year alone, on top of the differences we are contributing to through POWER, our three social outreach programs will:

~ serve over 7,000 meals out of the church’s kitchen,
~ distribute over 9,000 shirts and pants (not to count socks and underwear and personal care items),
~ provide over 60 men with over 2,300 hours of safe and warm shelter during winter months.
~ send 250 volunteers — our service campers — to 15 other service organizations around the city. (One might ask additionally how service at Old First inspires people to volunteer other places as well.)

To accomplish all this, Old First will “recruit and deploy” over 800 ‘volunteers from beyond our immediate church community’ — from over 60 faith communities, service organizations, schools and civic organizations. As well, individuals just “show up” on their own too!

At Old First, we are able to accomplish all that we do ONLY with the help we receive from people from other communities. Inviting and engaging outside volunteers might be the one of the things we do best.

The recurrent question that comes up alongside the impressive number of outsiders our ministries depend upon is whether we employ enough of our own church community members in our social outreach ministries. There are those among us — usually the people most involved in outreach who know they need help! — who think the percentage of Old Firsters involved should be much higher.

And as we take up the Capital Campaign-related goal of growing our social outreach ministries significantly — both for greater effect for those in need, and also to position ourselves to receive more outside financial support for our work — the leadership question become even more pressing. If Old First hopes to evolve its ministries into significantly greater institutional efforts, we will definitely need a greater human investment of time and talent. Bigger social service efforts will need more leadership… and leaders.

Now, beloved, don’t mistake my position on this issue. I agree completely that more involvement — a higher percentage of our community regularly serving in one of our outreach ministries — would have a positive effect. It would not only give us more workers. It would represent Old First better to the people we serve and to volunteers from elsewhere. (With our Outreach Coordinator leaving early this year, and Old Firsters taking turns overseeing the cupboards on Saturday, we have seen the difference it can make.)

More Old First folks involved in our outreach ministries would also geometrically multiply the effect of our experiences as more people share it — magnifying how the experience of serving the urban poor is a lens for understanding for our community — for our collective consciousness.

I can imagine a Sunday in the future when twice as many of the people in our Sanctuary have also participated in one of our outreach ministries. Can you imagine how our prayers… and our understanding of biblical prophets… and our discerning of God’s movement in our world… and our recognizing God’s presence in ‘the least of these’ would be richer?

And if we can grow our collective involvement, commitment and leadership, we could take on and do more. There is so much need. And “that need” is always a real, living, breathing child of God… hurting.

But I’m not sure how to know what involvement is realistic. From community organizing, I’ve learned that in order to identify and create a community organization of a couple of hundred leaders one needs a population of over two hundred thousand to draw from.

That’s because people’s lives are busy. And, as Paul sketched out for the church in the beginning, our gifts and callings and ministries are different. We have a church full of committed, servant people. But some are tied up raising children and caring for their parents. Some make their volunteer contributions serving other needs or ministries at Old First. (And there’s a lot of other work to keeping the church going!) We have people who do great, important good works elsewhere and through other organizations. Or their work is itself their service.

And certainly, much of the financial generosity we count on for support is because our folks know that their gifts to our church also help fund our social outreach efforts.

I did a quick tally, and am confident to report that about 20% of our folks participate in our outreach work. (In our database, our “worshiping congregation” group — those we expect as regulars in worship — contains 308 individuals, and I identified 65 having direct involvement in the cupboard, the shelter, service camps or POWER.)

20% seems in line with the 80-20 Rule, or Pareto’s Principle, that is often accepted in church circles to explain that 80% of the work gets done by only 20% of the people. Maybe it’s low for a church like Old First where social outreach plays a bigger role in our ecclesiology and understanding of faithfulness? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure how to answer that question.

But I’m sure that participation in our social service ministries cannot become creedal… a confessional requirement… a sina qua non for members in good standing at Old First. You are free in a UCC church to worship and serve as you understand God calling you.

So where’s this leave me? Wanting to make 2 important points:

As your pastor, I encourage each of us to undertake service to others. That’s not my spiritual prescription; it’s Jesus’. Get involved. Offer your time and love. Share what you have been given. You have much more than you realize, and appreciation often only happens when we begin to give it away.

We offer organized opportunities to serve alongside of other Old Firsters (and a host of others). That might offer a double blessing — service that changes you over time AND immediately informs our church community.

If you are called to service elsewhere, we promise our support for your efforts, and invite you to bring the witness of your service in other places back to share with our church community.

As your pastor, I believe we can build on the strong outreach experience and history of this church in order to do more to minister to the most needy. In order to do that, we will need more help. More material support and human resources.

Either Old First is going to have to engage more of its community in outreach service and leadership, or we are going to have to continue to grow the size of our faith community significantly. I suspect that in light of our sense of all that God is calling us to, we might well have to accomplish both — growing the community and getting a higher percentage of our folks involved.

Could you commit to “trying out” one of our outreach opportunities? Please be present in prayer and open to opportunities to serve as we discern how God is calling us to grow our outreach ministries.

See you in church where this Sunday the Outreach SLG leaders will be reporting back what they’ve discovered in the Listening Sessions,

Michael