As the Bridging Pastor at Faithbridge UMC (Houston, TX area), I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to connect our church with the local community. Partnering with low-income, high-risk schools is proving to be a rewarding experience for both Faithbridge and the community. The schools benefit through an influx of various resources that would otherwise be unavailable and Faithbridge is discovering new methods to share the gospel, develop leaders, and engage a large number of volunteers in meaningful service. However, we’ve learned that such partnerships also have the potential for disappointment and misunderstanding for both parties. Through a process of trial and error, Faithbridge has formed successful partnerships with several low-income, high-risk schools in northwest Houston. In this article, I want to share some of the key lessons learned so that your partnerships enjoy maximum success.
Lesson #1: Recruit mature and visionary leadership.
The potential for failure is high enough that a church should only move forward under the direction of top-shelf leaders. As you recruit these leaders, look for two primary characteristics. First, recruit individuals who are spiritually and emotionally mature. On the spiritual side, these persons need a proven track record of taking responsibility for personal growth and a commitment to a strong devotional life. They also need to be emotionally mature enough to deal with the inevitable challenges and setbacks that come with new ministry opportunities. School leaders are understandably skittish about partnering with a church and need the assurance that spiritual and emotional maturity provides.
Second, look for leaders who can receive and implement a big vision for ministry. God will do great, life-changing things through this kind of partnership, but he needs men and women who will grab hold of his vision and work hard to make it a reality. Look for people who are passionate and will inspire others to get involved as well.
Lesson #2: Gain the trust and confidence of school leaders
Unless school leadership is on board, a partnership is not possible, therefore it is imperative to gain their trust. The first step in this process is to listen carefully to their concerns and ideas. Despite the fact that principals and teachers know best what the school and students need, they often feel ignored by school districts and legislators. Early on, the Faithbridge team scheduled listening sessions with administrators, faculty, and PTO representatives, taking careful notes and making sure the leadership felt heard. Following the session, we put on a reception where we provided refreshments and made personal contact with each of the school leaders.
The next step in gaining trust is to start small and over-deliver. Using information from the listening sessions, select a couple of goals and go beyond expectations. Our team learned that other churches had previously made promises and then failed to deliver, resulting in cynicism and mistrust on the part of the faculty. By keeping our promises and achieving our goals with excellence, those barriers began to fall. As a result, we never make a promise we cannot keep and we always go the extra mile. Perhaps more than any other factor, this practice makes us welcome in the school.
Lesson #3: Be sensitive to political realities.
Behind each partnership and each act of service is the fervent desire to reach people for Christ. Nevertheless, we need to be careful regarding when and where that objective is made known, not because we are ashamed of the gospel, but in order to maintain a good working relationship with school personnel. Unfortunately, our current cultural situation makes any interaction between churches and schools delicate at best. Principals in particular feel this pinch more than anyone else. On the one hand, they must abide by state and district regulations, but on the other hand, they are often eager to receive the benefits of partnering with a church. If church volunteers speak of their spiritual objectives indiscriminately, it can put a supportive principal in a tough situation.
To expand our influence in the local school system, Faithbridge follows a few simple guidelines. First, we limit our explicit “God-talk” to team meetings. All it takes is for one overly concerned parent or faculty member to raise an issue to put our whole ministry in jeopardy. Second, we publicly assure school leaders and parents that we are not attempting to turn the school into a church, rather we are simply there to serve. Finally, we regularly consult with the principal to make sure we are following state and district guidelines. If we are meeting the principal’s expectations, then we are on safe ground.
As the U.S. economy continues to struggle, low-income schools will be in even greater need of assistance from sources beyond the local district. We believe this provides an unparalleled opportunity for the church to step up and show the love of Christ in practical, need-meeting ways. In just three years, our ministry has expanded from one school to five ongoing partnerships. Doors are being opened to meet needs and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. By implementing the lessons in this article, your church can begin to make a similar impact as well.