By Eddie Pipkin
May 19, 2017
I have lately been obsessed by couches on the side of the road. It began as a gag: my son is searching for a house to rent with several friends in the college town where he lives, and he has been hot on the trail of any second-hand furniture that he can confiscate to furnish his prospective new home. Suddenly, as I was driving around town, I was acutely aware of all the home furnishings that had been randomly left on the side of the road. I started taking pictures of these finds and texting them to my boy, building a photo gallery of tongue-in-cheek design options. And once I got this project going and was on the lookout for fresh options, I was astonished at the seemingly endless supply of streetside sofas.
Each couch had a personality and uniquely implied backstory of its own (I’m thinking of doing an art project based on this catalogue of couches). I even found one in a lonely rural field on the way to pick blueberries, and—much to my delight—I happened to run across a prime example on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan this week.
I guess those universally ubiquitous couches have been there all along, right under my nose! Without any incentive to pay attention to them, I just hadn’t noticed them before.
This is a ministry lesson here: there are many opportunities that are right under our noses, and we miss them just because we aren’t fully paying attention. This is true both for people we have an opportunity to serve, as well as people who are looking for opportunities to be servants. We get so caught up in the habits of our ministries, in our perspective of the world we move through as leaders, that we cruise right by these opportunities. They can be as obvious as a piece of perfectly good furniture stuck directly in the right-of-way, but because they are not what we’re looking for at the time, we don’t even acknowledge them.
We have vision statements and outreach committees that seek to carve out congregational projects for serving and connecting to our communities, and too often, these well-intentioned efforts bog down in a fossilized model for how and where ministry is done. Kurt Voters of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship writes about his church’s evolution from “signs to ramps” as they fought against skateboarders hanging out at their campus (greeted with NO SKATEBOARDING signs) until the church folk realized they were missing a perfectly natural opportunity to connect with young people from their neighborhood (with ramps and dedicated skateboarding infrastructure). It’s a matter of being attuned to the actual needs of our communities rather than projecting our own concepts of ministry on them. It’s also about partnering with our communities and giving ownership to the people with whom we partner, even if they don’t fit easily in our carefully constructed church leadership models.
Whether bridging the gap between affluent high tech workers and the poorest of the poor in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district (warning—salty language in this Wired Magazine article about Glide Church) or starting a backyard produce program to serve an unlikely clientele, there is need in every community.
There are potential leaders looking to serve as well. They may not always recognize themselves as such because we have telegraphed certain prerequisites of age, background, personality, or secret knowledge that lock people out of the process, but God chooses the unlikely (check out this reminder of unlikely leadership from the story of Nehemiah). It’s less about trying to shoehorn people into predetermined slots than helping them discover their own passions and gifts and empowering them to lead where they are called. Here’s an article from MinistryToday.com that identifies “10 Ways to Spot an Unlikely Leader.” It’s a wonderful witness when we link up with a steel guitar player who didn’t know he would be welcome in the praise band, a seamstress who didn’t realize her gifts could enhance worship, a poet who had no idea she could help write liturgy, or a mechanic whose practical skills could help start a ministry for working single moms. As quoted by professional salvager Mark Alverson in this CityLab article on how to safely recycle abandoned furniture: “When you bring home something found on the street, you’re making a statement. . . . You’re seeing the potential in something that wasn’t desired before.”
We all feel a little bit like a piece of abandoned furniture from time to time. How biblical to build a ministry culture in which purpose is found for everyone, and a creative, Spirit-led eye can find beauty in the unlikely. What have your own experiences been in fostering unexpected ministry and empowering unexpected leaders? Share it with us here at emc3 (Excellence in Ministry Coaching). Our Connect! series features many stories and practical tips about community connections and entrepreneurial leadership. Check them out and let us know if you have questions or need help in working through a particular ministry challenge in your setting.