Why One Church Stopped Helping

Moral DllemmaTen years ago, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis eliminated its outreach programs, the kind that have been the mainstay of many other similarly situated urban churches in poor communities: a food pantry, an after school program, a summer youth program.

In a March 2015 article published in Duke University’s Faith & Leadership, Pastor Rick Mathers explained why: “The church, and me in particular, has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

Instead, Mathers shifted his congregation towards “asset-based community development—the notion of capitalizing on what’s good and working in a place rather than merely addressing its deficiencies.” The congregation started by listening to and then tapping into the strengths, gifts, and wisdom of the very same community members that they had previously served through direct acts of charity.

Today, Broadway United Methodist is a place where congregants and neighbors of many backgrounds, income levels, interests, and talents share skills and develop projects to make a transformational difference. “Sunday school classrooms that sat dark for decades…are filled with an unusual collection of small businesses that rent space, together with fledgling organizations that get space for free,” the article notes. “There’s a dance studio and a pottery shop and an office for a small architectural firm. The church acquired a commercial kitchen license, and now people from the neighborhood use it for catering startups.”

Rick Mathers and Broadway UMC found themselves shifting away from a focus on “helping others who are less fortunate” to one grounded in identifying existing strengths and gifts to solve problems as partners.

Like Broadway United Methodist, many Episcopal congregations are also re-thinking what it means to be God’s servant in the world. Increasingly, this involves a shift from “doing for” to “doing with.” It’s an approach that focuses on abundance as well as scarcity and seeks to honor the dignity and talents of all.

Episcopal schools’ community service and service learning programs powerfully shape young people’s understanding of what it means to serve, to help, and to be a change agent. What attitudes and experiences about ‘service’ are being shaped and reinforced? How can we insure that, with the best of intentions, our students do not come to view those whom they would serve “as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us?” Tough questions, but well worth asking.

Is your school partnering with organizations in your community for social change? Contribute your information to the Episcopal Church Asset Map!