Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry

Over the years, I have contributed book reviews to a few journals. Most recently, I began serving as a book review contributor for Sharing the Practice, the journal for the Academy of Parish Clergy.  This journal is written by ministry professionals for a clergy and seminarian audience, so the book reviews tend to range from practical ministry books to academic texts exploring the different disciplines a minister should keep up with (biblical studies, historical/theological books, and other "weightier" matters).  

Recently, I prepared a review for the Fall 2013 issue of "Sharing the Practice", exploring a new book from Judson Press (the denominational imprint for the ABC/USA).   As a minister concerned for churches in need of revitalization, I believe this book will be of benefit to congregations, lay leaders and pastors, marshaling missional creativity with author Joy Skjegstad's experience and wisdom.  I invite you to read the review and consider this book in your church's mission.  You might never be the same after reading it!

Skjegstad, Joy.  7 Creative Models for Community Ministry.  Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA: 2013.  $16.99.  Available via or your local independent bookstore!

               Ron Carlson, Missional Church Strategist, for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, is a long-time advocate for churches to become missional, yet he asserts some of the groundwork must be laid to get congregants into the right mind set.  He refers to this effort as shaping a “mental model” for why missional differs from previous approaches to church ministry and mission.  Rather than paternalism or institutional support, Carlson challenges churches to study what it means to be in the immediacy of a mission field: their own communities.  Getting into the missional mindset starts reshaping the “givens” of how churches operate and function.  In other words, the church has to think differently as it endeavors to act missionally.
               While certain missional church texts tend to engage the theory, 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry offers a very hands-on, close to the ground approach.   Consultant Joy Skjegstad distills her years of experience journeying alongside client clergy and churches into the seven models for churches to consider.  Devoting a chapter to each, Skjegstad offers insight into ways a church might enter into community ministry.  These models include:  donate goods or money, mobilize volunteers, partner with other organizations, advocate around public policy, engage in community organizing, develop a ministry program, and create a church-based non-profit.
               What I admire most about Skjegstad’s approach is her advocacy for a very measured, tethered to reality approach to any of these creative models.  Before she fleshes out each model in the book’s middle section, Skjegstad offers her opening chapters for churches who do not wish to trip over their own feet, or worse, rush into poorly planned, clumsily executed projects.  She warns against insular thinking where churches presume to know what is needed or best yet wind up with the efforts fundamentally misguided at the outset.  She offers basic principles for beginning a community ministry project, built upon careful study and gathering consensus from within and beyond the church that the effort is needed and feasible.  She sends you off on journeys sometimes less considered by congregations:  sitting down with community stakeholders, public/private/non-profit sector leaders and experts, activists, etc.  She encourages churches to listen intentionally, knowing that it will be a humbling experience for some, as they realize their understanding of a community’s needs may have been outdated or misinformed.  Such work may be leavening for a congregation, aligning them more closely with their own neighborhoods than ever before.  Given the depletion of federal and state resources for assistance programs, creative community ministry projects are needed more than ever before.

               She encourages churches to dream yet not to skirt laying a foundation with some attention to the project’s aims and purposes.  For example, the first model involves donating goods or money. Skjegstad points out donations are often the first and only stop along the way to meeting those needs.  By starting with the most familiar, Skjegstad skillfully reframes the untapped potential churches have to explore by reading onwards in her book and considering different models to approach community ministry.  If they choose to do so, churches soon find themselves deepening the potential of their church’s efforts as a congregation, a missional team or collaborative partner.  Instead of repeating old habits, churches begin seeing their efforts in a new light.
               Skjegstad turns often to illumining narratives from the churches and pastors she has served as a consultant, telling the stories of churches addressing poverty challenges, helping expand the educational horizons of children and adult learners and other ways of reaching out to help the marginalized or disenfranchised.  From these stories, readers gain perspective for the possibilities of what a local church can do in community ministry as well as no end of encouragement as they move from reading this text and into the missional context where they live.
               The third section offers chapters on evaluation, seeking funding and keeping projects in perspective when being carried out by small membership congregations.  Skjegstad reminds frequently that congregations do not have to carry out projects on their own, and they strengthen these efforts when they partner.  She encourages frequent communication within the congregation to affirm where projects are developing as well as celebrating the milestones, great and small, along the way.  (Her thoughts on fundraising are covered in her prior book Winning Grants to Fund Your Ministry, published by the Alban Institute in 2007).

               Skjegstad offers an optimistic yet realistic approach to community ministry.  Following the first section’s wise advice to dream yet be well informed when considering community needs, a church can select a model for community ministry and take those first steps.  When moving in the right direction, churches will find new life and vitality from such missional endeavors.  Indeed, Skjegstad encourages us to be aware and attentive to the possibility that your community ministry project will beget opportunities for “hybrids”.   One project can delve into a community need’s related issues (i.e. a food pantry ministry leads a community ministry project to form around cooking skills courses or efforts to help persons with limited or fixed income to learn personal finance and budgeting principles, etc.).  Her suggestion about a non-profit organization starting up as part of a community ministry project is presented with some basic non-profit governance concepts, ensuring a careful reader will realize the extra complexity involved if this avenue is pursued.
               For a brief book, 7 Creative Models serves as a thought-proving, perspective reframing introductory text.  In her approachable prose, she invites churches to hear and see their communities anew.  The book is best kept close at hand, consulted frequently all along the way.  The testimony of community ministry-minded churches reminds us we are not alone in such work.  For congregations wishing to embrace their communities more intentionally, the fruitfulness and dividends of reading this text may be frankly immeasurable.

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