Service, community service, and service learning are buzzwords that describe the good work of lending a hand to meet the needs of others. For the church worker, youth leader, community activist, or educator, service should be a way of life or second nature. For the Christian, service to others is a model that was illustrated by Christ as being both sacrificial in nature (e.g., Christ dying on the cross to bring about forgiveness for sins) and the responsibility of believers (e.g., the early apostles’ approach to holistic service by calling on communal giving so “none among them had need”).
Real-life examples of service to others include feeding the homeless to visiting shut-ins, from advocating for liberation of the captive to tutoring students, and a range of hands-on, tangible projects (such as yard work, general cleaning, disaster relief, and so on). For most religious institutions, service to others seems to be part of the general makeup of a congregation or group within the congregation, where leaders and followers reach out to another person and meet their need. This is best illustrated when it involves a relational component or a tangible touch (a cup of water in Jesus’s name).
This article will provide the practical steps for leaders to design and develop meaningful service projects with the intent of meeting individual and community needs. Before diving into the nuts and bolts of practical service, let’s explore a few definitions to help stimulate our thinking. First is service learning and second is the idea of experiential learning.
- Service learning applies to projects that include theory and praxis (Kenworthy-U’Ren and Peterson). Theories are ideals that are studied in a classroom setting and praxis is the opportunity to test the theories in real-life application. Service learning includes a built-in reflection piece whereby students are able to talk about the project before participating (pre-flection) and discuss the project with others after the service is completed (reflection).
- Experiential learning occurs (1) when people learn by concrete experience, (2) by reflective observation of experiences, (3) with theoretical models and concepts, and (4) by active experimentation to discover cause-and-effect relationships (Kolb).
Service experiences that include ways for volunteers to reflect on their experiences while seeing the connection between the theory and the application of the theory have proven to be best practice and a tested approach to caring for others. When the servant sees the value of sustainable change, he or she feels the pull toward a lifestyle of service rather than service merely being episodic or event-based.
In recent months, there have been numerous natural disasters that have affected millions of people. Immediately after these disasters occur, the human spirit is motivated and mobilized to help bear the needs of another. For believers, this type of meaningful care should be happening daily, wherever pain or injustice is evident. It is the responsibility of the Christian leader (that’s you and me) to help others to see and respond to the needs around them and to know how to do so effectively.
You Are Responsible for What You Know
I have the opportunity to teach college students each week on the values of service, benevolence, and community outreach. One of the standard lessons that I use with every group of students is titled “You are responsible for what you know.” Once students have learned to see and hear pain and injustice, they are responsible to help teach others how to see them and how to respond. Scripture is clear that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, nkjv).
Seeing and hearing are two of the senses that are not limited to the eyes and ears spiritually speaking. Each semester, I take students on what I call “drive-bys” and “drop-ins.” We leave our comfort zones and make it a point to visit with the least among us. During these times, I introduce my students to principles of seeing the “not-so-obvious” and “listening to what the need-stricken person can’t tell you.” Students should understand that we are not called to judge or label, but to serve the least among us, and the people that fit that category are simply identified as those who lack. If you have been in the service ministry very long, you might agree with me that this lacking principle can be seen in all ethnic, socioeconomic, and spiritual groups.
When we return from these service excursions and engage in reflection, I encourage students to understand that we are responsible for what we know, and that to ignore the needs of another—if they have the means to help with that need—is not an option, especially for the believer.
One of the best ways to design meaningful service projects is to identify deficiencies in care within your community. Some might define this as the illumination of community problems. For most of us, this is easily identifiable. All we have to do is look around us. Once we see these needs, the next step is to design ways to meet them. One activity that I have seen work well is community mapping. Using the analogy of a tree, group members will identify an issue (the tree trunk), causes (roots of the tree), and effects (fruit or branches). Then group members will identify potential solutions to create positive change. This activity provides the group with hands-on practical applications that are theoretically based. I have used this activity with students, parishioners, business leaders, and community partners with great success as participants experience the power of self-discovery, compelling them to become change agents. Once a need is identified, it is then the responsibility of leaders (you know who these people are), to develop an action plan to implement change.
I am a self-acclaimed hyper-adult. I have an over abundance of energy and sometimes this drives me toward a “fix-it-now” approach to problem solving. After twenty-five years of service ministry, I am keenly aware that some problems cannot be immediately (or easily) fixed. Christ even stated this when he reminded the disciples that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). However, I do believe that we have the responsibility to alleviate the present suffering of others if it is within our means to do so. Remember, you are responsible for what you know.
When developing meaningful service projects, I use a three-step process. First, consider the spirit of collaboration. When a need is evident, immediately list who your partners will be to help close the gap on the deficiency. Second, align your actions with the goal of long-term sustainable change. For example, if you are feeding the homeless, take on the task of also moving toward systemic transformation. Third, create an atmosphere where everyone succeeds. Many years ago, I made the decision that I would always have someone with me when serving others. Aside from the obvious benefit of accountability, this principle will help develop followers into leaders, thus sustaining the service-mindedness in the caregiver, while helping bring about sustainable change for those in need. Mentoring students through service is a best practice.
Earlier, I noted the idea of pre-flection and reflection. This model of pre-flection (talking about what one can anticipate in the upcoming service activity) and reflection (unpacking the mental suitcase after the service activity is completed) will help identify meaningful takeaways for every person participating. This practice is a proven and an essential part of successful service.
Our world is constantly in a state of whitewater. Communities are looking for leaders that will lead them successfully through change. Christians serving in the education and church environments hold the responsibility to lead the service charge. Leadership at its core is defined as a process where leaders influence followers through relationships (Yukl; Ciulla; Kouzes and Posner). Christianity at its core is based in the premise of relationships being both vertical and horizontal. The responsibility is the same regardless of one’s career position—to embrace and model a lifestyle of service to others.
As a leader, you have the opportunity and responsibility to mobilize an army of followers that can bring hope to the hopeless, life where death looms, meaning where insignificance once ruled, and a perpetuation of the service lifestyle for generations to come. By designing and developing meaningful service projects, you help others move from an episodic, event-based mentality to a lifestyle of service. Together, we can model this servant lifestyle and be part of a global force that reflects the heart of Christ.
- Ciulla, Joanne B. Ethics: The Heart of Leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2004.
- Kenworthy-U’Ren, Amy and Tim O. Peterson. “Service-Learning and Management Education: Introducing the ‘WE CARE’ Approach.” Academy of Management: Learning and Education. 4.3 (2005), 272–77.
- Kolb, David A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
- Kouzes, James and Barry Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Wiley and Sons, 2007.
- Yukl, Gary. Leadership in Organizations, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.