Years ago, I visited a church whose pastor proudly explained that their congregation was involved in 17 mission activities and programs. There was no focus, no strategy behind the myriad events, projects and partnerships. The way the church “focused” its mission was to include any outreach work that its members were passionate about. This meant that the congregation was spread very thin in its mission work, with few people involved in each activity.
Mission and outreach committees frequently struggle with direction, function and focus. Some committees emphasize the allocation and administration of mission dollars. Others spend time and energy on the organization of mission activities or the ongoing work of long-term community or global partnerships.
What steps can your committee take to strengthen its work leading congregational mission? Developing the committee’s understanding of mission and working together to define your function, structure and focus can make all the difference.
Step one: Reflect
It is the foundational work of the mission committee to develop a clear identity of mission within the congregation and for the committee itself.
First and foremost, mission is God’s mission — not the mission of a congregation or the mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Through study and prayerful reflection on mission and the missional identity of the congregation, the committee can set the tone for everything it does and is.
What does Scripture tell us about God’s mission? A few passages can guide our understanding:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of
the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Books and studies on mission provide wisdom as well. In Called as Partners in Christ’s Service, missiologist Sherron Kay George notes that not everything the church calls “mission” may be God’s mission. Sometimes our own projects, agendas and egos get in the way of discerning how God is calling us to serve.
“Mission, therefore, is not ‘foreign,’ is not a program of the church, and is not done by a church committee,” George writes. “The mission frontier is not necessarily geographical. Mission is the responsibility of every baptized Christian in every place. Mission is the identity, reason, and purpose of the church’s existence. Mission is done in partnership with God and God’s people in six continents by the church in six continents. The Church’s mission is everything God sends the Church into the world to do, say, and be in response to and participation in God’s mission. It includes evangelism, compassionate service, and social justice.”
Everyone is called to participate; God does the “calling,” and the purpose of the church is mission. But not everything the church does is mission. Use the sections below to explore how God calls your congregation.
Tip: Using Scripture, study guides and books, spend at least one committee meeting each year thinking and praying together about God’s mission and how your congregation is a part of it.
Questions for reflection:
- Which Scripture passages above speak most clearly to us about God’s mission? What other passages are important to us as we think and pray together?
- How is our congregation already involved in ministries and mission activities that relate with each text? How is it not?
- How are we engaged in activities of evangelism, compassionate service or social justice? Where does our focus lie?
- In what ways is our congregation’s mission work mutual, both giving and receiving in mission activities, projects, programs or partnerships?
Step two: Discern and listen
Discerning how God is moving the congregation to engage in God’s mission is a collective activity. Which church members form the mission committee and how the committee functions can determine whether or how it can discern God’s call together.
The personalities of individual committee members may impact how the committee functions and whether all voices are heard. Committee members who tend to talk a lot or who are vocal about a mission activity or partnership they love can dominate the conversation. Quieter committee members, including those who process internally before speaking, might need time to think about the questions that are discussed during a meeting. Sending questions or information that will be discussed during the meeting well in advance can be helpful. Providing time for silent reflection during committee meetings could make space for a variety of personalities and conversation styles.
Even if all members seem to have equal voice at the table, the structure and process of the committee also can influence how – or whether – discernment happens. In true Presbyterian fashion, discussions about mission budget or activities may be put to a vote. Discernment is distinct from “decision.” Discernment in community calls for more than a “yea or nay” vote. It leans on the wisdom of the group rather than the interests of a few. Two good resources on the concept of discernment and community conversations include Joseph P. Gill and Suzanne G. Farnham’s Listening Hearts 30th Anniversary Edition: Discerning Call in Community and R. Brian Stanfield’s The Art of Focused Conversation: How to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace.
Finally, and most importantly, discernment is built on a groundwork of intentional listening to the mission partners with whom we serve. Mission can be engaged most meaningfully when it is done as “us together” rather than “us” doing something “for” another person
Tip: Discuss discernment “signs” and “cautions” described in the “Discernment” chapter of Listening Hearts. The experience of peace, joy, a “sudden sense of clarity” and persistence may indicate signs of God’s call whereas leaning heavily on reasoning or logical conclusions and the pressure of human timetables may be signs of caution.
