June 10, 2014

Community Engagement: A Little Church that Could

Good Shepherd Episcopal church is a little church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the northern most suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. Its average weekly attendance is around 125. 

The 1st weekend of May this year marked a significant turning point for the parish. Mike Tess, Good Shepherd’s rector, writes:

“Our church partnered with The Sunshine Place, a local nonprofit, and hosted The Sunshine Ball which 200 people attended and cleared $15,000 after expenses. We split the profits with Sunshine Place 90/10.

“As you can imagine, this was a stretch for some of our members to understand. ‘Why when we do all the work and our budget is upside down don’t we get at least half?’

“Here in lies the secret to making your church indispensible to your community. The Sunshine Place brought their entire support network to our event. What’s that worth in PR and marketing?

“People often ask, ‘How many people come to Good Shepherd after you do an event like this?’ The quick answer is no one. These seeds are winter wheat. They grow slow and steady.

“Instead, ask me how many doors have opened because of our community involvement. Ask me what is the first church that comes to people’s mind if they have a pastoral concern and aren`t already involved in a parish. Good Shepherd is at the top of the list.

“Community involvement is also an often-misunderstood concept. When churches want to grow or have embraced the need for change they often take on a social ministry like a supper or a food pantry or mother’s room. These are all independent outreach ministries. Outreach ministry is for the committed members who are seeking to deepen their relationship and connect to God’s path.

“When we look at growing a church we focus on two target markets. 1) People who have been away from church for 30 years or more and 2) families with young children. These groups are social justice minded but they think more of equality and open mindedness more than they do about whether you are ministering to the needy.

“The first step into the pool for community involvement is to find a community partner. A leader or group that is always at the center of making your community better. The park and rec, the schools, the chamber of commerce, the VFW are all good examples.

“Make a goal to do one community event with your community partner every year.

“Some ideas:
  • Bring doughnuts to new parents on the 1st day of school and have 3 people from the church serve it.
  • Take an extra collection and present a check to the band director at a concert for their spring tour expenses. 
  • Sponsor a summer program for parks and rec and get your logo on the back of kid's tee shirts.
“The ultimate goal of community involvement is to make your community believe that quality of life would suffer if your church wasn’t there. People often think that tons of effort is needed to make this kind of visibility possible.“

Do you have stories of community engagement? What impact has partnering with a local organization had on your mission and ministry?