On February 1, 2000, my heart pounded with excitement, gratitude and joy, as young, African American students from the Senior High across the street, walked tentatively over to the brick-framed house two congregations had purchased and had been remodeling for months. They were making it into a safe haven for after school activities for these at-risk, disadvantaged young people.
It was the culmination of a dream. Two years ago, Pastor Rickey Bolden of Southeast Christian Fellowship Church, a small, struggling church in the poor southeast side of Washington DC, caught a vision and found, through God’s grace, a pastor and a group of lay people from the suburban McLean Bible Church, who were eager to join him as partners in this effort to win the hearts and lives of young people.
What does it take for two socio-economically diverse, geographically separated churches to come together to “transform the lives of inner city youth and their families through Jesus Christ”? What is needed to turn a dream into a reality? In addition to much prayer, what is usually necessary is a carefully structured partnership-two congregations united in mutual cooperation and sharing responsibilities in order to achieve a common mission, two congregations working together like tennis partners, returning every ball in order to win a game, a match, a set-a life.
But creating such partnerships is not easy. Miscommunication, mistrust, and missed ‘balls’ happen in church partnerships as well as on the tennis court. It takes time, practice, and patience. In our experience with these two churches, because they have a shared passion for Jesus Christ and a vision for helping youth turn their lives around, over time a kind of rhythm and respect developed, a willingness to let the other be a full partner, to set aside egos and anger when the other makes a bad judgment call, fails on a return, or double faults a serve.
Finally, a growing trust developed, a recognition that the partners are equally, albeit differently, competent, and that, in the end, “all things work together for good.”
If you are from a congregation with an abundance of financial resources and gifted people looking for a mission, or if you are from a congregation with a need and a vision but lacking financial and human resources, the experiences of these two congregations will encourage you to find a partner and help you develop the skills to win the game. The following are key strategies necessary to create such effective partnerships.
· Hone your individual skills: Before a tennis player can play with a partner, he or she must work on individual skills. In the same way, pastors need to be working intentionally to raise the spiritual skill level of their people as well as tending to their own skills-those spiritual disciplines including prayer and Bible study. Of great, but often overlooked, importance, is historical understanding of your community and civic knowledge of problems and processes. All projects take place in the real world of money and real estate, of zoning laws and building permits, of cultural conditioning and prejudices of all types. NaivetÈ about such ‘real world’ concerns has undermined many a well-meaning mission.
· Get Prayer Teams Going: All good athletes need a support system-trainers and cheerers. Find the people in your congregation who will support in quiet, behind the scenes ways the efforts. Through prayer and supported by prayer, people from both churches were united with a common vision. And there the road to transformation began…
· Begin Making Connections: Good tennis partners don’t just happen. People go out looking, playing with one person and then another until it comes clear-this is the partnership that has potential. A group of men from Rickey Bolden’s church attended a Promise Keepers event. They knew they had a need. They were open. Through God’s grace they met men from McLean, also with a need, also open. These connections can happen in any place or through any channel, but there must be an intentional effort to move past the congregation into the larger world of Christian effort, trusting the goodwill of people of different denominations, different races, different ways of speaking Christian truth.
· Create a Common Mission: These two churches shared a common desire-to transform the lives of inner city youth and their families through Jesus Christ. But how to do that? What would work? What was possible? Gradually a concrete vision evolved, a vision of providing a safe haven, called “The House”, for young people where relationships could be built with the youth and lives changed.
· Ensure Top Leadership Commitment: As with good tennis partners, there was a time of trial and error, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and figuring out how to support the other to reach their winning goal. These two churches are fortunate in that they both have senior pastors who are committed to a common vision, who continue to enthusiastically sell the idea to their congregations, and who are supporting the development of this vision as it becomes a reality.
These pastors have been preaching about the vision from the pulpit, getting their leadership teams along side of them, and demonstrating their support to the congregation in a variety of ways. Both pastors are learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses related to this vision, so that too many balls don’t get past them.
They strategize together to find new ways to get more and more people involved.
Equally important, they attend and participate in each other’s churches to build trust within both congregations. This is especially important because of the cultural differences inherent in the two church communities.
· Getting others involved in the game: Leaders at both of these churches were responsible for generating excitement for this vision so people could be mobilized to give their time and/or financial resources, to join in the game, developing their skills to help win young lives. Members, who have caught the vision, have been cheered on as they begin using their spiritual gifts and talents in concrete, practical ways.
One of many examples: A member from one church is a senior partner in a regional construction firm. He got involved in the leadership team and in no time, purchased one of the houses the ministry had been unsuccessfully trying to purchase for a year.
Then, this volunteer offered to donate tens of thousands of dollars of his employees’ time to plan and renovate two houses for this ministry in order to increase the number of students impacted by the ministry and expand the areas of impact. When God’s people are called and empowered in partnerships, lives and communities can be transformed by the power of Jesus.
· Implement Plans: In tennis, partners who win sets have spent time together building relationship and trust and getting to know one another so they can coordinate plays, operate within the rules or boundaries of the game, and anticipate each other’s moves. In the same way, those empowered to be involved in this project came together to build relationships, especially working through their cultural differences.
Without these trusting relationships, the vision would have been lost. With trusting relationships, plans have been made, systems developed, people empowered and lives transformed. Because of trusting relationships, when set-backs occurred people came together to overcome them and return to the game plan.
· Anticipate surprises: What direction will the ball bounce after it’s served? Will there be spin? What happens when you are sure you have scored a point, but the ball comes whipping back. Tennis players, as well as church workers, always need to be anticipating the moves of their opponents that could cause them trouble. Those opponents might be the ordinary and expected volleys that occur whenever change is advocated: challenges arising from community neighbors who don’t want the house next to them, building permit processes that take much longer than expected, egos that start to get in the way of mission, staff who end up being not fully loyal or committed, volunteers with good intentions and busy schedules, and on and on.
With experience, it has been easier to anticipate these challenges and respond in winning ways. However, all of us involved in trying to win lives for Christ need to realize we, and the project, will be prime targets for those spiritual forces trying to defeat the work of God’s Spirit on earth. The closer we get to winning, the wilier our opponent will be. Pray without ceasing.
· Trust Jesus, Our Coach: Finally, it is the coach’s training, ongoing support, and guidance that partners rely on in order to do their best and win the game. As Christians, we have the privilege of having as our coach God incarnate, Jesus Christ, who desires that we all experience transformation. These churches and leaders continue to rely upon Jesus to coach them through all circumstances that arise as they strive to meet their mission of “transforming lives of inner city youth and their families through Jesus.”
A year ago, 19-year old Jed (not his real name) daily carried a gun, sold drugs, used drugs, and attacked people physically with the first feeling of anger. He is now sober, not resorting to violence, not swearing, talking through proble ms with fellow students and adults at The House, and trying to live his life by the principles of Jesus. When I see Jed and dozens of other kids like him, I, and all of us involved in the partnership, know the time and effort it takes to create a strong partnership is worth every minute of it!!
Our country and the world are filled with lives just waiting to be transformed and won for Christ. Find a partner. Get in the game. Play to win-lives.