Compassionate Church Response

A Compassionate Church Response

In the first article of this series, I presented an overview of a framework for responding to human needs that I am calling the Five Circles of Christian Compassion (see here). In a previous article, we overviewed personal compassion as the first circle of the model (see here). This article focuses on the compassionate response to when we come together as a church. This second circle of Christian response requires a church to proactively engage in a dialogue about how to practically provide support for community needs and what are the boundaries of a church’s compassion.

A friend once shared with me a quote that she found on the internet. The quote has been erroneously attributed to the Talmud but is actually without attribution. The quote bears repeating none-the-less.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

While these words might apply to individuals, they equally apply to church congregations. The basis for a corporate response to human needs runs through the entire Biblical narrative, but it is at the inception of the organizational church structure that the mandate emerges clearly. In the Book of Acts, we read,

“All the believers agreed to hold everything in common: they began to sell their property and possessions and distribute to everyone according to his/her need.” Acts 2:44-45.

This passage, followed by the story of Dorcas (Tabitha) in Acts 9:36-42 and the admonition in Romans 15:25-29 are but three of many biblical passages outlining the importance of church compassion.

So the question remains, how do we develop a church-based compassion ministry? The obvious first step is to recognize that you likely have some compassion ministries already in place. Perhaps it is as simple as a closet of nonperishable foods that are offered to those in need of food, or a small room with an assortment of donated clothes. For others, your existing ministry might be resourced, staffed by volunteers, and significant (like a formal food pantry or substance abuse recovery support group). Regardless of where you are starting, the following steps are designed to support you in assessing where your church is today and helping you create a pathway for building a church-based ministry of care.

•  Preparation – The starting place for any ministry is to pray and learn. As a congregation, the start of the learning journey could be a study group, workshop or sermon series. In addition to a study of the biblical perspective of community service, preparing for community service also includes assessing the needs of your community.

The rule of thumb in assessing the need is this: assessment is directly proportional to the resources and time you are investing in your community service program. If you are thinking of setting up a plan to help homeless individuals with some emergency food or a cell phone recharging station that is available on Sabbath morning, you may already have a sense of the community need based on the people who walk through the door of your church asking for help. Conversely, if you are thinking of setting up a significant and resourced community service program (like a fully operational food pantry), the assessment will be more comprehensive. For example, you might speak with three or four community and government agencies, like the police bureau, public health department, and local nonprofit social service agencies. Most states also have a 211 information (here) and referral agency that you can call for information about resources in your community. Synthesising the findings of these conversations will take more time and should be supported by data.

Based on your assessment, define explicit program goals. The answer to the questions “what are you doing” and “why” are the basis of your program decisions. In fact, I suggest taking a few minutes to review Simon Sinek’s classic TED Talk (here). His premise is that why precedes the what and how. We know that ultimately the “why” is found in a Biblical basis for ministry but the why for a faith-based community service program is “why” plus a clearly stated need.

The final component of planning is to develop the resources you will need to make your community service program a reality. This includes financial resources (both to start and sustain the ministry) and leadership. While this is listed as the last component of planning, it actually is essential that you can support your compassion program. Your church may have decided on a BIG WHY, but if the resources and leadership are limited, you will need to reduce your program expectations.

•  Policy – Pop quiz. Does your church have a written policy that outlines your churches approach to how it assists those in need? If so, do most of the congregation (and all of the leaders) have a shared understanding of that policy? Whether your compassion ministry is simple or complex, it is essential to have the agreements of the church in writing. Being clear about what your church does and does not do for those in need prevents misunderstandings and outlines the boundaries of support. This is good stewardship and responsible risk management.

When writing a policy one useful tool is to follow the acronym SMART. A SMART strategy is Specific, Measurable, Agreed To, Realistic, and Tactical. Again, we are defining the boundaries of our compassion. Once the board approves the policy With a clear policy, the church is equipped to respond compassionately to those asking for help.

•  Practice – With a plan in place, a written policy to support your intentions, the final step is to actually start implementing your program. At this stage, ensuring that your leadership is engaged, that the church is trained, and you continue to learn. Continuous learning is important because as with any new ministry, you will likely not get it “right” the first time.

One way to think about learning is to use the iterative cycle of Plan, Do, Check-in, Adjust. As you begin to implement your plan, it is necessary to occasionally check-in on your progress, and, based on what you learn, adjust your program delivery.

Finally, as you carry out your program measure your progress. Three simple questions can help you know the impact of your community service. How Much have we done? How well have we done it? Does our help matter in the lives of those we serve (or those who provide the service)?

Again, this is an overview of how to think about a church-based community service program. For a more in-depth exploration of this topic see Urban Ministry & Community Development Tools and Keys to Adventist Community Services.  As we are building the compassion framework, the point of this article is to define the second circle of community compassion. We move from personal compassion to church-based compassion. Next up? What happens when you outgrow your church.

Your comments are always welcome.


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

About the author: Mark Fulop
Mark Fulop, MA, MPH is the Executive Director of PACS and has spent his career working for social, health, and economic justice.

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