[Episcopal News Service] Luz Espona Perez-Iturbe’s relatives in her native Argentina were surprised to hear that some Americans go hungry. But the need, she tells them, is real, fed by the economic downturn, unemployment and government budget cuts.
Perez-Iturbe is seeking to meet that need in a collaborative effort between two Miami-area Episcopal churches: St. Faith’s in Cutler Bay, which operates a food pantry, and her parish of St. Luke the Physician, Kendall, which will support food-collection efforts. She’s taking a leadership role in the initiative, learning how to assess the community’s needs, marshal resources and volunteers and understand it all within a scriptural context thanks to a diocesan training program for laity and clergy involved in congregational outreach.
“Beyond the Walls: Outreach Ministry Development, Administration and Fundraising” is a yearlong certificate program that Episcopal Charities of Southeast Florida offers in partnership with the Diocesan School for Christian Studies. Open to all in the diocese, and required for diaconal students, the program provides classes led by visiting professionals who teach the basics of beginning, operating, funding and sustaining a congregational outreach ministry.
The program’s genesis was in workshops offered through Episcopal Charities of New York when the Rev. Donna Lise Dambrot was associate director. She brought the concept to Southeast Florida when she became president and executive director of Episcopal Charities there in 2009.
“There’s a certain DNA of congregational outreach ministry that’s very different” from a typical social-service agency, she said. “It’s very often volunteer-based, and people feel called to serve perhaps as a result of our Gospel call of Matthew 25. But they don’t have the skills or the tools to really create and manage and operate and sustain the program.”
So, for example, a group of enthusiastic volunteers may begin a food pantry or after-school program that the community begins to depend on, she said. But as the core of volunteers decreases over time, and no sustainability measures are put in place, the program gradually dwindles and closes.
In Southeast Florida, Episcopal Charities began offering workshops to address issues such as how to use volunteers, how to construct a budget, how to market an outreach program. With a Roanridge Trust grant, the agency made Online Outreach University video workshops available.
But they decided “this isn’t enough,” Dambrot said. “There has been no program … that really offers the soup-to-nuts type of toolbox of ‘how do you do outreach ministry’ that’s geared to congregations and the real specific and particular needs of congregational life.”
So Episcopal Charities created a curriculum and partnered with the diocesan school. Classes are offered at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Fort Lauderdale. Students also can take an individual class – say, just to learn about developing a program budget. The diocesan program currently has eight students – the highest of any class in the school — with the number attending almost doubling for some individual sessions, Dambrot said. Her mantra is: “Just keep flexible and keep responsive to the needs we hear from our community.”
The course begins with sessions exploring what called the students to outreach ministry and the discernment process for choosing an outreach program. Subsequent classes tackle topics from how to create a program budget and developing and sustaining a committed core of volunteers to marketing, funding sources, grant writing, preparing for leadership succession and assessing the ongoing need for a program’s services.
Dambrot teaches some classes, but outside presenters from various agencies, including the Episcopal Church Office of Communication, teach most of them. “We have assembled a panel of teachers that are professionally doing the work that they’re teaching,” she said.
Kokie Dinnan, executive director of Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, has led classes on how to recruit, train, use and retain volunteers. An interfaith ministry, Family Promise houses homeless families in congregations on a rotating basis and helps clients access needed social services. Previously, she did children’s and family ministry in Episcopal congregations and saw firsthand the need for supporting and educating those involved in outreach, she said. “Any opportunity that can be given to support those that are doing work in our community is vital and valid and important.”
At Family Promise, “I train volunteers all the time, but this was like training the trainer,” she said. Her most recent Beyond the Walls class had students of varied backgrounds, including some diaconal students. “They were hungry for how to be able to take what they’re learning and take it back and implement it in their lives.”
Her instructions on engaging volunteers begin with the importance of the “personal ask.”
“People don’t necessarily respond to an advertisement,” she said. It’s also important to recognize people’s skills and what they do and don’t enjoy doing. “Help them to be able to use the gifts that they want to use. Put them where they’re going to feel comfortable.”
Once people are involved, she said, “I don’t think you can ever tell a volunteer too many times how much you appreciate them and thank them for what they’re doing.”
It’s also important to empower volunteers and make sure they feel like you’re working together to accomplish something, she said. When someone works with her, “I don’t want people to feel like I am the boss and you have to do this because Kokie said so. I want people to be empowered and to come and say, ‘Look, this needs to be done. How can we accomplish this?’”
“Everyone needs to have a stake in what you’re doing,” she said. “If you can provide that, your volunteers are going to stay. … To me, it’s all about relationship building.”
Perez-Iturbe, who previously volunteered at Zoo Miami and in youth ministries, said taking the diocesan course has taught her to take volunteering seriously, as well as how to organize herself and tools for assessing a community’s needs and how to meet them.
“Going to do ministry … sometimes you don’t really know what to do and how to do it,” she said. “I’ve been volunteering for many years. I kind of know how to do things as of now, but this is like the ABCs, and Scripture-based. Everything that I do now, I truly understand the Baptismal Covenant behind it.”
“There’s not a lot of money; there’s a lot of need,” she added. “This course helps you develop, see what the need is, allocate resources accordingly and wisely.”
She also appreciates that the instructors provide contact information for following up if you need assistance with a particular issue, she said. “You can call them back and say, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’ and they’re so welcoming.”
St. Luke’s first food collection for the pantry at St. Faith’s will happen Feb. 23. This sort of collaborative ministry Perez-Iturbe is fostering is precisely the sort of ministry Episcopal Charities likes to support.
“Our goal is to create a collaborative diocesan outreach that transcends the walls of a particular congregation because we think that’s the best way or the most loving way we can serve people, realizing that each community has its own specific needs and challenges,” Dambrot said.
“Sometimes our congregations tend to be a little insular. They want to work together, but sometimes there’s maybe not even a thought of, ‘Hey, let’s collaborate with the church down the street or the nearest Episcopal church … and maybe we can do something big and in the process create community and in the process maybe enlarge our hearts in the gospel.”
“I see Episcopal Charities as really a part of that process of gathering people, taking them outside their doors and bringing them together, creating a community of those who feel called to serve.”
To serve potential students located a long drive from campus, they plan to offer online classes in the fall using Webex, an online video conferencing service, and an audio-visual screen system the diocese has in different locations, Dambrot said.
She hopes they can offer the Beyond the Walls training to the wider church as well, she said. “We definitely plan on taking the materials and having the material available because they’re great materials. … We want to make this available beyond the walls of the diocese.”
– Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.