A couple of years ago we were pursuing a partnership with a ministry serving among the urban poor. This ministry was tied to an active church doing real discipleship and seeing real fruit among the people in the community. From what we could see, this was one of those unique churches where the majority of those doing the work of the ministry were the members of the body. Still, I was struck by the number of people on staff at this small urban church. They had raised money to hire more staff members than a church three or four times their size.
The pastor’s reasoning for additional staff made a lot of sense. He said this church didn’t enjoy the luxury of stability found in the suburbs. The problems are different and more abundant among the urban poor. It takes time to effectively shepherd people who are frequently going through crises and to equip those same people for the work of the ministry. In this context, additional staff are all the more valuable and even necessary.
How Stability Affects Ministry
By and large, suburban life is characterized by stability. People want to live in the suburbs because they like the convenience of nearby restaurants, shops and grocery stores, not to mention the abundance of parking. The larger houses have more room for their growing families. They often (but now always!) have fewer troubles related to finances and social problems.
This suburban stability affects a pastor’s work more than we tend to realize. Just like taking care of yourself physically will naturally help with depression to some degree, having a job, a family, responsibilities at home and the stability that comes with the stereotypical suburban life contributes to a sense of well-being. These things are helpful means of motivation and accountability, and that comes with a degree of spiritual benefits. Stability is like an extra staff pastor who’s encouraging the flock to stay the course.
We simply can’t say the same thing in a general sense about the inner city. The effects of joblessness, homelessness and fatherlessness are clearly felt by the whole community. Even parts of the city which aren’t characterized by poverty and brokenness come with their own unique ministry challenges. Young, single professionals adapting to a new job after college have more money and more freedom than ever before. As they face various temptations, the pastoral staff may need to help “parent” them for a few more years.
Avoiding Pitfalls & Helping Others
It’s clear that stability creates a stark difference between ministry in a suburban and urban context. So what do we do with this?
Well, if you minister in a suburban context, as a pastor or church member, be thankful for stability. It’s a blessing. It’s working for you when you can’t always be there. But be careful. It’s possible to unknowingly equate having stability with being spiritually healthy.
Stability helps us spiritually, but stability isn’t the spiritual goal. Pastors and church members still need to get into heart issues when caring for the people of the church. It’s possible to lose sight of what’s going on in the lives of individual people because things look good on the surface. We make assumptions about how well they’re doing based on what we see about their lives.
If things seem fine, a pastor may start focusing his energy on ideas for church growth instead of being among the sheep, spending extra free time in unnecessary meetings or reading another book and feeling satisfied with only seeing people at the main church gatherings. Just like the professionalization of the ministry may make the church body weak or lazy, this extra staff member called stability can harm the way a pastor watches after the flock. Be careful.
Recognizing the effects of stability should also make us look at supporting urban ministries differently. Don’t think they need less money because they’re in a poorer area. They have plenty of burdens they are bearing, and they’re down one staff member already in Mr. Stability.
Money is one area where suburban pastors can help. Consider supporting additional staff members for an urban ministry. Be the kind of church that can provide these churches with the stability of strong members, friendships and long-term financial assistance. And if you’re ministering in this context, don’t be afraid to ask for help and pray for stability.
Kevin McKay serves as the lead pastor at Grace Harbor Church in Providence, RI. You can find more of his articles at 9Marks.org