July 2007
Creative Outreach

Outreach: Getting Started #101

We have been the Church Gathered, We are now the Church Dispersed. Remember, Wherever you go, Christ goes. Whatever you do, Christ does. If someone asks what your church is like, tell them “I am what my church is like.” If someone asks what your church does, tell them “My church does what I do.” Remember, you may well be the only authentic contact someone has with Jesus Christ because they will not come to church but you can bring the church to them. - Attributed to former U.S. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson 

If you learn this message, you can do anything you choose in the community of social justice and outreach ministries! 

But what if you are on the vestry and there is not much interest in outreach? What if your congregation used to have an outreach ministry but does no longer? What if you’ve never been involved in outreach but have discovered a need within your community?

Get passionate
An effective social justice and outreach program can be created by a small group who has a passion for these ministries, in a very short period of time. A supportive environment created by a willing clergy person and a behind-the-scenes vestry member can make the program even more effective. At least one vestry member needs to be a passionate believer in outreach ministry activities, as this provides a built-in communications tool for the team.

Assess the local needs
Key to success in starting a new outreach program will be careful observation, fact gathering and presentation of conclusions. Realizing an unmet need is a great way to start. If things are not so apparent, interview members of the community (city council, mayor, governing body members or folks who’ve lived in the area a long time). Find at least one cohort to challenge your thoughts and summarize gathered data. 

After you talk to people, you should have the names of organizations that are effective, some which may already be addressing that need you saw. Talk to their leaders and keep good notes. Would our volunteers be able to jump right in or would they need to help raise funds before starting? Would staff be available to help manage volunteers or would we need to devote time to that?

Will their philosophy merge with our faith structure? 

Summarize the research and your decision-making process so that you can present this to the rest of the vestry. If your case holds the vestry’s attention, collect names to invite to a planning meeting. If you have only one real recommendation, you might consider including a representative at your first meeting to talk about the needs. 

Welcome new energy
Many congregations change over time. Neighborhoods change, clergy change, people move away. For one or more reasons a congregation that once had an active, meaningful outreach program may become very inner-directed. If new members arrive with a passion for outreach, for doing something for others, or with a drive to help those less fortunate, they can become the catalyst for change. Having a vestry and clergy tuned to inviting and nurturing new ideas to surface will help!

Define measurable goals
Once a new direction is selected for the outreach efforts, the team needs to define goals for the first year that are really achievable and measurable. Figure out how to recruit team members, how to educate people about this need (newsletters, bulletins, tons of photos, bulletin boards, videos, web site messages — you name it, will work).

Success will happen if people see the needs and understand them, if the team is seen having fun, if the results are shared with the congregation, and if the activities are well planned and completed on time. Given that people learn and understand in different ways, tell the story in multiple ways. A really effective method can be a “client” who will tell how your congregation has made a difference, even to the point of changing lives. 

Bob Runkle is a lay outreach leader at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. With service on four different vestries, he has started major outreach projects in every parish he has attended — most recently in parishes in the dioceses of Chicago and Maryland. On May 12, he was awarded the first annual “Agitator’s Award” by St. Luke's, complete with a standing ovation from the congregation.

This article is part of the July 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Creative Outreach