Ian Bedford, "Outlining a Framework for Understanding Congregational Community Services Processes"

Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.


Case Study: St George’s

St George’s is an average size congregation in a medium sized provincial city. It has a history going back over 100 years, although its current church building was first used in the early 1900s. Somewhere around the 1960s a bequest was left to the congregation to establish a community service amongst young women who were pregnant and indigenous people of the area. It was a strangely forward looking bequest for its time, but left the congregation in a quandary about how to apply the funds as they had no involvement with either group of people. For nearly three decades nothing happened until, in the late 1980s, the executors of the estate contacted the congregation stating that they needed to wind up the associated trust and, if the congregation was not willing to take up the bequest, they would seek a court order to permit the funds to be transferred to a community organisation or church that would. One of the then ministers at the time was a lawyer by background and realised the complex legalities involved in this. Additionally, one of the lay leaders in the congregation was the Regional Manager of a significant government welfare department. Together these two developed a proposal aimed at meeting the terms of the bequest but in a manner congruent with the welfare strategies of the time, and the resources of the congregation who became enthusiastic about what was proposed.

And so, in 1988, a community service organisation emerged from the St George’s congregation to focus on parenting and family relationships and on the community and spirituality of locally residing indigenous people. With the bequest funds then released to the congregation, an old church hall was renovated, and a management board, comprising 50% congregational members and 50% community members, was established to oversee the program development. Their first act was to appoint an experienced member of another denomination’s local congregation as the Coordinating worker for the proposed programs. Under this person’s guidance programs related to parenting skills, self-esteem development and indigenous spirituality were soon operating, and did so with much local acclaim until the late 1990s. By then bequest funds to administer the community service were dwindling, and the Coordinator was looking to retire. The Board then made a strategic decision to accept funds for a support program for people with a particular addictive behaviour, funds derived under government control from the industry that profited from the addiction. The bequest funds that remained were to maintain an agency manager to oversee the development and operation of these new programs, which therefore radically altered the agency focus. Throughout this period the congregation continued to provide its share of Board members, but otherwise had little direct involvement in the day to day program which was largely run by people whose congregational links were elsewhere or who were involved because of their professional expertise. Very few volunteers were ever needed and therefore this avenue of congregational involvement was never developed. However the congregation were very much aware of their community ministry and took great pride in what it was achieving.

Unfortunately, by the late 2000s, there was very little of the bequest funds remaining and alternative sources for funding the administration of the agency needed to be sought. These efforts were unsuccessful and, in 2010, under the guidance of the denominational leaders, St George’s Community Service was effectively taken over by a larger church agency based in another provincial city some distance away. When the congregation realised that the link with “their” community service had been effectively severed by this move, much conflict arose for, until then, they’d never realised that these difficulties might mean that their community service could be taken away from them. “Where did our community service go? It was ours: what happened?” was the typical member’s response to this realisation. And so St George’s lost its community service, merged with another out of town agency, after 22 years of ministry that they saw as their congregation in action in God’s hurting world. The community service and the congregation still share a location, but little interaction between them has developed.

This is but one story of the initiation and operation of a congregationally-based community service activity in churches over the last 50 years or more. In fact church congregations for over 100 years have been the initiators of many and varied community services—food relief, hospitals, child care centres, kindergartens, schools, counselling services (relationship and grief being common ones), day care services for the aged and/or disabled, and so the list goes on. That these services exist has occasionally been studied, but the process by which they come into existence and then operate, especially in this latter 50 years since government has so directly become involved in such services, has been poorly recognised or understood. The consequences have been that:

1.     Congregations starting out on this journey have usually set out to “re-invent the wheel” rather than learn from existing practice;

2.     The community service has frequently become “the tail wagging the dog” with the result that the spiritual life and ministry of the congregation has been overshadowed by the community service, and the faith dynamic of the congregation in relation to its community service has been lost (as in our story above);

3.     Community services have lost their connection to their congregational and faith roots, and therefore largely lost the resources that emerge out of that founding faith perspective.

