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A Clovis Experiment in Church Collaboration

In the Spring of 2012, I completed a dissertation examining the opportunities and challenges local churches have in collaborating for the sake of the city of Clovis, California. The “Church Collaboration for City Transformation of Clovis” project analyzed the problem in terms of the lack of communication among churches about their ministry outreach projects and opportunities as well as the churches’ actual pursuit of collaboration. The central finding of the project was that churches want to work with other local churches in community outreach but insufficient time and personnel are major obstacles. So how might churches in Clovis, or any city, get beyond these challenges?

The Changing Face of Clovis

The same theological foundation and principles are relevant to any collaborative effort; they are applied differently in different contexts. The changing face of the city of Clovis is the context on which this article will focus. Clovis has a perception of affluence that is misleading. The reality is more complex than this perception. This is a time of change for the city, not least in its racial makeup. The city has grown more diverse, with all minority ethnicities increasing, most notably the number of Asian residents. The percent of Caucasian residents has decreased.

Negative social issues have expanded, including drug use and gang activity. There were increases in reported murders, assaults, burglaries, auto thefts and other thefts in 2011 (the most recent statistics available)[1] over previous years, with the only decreases in the categories of arson and rape. The number of homeless individuals was up over 300 percent in 2011 from the year before.

On a more positive note, the educational attainment of Clovis residents is good. Almost 86 percent have graduated from high school. Over 28 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Residents of Clovis place a high priority on education. The Clovis Unified School District is committed to helping every child succeed in school.

Of particular interest to this study is the religious context of the city. My research in 2012 showed the Body of Christ was represented by fifty-six churches in Clovis that align with what Billy Graham calls “the five families of the Christian faith” — i.e., Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Pentecostal/charismatic, and Orthodox. From a study of religious congregations in 2002,[2] the proportion of the population affiliated with a religious congregation in Clovis was 47.55 percent. The figure was below the national average of 50.2. The Catholic Church comprised 61.2 percent of the religious population, Assemblies of God 6.3 percent, Southern Baptist 5.9 percent, the LDS (Mormon Church) 3.8, and all other denominations were less than 2 percent each. Clovis’ diversity within the Christian tradition mirrors that of many cities in this pluralistic culture. This represents a strength, but a challenge as well.

Collaborating for Missional Impact

For those seeking community transformation, it is a requisite to view their cities through wide lenses. One church inherently has a limited view of the needs and assets in the community. Churches working together for community transformation will have a much broader, more realistic picture and holistic understanding of the needs. The goal of community transformation is not to meet physical needs only, but spiritual and social needs as well. In collaboration, deeper needs can be met because “leaders have the ability to create something that doesn’t exist…with resources they don’t have.”[3]

One recent expression of church collaboration in Clovis was a cohort of churches looking at missional strategies, involving a number of leaders participating in the fall of 2013. This was an experiment in linking churches in an educational process with a focus on intentional outreach in our own communities. More about this later.

Collaboration for collaboration’s sake is not enough. Mutual concern and vision are vital ingredients. In what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about His followers’ responsibility to be His witnesses to those around them. Using the metaphor of light, which had great significance for His listeners, Jesus described the mechanism for how we are to make a difference around us. He said, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14-16).

Jesus told his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth,” “the light of the world, and a “city set on a hill.” These descriptions of the people of God seem to say that their mission has as much to do with what the church does as what the church is. In the book Missional Church, one of the authors suggests:

Instead of separating the work of particular congregational communities or the church in general into mission and nurture, the total life of “people sent” makes a difference to its apostolic witness. How Christians behave toward one another, the testimony that their relationships make in the public square, and the character of their life together as a whole community are integral to their apostolic mission.[4]

A church engaged in community transformation needs to network with other local churches. Resources of any one church are limited, and drawing on collective gifts and resources will benefit any project. Why is cooperation among churches not more common? Conn and Ortiz listed several reasons:

One reason is that we have failed to build relationships with other pastors and leaders. Churches too often exist as islands unto themselves. Another reason for neglecting other ministries is our mistrust and insecurity. Third, there is inherent in all of us the desire for personal and denomination recognition. This will isolate local ministries from each other and will break down the potential of networking. Denominational flags have a tendency to promote alienation from others and downplay partnership ministries in community.[5]

