Reasoning Together chatted with Dave Perrin, director of ministry development for Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (Lexington Park, Md.), about his congregation’s surprising partnership with Maryland’s department of social services and how other churches can follow suit.
How and why did your church decide to start working with social services?
It started about 6-7 years ago when our senior pastor Walter Nilsson started seriously studying the theology of God’s heart for the poor. He took some courses through the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. Chalmers is a research and training organization that equips churches around the world to empower people who are poor. What he learned there set the foundation for our church’s mercy outreach.
Not long afterward, we decided to start an orphan ministry at the church, and my role was to focus on the local foster care system. I called up our department of social services (DSS) and before I knew it we were hosting training events and a Christmas party for foster parents. Soon after, we joined a network of 25 churches that was partnering with social services and the homeless center (secular nonprofit) to provide temporary shelter for the homeless during the winter. This resulted in some closer relationships with local churches, secular nonprofits, and DSS. Soon after, as we were struggling with how to better handle “cold call” requests for financial help (electric bills, etc.), we connected with a DSS team lead who developed a screening process, so we were able to begin focusing our resources on helping people with the kinds of needs that the church is best equipped to fill – relational development.
Has there been any tension in working with social services? Are you limited when it comes to sharing the Gospel to those who have been referred to your church by social services?
In the Christian community, separation of church and state has been introduced as this big boogie man. That might be the case in some areas of the country, but it’s not going to be that way everywhere. In our experience, social services see us as people who are offering services to the community that they are not offering. They see us as a “community partner” with the common goal of helping the materially poor.
Also, everybody has a right to refuse. If someone is going to be referred to our church, they know what they were getting into and have agreed to work with us.
We’re about to teach our second iteration of a financial literacy class, where graduates qualify for a matched-savings program where we match or double what they deposit. DSS is referring people to us. Usually at the end of the class someone asks, “Why would you do this?” That’s the prime opportunity to share the Gospel.
Why work with social services at all? Can’t you still do the same outreach in the community without them?
It really helps streamline our program. For example, when you take calls from people asking for help with an electric bill, mortgage, etc., you can end up doing a lot of research, calling their employer, checking to make sure they are who they say they are. A lot of work needs to be done in screening people. Social services can really handle that for you. Plus, you have somebody you can call for advice on what resources are in the community. It’s good to get advice from them.
Also, it’s another opportunity to be salt and light in the community. Social workers need Jesus also. It really creates a more visible relationship within the community that shows God’s love. When the department of social services says that some of their most significant partners are churches, that reflects that the church really does care for the community.
From your experience, what steps should other churches take to partner with social services in their areas?
First, get your heart in the right place.
Read books like When Helping Hurts and Ministries of Mercy. These books paint a clear picture of our own poverty and help us understand that we’re all broken and have poverty in our lives. That helps to make us humble and reflect the reality that we all need to be saved.
Set up a meeting with someone at social services with the goal of finding out the needs in the community and what they think is the best way a church can help them. Apologize for not helping sooner. Come in with the attitude of wanting to help them, instead of having an agenda. There are tons of needs in the community. Once you start listening, you can start matching those needs with the resources you have in your church.
It’s also important to communicate that the church really wants to work on the development side of things, as opposed to relief. Relief is putting Band-Aids on things, but not thinking about the future. Churches are very relational and are equipped to wrap their arms around someone in the larger community, not just financially, but also relationally. This is a niche that churches should be working in.
Ultimately, just be humble and recognize that social services is doing great work. Remember that they share many common goals with the church, particularly helping the poor rise out of poverty, which we see as the redemption of lives and the expansion of God’s Kingdom in all areas of life.
Dave will be speaking on this topic at the upcoming Mercy Ministry Conference (March 20-22). Click here to learn more or register.