Interview: Vicki Conn of Love INC

Chalmers staff member Laura Haley recently sat down with Vicki Conn, Director of Love INC of Greater Holmes County, to discuss her experiences walking with people who are poor. Listen to the interview or read the transcript below!

Laura: Today’s audio interview is brought to you by the Chalmers Center. I’m your host, Laura Haley. I’m excited to introduce you to today’s guest, Vicki Conn. Vicki is the Director of Love INC of Greater Holmes County in Ohio. Love INC is a national network of 137 affiliates that connect local churches and mobilize them to transform lives and communities.

Hello Vicki! I’m glad to have you here today. One question I have for you is: where are you from, and what are a few things you love about living in Greater Holmes County?

Vicki: I’m from Holmes County, Ohio in central Ohio—a little south of Akron and kind of in a rural area. I grew up there, but then I’ve come and gone from the area. I’ve had the internal perspective of the community and then as I step away from it have been able to kind of look at it externally. Holmes County is made up of some good solid Christians who are wanting to help and to be a part of serving. There is poverty in the county as well, but I appreciate how the community’s heart is ready to work together. I think they’re learning a bit more and more and more how to do that.

Laura: How were you introduced to Love INC originally?

Vicki: My husband’s a pastor, and he was a pastor in Northwest Pennsylvania up in Erie County. We had young children at the time. I was a school teacher before that. When we moved, I decided not to get a job, and just let our children settle into our new neighborhood. As we settled in, I became aware of Love INC in Corey, in the town that we were in. I found out a little bit more about it and became a phone volunteer. I was a phone volunteer, and then they hired me on staff to be Director of Ministries after a little while.

Laura: What does it mean to be a phone volunteer?

Vicki: A phone volunteer is somebody who is in the Love INC clearinghouse, and they’re there to answer the phones. Phone volunteers also give calls back to families, clarifying questions or asking them more about their situation. They’re the real voice of Love INC to the families.

Laura: For someone who may not be familiar with Love INC what kind of is their vision in ministry?

Vicki: The mission of Love INC is to mobilize the local church to transform lives and communities in the name of Christ. Love INC stands for Love In the Name of Christ. Love INC begins in the community—not to go in and take over and to do the work, but to be the networking piece between the families in need and the churches, and providing those effective, manageable ways of serving for the church.

Laura: You started as a phone volunteer, and you’re Director, what was that journey like?

Vicki: Actually, I first went from phone volunteer to what they call Clearing House Coordinator. That was also on staff. In that role, I was the one to get all of the family’s cases to my desk and then try to figure out was the best way to help them. In that role, it’s just networking pieces together. Then the Director of Ministries role that I ended up in up there was starting up helping churches to recognize what gaps are in the community—helping them start what we call “gap ministries.” I helped start some classes and some budget coaching ministries that were going on. Then we ended up having a housing ministry called Homes of Hope, and I was the director of those ministries.

Now I’m in Ohio at a Love INC of Greater Holmes County. In our affiliate in Ohio, we have Faith & Finances, which has been just remarkable. So many different ways that families have been stepping forward, and learning, and growing. It’s just been amazing. This couple came to Love INC and their request was to help them with housing because their apartment had mold in it, there were holes in the floor, they had a baby, and she was pregnant with another child. They were very concerned about the baby’s health and hers as she was pregnant.

Our Love INC affiliate does not necessarily pay rent or pay bills, so we tried to explore with them what their options could be and how could help them. We invited them to meet with a budget coach, and they weren’t interested in that to start with. They were interested in our Homes of Hope ministry, so they did apply for that, and we interviewed them. They were going to be approved to live in one of our homes until they realized that they couldn’t bring their dog along. They chose not to move into this Homes of Hope house that would have given them a safe, good landing space because they couldn’t bring their dog, yet the baby was still going to be in this home.

