Shepherd’s Care: From Impact to Investment

Last week, we looked at what Eugene Peterson calls “the pastor’s question.”  It is the question that moves clergy from impact to investment.  It is a question churches can also ask to move themselves the same way.  Re-worded for the congregation it reads…

“Who are these particular people, and how can we be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?”

North American culture is episodic in many ways.  We go in for temporary experiences that provide instant gratification–concerts, cruises, etc.  The church is not exempt from the same inclinations.  We often speak of “having an impact” on something, and we plan and conduct ministries that (like episodes in society) provide our people with temporary experiences that provide instant gratification.

Back in my day we did this with evangelism and social concern.  Evangelism was concentrated in the annual “revival” and social concern was focused on food baskets at Thanksgiving.  The revival happened in the spring, and the food basket distribution took place in the fall.  Add in summertime Vacation Bible School and a youth mission trip, and we were making an impact much of the year.

These things were not bad, and I am not suggesting that they (or any other episodic events) should be abandoned.  That’s a discernment process each congregation must work out for itself.  There are many good things you can do once in a while.

But what I am suggesting is that congregations need to discern ministry using the word ‘investment’ not just the word ‘impact.’  The missional metaphors Jesus used were salt, light and leaven.  All three are images of investment, not impact.  In fact, the truth is, the ultimate impact of each element is due to its being an investment.  Salt does not land on meat and then return to the shaker.  Light does not reach the earth and then head back to the sun.  Leaven does not penetrate dough and then go back into the jar.  None of them come-and-go; all three arrive-and-stay.

I wish I had recognized this when I was a pastor.  I engaged folks in many good episodes, and the church never lacks for them.  In fact, there are always more programs to conduct than any congregation could or should do.  We can find resources for almost any ministry.

Where I came up short was on the investment side.  Long-haul ministry.  Ministry that arrived and stayed.  Salt, light, and leaven.  As I have awakened to the difference between impact and investment, I have recognized that missional churches emphasize investment.

One way to say it is that they establish relationships, not just make contacts.  They connect with selected ministries in their community and in the world—and they stay put.  They get to know the people and discover what they really need, what it actually takes for them to thrive.  The ministries are not programs, they are partnerships.  They are rooted in relationships.

The impetus for this blog came as I read an article about a popular Christmas shoebox ministry, learning from the article that many of the gifts put into the shoeboxes are things the children don’t even know what to do with. One little boy, for example, got a Slinky in his box, and the best he could figure out was that it was a necklace.  So he found a way to wrap it around his neck and wear it like an article of clothing. The box contained things the sender wanted to give without knowing what the receiver needed to have.

It made me wonder how often I unwittingly gave others things what I wanted them to have, without ever asking (or taking the time to find out) what they liked or needed.  I made an impact, but did so without investment.  And the wonderment goes beyond toys to other things we do deductively (i.e. what we think others need) rather than inductively (i.e. responding to what they tell us they need).

There are about 500,000 Christian congregations in the United States.  What if each one claimed a territory in its proximity and offered ministry in the context of needs in their zone? What if a congregation linked with one local ministry and one global location and journeyed in ministry with each one for years?  [Some churches would have the size and capacity to partner with more than two]. Think of the number of investments which would be created!

I know congregations who do this, and it is because of them that I have learned the difference between impact and investment.  Of course there are good short-term, occasional ministries to do.  And we are being obedient as we do them. But suffice it to say that when Jesus told us to be salt, light, and leaven he was wanting us to think more about investment than impact.  He was wanting us to show up and stay.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
This entry was posted in Shepherd's Care. Bookmark the permalink.