Reflections on Leading a Church Project
By Mike Powers
On May 18, the West Des Moines United Methodist Church (WDMUMC) hosted an event where 170 volunteers, mostly church members, gathered to package 67,176 meals which will be distributed to hungry people worldwide via the Meals From The Heartland (MFTH) organization. In addition to the many donors and volunteers, I had the pleasure of working with a group of bright, energetic and compassionate people who served on the organizing committee and were primarily responsible for making this happen. This campaign was for me personally a fulfilling experience and taught me several lessons which I want to share.
Lesson 1: Stretching is good exercise in more ways than one.
Lesson 1: Stretching is good exercise in more ways than one.
First of all, let me say that I have always thought of myself as generally a nice person. I have always tried to stay out of trouble and avoid hurting others. When presented with an opportunity, I would do positive things such as I never failed to help out with a small contribution if someone I knew was in a walk to cure some disease and I was a faithful purchaser of Girl Scout cookies. However, my focus was heavily weighted towards “to not do bad” rather than being “proactively good”. I was very busy at work and I had little time to spend on church or other charitable activities. I thought it was sufficient to adopt as my personal code the corporate motto of Google—“Don’t be evil.”
Everyone would agree that “Don’t be evil” is a good thing. But merely not being bad should not be the only rule. The truth is that there are bad things in the world, some are caused by man and some are not. Regardless of the source, if there is not a counterforce of good to push back against the bad then the bad will surely prevail. It is the responsibility of each of us to add in some way to the good in the world.
I believe that I had always known that fact deep down but had just not acted on it. When my wife Libby and I joined the WDMUMC a couple of years ago after moving from the Chicago area, I thought I would at least try to get a little more involved. For a first step, we joined a Sunday school class and subsequently served on the class program committee. We signed up for the state fair stand and I later became a day manager. We agreed to participate in one of the small groups and that proved to be an important step as I took turns leading several discussion sessions (something I had never done before) and most importantly led to the development of very good friendships. That small group experience brought Libby and I to even more involvement with church activities such as working on the sets of the Easter dramas and serving communion at Edgewater. Ultimately, that small group was the catalyst for the idea of the MFTH project.
While the individual steps that I took along the path toward increased involvement seemed small, each represented my moving into a territory with which I was not familiar and presented a stretch for me personally. Each step taken proved to be fulfilling and gave me more confidence to take that next step. As I became more involved with the church I felt a stronger connection with my faith. In essence, my experience was proof that Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a body at rest shall stay at rest and a body in motion will stay in motion, extends well beyond the physics arena. Once I got started it was easy to keep going.
Like Peter stepping out of the boat (Matthew 14: 29), I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to step outside your own comfort zone. Keep your faith to hold you up and I think you will find it to be a liberating and fulfilling experience. You will never know where such a path can take you if you don’t take the first step and set yourself in motion.
Lesson 2: There are many good, generous people in the world who want to help, you just need to ask (and it is not that hard to ask for a great cause).
The packaging event was the culmination of a ten week campaign in which contributors, mostly church members, donated nearly $13,500 in funds needed to acquire the food materials that were packaged. These donations were made in the midst of a challenging economic environment and fast on the heels of prior solicitations of the members for a special Christmas offering and an extended annual stewardship campaign.
On the day of the event, the volunteers got up early on a Saturday morning, organized themselves into teams of ten people drawn from a broad array of ages and backgrounds and diligently performed fairly tedious and repetitive tasks in two hour shifts while for the most part standing in rather hot and crowded conditions. All of this to benefit people from a different part of the world whom most of the volunteers will never meet. By almost all accounts, everyone had a great time and wants to do it again.
During the relatively short time that I had been a member of the WDMUMC, I had witnessed the generous spirit of the members of the church. I had seen individuals take needy families from outside the church under their wing and help them with food, shelter and transportation for extended periods of time. Members have been very generous in their support of missions to help those in prison, disadvantaged youth, the hungry, and the downtrodden. Whenever a member of the church became ill or injured or encountered some other trouble, they could count on an outpouring of compassion and comfort provided by many of their fellow members.
Still, at the outset of the campaign, I will admit that I had great trepidation as to how much we could reasonably expect to achieve given the headwinds that we were facing as noted above. Accordingly, we were somewhat cautious in the launch and did not announce a goal. I then received a call at home from a long-time member who urged me to tell the congregation what we wanted to achieve and he assured me that the congregation would support it. Bolstered by that advice and after consulting with the team, we stepped out (see Lesson #1) and publicly set out a goal of 50,000 meals.
To reach the goal required us to tell the story of why our project was a worthy one and deserving of support. In other words—“we had to make the ask”. For many people, and I include myself in that group, asking people for donations is something that usually makes them uncomfortable. However, it is a lot easier to make that ask if you have a strong belief in the virtue of the idea or product that you are selling. With MFTH, the team and I all felt the case for MFTH was very compelling and we all felt strongly that it deserved support.
As you already know, the advice to set a goal was sound and the support of the congregation was overwhelming. The members had once again shown their extensive capacity to help those who are most in need.
The takeaway here is that this project reaffirmed my belief that, despite many reports to the contrary, most people are kind, generous and want to help others to the extent they can. People want to know about good causes so they can act. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you are “playing on the side of the angels” you have a really good shot at success. Just make sure that is the team that you are on.
Most of you reading this were probably raised in a Christian environment and I hope I don’t shock you when I say that I never before had a really firm understanding of what the Holy Spirit was and why it had an equal status with God the Father and Jesus in the Holy Trinity. My perception was, outside of the description of the Pentecost in Acts, the Holy Spirit seemed to get little attention in the Bible and in contrast to God the Father and Jesus, appeared to be a very ethereal concept.
However, with the MFTH project I definitely got the sense that the entire project was being guided from above and had the sensation that the campaign was swept up and propelled forward by a strong unseen force.
I can tell you when our small group first discussed the idea of packaging meals for MFTH, we were not thinking of anything close to the scale of what was ultimately accomplished. But we were inexorably pulled along in ways that I cannot fully explain to make the project more ambitious. While we did not have an explicit Pentecost moment where fire swept through a room and we began speaking in tongues, a somewhat analogous episode occurred when in early April Gene Kelsey asked if someone from our group would do the children’s sermon to get the kids involved in the campaign. I volunteered to do it which was something that was so contrary to my previous experience that it could be considered on par with me spontaneously speaking a language that I had never before known.
Once I got in front of the church and called the kids up there, I sensed a calmness overtake me and felt direction from above as to what to say. I thought it marked a key point in the whole campaign where the message could be spoken not only to the children but to the entire congregation about the importance that Jesus placed on helping those most in need as he stated in Matthew 25:34-36,”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”. It seemed following that message, contributions moved up at an increased pace and we exceeded our goal a couple of weeks ahead of our deadline.
The most dramatic historical manifestation of the Holy Spirit is demonstrated by the fact that the 12 apostles, who were uneducated fishermen and tradesmen with no previous experience in public speaking and later joined by Paul who was a fervent persecutor of Christians, who planned to return to their old jobs following the crucifixion of Christ, could all of a sudden be invigorated to travel the known world and start a movement that would endure 2000 years later as the world’s largest religion.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way saying the MFTH project was equivalent to what was accomplished by the apostles. What I am saying is that I now know that it was the Holy Spirit that empowered those men to build the church, it empowered the MFTH campaign to provide 67,176 meals to hungry people and it can empower your life if you open your heart to it.