That’s the part that sometimes we don’t understand, but we’re not in their shoes. That dog was very important to them. We were like, “That’s fine, but keep us posted. Let us know how else we can help.” We discovered that she had her baby and so we thought, we’re going to check back in on her, and then we put volunteers in place and gave them meals because they were in a part of a church that did that. We arranged that and every person to give a meal, and they were able to have that relationship and talk a little bit and pray with them. Then, little by little, the wife kept calling us back again. Now, she said “Yes, okay fine. We are ready to meet with a budget coach.”

He worked second shift, so he was not able to meet, but she began meeting. They started saving. They ended up moving into their place on their own. Like we did not provide any help financially to them. They could save up, and they made their move. Now she’s in Faith & Finances. One of the big things was eating out, and we’ve tried to talk with them a little bit about, what are things you could cut back on? And that was not one they wanted to cut back on.

But in Faith & Finances, in the beginning, what kinds of things can you cut back on or eventually get rid of? As of last week, they had gone from eating out, would be $20 and then the next week was $10 and the following week they decided, we’re not going to eat out at all, and they didn’t.

They are in their new place. They are on track financially. Their babies are beautiful and doing well. Then their landlord from the previous place said to them, “You don’t have to pay me back all of the back rent that you owed me.” So they see the blessing. They’re stepping. They’re doing their thing, and they’re in tears about how well it’s going for them, so anyway, that was one story.

Laura: I think that’s what so many churches need. Just stories of hope of what is possible. You know? It is possible for people when they have loving people around them to help them in times of need, that can walk with them as they’re learning how to budget. There is hope for a lot of people out there, and I don’t think everyone believes that.

Vicki: Yes! For them, the ladies who brought the meals were from different churches. The budget coach is from a different church so one church can do a lot, but when you multiply the churches and wrap around, there’s so much we can do as a body of Christ even.

Laura: It’s the real body of Christ.

Vicki: It is. Across the wall. You know just the walls don’t keep us separated. We’re all in this to do His work. That’s fun to watch.

Laura: Wow! I love that story.

Vicki: We have allies or budget coaches that meet one-on-one with the families before or after they take the 12-week Faith & Finances class. If somebody is willing to sit down with a coach or an ally and the class has already started, we still let them meet. They meet for an hour on Monday nights. It’s really neat to see those relationships form.

Laura: Have you seen the community kind of benefit or certain families who have taken those courses?

Vicki: Here’s an example: we have four ladies who all attend four different churches right now. One of them didn’t attend before taking Faith & Finances, but they all took Faith & Finances, three of them were in one class, but the fourth one was a different class. But those four have not only grown financially and made financial improvements in their life, but they also recognize the community that they found in this class. These four ladies want other women who are going through broken times to find this healing community. They’re forming their own little healing group for women and restoring some of the relationships in their lives. I mean that’s only one story that can come out of the whole big picture of these classes.

Laura: That’s so encouraging. What are some things you feel like you’ve learned since you’ve started at Love INC?

Vicki: I think when my husband and I moved to Ohio, there was not a Love INC and when we decided to move, I was very sad because I did not want to leave the work that was going on in Pennsylvania. But we followed the Lord and recognized that it was time to move to Ohio. We were coming back to our home town. I was itching. I wanted this for our community in Ohio. My husband would meet with local pastors, and they would talk at their monthly meetings. “How do we better help people in our community?” One pastor would say, “So-and-so came to my church, and I gave him gas money.” And another pastor said, “Oh, so did I. I gave him gas money last week.” They just wanted to do it better. Finally, my husband talked to them about Love INC, and they gave us a grant to get us started.

One thing that I knew the Lord just opened up my heart was that Love INC in Holmes County was not just going to be for the families in need. One of the things I’ve learned is that the church desires to help, wants to serve, wants to be a part of the community, but the concepts found in When Helping Hurts and that have come out of the Chalmers Center and now being used in Love INC is what the church needs. I’ve learned that I don’t need to get frustrated with the church who pays the bills or things like that. But it’s a learning process. I’ve held several Helping Without Hurting six-week sessions, and I’ve invited pastors and mission teams to be a part of that. The wheels are turning, and they’re shifting. I love how there are, slowly but surely, volunteers and churches who are getting it and who want to become relational and walk with people rather than just giving people quick handouts and the quick fixes.

