Where to put the sidewalks…

I am a proud graduate of Samford University.  The time spent on Samford’s campus shaped and molded me in many ways.  My sense of God’s call was brought into clear focus.  I developed life-long friendships.  I learned about religion, English, and science.  And somewhere along the way I learned about life.

Samford University was once known as Howard College… back in the day when my dad attended school there.  Through the years the name changed and so did the location. Once located in East Lake, the school moved in 1957 to its new and present location on Lakeshore Drive.  By design, the architects did an interesting thing during the first year or so.  Rather than plan the location for all the sidewalks, they waited to see where students walked most frequently, and then they added the walkways.  Interesting, right?  Rather than dictate where students had to walk, they waited and watched and in so doing, they learned where students really wanted to go and they planned accordingly.

There is a strong parallel from that story to the relationship between church and community.  In a very noble attempt to provide for the needs of a community, a local church will often map out a ministry plan, envision a need-meeting program, and even raise some funds, all based on the perception of what the church “thinks” are the needs of the community, having never really asked the community their response to such a question of need.  It’s a little backwards.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to first engage the community to see what the real needs are, before building the sidewalks?  In my previous pastorate, we discovered an unknown and unmet need in a local High School that centered around feeding hungry students.  We would have never known about the need without asking.  We thought we knew what a school might need in the way of help from a local church.  We made some incorrect assumptions.  The ministry vision became clear as soon as we asked the right questions.

In my role as the executive director of a new program designed to meet the needs of leaders in faith-based organizations, the notion of where to put the sidewalks is vital.  I can dream and scheme all day long about direction and if I am lucky, I might come up with a teaching module or two that meets a need.  But what if I took the time to see where leaders really wanted to walk and built the sidewalks accordingly?  So I’m going to ask a lot of people a lot of questions.  The last thing that I want to do is spend my efforts on programs that don’t scratch the right itch.

You might want to do the same as you envision your ministry within the context of your local community.  What are the real needs?  Have you asked?  It’s better to see the paths that your neighbors need to walk and build the kind of sidewalks that will help them in their journey.