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Reaping the Rewards of Partnership
Adventist churches see greater results in teaming up to serve their communities
By: Lisa S. Lenda
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“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.” Eccl. 4:9
This common-sense Biblical truth has been proven time and again in individual lives, but what happens when it’s not two individuals, but two or three or even eight congregations coming together to serve God and their community?
Hulda Roper, a member of the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lincoln, Neb., helped to start the Good Neighbor Community Center in 1973. She and the SDA churches of Lincoln saw a need for basic and emergency services in their community. Since that time, the center has grown to include programs for recent Middle Eastern refugees – surprisingly a large population in Lincoln – as well as classes for GED studies, English as a second language, and computer training.
In 1994, members of the Dayton, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist community banded together with some leadership from Monte Sahlin (who was national executive director of Adventist Community Services at the time) to fill the gaps of service in their community. While two of the area churches – Ethan Temple SDA Church in Clayton, Ohio and Kettering SDA Church – had Dorcas services in place, there was frustration at the space available and the number of services they were able to provide. A dream was born.
“We had a dream to enlarge it, but we thought ‘Why don’t we expand to where it’s not just operated by one church, but instead by all the area churches?’” said Dan Stevens, administrative pastor at the Kettering SDA Church. “Monte enabled us to find out what the needs were and the niche that wasn’t being filled, which was health issues.”
Today, in addition to food pantry services, clothing, and household supplies, the Good Neighbor House in Dayton also provides medical, dental, and vision services to the working uninsured and underinsured community.
The Walla Walla, Wash., area has a similar community service agency in its nearly 10-year-old SonBridge, which started as the dream of Paul Rasmussen, a member of the College Place Village Church and a local businessman. Rasmussen would often go to events in the community before SonBridge was opened and wonder why he didn’t see more Adventists or Adventist organizations represented there.
“Our churches had been doing community services individually,” Rasmussen said. “Mostly it happened at the church and they weren’t, in the past, highly involved in the community, working with them and collaborating with them. This has brought SonBridge to the table in working together to meet community needs. It’s been a wonderful experience to partner with churches and with other agencies.”
The community center launched in 2004 in partnership with eight Walla Walla Valley Churches. It includes a thrift and gift shop, where community members can buy clothes and home goods and SonBridge clientele can use vouchers from HelpLine, another local service agency, to shop for items they need. But that is only one purpose for the Gift and Thrift shop. The revenue from the shop is also used to offset more than two-thirds of the annual budget for SonBridge. In 2012, the shop brought in more than $250,000.
“That’s a lot of items at 15 and 50 cents,” said Julie Sanders Keymer, a volunteer and wife of Marshall Keymer who helped found SonBridge.
Other services provided at SonBridge include the SOS Clinic, an independent medical clinic, a new dental clinic launched in 2013, and space for a variety of other community service organizations to hold meetings and training sessions, free of charge.
“Mission critical is to have a clear assessment of what is going on in that community,” said Henning Guldhammer, executive pastor at the Walla Walla University Church. “It wasn’t set up with preconceptions in mind. So often, Adventist community service groups do what is needed and work on their own. The idea was to talk to all the other service agencies in town and find out what the needs are.”
In 2012, its ninth year open, SonBridge had 188 volunteers donating time equal to 28 full-time employees – the donated equivalent of $1.3 million in volunteer time according to Independent Sector, a leadership network for nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs.
While each of these examples from across the country varies in how it runs, who it serves and what services it provides, the anecdotal and quantitative results indicate that the rewards of “two are better than one” compound even faster when churches partner together – and some of the rewards might surprise you.
Filling the gaps
Just as two workers are better than one, so two heads are better than one. Both SonBridge and Dayton’s Good Neighbor House benefitted from the intentional planning and research of a dedicated group of founders. By researching the services already available and partnering with existing organizations and other churches, these ministries are able to help provide for the unmet needs in their communities.
When a business fills a unique niche, it doesn’t have to compete with other businesses for customers’ dollars. Similarly, when nonprofits fill a unique niche, they don’t have to compete with similar nonprofits for sometimes limited funding.
Dave Hutman, pastor at Stillwater SDA Church in Dayton, Ohio and a multiple-time chair of the Good Neighbor House board of directors, said it’s important to know your community, invest in your community and listen to your community.
“Don’t just run out there with a good idea,” Hutman said. “A lot of people can get offended when you’re competing and that just creates a lot of ill will. People like that the churches aren’t competing, but are cooperating to help people in need.”
Rasmussen expressed a similar sentiment that he’s experienced in Walla Walla.
“We didn’t try to start a food bank because we knew that was taken care of,” he said. “But we learned that many nonprofits were struggling for space, so we provide space at no cost to many other groups and many of them are of various different faiths or no faith at all.”
