Today I have the privilege of presenting the following paper in a panel discussion entitled “Expanding the Ministry of the Church through Community Development” at The National Bar Association’s annual Law and Religion Conference at the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The opportunity indeed humbles, since I anticipate that our panel will address individuals who have long and effectively answered the call.
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The increasingly vocal pluralism of American society challenges Christians to reconsider belief and justify conviction. Christ taught that such intentional effort, and the resulting authentic obedience to him, will engender rejection and persecution. He also, however, taught and demonstrated sacrificial service to those who reject and persecute. The seeming tension between the human tendency to vengeful self-preservation and the divine directive to loving service provides a dynamic for life and ministry. Christ illustrated the dynamic in a story about “neighboring”. Attempting to limit the scope of service, someone asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a story about how to be a neighbor, how to neighbor. See Luke 10:25-37. Christian community finds its voice of ministry in neighboring.
Christian neighboring both transcends and subsumes distinctions of race, culture and proximity because it acknowledges them but finds its motivation elsewhere, in the call of God. This call is the first determinant of mission. God called Christ to the ministry of the cross. God, through the Spirit, calls some to die martyrs’ deaths. He calls all to follow him in discipleship without sight of, much less control over, what will follow:
And what[is] the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion, even the devotion of ourselves. Bonheoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 62 (Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1963).
God by his call determines the course of the lives of the called. The most straightforward response is to do all to the glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 10:31) from a motivation that seeks no return or benefit for itself but finds its root in a true determination to emulate God’s love:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:19-21.
If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3.
Any other way “is a way of our own choosing. It may be the ideal way. It may even lead to martyrdom, but it is devoid of all promise. Jesus will certainly reject it.” Bonheoffer, p. 64. The called are to act rightly for the right reason.
God’s call, universally essential, is not uniformly manifested. For example, each individual called by God manifests a unique spiritual empowerment for furthering His continuing purposes in the world:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Corinthians 12: 7-11, 27.
God intends that the divergent gifts distributed by the Spirit work cooperatively for the common good of the called, “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up . . . . From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4: 12, 16. (emphasis added). Each of the called makes a unique contribution to the operation of the body. The healthy body, with each individual part doing its work, may then effectively serve the world.
Scripture suggests that each local church, a part of the larger “body of Christ,” itself contributes unique characteristics to ministry, as does each individual. In his missionary work, Paul recognized, for example, that some local churches were wealthy and therefore had a responsibility to share with those that were not. Christ, in his revelation to John, described seven churches, each of which existed in a unique local setting and, except for the two that Christ simply encouraged to persevere through their poverty and persecution, exhibited features worthy of both praise and correction.
God does not intend that any one congregation alone carry the full weight of ministry any more than he designed an individual believer to fulfill all the needs within that congregation. As in the time of Paul and John, each congregation has a singular set of characteristics and role in ministry. Intentionally and prayerfully seeking to understand this uniqueness, which results in part from the congregation’s location and collective gifts and vision, is integral to its understanding of the ministries to which God has called it, including those in the area of community development. The motivation for ministry is first and foremost internal: recognizing what God has done and provided and, out of gratitude and emulation, lovingly living out the call. Sound leadership recognizes the strengths and needs of its own and other congregations and works to reach an equality that benefits the common ministry, as did Paul in encouraging the Corinthians to share liberally with other congregations suffering want:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” 1 Corinthians 8:9-15.
For a local church, these ideas establish the basis for what is sometimes called “asset-based community development.” This approach to community development begins by seeking to identify and emphasize a community’s assets rather than its needs. Within the local church, it can be a tool to discover God’s call. Examples of the assets of the local church include individual giftings and the personal and collective passions and interests that flow from them; professional or other job skills; creativity; abilities in the arts; personal connections; monetary wealth; real estate ownership; location; individual and collective experiences. The list is as varied as is the sovereign workings of the Spirit. Even perceived weaknesses can be assets:[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
Weaknesses, to count as assets, must be humbly recognized and embraced, not excused or ignored. My preacher father would say “For every cheerful giver there much be a cheerful receiver.” Again, Paul was such a receiver when circumstances dictated:
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. . . . Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Philippians 4:10-14, 17-19.