Having been intensely involved in these activities by the mid-1990s in three different settings, I was left wondering if this cycle of evolution for congregationally initiated community services was inevitable—“volunteer-ised” (to coin a word), professionalised, secularised and gone (to put it somewhat starkly, even if perhaps somewhat over-generalised)—because it could be seen to so often happen. Or was it that this happened by default because we never understood the processes involved in our “trial and error” approach?

This brief article arises from my response to framing this question, for it summarises a qualitative research project I then undertook to unravel the processes by which congregations initiated, sustained and changed their community service involvement.[1] It is provided in the hope that people with reason to be interested in the relevance of congregational life and ministry for their own local communities will find some strategic guidance in the resulting framework, so that options and issues can be better addressed and determined by congregations considering this aspect of their life and message. In the process I trust that you too can realise that, with strategic intent and using these features as guidance, the disconcerting evolutionary cycle presented in the opening story is not inevitable, but instead depend on how crucial decisions points along the way are anticipated, recognised and addressed. I commend the Framework to you, and encourage you to seek further elaboration of it should you see any potential relevance to a congregational ministry of concern to you and your faith community. This article is unable to fully explain the complexities involved due to space limitations. Support for the approach taken here is provided by Garland, Wolfer and Myers who report later US research into how 35 congregations launched and sustained community ministry derived from researching their US setting.[2] Their independent work within their larger sample and US context nonetheless significantly replicates the Framework presented here, though its approach is somewhat less structured, less detailed in its analysis, and uses slightly differently labelling for the process factors emerging from their research into the launching and sustaining of congregational ministry in the United States.


General Framework

The Framework identifies three broad stages or phases in the process by which congregations give birth to (or Initiate), carry out (or Operate), and then alter (or Modify) their community service organisations and/or activities. It seems from the research that these three stages or phases can be applied to any individual activity that constitutes a community services as well as to the overarching organisational features of a congregationally-sponsored community service.


Three aspects to the processes involved in initiating Community Services were found to need to coalesce together (somewhat like the ingredients for making a cake) for any activity or service to become viable as an intended service or program. The logic is that if only two of these three aspects are found, then a community service will not eventuate as a congregational entity (although a congregational member may well “make it happen” in some setting or other).

Congregational Culture

The first aspect is the usually overlooked but fundamentally important one of the suitability of the Congregational Culture. Whilst there are a number of ways to identify congregational cultures, one that is useful identified that Sanctuary Cultures which focus powerfully on worship and faith nurture are not environments in which community services are likely to develop. In contrast, Activist Cultures which focus on the relationship of faith to issues of caring and/or justice are extremely likely to support such activities. In between are Evangelistic Congregations who seek to actively share faith with outsiders and Civic Congregations who see faith and community life as inevitably linked but with limited clarity as to how, other than at the levels of personal involvement and moral integrity. For the former, if community services are seen as a means of direct evangelism, there is likely to be a risk of dubious motivation being perceived; but if as a means of bridge-building to those outside of faith and valuable in its own right, then a compassionate service has potential. Where a congregation’s culture is not conducive to community service there is little value in trying to pummel it into that sort of understanding—Congregational Cultures are very resilient, and will outlast any minister, well-intentioned social worker or community activist. Instead, the culture needs to be recognised for what it is and initially worked with and gradually massaged so that new developments build on what it values within its own history, faith understanding and experience (rather than that of an external person). Sometimes, however, an emerging crisis within the life of the congregation and/or its people can instigate that willingness to change the norms about “how things are done around here,” and this too can be effective in generating community services (among other changes that relate to congregations).

The Key Person

The second aspect is the identification of a Key Person able to drive the development, be passionately committed to it and whose passion is then able to draw others in. This person initially may be a minister but needs eventually to a member of the congregation committed to its life and to its service (both of these are key features in our opening story). In this latter situation clergy need to be “active permission givers” rather than “passive” or benign supporters if the lay efforts are to prove sustainable.

