The Power of Connection:  Making Spiritual Ministry out of Social Networking

Date Posted: 7/27/2016

By taking the lead to integrate strategic “connections” within a local geographic boundary, Cheatham Memorial UMC is living out the call to serve in 1 Peter 4.
To meet, greet and eat is a well-honed skill of most United Methodists. The members of Cheatham Memorial UMC (CUMC) in Edgewood recently decided to take that talent for hospitality to a significant new level by hosting a community “Connections” dinner that was designed to create a wide network of partners with purpose. “If you feed them, they will come, as the saying goes,” notes Rev. Alan Van Hooser of CMUMC, “and the essence of ministry is all about divine connections.” The kickoff event has since spawned beneficial new partnerships including a community lunch hosted with Meals on Wheels once a month.
“This is a story of how we moved from a Vibrant Church Initiative (VCI) prescription to be more externally focused to actually launching a ministry,” he explains. “Our specific recommendation was to, ‘Identify a target audience, and develop an outward-focused strategy for the church to reach that audience.’ Cheatham Memorial UMC interpreted that to mean we could be the catalyst to Connect with other helpful ministries to fulfill this goal.” 
Other congregations considering this strategy will have their own unique context, but the Cheatham Memorial Connect Team shares these steps in hopes they might be helpful as a framework to move forward.
1.  Engage the Congregation.  Know your church family, church vision and your geographic “zone.” Cheatham selected the Edgewood ISD boundaries as our zone and selected a team of “connectors” to help steer the project. As new partners are added, the Edgewood Connections resource will be shared and updated in both a paper directory and an online resource on Wordpress.  The online directory is under construction at
“Our connections ministry has excited our church family and shown the children and elderly in need that our church cares for them.  So many of them are desperate and floundering.  We can help them more by connecting the helpers than we ever could just by ourselves,“ shares Judi Yarbrough, Connections team leader.
2.  Engage your neighbors. As Rev. Tom Berlin asked the crowd at this summer’s annual conference, “Whose kid’s (or others in need) are they?” Send your more extraverted team members out to talk to people and ask open-ended questions to discern your community’s greatest needs. First, identify your fragile populations and ministry opportunities. Second, identify the potential partner ministries and churches in your ministry “zone.” Since relationships are in constant change, it is essential to have an easily updateable resource. 
3.  Engage your Connection partners.  Our team began by making a list of all helping ministries working in our zone. Secondly, we planned an informal meet and greet dinner in May, and we bathed the event in prayer.  Each of the Connections partners filled out a brief questionnaire.  For our connections ministry to be effective it must be a humble partner that is concerned for others far beyond those in the church. Cheatham Memorial is planning two follow-up dinners this year to firm up the directory and make even more friendships. 
Notes Alan, “Our first organizational dinner was a 90-minute round table discussion and facilitated connections between Crestwood Nursing Home, The City of Edgewood, Edgewood’s Heritage Park, Edgewood ISD, Stonepoint Church, Manna Food Pantry, Meals-On-Wheels, and the Edgewood Police. We served barbecue sandwiches and kept the agenda very informal.”
“The Connect team is a way for our church to follow God as much as help our neighbors. This project has had an exciting start and will lead us to show Jesus to people that really need the help and often don’t have anyone,” adds Jackie Fitzgerald, Connect Team Member. 
4. Engage ideas initially that will lead to quick success. Brainstorm small manageable projects at the first meeting. Cheatham Memorial created a “shuffling” exercise at the kickoff dinner to keep the introductions moving, and then created time for an idea exchange.  Shares Alan, “Out of this dinner came a relationship with the East Texas Food Bank and our local food pantry that now allows our church a way to provide emergency food to seniors. Since Meals on Wheels needed activities and visibility, at the director’s suggestion, Cheatham is partnering with them for a monthly Community lunch to connect the community with disconnected seniors and children while also having a little fun.”
According to the team, the first community lunch was easy, inexpensive and consisted of crockpot dinners provided by individual church members. “It was held at the community center instead of the church to make people more comfortable,” Alan says,” and we served everyone from the mayor on down to some people who really needed a meal. It energized both the church members of all ages who served and those who gathered to eat. Youth members served, others cooked, while more distributed flyers.” They plan to do the lunches for three months and then re-evaluate. Adds Alan, “The lunch not only raised awareness of the needs, it also engaged volunteers and raised a few dollars from those wishing to support our Meals-on-Wheels.” A patron of the lunch said, “It is so important for the community because it shows the people that someone cares. There are not many community-wide activities, so people don't realize we are actually one family. It is wonderful to get to be with a group of caring people.”
5. Engage long-term projects, as you are able. Any project that is of value takes time. Alan is excited about Cheatham’s new connection to the Edgewood Police Department. “They want to start a student safety ID program and possibly a D.A.R.E officer,” he shares. “That kickoff dinner began the conversation with Edgewood ISD leaders and will be studied further. We learned that EISD needs emergency food and ongoing support for students on the weekends and holidays.  Through this Connections dinner, a backpack food program will begin by fall in partnership with EISD, Manna, East Texas Food Bank and Cheatham Memorial. The Food Bank gave a matching fund grant of $2,500 and a pilot Pantry Program for high school students. This dovetails with an existing Shoe Box urgent food program.” Adds Alan, “None of this was even visualized prior to this dinner. All of these projects, while exciting, will require study, prayer and organization.  The starting point is the ‘Connections’ with these other associated ministries.”
6. Engage change.  Change brings challenges, especially when a congregation may have a rigid idea of their existing ministries. Cheatham’s newest area of ministry will be feeding the disconnected elderly and children under 18. To do one thing well, it helps to review all existing ministries and traditional events, repurpose space in the facility and call people to new missional ministries. Flexibility is essential.
The Cheatham team chose 1 Peter 4: 8-10 as a centering scripture and places it on all materials. Ministry leaders are now looking at how existing ministry can be tweaked to be more externally focused. VBS leaders this year, for example, created mission-ready crafts along with the traditional ones for our students. Rather than the traditional crafts, the kids made SAND Bags” (which stands for snacks and nutritional delights) that went to the Meals-on-Wheels clients; clothes detergent bags tied with a dryer sheet bow went to the food pantry customers, and water bottles with inspirational labels went to the police department to give to people in immediate need. The crafts helped real people with real needs, excited the students, and created awareness for the Edgewood connections. 
Kathy Silver of the Manna Inc. food pantry says, ”Partnering with our friends and agencies helps us to serve our clients in multiple and unexpected ways; we can now offer cereal and fresh vegetables when we wouldn’t normally have them.  We didn’t have laundry soap for our clients until the VBS kids gave special detergent bags to us.  Through the Edgewood Connections, we have dozens of new friends. They may be agencies, congregations, individuals, and Sunday school classes that all work together to help our clients better.” 
Lessons learned:

  • Change is constant so stay on top of updating key contact information. 
  • Don’t try to do everything but discern your place in ministry and do that well.  Find ways to creatively insert the gospel into potential projects. 
  • Be who you are in your community but partner with others rather than duplicate what another group is doing. 
  • Be careful whom you endorse. It could cripple your reputation if you are tied to a partner who lacks commitment or character. 
  • Know and be known by your school administrators, coaches, guidance counselors, city secretary/manager, and police, fire, ambulance and social service providers. 
  • “Why stretch and connect?” Alan adds, “This helps build individual disciples and the Kingdom of God. Connections make for healthy, excited and more unified congregations that are helping real people and making disciples.