21st century diakonia: A bigger team for a greater mission

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Tim Thorlby is CTC’s Development Director. He leads our work on missional enterprise and our primary research.  Here he blogs about two new reports being published by CTC – each encouraging the church to recognise, affirm and make more enterprising use of the skills and vocations of the lay people within it.

This week we are publishing two reports:

– 21st Century Stewards (written by Tim Thorlby), and

– Carry Each Other’s Burdens (written by Laura Bagley)

Both reports carry the same message to the Church – that we should recognise within our congregations the huge resource that exists in the form of their skills, experience, vocations and active service.  Too often, church leaders are so busy delivering services and projects and recruiting people to fill their rotas that they miss both the ongoing ‘kingdom work’ of Christians outside of the church’s programmes as well as the potential to use some of their skills and experiences within the church.

Both reports ask the same thing of church leaders – listen to your congregations, understand their skills and vocations and ask how their potential can be better recognised and released. It’s a message that resonates deeply with the insights of community organising.

My report on 21st Century Stewardship describes the growing trend of appointing ‘operations managers’ in churches across London – churches of differing traditions and working in a variety of geographical contexts. Exploring how this is being done and the potential pitfalls, the research clearly identifies the benefits from employing professional management skills within growing churches – not least to the church leaders themselves, who are released to spend more time in their priestly and pastoral calling. There are also measurable benefits from the more active management of the church’s resources – whether that is buildings, funds or people. This is true whether at a local or national level.

The report calls for the stewardship of church resources to be formally recognised as a vocation – and for the people involved to be affirmed, celebrated and invested in. It matters because there is great potential for the church to enhance its mission and ministry by strengthening its ‘team’ in this way. This call echoes the New Testament experience of ‘diakonia’, where the Apostles were freed to pursue their own callings by appointing others to shape and deliver social services to the needy within the church community.

Laura’s report, Carry Each Other’s Burdens, has a very different subject matter, but reflects the same concern – that the members of our congregations are the Body of Christ in action through the week, which is something we should recognise and support.

Laura interviewed many people who work alongside some of the most vulnerable people in east London either as professionals or volunteers. The experience of these Christians is often that their local church offers little in the way of affirmation or support for their work and instead is more likely to question why they are not contributing to the church’s own activities. Yet their work is also ‘church work’ as they fulfil their vocation and pursue mission, albeit outside of church programmes. This form of ‘diakonia’ also needs to be properly recognised as falling squarely within the mission of the church. These Christians are asking to be supported in their work. Laura draws on their experiences to give some ideas on how this could be done.

What do these two reports tell us? That by recognising the skills and experience already present within our churches we may discover that our ‘mission and ministry team’ is bigger and more diverse than we had ever realised. And by investing in this broader team, we may well find that our mission and ministry are given greater momentum.

We also know that community organising offers churches effective disciplines to help them do this. In particular, it challenges churches to listen regularly to the passions of their members, and recognise the skills and experience they already bring to Christian ministry.  A listening church can better recognise and support the ministries of all their members so that they can reach their full potential.

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