The Catalyst

The third aspect is the need for some sort of Catalyst, some reason for undertaking this activity here and now. This can take the form of an evident need that can no longer be ignored, or the availability of a resource that has to be used, e.g. a building, a bequest (as in our story), or a resource person recently arrived (the Regional Manager in our story). Without that, congregational members just won’t see its relevance and won’t be motivated to participate in whatever way might otherwise be possible.

The Vision

Once these three aspects coalesce then a Vision of what is possible emerges, and it is this Vision which will drive the development of community service activities. The Vision might be initiated by an ordained person, but the more powerful Vision arises from within the life of the congregation. The clergy role is that of facilitator of this “home grown” Vision, the one who helps the congregation comes to terms with its challenges and potential and who helps unpack the faith aspects involved. Visions developed elsewhere can be adopted by congregations, or at least refashioned into something that makes sense for them given their resources and capacity, but emerging visions are more powerful in their effect.


Six dimensions for the Operation of congregational community services were identified as crucial for their effectiveness, however it was first necessary to recognise that all these activities happen within a Culture of Operation, a Culture that has been typically identified as either a Voluntary, and largely ad hoc or “making do” mode of operating, or a Professional, and largely formal and structured, mode. The research indicates that this perception is an incorrect caricature of a reality that is much more complicated—one that blends aspects usually associated with either of these two extremes in a unique and idiosyncratic way characteristic of each congregation and its available resources and perspectives. This blending of voluntary and professional will occur differently across each of the six operating dimensions, resulting in no two congregational community services ever being the same. Each congregation, within its own culture and processes, will have a complex balance of these two aspects that must be recognised and strategically addressed if the services are to operate in a sustainable way. (In effect the six dimensions function as “levers” through which the volunteer-professional balance can be varied to strategically manage how programs and overall community service “agencies” work within the particular congregation.) In particular, corporate models, though well known to many congregational members, cannot be imposed (including governance models). As much as they may helpfully inform the decisions that are made, they do not allow for the variety of possibilities reflecting the variable volunteer-professional balance needed in any particular congregational setting. Indeed, the naïve application of such models may well be one key reason behind the “default” evolution illustrated in our opening story.


The first operational dimension is that of the Programs that are developed within the congregational community services. In contrast to typical approaches to community service development based on social need assessments undertaken by community “experts,” it is very clear that congregations best identify with services and activities that they as people in their community and family life have an awareness of directly or third hand. Such activities are known to them, and the reasons for undertaking them make perfect sense without having to be persuaded. These are the ones to start with, and from them other awarenesses will emerge which can evolve into additional activities that develop through these same processes. Typically congregational programs tend to relate to basic human needs of food and accommodation, but relationship and self-development programs are also very common as congregations identify concerns about people’s limited capacities to achieve their life potentials. Some programs will be formally structured and restricted to certain groups in the community (both as participants and/or staff) whilst others will be very informal and open.


The second aspect concerns the means of Staffing these community services. It is found that an amazing mix of trained and untrained, paid and unpaid personnel are accessed by these services in order to address the need. Staff may be from the congregation, but also be outsiders to it, and indeed outsiders to faith itself. Roles adopted by the staff will vary from Support Personnel, to Contact Volunteers who relate directly to service users, to professionals carrying out specialist roles in either direct service or administration, and with or without pay.


The third aspect involves Management and Leadership of these services and vary from fairly ad hoc groups who make decisions on the run to highly formal Boards that administer multiple services and activities which are separately incorporated Associations or through partnership arrangements with other church and/or community bodies who act in varying degrees as sponsors or brokers for these emerging services. In this aspect there is much opportunity for partnerships between congregations and central church-sponsored community agencies, but they need to be approached in full and ongoing recognition of the congregational role in their functioning and decision-making. These congregational services will not be sustained as congregational services if the Agency culture of professionalism dominates at this level (as can be recognised in the failure of the St George’s program to remain congregationally linked in the lead-up to and after the merger with the larger church agency).