Questions for reflection:
- How do we invite the presence of the Holy Spirit into our conversations and deliberations?
- What is our process for discussing and making decisions about mission priorities?
- Are there other ways to engage in
- How might we ensure that all voices at the table are heard?
- Are we inviting mission partners into conversations about the service work we engage in with them?
- How will we know what God is calling us to be and to do together?
Step three: Focus your work
“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” This statement from “The Romero Prayer” reminds us that sometimes doing less is “more.” The problem is that there are so many competing needs, passions and interests. Where, how and with whom will you focus your time, talents and treasure? What constitutes God’s mission for your congregation for this time and season?
Tip: Use Eric H.F. Law’s mutual invitation method and the conversation you have had on “What is mission?” to engage in conversation together about mission focus.
Questions for reflection:
- Does our mission committee have a mission statement? If so, how does it fit with the congregational mission statement? Is our committee’s statement up-to-date or does it need to be revisited?
- How do our mission activities, projects, programs and partnerships fit with the committee’s (or the congregation’s) mission statement?
- Are our mission activities, projects, programs and partnerships aligned with the size of our congregation?
- What is our process for receiving information and making decisions about mission work?
- Do our mission partnerships have a partnership or covenant agreement, or a memorandum of understanding? Is there a review process for mission partnerships?
Step four: Partnership
“Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership” is a policy statement of the PC(USA) that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2003. It describes God’s mission and the church’s role in it and offers five principles for engaging in mission as “partners.” Mission committees should consider how to invite community or global partners into shared discernment and shared mission work.
God’s mission is like a round table at a potluck to which all are invited. Some people can’t get to the table as easily, while others are right there with their casserole dish. Some foods will be new to one another. All are invited to feast, to feed one another and to be fed. When only one community involved in the work participates and leads, mission falls flat and becomes like a fast-food drive-through. Being together in God’s mission requires the genuine opportunity for all to come to the table, for everyone to prepare the food, and for everyone to have the chance to try out the dishes. Yet simply inviting and making a “place at the table” may not be enough to create a mutual and equitable relationship in mission. For Presbyterians to “do mission in partnership,” ongoing self-reflection and action are required. We can always learn more about God’s amazing mission, our part in it and how others participate in it.
Tip: Use a committee meeting to read and study the “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership” policy statement.
Questions for reflection:
- Which of the five principles of “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership” is the congregation living out? How? Where do we still need to learn and grow?
- Are the voices, experiences, leadership and participation of all – including local and global partners – invited to the work of mission together? Who does the “inviting”?
- In global or local mission work, how are partners involved? How are they not?
- When mission partners offer to help, do we receive their help or do we say, “No, you don’t have to do that for us”? How can we be better “receivers” in mission activities, projects, programs or long-term partnerships?
- Who are the people that can bridge our community with other communities so that we can better relate with and understand one another? A bridge person can help us see our blind spots and teach us how and when to open the door to reciprocity in mission.
Being part of the mission or outreach committee is no small task. Together, your committee will be stronger when you discern how God is calling your congregation into God’s mission, focus your efforts, listen well and explore new models for leading together with mission partners.
Resources for further study
- Mission Committee Toolkit: presbyterianmission.org/mission-committee-toolkit/
- “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership” statement: pcusa.org/partnership
- Presbyterian Mission Agency’s International Partnership Manual: presbyterianmission.org/called-as-partners
- Doing Good…Says Who? Stories from volunteers, nonprofits, donors and those they want to help by Fran Early and Connie Newton
- Called as Partners in Christ’s Service: The Practice of God’s Mission by Sherron Kay George
- Eric H.F. Law “Mutual Invitation” method: Visit kscopeinstitute.org/free-resources, click on the language of your choice, and scroll to page 5.
- Short-term Mission Trip Toolkit by Rev. Laura Cheifetz: presbyterianmission.org/short-term-mission-trip-toolkit-mission-and-anti-racism