Posted on

Lessons from the church relations team

If you were to ask each member of your administrative staff, “How does your department contribute to the overall advancement of our organization?” how would he/she respond? One doesn’t need to visit with her long to realize that Sandy Miller, Director of Church Relations for Mennonite Mission Network, has obviously thought through this question.

What one might not realize is that, had you asked her two years ago, her answer may have been quite different. In 2010 as part of an organization-wide restructuring, Miller’s staff was moved to Mission Network’s advancement division. This move prompted anxiety among the church relations team for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that some equated advancement with development. By working with AAI Principal Rich Gerig, Miller has come to see building relationships as a legitimate—and measurable—advancement function.

Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, currently supports workers and ministries in over 50 countries. Sandy Miller is one of seven persons who make up the organization’s church relations team, whose job it is to build and maintain positive, trusting relationships with church leaders. Her team works to achieve this 1) by meeting one-on-one with pastors and conference ministers to assess where various congregations are in need of mission resourcing, 2) by discerning with these persons if/how Mission Network and a congregation can work together in a mutually beneficial way, and 3) by developing funding partnerships to enable sending new people to new locations.

The emphasis on building relationships with all churches is a shift Miller has witnessed since coming to Mission Network seven years ago. At that time, she says, “the church relations team was primarily about promoting mission speakers, prayer, and media resources. A separate partnership formation team worked on developing new partnerships and ministry support teams to fund new ministries. But we’ve discovered that not all congregations are interested in developing partnerships—some are rather concerned that, for example, their undesignated contributions matter and that the money is being used wisely.”

Relationship building has led to other discoveries for Miller’s staff as well. As a result, they’ve moved to what she calls “relationship-based resourcing.” For a period of time, resourcing was about what the congregation wanted or what Mission Network had to offer without exploring what wisdom might be gained by simply being at the table together in prayer and conversation. Since then, the organization has tried to be mindful of being true to its identity as a networker, encouraging congregations to find their niche for ministry within their context and offering ways that Mission Network programs can enhance their experience.

A third discovery is that many congregations have moved from a global mission perspective to a local one. The organization’s stated goal “is that every congregation and all parts of the church will be engaged in God’s mission across the street and around the world.” A challenge for the church relations team is to help congregations think about local mission in addition to—not instead of—global mission.

But the biggest change Miller cites is realigning staff members to relate to pastors in a certain geographic region. “Prior to that, we focused on getting [staff] in churches to preach on Sunday mornings and developing mission partnerships. We’re still promoting partnerships—in fact, half of our 500+ supporting congregations are involved in partnerships of one kind or another—but we’re also spending considerable time getting to know congregations.”

For her team, that is best achieved through listening: about a congregation’s vision, its own goals for mission, and any issues congregational leaders are dealing with. In fact, Miller names listening as one best practice for her line of work. “Congregations are so very diverse; when we listen well we can find the connecting points between their work and our work and better engage them in global mission.”

Another best practice is helping church leaders think through what is important about an Anabaptist/Mennonite approach to mission. Out of sensitivity to persons of other cultures, for example, Mission Network only places workers in locations where the Church already has a presence and these international partners are asking the organization to walk alongside them in ministry.

Miller points out a strong tradition of congregations supporting their own members in mission assignments. But with the rise of the Internet and social media, she wonders if attention is being paid to how that mission is happening. “The amount of information available plays into the reality of people who feel called. They look online for where and how they might serve and are bombarded with information, much of it from denominations that do not share Anabaptist values.” Sometimes, she notes, this search process happens without congregational discernment about whether someone is actually called. Mission Network feels that discernment is a key piece of mission 1) for support implications for that person and 2) because discernment is also a key component of Anabaptism.

One way that the church relations team contributes to advancement, then, is through mission education. Another direct way is by coaching ministry support teams: “groups of five (or more) individuals who agree to care for specific mission workers through prayer support, encourage them with notes and cards, communicate with them and their friends back in the United States, and assume the responsibility for finding the financial resources to support their ministry” (Mission Network website).

The goal of Miller’s team is, out of the relationships they build, to deepen congregations’ engagement with Mission Network ministries. To measure their effectiveness, they identify four different areas of engagement, which they evaluate annually:

1. Prayer—through the number of congregations participating in a Mission Day of Prayer, and through the number of individuals involved in a Prayer Partner ministry.

2. People—through the number of mission workers currently serving from each regional church conference.

3. Dollars—through carefully maintained giving records from each congregation and conference.

4. Advocates—through inviting Board members and former mission workers to be active promoters of Mission Network and its ministries.

Miller and her six colleagues are aided by approaching advancement from what she calls a “pastoral heart.” Most of them have been in ministry in various ways in the church for years and Miller herself completed her Master of Divinity degree this past spring.

Sandy Miller (center) and other Mission Network staff lead worship as the Work in Progress Gospel Band Singers.

As I reread these paragraphs, I can’t help but see several traits emerging, much as those listed in an ad. WANTED: a relationship builder. Applicant should possess clarity about the organization’s mission and be theologically rooted. He/she should demonstrate good listening and critical thinking skills, and be conscientious in self-evaluation. Preference will be given to applicants displaying a pastoral heart.

Now that sounds like the sort of person I’d want managing my organization’s church relations team! What about you?