A local church’s lack of funds should therefore not be viewed as a hindrance to ministry. It is, instead, both a prophylactic against prideful self-sufficiency and a God-give opportunity for cooperation among churches. Churches lacking funding should not be looked down upon in any way. Churches blessed materially must not be perceived as having received any special or additional blessing from God for its own obedience or service. One’s surplus should be seen as God’s provision of the other’s need. Too many churches see themselves as having an independent ministry, having no responsibility for the needs of other churches. This lack of vision may be a large contributor to the irrelevance of the church in much of the current American discussion of addressing social needs.
One asset that must never be discounted is that of sight and acting in accordance with what is seen:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3: 17-18
Just as Christ instructed his disciples upon his ascension to begin their ministries where they physically were, in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8), the local church must be involved in ministry where it physically is, where the needs are first most apparent. True, God-driven ministry requires that believers prayerfully recognize God’s enabling and the coupling of that enabling with the surrounding needs. Provision for those needs comes from God. He has established the web of local congregations as the primary distributor of that provision. Impatience with God’s provision may lead to seeking other sources, such as the government. Accepting governmental or other outside funding is not necessarily wrong or sinful unless it is pursued prematurely, before God has an opportunity to provide the funds through his own people. God sometimes tells his people to wait. Obedience is better that sacrifice. See 1 Samuel 15:22.
Seeking the vision that comes from true sight is a partial safeguard against the temptation to follow a cause instead of the call. Absent a ministry perspective emanating from and empowered by the call of God, the plethora of need will either overwhelm and discourage into paralysis or drive and tire into exhaustion. Each individual believer and local church must understand that God calls each to a particular place and role within Christ’s body that is the continuing incarnation of Christ in the world for the pursuit of His purposes. God neither calls nor expects any single believer or church to do all of the work. To minister from the context of the body as God designs demands humility, a recognition of mutual need. See 1 Corinthians 12:12-30. That humility, the recognition and acceptance of one’s place, establishes one of the cornerstones of ministry as God intends:
LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Psalm 16: 5-8.
Asset-driven ministry, the ministry focus derived from the enabling specific to a local church, must address need; ministry from must balance ministry to. The two gear wheels must fit together; neither moves without the other.
Determination and matching of assets and needs requires patient, prayerful and observant leadership, as well as discipline. All must be intentional. The process is one of examen, “prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.” http://ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/. “The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.” Id.
A church that in this process identifies a calling to community development must consider a myriad of issues to implement it. One of the first is legal structure. A church should itself be organized as a nonprofit corporation under state law. To enable deductibility of contributions, the Internal Revenue Service must also recognize it as a “501(c) (3) organization.” With the overall church organization in place, the next question becomes how to “house” the community development activities. For legal and accounting reasons, establishing a separate organizational entity, preferably another 501(c)(3) organization, is best practice. The separate entity segregates identification of and accounting for various funding streams and expenses, facilitating, for example, accounting for funds from outside the church if the church determines to accept public or other external funding. It may also shield the church itself from some federal employment laws and avoid audits of the church itself regarding the use of the federal funds. See http://www.cpjustice.org/node/320.
Any legitimate funder will require evidence that the organization has identified both the needs it wants to address and its assets to do so. Organizational self-assessments for community development corporations promulgated by, for example, The Enterprise Foundation and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, outline relevant considerations. Any assessment must be ruthlessly honest and transparent. The organization must be properly established, its policies and procedures comprehensively documented. The mission must have a laser focus and not allowed to drift to address every demand and perceived need; it must stay true to the call. The financial implications of the undertaking must be candidly faced. Outside funders, especially secular ones, will not be as concerned with the Biblical and spiritual motivations for a ministry as they will be with the reliability and sustainability of the plan. The church is responsible for guarding its motivation. Church committees and members should hold themselves accountable to assuring that they seek God’s leading in establishing, maintaining and directing their ministries. The church should under all circumstances be concerned about doing ministry with integrity. That integrity includes accountability and transparency.
Churches and other nonprofit entities frequently establish 501(c) (3) entities called “community development corporations” or “CDC’s” to operate their community development activities. While a variety of definitions exist,
all would agree that a community development corporation (CDC) is a non-profit organization that is created to revitalize a low- or moderate-income community. CDCs are created by people with a stake in the community itself. This can include residents of the target area, churches or other religious institutions, and sometimes, small business owners. The CDC model is one of self-help. People from the target area form their own organization to address their own needs. It is not the creation of people from outside the community.
