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June 6, 2011

Every Need Is Not a Call

Focusing on the right community ministry

I frequently work with churches that are located in communities with multiple needs and issues. In urban neighborhoods, and more frequently now in suburbs and rural communities, you might find the following issues:

  • high levels of unemployment, with families struggling to meet basic needs as a result
  • an achievement gap between children who live in poverty and those who don't, resulting in lower graduation rates and college attendance for youth from poor families
  • a lack of affordable housing that has driven some people into homelessness
Trying to meet all the needs that you see is counter-productive. It's likely your church won't be good at responding to them all, and if you try, your impact on the community will be minimal. So a critical step in developing effective community ministry programs is focus: making good choices about the one or two areas in which your congregation will work.

I've found that asking the following questions can help a congregation become more focused in developing community ministry:

What does the community say that it wants your church to do?
Don't overlook what the people in the neighborhood surrounding your church say about what they want and need. You may be able to use information from groups that have already surveyed community needs in your area—the United Way, for example, or a community council. Or better yet, your church members and staff can connect one-on-one or in small groups with community residents, asking them a few key questions:

  • what do you think are the main challenges or concerns in this community?
  • who is dealing with them best?
  • what can our church do to best serve the community?

What other services are provided in your area to address these needs?
Another way to bring focus is to investigate what other services are being provided in your area. If an issue is already being well-addressed, perhaps your congregation doesn't need to respond with new programming. Send church members to identify and tour other programs, meeting with key staff and observing what's offered. It's a way to see from the ground level the services that are being provided, plus it's a way for your church to build needed relationships in the community. You may learn that your congregation's role is different than you thought—instead of starting your own ministry, you may decide to partner with an existing one, providing volunteers from your church and financial support, for example.

What are the people in your church passionate about?
The most successful community ministries I have seen are driven by the passion of the people in the congregation. What issues can the people in your church not stop talking about? When I have served as a church staff member, I knew God was up to something when different church members who didn't even know each other would approach me about the same ministry idea. Bringing them together to share their passion for this new "seed" of ministry was the most critical step in moving forward into greater service to the community.

What gifts and skills are particularly present in your congregation?
It's hard to develop a successful ministry if you don't have the expertise or gifting to pull it off. Often congregations have clusters of particular skills—lots of people in the arts, for example, or teachers, attorneys, or people in the skilled trades. These skill sets ought to inform the ministries you choose to undertake. One church I worked with was a natural fit with housing programs, because there were so many people in the congregation working in the industry—real estate, construction, property management, etc. There are often clusters of spiritual gifts within congregations as well. If there are a number of people with the spiritual gift of hospitality in your church, for example, you may naturally move toward sponsoring community meals or special events for children.

In the face of so many needs in the community, it's tempting to try to respond to them all. But working toward an early focus in your community ministry will help you be more effective in serving the community and in developing your church members to use their gifts and skills in service.

Joy Skjegstad is a national speaker and consultant on nonprofit management and ministry development. She has 20 years of experience starting and growing nonprofit organizations, with a special focus on faith-based groups, youth development and the arts. She has served as the President of Sanctuary Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit connected to Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis and is a founder of the Institute for Ministry Leaders, a university-based training program that builds the management capacity of churches and other ministry organizations. She also served as the Executive Director of the Park Avenue Foundation at Park Avenue United Methodist Church and has held a variety of other leadership positions with nonprofits in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Joy is the author of Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry and Starting a Non-Profit at Your Church, both published by Alban. She can be reached at

Related Tags: church, community, ministry, service, social justice


Any church should have a set of criteria for deciding what it should focus on. And those criteria should be published, and communicated reguarly to the congregation, so there is always a consistent and basic level of awareness and understanding. A part of that is maintaining awareness of the reasons for having criteria, and the reasons for those specific criteria. This helps shape a church's specific identity, and helps guide and control discussions and expectations about the church's role and ministry.

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