Resources offered by congregations often include buildings, administration support, volunteers, and even funds or a path to community funds. Above all they offer a functioning support community that embraces a faith dynamic that makes such services unique. These aspects and the nature of their respective uniquenesses need to be recognised and worked with if their contribution is to be maintained and the ministry perspective retained. Clearly, in our case example, the need for this was never realised, so helping set the future loss of St George’s Community Service in train right from the start.


The previous four dimensions are not new, even though the way they are addressed in congregational settings may be different to other workplace and community experiences of them, but the need for congregational community services to incorporate the next two aspects is especially crucial. Firstly they need to Network with the wider community in order to develop an acceptance within the local community service environment. This is needed to provide services that the community is ready to access, that it is convinced is not at risk of overstepping the line on faith-imposition, and with whom other services are keen to liaise.


Finally attention needs to be given to the need to continue to nurture and acknowledge the psychological Ownership of the community service by the congregation. This relates in part to how it is named and advertised, who has certain key roles within it, and where it is physically located in relation to a congregation’s worship centre. Without this ongoing focus the congregation’s participation in and identification with the community service tends to dissipate and gradually die, and then what is lost in relation to that congregation’s participation in its community, and to its own viability and relevance, is significant. Despite being on the same site as the congregation, St George’s Community Service has always operated with a separate reception, and mostly even with a separate entrance. The congregation’s psychological ownership was never strategically nurtured beyond an at most quarterly informal “report” by the Coordinator to the congregation. This oversight appears likely to have been typical of congregational community services, and therefore may also be a key factor in the common experience of secularisation and subsequent separation from both a faith perspective and the initiating congregation.


The final phase or stage in this process is its capacity to Change, for change is inevitable in our modern society—“curved balls” or “bouncers” are inevitable at some stage so that strategies are needed to deal with them. Three aspects were identified which enhance a congregation’s capacity to deal with such events.


Activities and Services need to be Evaluated both routinely in some way and occasionally in order to address particular aspects of their functioning more deeply. Historically congregational community services have been very poor at this, and this needs to be built into their management processes in order to ascertain what is working well, and what needs adjusting to achieve the goals or meet the emerging needs of participants.

Crucial Decisions

Change also is initiated when Crucial Decisions need to be made. These include when appointing key personnel e.g. a CEO, program leader, Board Chair and the like. This also applies when considering whether or not to accept external funding, especially government funding with its tendency for short-term, highly prescriptive contracts which may well move a community service in directions it never intended or face it with compliance costs it never understood or anticipated. St George’s decision to accept funding from a corporate source overseen by the government changed their mission focus substantially, opened them up to the employment of professionals with no linkage to any faith perspective, let alone to that congregation, and therefore increased the likelihood of separation significantly. Debates about the place of Spirituality in these community services are also likely to arise and result in crucial decisions that impact the future.

Unexpected Events

Finally, Unexpected Events can draw a congregation’s focus away from its community services, so resulting in change by default. These distractions may be a new and demanding program within other aspects of congregational life (e.g. a new church building’s construction being undertaken), they may be conflictual relationships emerging and causing people’s focus to fall away from the “main game,” or sadly they may be the identification of some form of misconduct by key personnel within the congregational life that saps its confidence within itself and/or its leadership (e.g. an inappropriate and unprofessional relationship).

Case Study: St Bede’s

Given these dimensions, it is possible to identify in the original story many “decision points” and strategies that initially helped build St George’s Community Service (e.g. needing Key People to drive the development whose Catalyst was the need to take up or lose a significant bequest), but which also ensured they would later experience an increasing “drift” away from the congregation (e.g. failing at the start to see the need to actively engage the congregation in more than just the management of the service, and the later decision to accept funds that required both a changed focus and a staff that had no church connection, including a failure to see where congregational volunteers may contribute significantly).