Laura: The Bible says “blessed are the poor.” Through you building relationships with some people who might be experiences material poverty, how has that relationship kind of blessed you?

Vicki: Wow. I mean there is, as you just said material poverty is one thing, but boy they are so rich in so many other ways. Just the joy that they have in other areas of their life. Sometimes the relationships with their kids or their families. I found that many families that I’ve been able to build a relationship with may not have much in savings, but they want to help other people.

In one of Faith & Finances classes, there was a couple who was living in a camper at the beginning of the class, and they caught on to some of the concepts pretty quickly. They began tracking and saving. There was another lady who was married, and she didn’t have a whole lot of access to their finances, but she shared in one class that her kids and grandchildren were going to come at Easter time and she wanted to be able to have a little something special for them from Grandma, but she just didn’t know that she could, if she’d have access to that.

That night, the couple—who were homeless—came up to me and said, “We want to bless her. Can we just anonymously, can we give you the money to give to her that she can use to get a little something special for her kids?” They didn’t have much to spare, but their heart, their desire to help people too is there. It’s at the core.

Laura: I think it’s so often we think that if you’re experiencing material poverty that all you want to do is receive from others but, we have a ministry in Chattanooga, it’s called the Heart Gallery, and so they have people who are low income come in, and they take art classes, and the gallery allows them to sell their art.

One amazing thing, as they’re learning through making new art, they also get the opportunity to tithe 10% to a non-profit, or a church, or something of their choice, they get to give away. I read interviews of just the joy they get to experience to give some of what they have. It kind of like restores that ability to them because it is better to give than receive.

Vicki: We see that too, over and over. You have to think about the assets that they have. The light bulb that goes off that you can even see when they can recognize that they have something to give. They have something to bring to the table. This one lady makes homemade bread to die for. Like it is so good. She was our first class. She was in our first Faith & Finances class and every class after that, she blesses the class with homemade bread. She loves that.

Laura: That’s wonderful. I love some good homemade bread.

Vicki: I know right?

Laura: What is something in Love INC you would like to improve?

Vicki: I think what we’re continuing to work on is encouraging churches and volunteers to get more and more hands-on. While we have lots of volunteers engaged, I think even more hands-on, even more relational. That’s just a constant growing sense that I would love to see continue. How do we create that invitation for families to take that next step and not feel like they have to do it because that’s what they’re supposed to do, but to desire and know that it’s possible and that there’s room to step forward.

Laura: If you’re trying to outreach to families who might need different services, how do you do that outreach?

Vicki: Our community counseling centers are the job and family services, they know all about us, and the school systems now about us, obviously the churches know. We’ve tried the women’s shelters. We partner with people who are already engaged in some of the families’ lives so they know they can send them to us.

Laura: If a church was trying to better be connected in their community, how long did that process kind of take?

Vicki: We started our Love INC affiliate four years ago, so it’s about being very intentional. For me as a director, part of my role is to get out there and have conversations and meet with these other community resources. It’s taken four years, and I think last year was a pivotal point for us. People don’t just hear Love INC and wonder what it is—they’re beginning to understand it a little bit more and what we can do for families.

Laura: You’ve built up some trust among people.

Vicki: Yeah. It’s fun when we have a counselor give us a call and say, “I don’t know if you realize how impactful your volunteers were to this person.” It affirms the work that is going on. It’s really neat. The church is our primary focus. We’re here to mobilize the local church, but we also don’t want to duplicate or step on toes unless we have a way to layer it or to walk alongside what’s already happening. I think we’ve built that trust in resources that we’re not here because you’re not doing it right. That’s not the perspective that’s being shown, but we’re here to help and to layer what’s going on.

Laura: Do you remember any volunteers who probably came in a little unsure of themselves and what they were like coming in versus coming out?