God has commissioned the church, his body, to communicate that truth to each person in every city. To do so effectively, the church in any locality needs to be united as Jesus prayed it would be. “The body of Christ is more than a single local congregation in a community.”[6] As we, the church, increase our impact in serving the community through collaboration, we increase our witness, and those who are served take notice. Collaboration produces a city movement, and “a city movement gives us the opportunity to break out of the homogeneous unit principle and demonstrate oneness that crosses the barriers of race, gender, generation, and socioeconomic class.”[7]

When people unite in trusting relationships they can build a strategy for community transformation, although forming a strategy is just the beginning. So what does it involve? Dennison noted that “while solid relationships form the basis for unity, we can’t stop there. . . . In order to complete our task in the city we must move beyond displays of unity and learn to walk in functional unity.”[8] Functional unity is not about conformity or control. It is “a matter of uniting the Church around a common goal rather than around a cooperative project that would require each congregation to abandon its own ministries to participate in something external.”[9]

What I have discovered is that collaboration among churches is not easy to develop or maintain. For my initial research I studied a few small, collaborative efforts in the city. One was a food pantry coalition that operated in partnership with the City. That continues although interest has waned a bit. Where five churches worked together when I did my research, it is now down to three. These projects were very practical in nature. So recently, I started looking for an opportunity to foster collaboration on a larger, more missional basis. I continued talking to pastors and other church leaders in the community to network and build relationships. People must sense some need, to seriously consider working together. The step that seemed to be missing was educating people on needs in our community and how those could be met through the church.

A Shared Missional Vision

One Saturday, I visited a service at another local church. This sparked a conversation that resulted in launching a broader collaborative project that would build on my first research. This process has encouraged me quit my full-time job so that I can focus full attention on ministry in the local community.

The church’s new pastor was teaching that night on Acts 1:8. He had relocated from the San Diego area to co-pastor this church. In the sermon, he declared that God had placed this church in the present location 20 years ago, well before the current 4500+ houses surrounding them. He shared that he would be teaching a series on being missional. I approached him afterwards introducing myself and asking if he would consider making such a series open to the wider Christian community of Clovis. He said absolutely and asked if I would be part of teaching that. We met for coffee two weeks later and I shared results of my dissertation research on missional collaboration. That led to us launching what we now call the Clovis Cohort.

The Pastor (we’ll call him Pastor Z) invited two men from that church and the four of us met for lunch. When I shared about my background as a mission trainer, I emphasized that I was not a member of this church but that I am interested in being involved because I want to see missional training available to the larger church community in Clovis. Another leader at the table, responded saying that he had been thinking along the same lines—that this was something that should be available for a broader audience. It was delightful to be immediately accepted and embraced into the group. I was a bit concerned that there was little ethnic diversity in the group, and I was the only female. Living in a diverse community, I feel more diversity is needed in the leadership of such a Cohort as well as participants. That was something I wanted to be aware of as we planned the series.
After this meeting I contacted Pastor X, a leader in town who has a finger on the pulse of the church in Fresno/Clovis, to discuss our idea to teach a nine week missional series to the wider church of Clovis. He immediately responded with, “I love it. I want to be involved.” He went on to say that this is the type of teaching that their church is ready for. And he thought that something like this would be ideal for people who want to go on short-term missions trips. He expressed a desire to even make it a requirement for each person applying for a mission trip to have to attend this. If people are not being missional in their own neighborhood, why do they think they are prepared to do it in a different context?

As valuable as this content was going to be, the point of this Cohort for me was not so much about the participants learning to be more missional, but to create a mechanism for churches to come together. While doing the research for the dissertation, I learned of different ways pastors and other church leaders met together with their peers from other local churches. This was for weekly prayer meetings, missions monthly meetings, and a food pantry coalition. None of these meetings were focused on working together but rather sharing information. It was my hope to use this Cohort as a springboard to encourage more church leaders to get to know one another [better] and explore ways to collaborate. I believed that this would help us come together to be missional as the one church of Clovis.

As the facilitation team met, we discussed ways we could get more churches involved in the cohort. One way was to have pastors from different churches teach some of the sessions. And we settled on Wednesday nights from 6:30 – 8:30 because there was childcare available.

