Meet the Neighbors
Getting Your Church More Connected to the Community
by Joy Skjegstad
The best community ministry efforts arise out of a close connection to neighbors. That’s why I always recommend that churches engage in a “Meet the Neighbors” process before deciding how to develop new community ministry programs. When you actually know the people of your community, you can better understand needs and issues and the many gifts and assets present there. Out of these relationships, relevant ministry can arise. For example, you don’t want to start another youth program when it’s affordable housing that people actually need (and there are already ten youth programs operating right nearby). Knowing your neighbors can also create a partnership in ministry—it breaks down the walls between the minister and who is being ministered to. After awhile, you are doing ministry together.
The term neighbors can include a wide variety of people. Neighbors can be the people living in the area right around your church. Neighbors could be the clergy at other churches in your area, leaders of nonprofit organizations, government officials who serve your community, and business owners in a nearby business district. Whomever you define as neighbors, make sure you connect with a variety of people, gathering perspectives across occupation, age, ethnicity, income levels, and the amount of time people have been connected to the community.
In order to learn more about its community, a church might form a Meet the Neighbors team composed of staff and key lay leaders. The team gets out into the community to meet one-on-one or in groups with neighbors, listening for key issues in the community and how your church might engage in new ways in community ministry. A first step for the team would be to identify key individuals and organizations that you would like to meet with. Your list could include people such as the police chief, the principal of the local high school, the leader of the neighborhood association, and the pastor of another church in your area. Organizations on your list might include a community health clinic, the nearby elementary school, a local youth center, an assisted living complex for seniors, or a nonprofit organization that provides job training.
5 Key Things to Keep in Mind for an Initial Community Meeting:
1) Begin with a listening posture. A listening posture is a deep desire to really hear people, using listening as a way of expressing interest in others and a great care and concern for them. This is different than connecting with others to plan, sell, solve problems, or close the deal. Sometimes before I go into listening sessions, I say out loud to myself “I am here to listen,” as a reminder of this important focus.
2) Express great interest in the person you are talking to. Listening sessions are an opportunity to learn about the people you are talking to—their dreams, their backgrounds, their ideas and concerns. You are gathering information via a few specific questions, but be sure to take the opportunity to find out about the person too. How long have they lived in the community? What do they do for a living? What are their hobbies and interests?
3) Do more listening than talking. When meeting with someone new, it can be tempting to talk more, filling in silences with your own thoughts and ideas. Resist this urge and make listening your default mode.
4) Do capture key thoughts and ideas in writing. Take notes so you can capture the key ideas from the meeting. If you meet with the person again (to pursue a partnership, for example), notes will help you remember what they said and build upon it.
5) Don’t bring a preformulated plan to the meeting. Too many people have complained to me: “They didn’t really want to listen to me or hear my ideas—they had their plan figured out already.” Many of the people you meet with may be suspicious that you don’t really want to listen to them. By describing your solutions and plans during your meeting, you will confirm that assumption.
By putting effort into listening to the community first, your ministry efforts can be designed to meet real community needs, and your church can avoid duplicating the work of other groups. Listening also helps your church develop relationships in the community so that you are better able to build ministry partnerships in the future.
Adapted from Joy Skjegstad, 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry (Judson Press, 2013), [pgs. 11-27].
Joy Skjegstad has been designing and launching community ministry programs for more than 20 years, including serving as the Executive Director of community development nonprofits at Park Avenue United Methodist Church and Sanctuary covenant church in Minneapolis. Now as a full-time trainer and consultant, she works across denominations and cultures to help churches develop innovative initiatives that meet real community needs and tap into the passions and gifts of congregations. The author of two other books, Joy is in demand as a speaker and webinar presenter with special expertise in faith-based organizations, community and youth development, early childhood education, affordable housing, services for the homeless and the arts.