Whenever a group or organization launches a new community service or mission in a local area there’s generally a lot of energy and enthusiasm. At least for the team pioneering the initiative. However, far too often the initial energy wanes once the realities of beginning a new venture hit the ground.
In this blog I’ll outline my five P Principles that I’ve found enable missional/community service initiatives to thrive and survive for the long haul. I will be drawing on the example of ‘The Soup Place’ at Coffs Harbour, NSW which we set up in the early 1990s during the time when I was the local Uniting Church minister there. We didn’t start out with these principles in mind – I just stumbled upon them as I later reflected on the process we followed.
1. Presence: It’s much easier to begin a new missional initiative when the pioneering body already has a credible community presence. When the Coffs Harbour Uniting Church started ‘The Soup Place’ the church had already been present, active and visible in the community (initially as the former Methodist Church) for the past 80 years. However, that visibility was enhanced when we invited the Lifeline Opportunity Shop which had been facing significant viability challenges with rising commercial rental prices, to move rent free into one of our on- site church buildings. That change resulted in a number of the city’s poor coming onto church property looking for cheap clothing. An accessible, credible Presence heightens your team’s acceptance as a safe and secure space in the eyes of those you seek to serve
So the first question to consider in launching a new mission or community service is: How can our group/organization establish a credible and visible presence among the people we are seeking to serve?”
2. Purpose: Presence also enables you to discern the genuine felt needs of your mission focus that you might be able to address. That discernment (together with the next P, Passion) shapes the Purpose of your missional initiative. When the marginalised started coming to our Lifeline Shop we began to hear stories of their need for food. At that time all we could offer were food vouchers to a nearby supermarket and that began to trouble a number of our frontline shop volunteers.
3. Passion: Having Presence and Purpose without Passion (together with an accompanying Vision) rarely results in making a lasting difference in people’s lives. Our volunteers’ compassionate concern for those seeking help ignited a Passion among many of our church members to do more than simply provide a handout. It also kindled an embryonic vision to establish from our church property a food ministry. That vision had been in the hearts and minds of some of our church members long before I arrived on the scene.
4. Plan: When some of our shop volunteers approached me as the local minister about this vision it was obvious how it was consistent with our beliefs, values and mission as a Christian church. However, I knew it wouldn’t succeed without a Plan. We identified four essential elements of a Mission Plan for ‘The Soup Place’:
- a reliable food source
- suitable space and facilities
- a volunteer team
- a team leader/co-ordinator
And so the small initiating team set to work. From their members a co-ordinator was appointed, supermarkets were approached and some offered to provide free of charge, bread and sandwich fillings, the local RSL (whose chef was the husband of one of our church members) offered to daily provide free soup, and our church council agreed to make the church hall available every week day from 12.30 – 1.30 for ‘The Soup Place’ to be open (in addition time would be needed for preparation and clean up). One thing I insisted upon was for ‘The Soup Place’ to have 10 teams of a least 5 people per team, with each team on a fortnightly roster to avoid burnout. That resulted in at least 50 people from our church and also the wider community being actively involved. Each team’s duties included food collection and preparation, hall set up and pack up, clean up and at least one member per team available to wander around, chat with people and offer pastoral care where needed.
5. Proceed: With that all in place we launched ‘The Soup Place’. In addition to word of mouth, our local newspaper was on hand and we received front page coverage, and people started coming. As the news spread, local bakeries and other providers also offered food, while some residents outside our church community made regular financial donations. As a result we were able to provide free meals five days each week to those in need, no questions asked. During my ministry at Coffs we had 70 people coming daily to ‘The Soup Place’ to not only get a free meal but also experiencing care and community.
I moved from Coffs Harbour to another ministry placement at the end of 1992. However, now some 30 plus years since its launch, I’ve been told recently by a local resident that ‘The Soup Place’ is not only surviving, it’s thriving!
And so, I encourage all would-be missional leaders to consider these five Principles: Presence, Purpose, Passion, Plan and Proceed. None of the first four principles will be of use unless the missional initiative proceeds to the launch pad. Conversely, launching without the preparatory four P’s will likely result in an aborted or short flight path.
Finally, needless to say, for missional groups operating from a shared faith perspective there is a 6th P, that would underpin the entire 5 P process – Prayer!