Maturing members
In addition to the obvious benefits of service to the community and those in need, many pastors reported that the partnerships have opened up more opportunities for church members to get involved – promoting spiritual growth within the support congregations.
“It’s really exciting to see our people engage and get involved in the community,” Guldhammer said. “We didn’t have a vehicle for that before SonBridge. To see their eyes light up and get involved is really good.
Guldhammer estimated that the Walla Walla University Church, which has about 2,400 members, has a couple hundred members who have volunteered in some capacity at SonBridge. Volunteer opportunities include working in the dental clinic, sorting items for the Thrift and Gift shop, and teaching classes and seminars that range from parenting and finance to addiction recovery and Bible studies.
As Stevens pointed out, service is an important component of spiritual growth. “Anytime you deal with mobilizing membership beyond just financial support, it’s healthy for the congregation.”
Hutman agreed. “This is really the calling that Jesus gives the church is to be salt and light in the community and do good,” he said. “For us, this is a normal kind of expected behavior from those who claim to be Christ followers.”
Strength in numbers
As these community service centers have grown over the years, each of them has drawn the attention and support of non-Adventist organizations in the community.
“You need critical mass. Often to get two or three churches together makes things possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” Guldhammer said.
Marshall Keymer, who worked closely with Rasmussen to launch SonBridge said that although the center is an Adventist organization, other people in the community have begun to realize the positive impact and are stepping forward to help support it financially.
In Dayton, the nearly 20-year-old Good Neighbor House has grown as well; the group of supporting churches ahs expanded to include four non-Adventist congregations.
“From our inception, we wanted the Good Neighbor House to be more than an Adventist-sponsored organization,” Stevens said. “It has grown so much that there is no way the churches could support it on their own any longer. [Kettering Medical Center, flagship hospital of the Kettering Health Network] has gotten involved plus other organizations and other charity donors.”
While the local churches do provide a subsidy for Good Neighbor House, Stevens said those subsidies make up only about 25 percent of the community center’s annual budget.
The dental clinic at the Good Neighbor House is just one example of how the increase in support has improved and grown the service capabilities there. Winston Baldwin, senior pastor at the Centerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, estimated that when the clinic opened with a single dentist volunteering a few hours each evening, there was a one-month wait for patients in need of not preventive treatments, but critical care. Since that time, the availability of services has increased thanks to the financial support of the many different organizations involved. The center is able to handle a greater capacity of patients with three dentists and a new, larger building with additional dental chairs and medical facilities.
“We held the grand opening earlier this summer,” Baldwin said. “The building, also located in downtown Dayton, is probably three or four times the size of the old building.”
In Lincoln, the Good Neighbor Community Center distributed 1.6 million pounds of food in 2012. According to Terry Bock, administrative pastor at the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Adventist churches in the area work along with the food bank of Lincoln and Feeding America to help supply that need.
Baldwin summed it up well: “It’s not denominationally restrictive. It’s helping the poor; we’re all supposed to do that.”
A fresh perspective on Adventism
As a result of the growing partnerships to support the Adventist-started community organizations comes perhaps the most surprising result: improved perception and increasing awareness of the Adventist community.
Rasmussen reported that nine years since SonBridge opened, Adventists are now better represented at community events.
“That was one of the driving things,” he said. “Now, virtually every organization in town knows who we are and what we do and has a positive relationship with us. It’s fun to see, in eight to nine years, the huge difference in the community.”
In Dayton, the Good Neighbor House that started as a partnership of eight SDA churches now partners with about 130 agencies in the area, Hutman said.
“If we had not partnered with other churches, I believe instead of increasing services, they would have diminished,” Baldwin said. “This partnership with other churches has infused new life through enthusiasm in those churches and sparked a new interest in the Seventh-day Adventist community as well.
Pastor Terry Bock in Lincoln said the Good Neighbor Community Center has been a good advertisement to the community for the Adventist church because the churches are not always well-known in the community.
But while some communities just aren’t familiar with Adventist churches, others have a downright negative perception of the faith.
“Some people had the view of Adventists that ‘They’re here to tell us how to live, how to eat,’” Guldhammer said. “But when you come and ask other people questions and tap their knowledge and opinions, that turns everything upside down, or should I say right side up? Everyone has a high respect for SonBridge and the whole crew. It has had a significant influence on how Seventh-day Adventists are perceived.”
Guldhammer said the SonBridge board includes Adventist members and others from the community, which has become a way of staying tuned in to what’s going on in our town.
“We don’t just go out to the community,” Rasmussen said. “Many people come here to us; it breaks down the wall of separation that was there before.”
But one of Rasmussen’s goals in starting SonBridge is an ongoing hope to inspire others.
“One of the thoughts behind SonBridge,” he said, “has been that if the Lord is leading, it would give courage and hope to others who would be thinking about starting something like this.”