Our second formal facilitators meeting was held to talk about the invitation list. We all made name suggestions and narrowed down the list, one by one. We chose a limit of 24 people since this was considered a pilot program and did not want a large group for this first course. It was noted that by natural attrition, the number of regular attendees would probably diminish to around 18. I had one third of the slots in which to invite people from outside the host church.

My assignment was to talk to other pastors in town sharing what we planned to do and if they had anyone in their church who would be a good candidate to attend. I called five of the pastors who I had interviewed for the dissertation research. The same pastors who were enthusiastic about collaboration responded well. Those that were not, were polite but did not choose to get involved. One of the pastors whose church does some outreach said that his church was so busy this fall and couldn’t possibly be involved in something like this.
Two pastors from two other churches got very excited about this. Pastor Y said that they felt the timing for this was perfect – his church was starting to do a lot of short-term missions trips overseas but want their folks to be doing something at home. This would be a perfect type class that they would have to go on in order to be accepted on a short-term team overseas. The Pastor Q said that they are doing some outreach classes but the missional piece was lacking. They had not found anything for it so he asked if he could bring two others from his church and the three of them attended. So between the two churches, my slots were full. Knowing there is a natural attrition rate, I did call and talk to two other church leaders to see if they may have one or two people to attend. One of those said they would like to send two people but at the last minute, they were not able to attend.

A pastor from a fourth church said that he thought this sounded great but the chosen night did not work well.

One decision we faced was the issue of where to host it. Perspectives of the World Christian Movement courses, Abundant Community Workshops, Willow Creek Leadership Summit, prayer clusters, and other such courses and seminars are held in different churches and people from other churches attend. In fact, these classes often move from church to church. We chose a church to host and trusted it would be the same for the Cohort.

We ordered a copy of the Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community by Ed Stetzer & David Putnam book for each person. The hosting church made a free copy available to each participant. This book served the topic of the Cohort well but it also exhibited the collaborative approach as it was written by two pastors from two different churches, one a denomination church and the other a non-denominational church.

Participants were encouraged to have read the Stetzer/Putnam book before the course started or to at least be reading it throughout the nine weeks. Almost every week, other material was emailed ahead to participants to read or listen to prepare for the week’s topic. Time was given each week to discuss the material.

The way in which people follow Jesus cannot be reduced to a how-to formula. Thus, each week session was designed to help people create small missional communities in their own context. Instead of importing specific styles and models, we wanted to create discussion topics for people to think through the best methods to reach people within their own neighborhoods and communities. Topics included what the Gospel is, various methodologies to proclaim it, and what it means to be missional. We added sessions on evangelism and contextualization. The last night was designed for each person to share their plans to reach a particular tribe and how they planned to do that. The Cohort was designed to be intentional so that by the end of the nine weeks, each person would feel equipped and excited to share a journey to faith with a particular group of people.

We had hoped to start with 25 participants in anticipation that 18 would finish. The first night there were 12 people. Participation varied through the course but we finished with 7. It seems those who were inviting people didn’t follow through. One couple that attended for only 3 weeks shared with me they weren’t sure why they were invited or even why they came other than they were asked. These numbers were disappointing, but this collaborative approach was a pilot and we were learning from it. We concluded that the invitation process, including the rationale and hoped for outcomes must be developed better.

A SurveyMonkey request was sent to all participants following the last class. Six people responded. This was a good response since only seven of the original participants finished the course. Based on the survey feedback, the Cohort experience was certainly beneficial for those who participated in it fully to the end. The most common response was that it served to better prepare them for missional living. From that context, it clearly laid a foundation of success. We still need to deal with the issue of attrition.

One of the positive outcomes was that participants enjoyed the dialogue between people from other churches. Yet, a shortcoming of this pilot was that there was no plan built in to work together past the course. This was my goal as I invited churches into the process, but it was not fully embraced.

This was an experiment in linking churches in an educational process. It started by a pastor sharing his heart for the surrounding neighborhoods and how he wanted to challenge people in his congregation to get involved in reaching their neighbors. Thus, it was birthed as a course, rather than a vision for collaboration. It provided a baby step in the right direction. But for a truly collaborative effort, a team must begin with the end in mind.

