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Stand in the Gap, Together: How Cooperative Ministry Can Empower Small Churches

Randy Powell

For those of us serving in local church leadership, especially those serving under the auspices of the title of pastor or elder, whether that be full-time, part-time, bi-vocationally, or otherwise, the question is the same: How can I impact the community for Christ? 

The need to make an impact, even if the measurements we use are self-imposed, doesn’t particularly diminish when we are called to serve a small and/or rural congregation, but the resources at our disposal do.  How then do those of us serving as jack-of-all trades, juggling responsibilities for building maintenance, music/worship, youth, visitation, outreach, and who knows what else manage to find the time or the resources to step into the real needs being felt by those in our community? 

The Value of Cooperative Ministry

The answer, at least one of the most available and most impactful answers, is cooperative ministry.  In other words, I don’t have to lift this boulder by myself, we can do it.  On one level this is true of pastoral ministry in general.  The Church needs less superheroes attempting to take on the forces of evil solo, and more captains, encouraging and equipping like-minded disciples of Christ to work together for the Kingdom.  But the real blessing of cooperative ministry goes beyond alleviating the fantasy that the pastor is the one responsible for making everything happen, because it opens up our hearts and minds to the absolute truth that the entirety of the Church in our world belongs to Christ; every true believer, every legitimate gathering of them. 

My church may be small, or isolated, but His Church is neither of those things.  The Methodists down the street, the Episcopalians across town, and the Brethren a few miles up route whatever all belong to Christ.  Maybe crossing denominational boundaries is difficult for you, maybe your church and their church don’t see eye to eye on any number of Culture War topics; so what.  Is Jesus Christ Lord and Savior?  Did his blood wash you clean?  If their faith is in him, they’re answering yes too.

Some Practicalities of Cooperative Ministry

In practical terms, how might a cooperative ministry work? 

The real blessing of cooperative ministry goes beyond alleviating the fantasy that the pastor is the one responsible for making everything happen, because it opens up our hearts and minds to the absolute truth that the entirety of the Church in our world belongs to Christ; every true believer, every legitimate gathering of them. 

Let me tell you a short story that illustrates both its potential benefits and impacts.  It begins in 2012, in a mid-sized (about 8k) town in Western Pennsylvania where an American Baptist minister less than a year into his tenure at church with a huge building but only a small congregation, having come here from two states away, receives a request from a group of local stakeholders (lawyers, superintendents, case workers, directors of charities, etc.) asking if churches in our county would be willing to stand in a gap in the services available to our area’s most vulnerable citizens and fill that need.  It doesn’t really matter what the need is, the key question is, is the Church here willing to be a part of the solution? 

Lesson 1: Listen Well

Here’s where I learned lesson #1 about cooperative ministry: Listen to the hopes and dreams of those already trying to help.  We didn’t design a solution and seek to fit it to a problem, we were asked to help fix an already defined problem by the people down in the trenches.  In your town, in your county, there are already people doing their best, whether from a perspective of faith or not, and they know where the gaps are, they lament the gaps, but they don’t have the time, resources, or ability to do anything about them. 

On that ground the Church can stand, knowing that helping with the "what we’ve been asked to do" will be a breath of fresh air both to those already serving the community, and to, in all likelihood, people who wouldn’t otherwise be in any way connected to the Church.  It might be a question of childcare, maybe transportation, perhaps it is home repairs, food, clothing, or emergency housing.  Every community has people who are falling through the cracks.  How can our one small church make a difference?  Listen to those doing the most to help the community already and find out.

For myself and my congregation, listening led to the formation of Mustard Seed Missions of Venango County.  What do we do?  What they hoped we would do.  The caseworkers of Venango County now send Mustard Seed Missions requests to assist their clients with home repairs, ramp builds, household goods (beds and appliances) and rides to medical appointments outside of the county.  Why these four things?  Because that’s what the caseworkers themselves identified as the perennial unmet needs negatively affecting the people they are duty bound to help. 

Lesson 2: Embrace Partnerships with Local Government

Lesson #2 about cooperative ministry: embrace partnerships with local governmental entities.  There is no guarantee that the leadership of your town or county will want to work with a Christian charity, but most will.  Mustard Seed Missions never turns a referral away because of the faith, or lack thereof, of the client.  Why would we?  Being the hands and feet of Christ means seeing each person as someone made in God’s image, someone deserving of our help. 

MSM offers to pray with, and give a Bible to, those receiving our help, but only if they are willing to receive it.  Ten years in, and 5,000+ clients later, the partnership between the Human Services Department of Venango County and Mustard Seed Missions has been a boon to both.  So, once you’ve identified the primary need(s) by listening to those on the front lines, talk to those in leadership about how a Christian charity might partner to combat them.

I was on the roof of the home of our first client, the other three helpers working to repair this home’s deficiencies were from my small church too.  That’s how it started.  I ran the day-to-day operations, my office manager kept the books, supplies were stored in our church, and the charity worked under our 501(c)3.  This was no long-term plan, we were recruiting volunteers and building connections to other churches all the while, but it was a way to give birth to this para-church ministry and get it up and running. 

Pastor Powell and First Baptist Church congregant Lee Klingensmith repair a roof during the first Mustard Seed Mission project in 2012.

Our model was not sustainable on our own, but it didn’t need to be.  God supplied our need: men and women from dozens of churches across the denominational spectrum have since become involved in sustaining the ministry.  My small church with its solo pastor may have done the heavy lifting for six months, but in the years since the burden has been shared in a truly God honoring fashion.

Pastors and community leaders from Venango County gather for a Mustard Seed Missions of Venango County committee meeting.

Lesson 3: Don't Be Afraid to Lead

And that’s lesson #3 about cooperative ministry: Don’t be afraid to lead early, when you demonstrate a commitment and a passion, it will attract other like-minded individuals and churches.  In case you’re wondering, few here think of MSM as a ministry of First Baptist, and that’s fine by me.  In the end, Mustard Seed Missions has had an impact in our community, both in poverty relief and in Christian outreach, far beyond my own expectations.  It has built bridges that I didn’t know were possible when I arrived in this state and given my small and rural church a chance to be a part of something impactful for the Kingdom of God, to God be the glory!

Randy Powell has been married to his beautiful wife Nicole since 2001, is the father of amazing Clara since 2015, and the pastor of First Baptist Church of Franklin since 2012. He founded Mustard Seed Missions of Venango County in 2012 as an ecumenical para-church ministry that partners with our local government to help those in need, and helped create the Venango County Christian Ministerium. A native of Saranac, Michigan, and graduate of Cornerstone University (Grand Rapids, MI), Pastor Randy has a passion for ecumenical ministry, trail running in the wooded hills near his home, and all things geek/nerd related.