A contrasting story is that of St Bede’s, an inner city congregation, also with a long history and therefore with a series of significant bequests. It had evolved a range of principally ethnically-supportive community services from 1960s onwards, although some community activities may well have been begun as far back as the 1890s. Gradually, as government became more involved in ensuring community services were locally developed, St Bede’s was a grateful recipient of these additional funds. In so doing it developed far more extensive and professional programs, and became administratively tied by the funding to deliver a range of services on behalf of the government, whose funding was never sufficient to actually cover the costs—so ensuring the bequests were slowly being consumed by the need to top-up these so-called funded programs. By 1990 the congregation realised that their extensive community service programs were dominating the congregational agenda and consuming the available non-government funding. They saw, in effect (as it was colloquially presented), that “the tail was wagging the dog”! A difficult decision was then made to no longer accept any further significant funds from the government once each existing funding agreement had run its course. This decision meant a massive downsizing of the St Bede’s Community Service, and the termination of the employment of many professional staff drawn from outside the congregation and the wider church. However, the congregational leaders feared that they would soon lose all capacity to sustain an ongoing community ministry if the trajectory they were on continued.

So the 1990s began with a commitment to operating almost entirely within a budget that could be sustained by the remaining bequest funds and any ongoing congregational giving, with only limited and manageable grants. Programs became smaller, more volunteers were needed within some programs, but paid staff remained a mix of congregational members, professionals from other congregations in the surrounding area, and people from secular backgrounds with no particular church link. However, the minister remained the effective manager and the program was overseen by a congregational sub-committee of the congregational board. The community ministry of St Bede’s continues in this way to the present. Its focus remains that of multicultural support, but they have been able to add to this computing skills development, emergency relief and organic food production. They continue to review and evaluate, drawing in both congregational members and others able to share their insights as they do so. The evolution at St Bede’s has therefore been quite different to that at St George’s—they are surviving in their community ministry because they monitored their evolution and made hard but strategic decisions at crucial moments. And they sought always to manage the integration of the congregation with that of other resource people and other possible funding sources. In the same 20 years that it took St George’s to develop and then lose its community ministry, St Bede’s has pulled its community ministry back into its congregational life and sense of ownership. As such they help illustrate that “volunteers, to professionals, to secular operation, to gone” is not inevitable, and that a different evolution that values and strategically sustains congregational involvement and ownership is possible and is sustainable, even in a stark inner urban setting.


Although not fully illustrated by the two stories shared, this very basic outline nevertheless identifies six key but unanticipated results of this research:

1.     The importance of a Congregation’s Culture and that it needs to be worked with (Massaged), not against (Pummelling);

2.     The importance of clergy as “active permission givers” or “encouragers” supporting and affirming the lay leadership involved;

3.     The importance of networking with other local community services instead of operating in isolation;

4.     The importance of strategically and continuously promoting psychological Ownership of the community services by the congregation;

5.     The need to recognise the unique blend of the Voluntary and the Professional modes of operating; and

6.     The need to appoint people linked or willing to become linked into the congregational life to strategic roles and responsibilities (e.g. CEO) if the community service is to be retained within congregational life.

Other aspects may seem like common sense, but on these six, the history of practice would seem to suggest that, although crucial for effective outcomes, they have not been recognised for their importance. Around these, as well as the more obvious aspects, there needs above all to be a strategic intent rather than a mere acceptance of a natural evolution. For such an evolution seems merely to see these ministries lost to congregational life. A strategic intent of the sort outlined here offers a future that may well help ensure an important community ministry that expresses a congregation’s quest to be a people of faith in their particular location can indeed be retained, if that remains the congregational goal.


[1] For the full research project, see Ian A. Bedford, “Reaching Out Beyond Itself: A Framework for Understanding the Community Service Involvement of Local Church Congregations” (Ph.D. diss., University of Melbourne, 2004). This thesis may be accessed at: https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/38840.

[2] Diana R. Garland, Terry A. Wolfer, and Dennis M. Myers, "How 35 Congregations Launched and Sustained Community Ministries,” Social Work and Christianity 35, no.3 (2008): 229–57. An adapted version of this article is available in D.R. Garland and G.I. Yancey, Congregational Social Work: Christian Perspective (Botsford: NACSW, 2014), as part of Chapter 6.


Image: Lynne Featherstone, Flickr (Creative Commons)