Leader to Leader, Outreach

Leading the Work Among the Poor

December 28, 2015 | Posted by Will Miller

Leading the congregation in building relationships with the poor isn’t as easy as it looks. As good hearted as the members of the congregation are, there are a number of real obstacles beyond the initial “unknown factor” that must be accounted for.

First, we must be honest about the natural tendency of most congregations to bow to the needs of the financial bottom line. Congregations don’t seek out the poor, in part, because they need stable folks who can financially support the ministry. Second, working with the poor is often a cross-cultural experience for many traditional Lutherans. Putting it within the ministry context of my own work here in Tennessee, whether we’re talking about a mostly white congregation trying to connect with working-poor blacks in Memphis, or a congregation of retirees in the beautiful mountains of the eastern part of the state trying to work with the rural Appalachian poor who are native to the area, working with the poor isn’t just a matter of working across socio-economic lines; it’s about cultural lines as well.

Those two obstacles to effective work with the poor need their own treatment. There honestly are some sociological and anthropological principles that need to be learned and applied in service to the Gospel. However, the most generic obstacle in leading the congregation to work effectively with the poor is the need to teach and model better listening skills.

Some of your folks know what it is like to be poor – desperately poor. Many of your folks may not. Some of your church members know what it is like to be homeless. Many do not. And how we listen to those who live life very differently from us makes us less effective, even though we aren’t less caring. Our inability to listen to the needs of the poor of our communities makes us less creative in addressing their needs, though we aren’t less capable of walking with our neighbors.

So how can we learn to listen to the needs of the economically poor in our communities? Here are some tips and suggestions:

  • Utilize the insight of those members you know are living, or have lived, in poverty, or as homeless persons.
  • Host a “poverty awareness” event where someone from a local non-profit comes to help your people better understand the experience of living in poverty.
  • Actively teach crisis listening skills in your adult Bible studies, as many who are poor need to be listened to like a good pastor/counselor listens to those who have just lived through a natural disaster, or the like.
  • Have your church and/or school staff read great resources like When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity and discuss what the group is learning together.

Continue to build relationships with the rescue missions and other non-profits that work day-in and day-out with those who are homeless or in abject poverty in your city.

Will Miller
Will Miller is Senior Pastor for Immanuel Lutheran Church and School in Memphis, Tennessee. His passion is to see Christians engaging their urban context with the healing of the Gospel in the compassion of Jesus Christ.