By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary
Yes, I’ll serve…but where am I needed? And what is needed?
After listening to numerous people, inside and outside the church, I’m convinced one of the reasons serving collapses into service projects or mission trips is because most of us don’t know enough about the real circumstances of our context. And without an understanding, our vision is limited – and we are blind to the needs of people on the streets we drive each and every day.
Now, there are many ways to discover what the real circumstances are in our communities, but at the core are two things – education and vision.
I’m a geek…I like numbers, not for numbers sake, but because numbers provide a picture of what’s happening. When new census numbers come out – I get excited and I like to look them over, talk with others about them, and share what I think they mean with those around me. Numbers aren’t bias and don’t offer solutions – but numbers report what is and invite us to see the world in particular ways. Looking at numbers can awaken us, and our communities, to the realities and the changes taking place in our midst. Said differently, looking at the “numbers” for one’s community is a way to education us about what’s real.
For example – People in my area don’t think there is much poverty. And in some ways they are right. With regard to poverty, my county is below average at 6% versus the 11% in MN and 14.3% in the US. So they are right, right? Yet a deeper look reveals a startling reality. That 6% represents families with children under 18. And for families with children until 5, the number goes up to 7.1%. Stop there and one might think that’s the average across all family units. However, that’s not true. For single parents, the number is higher. For families with a female as the head of household, poverty is 15.4%. And for those same households with children under 18 it’s 21.2% - for those with children under 5 it’s 34.8%. That’s over 1/3 of households of single mothers with small children. The numbers present a sad reality. Is that OK? What if people in my congregation knew this important, what would they think? What would they do?
(To check out what’s real in your context – see American Fact Finder on the census website.)
My experience also reminds me, numbers (or education) rarely are enough to motivate changes in behavior. So there’s got to be something else. Right? That something else is eyes to see – or vision.
Let me explain. My daughter’s elementary school was fortunate enough to have a part-time social worker. In our suburban context, in which many did not believe poverty existed, she was a gift to the school, to students, and the community. The social worker’s role was to come along side students and make their learning experience the most it could be. This included interpersonal issues, personal care plans, and getting students resources they needed. She was there to serve all students, not just some students. One of the needs she discovered was the need for food. So the whole school system went about attending to this issue in many ways. This included involving the students and their families in process. Suddenly the numbers had faces, and the people in my neighborhood had eyes to see! The people going hungry were our neighbors and in our classes, with particular stories and situations.
As we, ministry leaders, seek to ignite service in our communities, let’s embrace our role as educators and vision casters. Let’s help people discover the realities in our midst and the ways it impacts the lives of people in their community.
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Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She's our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.
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