Refocusing Development through Innovation

By Lana Hill and Justin Lonas, reprinted from the Chalmers Center.

Sometimes, when we’re walking with people as they work to escape material poverty, we want hard-and-fast rules to follow that lead to measurable outcomes. But the truth is, there’s no single “recipe” that always “works” everywhere.

Once we begin to confront the complexities of poverty and our own brokenness, we may start to ask much more specific questions: What is the best way to serve this person? How can I help that family over the long haul? What can my church do to address poverty in our neighborhood?

The closer we get to a given situation, the more difficult it is to see how abstract principles apply. At the same time, the closer we get, the better we can work with the people we are serving (rather than doing things for them). We get to know their gifts and their needs and apply best practices and helpful tools to come up with creative solutions together.

Crystal Davy had been serving as the worship pastor at Grace Chapel in Lincoln, Nebraska for 15 years when she was asked to take on an additional role as neighborhood outreach coordinator. The lead pastor at Grace heard about the Chalmers Center’s Innovate training and recommended that Crystal take the course in the spring of 2021 to help equip her for the new role.

Starting with a Team

Like all Innovate participants, Davy had to gather a team of committed people from the church to walk through the training together and eventually launch on the plans that developed through the course. The team from Grace Chapel consisted of four members—a deacon who helps with the benevolence fund, the wife of one of the church’s elders who has been invested in caring for those with mental health issues, and another church member who has also worked in that area of ministry.

As they considered how best to apply the tools they were learning to use through Innovate, the team started by examining their physical location. Grace Chapel had recently relocated to a densely populated area of Lincoln, surrounded by walkable neighborhoods. As a result, they chose people within a close radius of the church who have shared that they feel lonely and disconnected within their community to be the team’s key stakeholder group—the specific population they feel called to work with.

Davy shared that, in the past, the church’s engagement with its immediate neighbors was very broad (“anyone and everyone” was their ministry focus), and that the church’s practice of giving handouts of material goods wasn’t building the holistic relationships the church desired. The people the church had been “helping” wanted the gifts the church was providing but weren’t interested in engaging with leaders and volunteers from the church. As a result, the church’s interest in serving their local community had shifted to other ministries, with church members assuming that no one wanted connection beyond material handouts.

Because of this past experience and the tools from Innovate that encourage teams to identify root causes of poverty, the team shifted their ministry focus from meeting material needs to building relationships.Through the training, they also were able to connect with other teams from different churches and ministries around the world to share ideas and encouragement.

This summer, Davy and her team were able to present key elements from Innovate to their church leadership, and have started to invite others from the church to participate in the ministries they’ve started. The team is growing more intentional about the language they use to describe the work, and Davy is even inquiring about changing her title from “outreach coordinator” to “hospitality coordinator” because her desire is to be a more constant presence for those in the community than the spurts of outreach activity that had previously characterized the church’s work.

Developing a Plan

Innovate helped the team put words to the problems they were facing and identify specific issues in a ministry program they knew wasn’t working as well as it could. Going forward, the team is investing in making the church be a place that the community knows is for them—to be able to use the church building for events (like birthday or graduation parties), to know that they are welcomed, and to grow in trust and relationship with church members.

Through Innovate, the team identified three immediate action steps:

  1. Advocating for the church to finish construction on the church basement to create more usable space for community activities.
  2. Testing their hypothesis about people having more relational than material needs through the summer by hosting a prayer walk, and creating weekly times for neighbors to pray.
  3. Creating a public, outdoor prayer box where members of the community can put prayer requests with the knowledge that church leaders will regularly pray for them.

For Davy and her team, this has been a very encouraging process, even if it’s going slower than she expected. Some of their goals haven’t yet materialized, but the church did recently open a counseling center that some of the team members are helping with. If clients from the community can’t pay for the counseling services, the church is giving scholarships. The church is beginning to think and act in different ways, with renewed hope for being a faithful presence in their neighborhood.

The biggest value Davy took away from Innovate was how the training and tools work to guide people through the ministry development process no matter where they are on the spectrum of relationalasset-based, participatory development.

“It was clear that some of the groups were already kind of doing the things we wanted to do, and some people were just asking the first questions,” she says. “Regardless of where you are in the process, if you want to be a good neighbor, this is a fantastic place to start.”

She added that she would “100% recommend” Innovate for churches looking to build new ministries or improve existing ones.

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