By: Michele D. Shoun
If you follow Alpha Grand Rapids’ Facebook page, you’ll notice a positive point of view in every post. For instance, it was refreshing to read on December 16, 2020:
“AGR is thankful for our church partners in the community! Churches are an essential part of what we do here at AGR. From church members coming in to pray for us, to resource drives, to volunteer groups, churches invest a lot in the lives of our clients. Currently we have 44 churches investing in AGR. Thank you to all the churches helping us promote abundant life!”
They could take a more glass-half-empty approach. After all, there are somewhere around 500 churches in the vicinity of Grand Rapids, Michigan, so the center is barely scratching the surface. Granted, Alpha must compete with multiple other life-affirming ministries for the attention (and support) of area churches.
Here are a few reasons the center’s positive outlook is warranted:
- There is a remarkable spirit of cooperation and camaraderie among Grand Rapids-area pro-life ministries. They’re all careful not to “step on each other’s toes.”
- Centers that are the only life-affirming ministry in a region may enjoy broader church support, but Colleen finds that church involvement with Alpha runs deep. One example is the group pictured here. Messiah Christian Reformed Church meets once a month in Alpha’s prayer room to pray for the ministry.
- While monthly giving from local churches represents 20% of AGR’s annual budget, Executive Director Colleen Geisel keeps in mind that virtually every other donation source (individuals, businesses) is also church-related. Every volunteer and staff member belongs to a local church, and so do most of the people who donate materials to the center. Donations of goods such as diapers, baby wipes, and formula amount in value to one-quarter of the center’s budget!
- Church support has increased in the years since Colleen became executive director, but not without a lot of planning and hard work.
What has Alpha done to increase church involvement?
1. They have made it a priority and set a goal to engage with two new churches every month. It’s one of the “key performance indicators” to which they hold themselves accountable.
Engagement might take the form of a note to a pastor, thanking him for spiritually nurturing a center volunteer who belongs to his congregation. This soft contact could open the door to a speaking engagement, or a tour of the center.
2. They devote staff time to increasing church engagement. Colleen estimates that 20 hours per week are spent between herself (approximately 5 hours), their Director of Development (5 hours), and their Community Engagement Manager (10 hours).
The Community Engagement Manager is responsible for recruiting volunteers and keeping them engaged. This includes church groups who might volunteer to help out at the center periodically. She coordinates with them and assigns them one of a variety of tasks that staff members and other regular volunteers have a hard time getting to, such as deep cleaning, assembling newborn bags, and sanitizing donated baby furnishings. She also takes in church donations of diapers, wipes, and formula, and organizes them for distribution.
3. They developed a brochure that lists four ways churches can be involved at Alpha: Learn, Pray, Engage, and Invest.
Learning might mean inviting someone to speak about Alpha at the church. Presentations can be customized to the needs and interests of the congregation. Alpha also invites groups, individuals, and families to tour the center.
Alpha invites churches to choose one hour per month to pray in their prayer room. A staff member (usually the Community Engagement Manager) will meet with them and share the latest news and prayer needs of the center. Groups can also do a prayer walk through or around the building. AGR also sends out a weekly email to those who sign up to be a prayer partner. The email tells them 3 ways to pray for Alpha.
Engagement means volunteering on a regular or periodic basis. AGR has identified 15 roles that volunteers can fill and asks people to consider what they feel both passionate and gifted to do. Some roles are client-focused, while others are more administrative. An individual or group might help behind-the-scenes at one of Alpha’s annual fundraising events.
Investment might involve monthly financial support or participation in a donation drive for items that are vital to pro-life ministry. AGR has taken in as much as $500,000-worth of diapers, formula, and wipes in one year!
When Colleen talks with church groups or leaders, her goal is to help them put their theology into action. “My challenge to people isn’t just that they have a certain worldview, but that they also live that worldview out.” She asks them to choose one of of the 4 areas involvement. For many churches, the first step is a donation drive. Once that’s successful, they add another step that involves greater commitment.
Of the 500 area churches, Alpha has identified 150 with some connection to the center. The 44 who are very engaged are accomplishing more than one of the 4 markers. Alpha is intentionally aiming to bring them along to fuller engagement.
Even though the average church member won’t personally engage with center clients, Alpha still considers them to be an investing in clients’ lives. The center does look for “church hosts” who will help women interested in spiritual things connect with a church. A host might give the client a ride to services and sit with her and help her integrate into the life of the church.
What would Colleen say to a center that struggles to engage with churches? “Realize that networking is about relationship, and relationships take time.” It took 5 years for one church to get on-board more fully. Furthermore, “Don’t give up. Have a strategy and measure the strategy. Have patience. Make it a priority.” She also advises not having an expectation about getting something out of every contact with a church.
Why are churches so essential to Alpha Grand Rapids?
Colleen says, “We’re only as strong as our local church partners. Without diaper drives at churches, we wouldn’t have diapers for our clients and our clients wouldn’t come. Without the church praying, I’d have a disunified staff and we’d be under so much spiritual warfare we couldn’t handle it. Without church involvement, without me and other staff speaking at churches, we wouldn’t have volunteers.”
To be truly satisfactory, engagement in any cause or ministry must be “holistic,” not one-dimensional. Just as Alpha engages with their clients as whole beings—physically, spiritually, mentally, and socially—so the center isn’t solely concerned with what they can receive from a church. They have carefully and intentionally considered how they can engage a church member’s mind, heart, spirit, and hands.