Connecting with Local Resources: Church and Parachurch Partnership
[author_box layout="inline_avatar" show_title="false"] – May 26, 2021
Adapted from Chalmers online training Helping without Hurting in Benevolence Ministry.
As your church seeks to build toward effective poverty alleviation ministry that addresses the complex root causes of poverty, you’ll likely find very quickly that you can’t address every situation faced by those you are serving—nor should you. While the Bible clearly calls the church to address the social, spiritual, and physical needs of the poor, that call is not only for the church—parachurch organizations, nonprofits, and even businesses and government agencies can all be part of someone’s journey out of material poverty.
Recognizing both the incredible responsibilities God has given your church as well as your very real limitations (of time, volunteers, expertise, budget, etc.) can open up fantastic opportunities for relationship between your church and other community service entities. Our low-income neighbors are often dealing with a whole web of issues that contribute to their material poverty, so it stands to reason that they might need to draw on multiple resources to help them get untangled and reach their goals.
Long term, relational, asset-based development requires coordinating care on multiple fronts. This is sometimes referred to as “wrap-around” service or “continuity of care.” Your church family can be the key relationship in someone’s life, serving as a connection point for them even if you don’t actually provide all the services they require. The other congregations, parachurch ministries, and agencies are likewise not your “competitors” in any way, but could be strong partners in this work, additional places where God has placed people to accomplish His work in your community. God did not give ALL the gifts and ALL the resources to just one congregation!
So how well do you know your community landscape? It might be time to take some field trips and get to know your church and community organization neighbors. This is a process known in community development circles as “asset mapping”—taking a careful inventory of all the resources already available to serve the material needs of your community. This could be something you undertake yourself, using Google Maps or simply asking around, but often a local United Way chapter will maintain a community resource directory that they will freely share.
Seeing ministry opportunities in this way as well can help your church avoid duplicating services, spending valuable time and effort creating a new ministry program when you could have been supporting one that is already up and running. On the other hand, learning to take account of what services already exist can help you identify the gaps your church might be best able to fill—such as financial education or jobs-preparedness training.
Don’t forget as well that your fellow church members are often already serving in some capacity through the church or as volunteers for other ministries. You may not even be aware of some of the things the Lord is doing under the radar. So before you jump to creating new ministry programs, take time to “map” your congregation as well—you may be surprised and encouraged by what you discover!
Granted, not every church, parachurch, or community nonprofit is going to be the right partner for your church.
A healthy church-to-church or church-to-nonprofit collaboration is going to include, at the very minimum, these shared commitments:
- A shared sense of responsibility around an asset-based approach to poverty alleviation. Are you on the same page about empowering individuals and families to make positive changes, doing work together with them and not doing things to or for them?
- A shared desire to cultivate trust and accountability between ministries and organizations. Are you both willing to put all your cards on the table, and share information and resources as needed?
- A shared understanding that we serve members of our community better when we work together. Are you willing to lay down “turf wars” or fights about who gets the credit for what you are able to do together?
Ideally, for formalized, long-term partnerships, you’ll also want to ensure you both have a shared understanding of God’s big story. Are you both working from a biblical understanding of who God is, who people are, and what God is doing in the world?
One of the key features of this shared understanding is that both parties should see the local church as essential to poverty alleviation, for it is the very dwelling place of God, the only One who can heal the broken relationships at the root of material poverty. In this light, while parachurch organizations are often able to provide services that go beyond the capacity of the local church, their work should be rooted in and flow back into the local church. Unpacking all that this means goes beyond the scope of this article, but a question that gets to the heart of the issue is this: Are the church and parachurch collaborating in such a way that the people being ministered to are attracted to the local church and are welcomed in as full participants in the church family?
But could a church have a formalized, long-term partnership with a secular organization? They can and often do! The doctrine of common grace teaches us that God’s blessings on the world are not limited to his work in and through the church. As Paul taught in Acts 14:17, God “did not leave himself without witness” when he sent rain and crops and more to pagan people who did not yet know him. God has poured out gifts and order in the world, and we can and should avail ourselves of these good gifts (specialized knowledge and skills, financial resources, access to levers of social change, the life lessons of people in material poverty, and more). A secular organization or agency that meets the criteria above and also does not compromise the church’s ability to speak the full gospel message in our work could be exactly the partner needed in some cases. Through such partnerships, Christians can affirm God’s work in the world, narrating God’s story as they go, declaring “this is good, and it’s from our King.”
In addition, many secular nonprofits have believers on staff who are driven by their faith in the work they do. These women and men can provide expertise and services that your church may not be able to offer, such as physical and mental health care, job training, or help navigating government assistance programs.
Of course, there is much more that goes into the details of partnership that will need to be worked out in each situation. (For more on these considerations, see chapter 11 of When Helping Hurts as well as Helping without Hurting in Benevolence Ministry.) Above all, your church doesn’t have to go it alone in ministry to your community. May God bless your efforts with wisdom and newfound collaboration with the others He has placed near you as you serve together!
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