At the time of this article, Brad had been in a multi-point rural pastoral charge for four years. Melissa was currently serving as an associate priest in a larger urban congregation. They are classmates from their seminary days. Imagine them meeting again in the lunch line at an evangelism conference.
Community Change — A Universal Challenge. At the table, they share their personal updates (spouse, kids, health, hobbies?) and common acquaintances (contacts, developments, news?). Then comes the “how’s it going in ministry?” question. Knowing each other so well, they wisely avoid the common pitfalls of many pastoral conversations (exaggeration, comparison, competition). In this case, both honestly share the positive ministry feedback they are getting both from diocese and parish leaders. But they share a common, uneasy feeling. Their settings are vastly different, but their unsettledness has a common source. Brad expresses it in the words, “It feels like our congregation is having a declining impact on the changing community around us.” “Change is the one constant in our community,” is how Melissa puts it. “The neighbourhoods we serve are in perpetual transition. It’s hard to know what to do anymore to meet needs in the community around us.”
Before leaving the table for the afternoon conference session, they make a pact. “Let’s both try to get a fresh understanding of our ministry context in the next twelve months. And to insure that this is more than just good intentions, we should be accountable to each other. Let’s meet here for lunch at next year’s conference to share what we learned as well as anything we did in parish ministry in light of it.”
Not A Solo Journey. Within days of returning home, the regular demands of congregational life (sermon writing, pastoral care emergencies, requests from other leaders, etc.) threaten any intention to do community research. The realization soon comes to both that this should not be a solo pastoral project, but a shared congregational journey. So, Melissa pitches the idea at the next staff meeting and then to several parish committees and individuals who would be good co-researchers. The result is the formation of a special community outreach study group. Within weeks, Brad decides to use a sermon from the New Testament reading in Acts 16 and 17 to recruit a couple of volunteers from each point of the charge to serve like Paul’s entourage to discover the keys within their community to having more of a “missionary” impact.
Celebrate What Is Already Happening. Almost every congregation has an optimist or two who believes that something good is already happening. For example, as Brad first meets with his “missionary team”, one member insisted that they begin by brainstorming a list of parish members currently involved in community service along with a list of regional groups and agencies already sharing common and compatible interests and concerns. When Melissa’s study group gets started, a couple of people thought ahead to bring along the service agency directory for their city, a membership “human resource” list from the church office, and a resource specialist from the diocesan office to help start discussion about the current activities within their neighbourhoods.
Study What? Before long, Brad and Melissa exchange e-mail that grappling with the question: “What do we need to know to understand where we serve?” Melissa’s study group quickly recognize that the “gateway” (where immigrants start in a new country) nature of their neighbourhoods requires that they include the most current information available on ethnicity, language, religion, and income. They also agree to the need to study the cultures of their neighbours and get to know them better as newcomers to Canada. The need to research the major neighbourhood themes (such as loneliness, unemployment,) and how their church’s ministries addressed those needs is also recognized. Brad’s team finds themselves discussing the influx of urban retirees and long distance commuters to their area as well as how the embedded family and social structures of their rural area are helping and hindering their parish ministry. Discussion leads to the conclusion of the need to identify where people meet in their community and that this project needed to gather information in such a way that they were not accused of “prying” by those not a part of their membership.
Getting (Somewhat) Organized?! It is at this point that Melissa and Brad get together by phone to discuss what level of planning was appropriate to sustain local intention to secure a fresh understanding of their ministry area. Brad and his “missionary team” end up establishing a more informal process without much structure consisting of just a regular monthly meeting to report back (to each other and the congregation) and discuss findings. They also hand out various assignments but do not restrict work to their group, but giving opportunities to others within the parish with an interest and aptitude for a specific task. Melissa’s study group create a more formal structure that included a published timeline and specific team roles, some one-time group meetings with a specific agenda at each stage of the process, and several congregational information points to share their findings as well as obtain feedback. As a result of their phone conversation, both Brad and Melissa begin to search for resources including study guides, survey forms, information services, and experts to help gather and interpret the information they were seeking (see “Resources for Community Research”). Brad’s team settle on a “socio-gram” tool to chart the potential connection points in their community in order to understand how relationships were developed. They also obtain a lot of information from municipal government about population trends of people moving into their area to help them understand the “bigger picture.” The study group at Melissa’s church draw upon a different set of options, contacting a para-church organization to obtain custom community profile and thematic mapping reports that enable them to get detailed information about specific groups in the neighbourhoods in their area.
A Year Later? Imagine now Melissa and Brad meeting in the lunch line at the next year’s evangelism conference. Without a doubt, the process has been beneficial for both pastor and parish. Brad and Melissa are probably reporting a new outward focus within congregational life. It’s likely that both parishes are discovering some of the barriers that have existed to making a positive ministry impact in their community. It’s expected that both projects have stimulated a lot of discussion about the information collected. They have struggled with the future implications for congregational ministry and activity. They are even beginning to dream and experiment with some new options for community service.
Is it time for another look where you are?
with James Watson
James Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Consultant for Church Planting and Congregational Development, The Salvation Army Canada and Bermuda and a ministry associate with Outreach Canada.
Resources for Community Research
- “Community Research Guide for Church Leaders” by James Watson (to obtain a copy, go to www.outreach.ca)
- Demographics Workbook (Diocese of Toronto)
- Urbanus – Practical tools for contextual ministry in large francophone cities (note that the “How to exegete your neighbourhood” document which is available in French)
- Statistics Canada – 2006 Census Community Profile – these are community standardized.
- Outreach Canada – Community Profile and Thematic Mapping Services – these are congregational customized (contact Lorne Hunter at www.outreach.ca or email@example.com).
- The Planning or Economic Development Office of your Muncipality.
- Local library – access to local histories, community service listings, etc.
- Wycliffe Speakers
- James Watson, Outreach Canada Associate (firstname.lastname@example.org). Consultant for Church Planting and Congregational Development, The Salvation Army Canada and Bermuda.
- Google your community (look for reputable sources in your search results).