Can Health and Human Service Ministries Prove Key to Local Churches’ Vital Futures?

02-benThe Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess is Vice President of the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries and the former Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries within the UCC’s national setting. 

Ten years ago, Trinity Hill UCC in Cincinnati, Ohio, was facing some big decisions. Its once-thriving congregation had dwindled to a few dozen people and its large, impressive facility sat mostly dark, unused, except on Sunday mornings.

So, sensing God’s call on the congregation to do a radical new thing, they decided to survey the surrounding community to surface unmet needs and explore how their building might be repurposed. The answer came back to them loudly and clearly: quality education for all families, regardless of income.

That’s how Trinity Hill Family Services, a member-ministry of the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, was born.

Today, the church facility — which was retrofitted slightly to accommodate its new missional direction — is bustling with UCC-related ministry to Cincinnati’s southwest side, offering early education, pre-school and kindergarten enrichment, before/after school services, a robust summer program, and reliable transportation to and from local schools. In total, Trinity Hill Family Services supports kids from infancy through 12 years of age, with plans to expand its offerings as community needs demand.

“Our objective is to assist families in the task of providing a strong foundation for their child’s future development,” Trinity Hill’s philosophy statement says.

There’s still a small worshipping community at Trinity Hill UCC and, in fact, the relationship between the Sunday-morning membership and its human service ministry is basically seamless, according to the Rev. Jean C. Oberhelman, pastor. It’s clear to all that the vitality of Trinity Hill UCC is the present and future impact of Trinity Hill Family Services.

The UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) is an association of more than 400 member ministries, each founded by a UCC congregation, member or minister, and recognized by one of the UCC’s 38 Conferences. Ranging widely in scope and services offered, some CHHSM ministries are more than 150 years old, while others — like Trinity Hill Family Services — were formed more recently.

Last fall, CHHSM conducted a church-wide survey, completed by 355 respondents, to gauge present-day perceptions about health and human service ministries, understandings of these ministries’ relationship to the church’s wider mission, and what health and human service activities were of most interest to UCC congregations today.

Reviewed by the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD), the survey results were deemed a statistically reliable sample based on the breadth and diversity of respondents, which closely mirrored UCC demographics as a whole.

What we found is that many UCC members feel strongly that health and human service ministries will be central to the future vitality of local UCC churches.

When asked to agree or disagree with 14 mission-oriented phrases, the sentiment with the most resonance was “health and human service ministries are vital to the future of local churches,” with 85 percent strongly or somewhat agreeing. Similarly, many overwhelmingly agreed that “health and human service institutions are born out of church members’ passions to serve God by serving others” (84%) and that “CHHSM should play a more active role in helping congregations address local needs” (83%).

The research project, undertaken to inform CHHSM’s now-completed three-year strategic plan, made clear to CHHSM’s board of directors that, in response to rapidly changing church demographics and building-use needs, CHHSM needs to play a more active role in helping develop, resource and network new, as well as existing, health and human service organizations.

CHHSM’s emerging focus —based on the opinions of our survey’s respondents — is that the formation of service and advocacy ministries might actually help worshipping communities stay in business, albeit with a more clearly defined mission to meet and serve people outside their congregations.

The Rev. Patrick Duggan, executive director of the UCC’s Church Building & Loan Fund, which helps new and renewing congregations to redefine their models of ministry, agrees that service ministries may be a way forward for many churches in search of a purpose with greater impact.

“There are hundreds of churches around the country looking for new ways to advance the gospel mission,” Duggan said. “They have community relationships, motivated volunteers and under-utilized space. Health and human service offerings might well be the ideal sustainable, mission-focused, revenue-generating initiatives these churches are looking for.”

Luckily, CHHSM’s research shows that many UCC congregations feel they have the hutzpah to retool their missions, with nearly half (48 percent) of respondents describing their local congregation as extremely or somewhat “entrepreneurial” when it comes to addressing local human needs.

“We take very seriously the fact that one in five respondents indicated that their local church has started a health and human service ministry in recent years that could benefit from ongoing relationship to the wider church,” Michael J. Readinger, CHHSM’s President and CEO, told me. “And just because many of these ministries are now free-standing organizations, they should not be, in any way, deemed of lesser importance to the UCC’s overall mission.”

To the surprise — and hope — of the CHHSM board, survey respondents under 40 years old indicated a greater familiarity with CHHSM and said they could identify more CHHSM-member ministries by name than respondents over 65.

CHHSM purposefully wanted to know if there existed a sentiment that health and human service ministries in general, or CHHSM in particular, were somehow perceived as passé or yesteryear, and what we heard back was just the opposite. In fact, the phrase that was most strongly rebuked by respondents, and by a wide margin, was “CHHSM is basically an organization that honors the church’s historical ties to old institutions, but has little relevance to the church of today.”

Similarly, when asked to describe the defining characteristics of a CHHSM-member ministry, the missionally-flat phrase “business enterprise historically tied to the church” was overwhelmingly rejected by 89 percent of respondents.

What the research shows — both our own and that of others in the field of church development — Is that congregational vitality follows missional clarification and ownership. The latter is not a “tool” of the former, but rather the faithful objective of both: to worship God by serving God’s people.

Major findings of the CHHSM survey can be found here

 A PowerPoint presentation is available here

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