Vicki: One would be those folks who are delivering furniture. We try to train people ahead of time and give them scenarios of what they might come face-to-face with. But there was one particular team who went and delivered a couch to one of the homes. What they saw…they did not realize that this is happening in Holmes County. That this type of living and the poor conditions of this person’s apartment was an eye-opener for them. But it didn’t scare them away. What it did was it made them recognize the need even more, so it affirmed the work that they were doing as volunteers.

I know we have a phone volunteer that just started recently. She’s been in training, and she was on her own for the first time this past week. She was moved to tears after she did a couple of intakes of hearing the whole story and things. But our clearinghouse coordinator was able to share with her a scenario where all the pieces fell together, and you could see God working in this church and this volunteer to wrap around this family who was feeling so lonely and so hopeless. It was a pretty eye-opener day for her too.

Laura: In your time with Love INC, have you had like a role model that’s just encouraged you along the way?

Vicki: Laura Pettit works at the national level of Love INC, and I have always respected her spirit. Just somebody who is very, again full of the Spirit and very mindful that this is God’s work. I’ve always respected her because her approach is not just diving into things because it’s the newest thing so let’s do it. She’s good at challenging and to keep things in order. I’ve appreciated her wisdom in that. There are so many things that Love INC or the ministry could be involved in, but what’s God calling you to do now? Don’t think of ten things you want to do this year; focus on a couple. I’ve appreciated her leadership and words as we move in our Love INC affiliate year to year.

Laura: Since relational ministry can be so emotionally taxing what are some things you’ve learned to prevent yourself from burning out?

Vicki: I think for me, it has to be at the core of my heart is this is God’s work and I can’t do any of it. So I have to let myself off the hook to start with and consider that I’m only human, and I’m working with humans. It’s important to remember daily, “God, this is Your work. This is Your day. Just help me. Help me keep that balance.” That’s not something that for me was easy at the beginning. I would take everything on, and it became very burdensome emotionally to me. But I in my faith and as I’ve continued to lean into God, He continues to put His hands on my shoulders and say, “My child, I’ve got this. Just step with me. Don’t run. Just step with me.” That has just really slowed me down. Not that I don’t get emotional, but it just helps me not to break.

Laura: Yeah. That’s super wise. How’s working with Love INC and working with people experience material poverty, how has that impacted your spiritual life?

Vicki: I think it helps me to prioritize things. Whether it’s in the community that I live in now or any community, trying to raise children and help them to be spiritual. That’s what I want to teach my children too. It’s not about keeping up the Jones. It’s not about having the best of the best. It’s about having that relationship with Christ who is the one to give us what we need. Part of Love INC ministries is sometimes transformational ministry—can I share a bit about that?

Transformational ministry is when you offer some of those coaching and classes to your families. We have what’s called Fresh Start, which happens on a Monday night from 6:00 to 7:00. It happens at a church. From 6:00 to 7:00 budget coaches who are volunteers from churches meet with families one-on-one. Then we have childcare provided too. Then from 7:00 to 8:00, we have other classes like Boundaries or maybe a parenting class or a marriage class—just some relevant topics for them. On Monday nights under Fresh Start is Faith & Finances and so then we would have that class taking place with a meal and everything like that too.

There are so many relationships being built on those Monday nights. Some of the families who start one class, and then they’re like, “Okay, what’s the next class? I don’t want to stop coming to Monday nights.” That has just been a joy to watch them build those relationships and then also see the fruits of it in their own lives financially, relationally, spiritually, and all of that. That’s a really fun piece of what Love INC pulls together too. On a Monday night, we probably have volunteers from 10 different churches coming together at the same time, so that’s fun to get the body of Christ together.

Laura: And there are Love INC locations all across the United States.

Vicki: Right.

Laura: Love INC supports the work of over 7,800 churches in 29 states across the U.S. To find out more about Love Inc and their ministry opportunities go to loveinc.org.

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Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura earned a B.A. in Graphic Design from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Following graduation, she had the opportunity to work on marketing teams with other non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity, Unifi-Ed, and Young Life. Her work is guided by the belief that meaningful innovation requires a deep understanding of the people who use design. Away from work, Laura loves running, exploring national parks, and swing dancing.
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