Looking Beyond

Vision is the foundation of a healthy collaboration. Churches in Clovis can seek a vision for the city based on accepted common ground that will allow collaboration to move forward. Agreeing on a vision will require strong relationships among pastors and other church leaders in the community and intentional communication. There is a need to invite ministry leaders to come together in order to collect information, build relationships, and seek positive consensus around the central questions of a need. This will allow them to be a part of the planning and execution.

It is important to define a meaningful collaboration between churches. The Latin word is collaborare, which means labor, work with, together, or laborare, that means labor, toil, exertion, preoccupation, concern, struggle. The Latin prefix co- is derived from the Latin word com which means near, with, together. Thus, collaboration is laboring together, working with one another, even struggling for a common purpose. Collaboration is an active and deliberate effort at working together, not a passive coming together.

The goal of collaboration is community transformation. In order to effectively participate in the social and spiritual transformation of the community, continuous personal transformation must take place. Spiritual transformation happens when people love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength. And when believers have the same attitude toward their community that God has. Societal transformation occurs when people love their neighbors as themselves. God uses people to change the lives of other people. Transformation through collaboration happens when the church grows to care about the people God cares about and begins working where he is at work.
Collaboration opportunities allow churches to expand their ministries. Smaller churches can join with larger churches, taking advantage of greater resources. The benefits of building relationships beyond one’s own doors are many. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Being connected together, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, is God’s heart, for he equips his people for ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

In my dissertation research, the three reasons most cited by pastors in Clovis for not collaborating were time limitations, lack of staff, and lack of communication. The interviews during the research exposed church leaders’ lack of awareness of the breadth of needs in the community. There is a great need for educating church leaders on pressing issues in the community that can be addressed by their congregations. One pastor aptly stated, “We don’t just work with people because they believe exactly as we do; we work with them because they care about the same things we care about in the city.”[10] This way of thinking helps Christians collaborate in the community with other believers and not worry about disqualifiers.
Discovery is an essential component in collaboration, and it is most fruitful when done in community. In discovery, people come together to listen to one another, learn from one another, pray together and discover the way forward to be transformational change agents in the community. That is what this experiment in collaboration was about. It was a baby step in pursuing community transformation together as one church of Clovis.

Conclusion and Call

Several participants have expressed interest to hold future Cohorts with an aim to more missional living. It is my hope that we will stimulate and catalyzing other networks. This will require more intentionality from the beginning conversation all the way through the process and in the debriefing.

Change requires information, and not just any information; change requires positive narratives within the group. Sharing information is a key practice for any organization or partnership. Collaboration requires communication that is regular, clear, and inclusive, communication that shares information among churches in the city. Bringing church leaders together for conversations would help them see beyond their own walls and gain a community focus. With more intentionality, convening of church leaders can encourage a network to discuss any topic.

The changing demographics and increasing complexity and number of social needs in our city should urge us to work together as one church in Clovis. Churches working together as salt and light provide the basis for transformation. Knowing our context is critical to the effectiveness of our service. Leaders must understand the changes in diversity and other demographics in order to minister appropriately and effectively.
The objective of collaboration is not to merely have “church-centered mission,” but “mission-centered churches” focused on sharing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in a way that brings God’s abundant community. Mission-centered churches encourage their congregants to live out a practical theology, mobilizing people into meaningful mission, and when they do it with other churches, the result is far more comprehensive and sustainable. Is there something we should do together that is too large for any one church? Let’s get at it together – God’s best for all who live in the city.

[1] www.city-data.com/city/Clovis-California.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, The Externally Focused Church (Loveland, CO: Group, 2004), 60.

[4] Darrell L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 128.

[5] Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 351.

[6] Glenn A. Barth, Jr., The Good City: Transformed Lives Transforming Communities (Tallmadge, OH: S.D. Myers Publishing Services, 2010), 166.

[7] Barth, 162.

[8] Jack Dennison, City Reaching: On the Road to Community Transformation (Pasadena, CA: W. Carey Library, 1999), 62.

[9] Dennison, 64.

[10] Eric Swanson and Sam Williams, To Transform a City: Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 180.

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