Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Eddie Pipkin

I was out for a run, midday Monday, headphones in my ears streaming the latest grim news, my thoughts on the no-end-in-sight frustration of our disrupted routines, when I realized someone was yelling something at me (or to me – hard to say).  I came to a full stop and pulled my earpiece out on one side.  It was an elderly man at the end of his driveway, one hand on the emptied garbage can he’d come to retrieve.  He was smiling.  “Sir?” I said.  “I’m mad at you,” he repeated, then immediately, “No, I’m not really.  It’s just that I used to do that every day, too – run like that – and now I can’t anymore.”  I pulled out the other earpiece and stepped a little closer (though still safely distanced), and a conversation commenced.  Bob, 88 years old, retired engineer for the space program, thrice married and divorced, living alone, and clearly hungry for some social interaction.  A half an hour later I said my goodbyes – a farewell I was forced to initiate, because I swear he would have been happy for my company all afternoon – then all I could think about for the rest of my run was how many Bobs are out there this summer, alone, isolated, and desperate for some human connection.

Here are two guiding principles to keep in mind:

  • People, not programs.
  • Look for what’s not there.

I have written extensively about the ways in which churches have risen to the challenges of this moment in time.  One of the ways that local congregations have stood out is the robust early “congregational care” initiatives that quickly ramped up as the COVID shutdowns across the nation became a reality.  Church leadership teams contacted entire membership rosters, checking in on, not just the elderly and isolated, but on everyone they could contact.  Designated volunteers ran errands for those who were afraid or unable to go out.  Shopping for others was a big movement.

As things have settled down into a routine in the ensuing months, many churches are still doing some form of this work.  Some are proceeding robustly as ever, making regular calls, helping with the shopping, running errands, and providing other assistance.  In some cases, this strong early response has petered out, sometimes because the leadership or volunteers have gradually dropped off and sometimes because the recipients of the services have “graduated,” taking on a new normal of adjusted routines for themselves (like learning new ways to shop that don’t involve going into stores).  There is a confluence of three forces right now that are weakening our ministry resolve:

  • The normal ministry slump which is identified with summer.
  • The natural fatigue that sets in after months of sustained ministry effort.
  • The depressing reality that this crisis is not going away anytime soon (even though we had hoped and prayed that things could be reopened and restored to a kind of normalcy).

With the exception of children’s and youth ministries (for whom summer is prime time), much church ministry takes a break during the summer and many staff and volunteers take time off to recharge.  This makes for a natural slowdown, but this summer is no normal summer.  The needs in our communities are prevalent – people still need powerful ways to connect, to worship, to serve, and to grow – mental health issues are going to be a sustained crisis point, considering the “depressing reality” of renewed closings, higher case rates, new rounds of layoffs, and a seemingly endless flow of bad news.  For those children’s and youth ministries, many in-person activities have now been cancelled (the very ones that we expended our energy reimagining in creative ways).  There is a fatigue factor involved in recreating the already recreated (and now abandoned).  How many times can we do this?

In trying to solve all of this, we tend to fall back on the familiar, which for most of us involves hashing out programmatic solutions.  We get staff and leadership together and think about programs: we’ve been busily (and often creatively) modifying and adapting existing programs.  We’ve thought up new programs (like the ones in which we have staff and volunteers working those phone lists to check up on members – programs that often have catchy names, which is one of the ways we can identify them as programs).  Programs are great.  They powered the church through 2,000 years of growth and ministry.  They are an effective organizing principle, but as we’ve often written, they too often lose their way because they become the raison d’etre for ministry.  Our response to the pandemic offers an example.  We swept in with energetic programs to keep people connected and cared for.  Now, months later, we have checked off many of those initial goals, and the program has been deemed a success.  Everybody has toilet paper!  Check.  Everybody has a way to engage with or virtual worship adaptation!  Check.  We’ve had a perfunctory  conversation with everybody on our list!  Check.

These are in no way bad outcomes, but relationship-based ministry is different from program-based ministry in that it encourages deeper connections, and in these troubling, off-kilter times, deeper connections are desperately needed.  And here’s the thing – hang with me here – if we are interested in the concept of deeper connections, we are uniquely positioned at this moment in history to make them happen.  People are receptive, even eager.  The trouble is that we are so trained in our programmatic approach that we are stumped about how to deepen connections in an operational world in which our standard programmatic strategies won’t perform the ways they have always performed.