A CDC is organized as any other nonprofit tax-exempt entity. The defining characteristic is its purpose: revitalization of a community by those inside it. A CDC under the auspices of a church should be part and parcel of the ministry of the church as determined pursuant to the examen described above. Care must therefore be taken that, in its zeal to serve perceived need, the organization does not compromise its first principles; it must not be so desirous of outside funds that it subjects itself to requirements that are contrary to its faith and Biblical convictions; it must not become “unequally yoked”. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. The church must always remember that God will fund his calling without compromise.
Principles of “Charitable Choice” now woven into various governmental social programs are designed to designed to protect “the religious character of faith-based organizations that choose to accept federal funds to help the poor” and “the religious liberty of beneficiaries of welfare services.” http://www.cpjustice.org/files/CCGuide.pdf. Other federal programs are covered by very similar “Equal Treatment” principles. Equal Treatment also requires that faith-based organizations have equal opportunity to compete for federal funds without compromising their religious characteristics or voluntary religious activities. Both sets of principles dictate that organizations, be they faith-based or not, may not discriminate on the basis of religion against people seeking help and must keep inherently religious activities separate from the government-funded services, with some flexibility in the context of services funded by vouchers. These rules apply to federal funds whether administered by federal, state or local officials. http://www.cpjustice.org/content/frequently-asked-questions-0. Despite these protections, certain funding programs may submit a recipient, including a faith-based one, to certain restrictions on sectarian hiring practices. A faith-based organization may consider religion in hiring. This right must, however, be surrendered to receive certain governmental grants or contracts, subject, however, to the possible right of the organization to contest such a requirement under certain circumstances. Again, financial need is not the sole determinant in whether to request governmental funding. A church considering applying for government funding must consider carefully all restrictions that accompany the money. “He who pays the fiddler calls the tunes.”
Together with the decision to enter into community development work under the structure of a CDC, the most important decision the church will make will be how to structure the board of directors. The board will be the primary connection between the church and the CDC and its work, as discussed by Tom Nees in his essay “Board Development for Faith-Based Charities; How Religious Should They Be?” Dr. Nees capably outlines the basic considerations in establishing a nonprofit entity, including these:
1. A church does not dismiss its faith principles in creating a separate nonprofit entity. The entity provides the means of retaining belief and practice while serving the public good.
2. The church must maintain a strong connection with the nonprofit board to address the risk of disconnection. The terms of the organizational documents of the nonprofit, especially the designated procedures for selecting board and staff, are the key links.
3. The most important single decision for a board is the selection and evaluation of the chief executive officer.
4. Leadership succession guidelines and rules must be established from the beginning.
5. Board members should agree to provide the three “Ws”: work, wisdom and wealth.
6. Resource development must be a key responsibility of the board.
7. Personnel policies must be carefully drafted.
Dr. Nees offers the following observations on this last point:
A nonprofit, tax-exempt organization can be as sectarian as any church, synagogue, or mosque and intentionally refuse public funds. However, one of the reasons faith communities sponsor separate charitable organizations is to provide a way to serve the public with public funds without being either predominately sectarian or predominately secular. . . .
A faith community has a bona fide right to discriminate on the basis of belief and behavior. . . . [A] faith community that expects religious commitment from its members may choose not to insist on the same level of commitment from the staff or board members who participate in its nonprofit charitable organization. Most faith-based charities want it known that they will not discriminate when serving people in need. However, when faced with the requirement to sign an antidiscrimination employment statement, faith-based nonprofit organizations will pause to carefully craft their personnel policies. If, as a matter of conviction, the organization intends to employ or to accept as volunteers only those who meet stated belief and behavior expectations of the faith community then it should not seek to use public funds nor enter into contracts mandating anti-discrimination employment policies.
A church entering into community development walks a difficult path. The journey emanating from the call must include intentional, prayerful examen. Active, watchful waiting is an integral part of the work; only in the mind of God can waiting and work not only coexist but mutually energize, each giving definition to the other. God reveals his purposes within this holistic dynamic of living. God customarily does not grant the grace of full understanding before calling to action. He calls to a destination that he will disclose in his time: walking while waiting.
The call to community service and development originates from one kingdom. Its implementation occurs in another. A church should carefully organize its community development activities so as to maintain accountability, clarity and transparency. These goals are best pursued by performing community development activities within a separate 501(c)(3) organization governed by documents, policies and procedures, and by a board of directors, that tie its mission to that of the church. Funding for the community development activities should preferably come from the founding church itself or from other local churches that share a common calling. Funding from secular sources, including the government, should be sought and accepted only after very careful analysis of the restrictions that may come attached to it. A church must not compromise its call.