This is the point in this conversation when my wife, who has lived her life serving faithfully in multiple churches, throws up her hands and says in exasperation: “You can’t have ministry without programs!  That’s chaos!  How are you ever going to get anything done!”

And she’s right, of course.  I’m employing hyperbole in the service of reworking our standard framework for effective ministry, primarily the metrics by which we measure those programs we generated as our emergency pandemic response.  Sure, we checked off our initial goals (hooray for us), but if we shift the focus to people and their ever-evolving needs, states of mind, new sets of challenges, and revised outlooks, there is no endpoint to these ministries, just an expansion and evolution they can foster deeper, ongoing connections.  Some churches are already, naturally, doing this.  Some of these routine check-ins have evolved into lengthy, regular conversations, person-to-person, a deepening of given relationships.  This wonderful outcome is largely dependent on the mindset and giftedness of designated callers.  Some are wonderful at it.  Some are awkward, unsure, untrained, and undirected, and those are the contact ministries that peter out.

Meanwhile, to circle back around to Bob who begat this blog, even when we have done excellent work deepening the relationships with the isolated folks from our membership list, it is the exceedingly rare church that has moved that list to the community beyond it.  It is tempting and natural to pat ourselves on the back for the diligent work we have done connecting with the faithful.  But we have not moved much beyond that circle of believers into the wider world of unknown folks who so desperately need some kind of human connection.

We can.  Here’s how:

  • Build a culture of deeper connections and relationship building. A culture is different than a program.  A program is a specific, organized initiative with responsibilities for leadership delegated to specific people.  A culture is an attitude, a shared, consistent vision that informs and empowers the life of the people who practice that vision.  If we have a “deeper connections” program, we designate a staff member and some volunteers, and it’s their assigned task to get that deeper connection work done.  The rest of us are off the hook!  Or even if they assign us specific goals connected with their program, we check off our assignments and then we are off the hook!  If we set out to build a culture of deeper connections, it becomes a guiding question that informs every decision and every ministry strategy – is what we are doing promoting deeper connections and stronger, authentic relationships?
  • Challenge people regularly to embrace the cultural shift. Hold people accountable.  We are afraid of turning people off because they are intimidated by our expectations, but people rise up to meet those challenges and expectations. It’s the very source of energy and growth.
  • Celebrate shining examples of this cultural shift. Tell stories constantly and with enthusiasm on multiple platforms and in multiple ways about how people are building deeper connections.  Again and again and again, share these stories.  (This is one area that I can clearly see fatigue manifesting itself: churches that had done a good job celebrating these stories on social media and in worship have lost their mojo.  It’s an excellent reason to skip down to the bullet point about “expanding the team.”)
  • Give practical examples of how to implement the cultural shift. Not everybody naturally stops on their jog and engages in conversation with a stranger.  Provide the tools for how to do this with confidence and humility.  Explain some ideas for follow-up when those situations present themselves.
  • Keep expanding the team by giving people new opportunities to serve creatively. As churches have responded with new forms of virtual worship and virtual small groups and emergency outreach, the same old players have, of course, led the way, and in many churches the opportunity has been missed to empower new leaders and new perspectives.  It’s a great time to get new people involved (not involved merely in attending, but involved in generating new solutions and approaches).

Here’s the cultural shift, inspired by Bob, that we can communicate clearly and repeatedly with our congregation members (who are faithful joining us in virtual worship and engaging in our social media posts):

  • Be on the lookout for neighbors and other people in the community who are isolated and living alone. Ask around.  When you’re talking with friends and the neighbors you already know, see if they know someone who might be in this category.  Walk around your neighborhood!  Strike up conversations with the people you meet in your daily activities.  Develop your isolation radar!
  • When you identify such persons, engage them! Think through ways to do this humbly and unobtrusively.  Offer connection, but don’t be pushy.
  • Share with others your attempts to live out this sensitivity to the isolated among us. Hold one another accountable.  State your fears and frustrations.  Celebrate the connections you make.  Ask for help when you need it.
  • Develop easily accessible resources for people who want to take on this challenge.

With a clear vision and clear communication, the summer opens up awesome Spirit-led opportunities, even in the face of frustration.

How about you and your ministry?  Are you feeling an especially draining version of the summer slump?  Are you struggling with the frustration of the crisis that appears to have no end?  How are you setting cultural expectations that are deepening relationships and reaching out to offer hope and connection to the Bobs of your community?