Mustard Seed Ministries

This past fall, we (Volunteers In Service – CFA West Michigan) were pleased to place an Americorps Member in the Westown area of Grand Rapids.  Our site partner, The Other Way Ministries, has been a sustaining member of the neighborhood for about forty years, bringing individual and community development opportunities to the residents there.   For the past several years, The Other Way Ministries has been partnering with two other near-by community organizations (Servants Community Church and Westown Jubilee Housing) to coordinate community betterment and development efforts.  All three members of the partnership worked together to develop the capacity to bring the Americorps program to Westown.

Based upon his history in the neighborhood and his interview, we were not too surprised to discover that the new Americorps Member, Karl Williams got right down to work, introducing himself and engaging local residents in the work of making the neighborhood a better place for all.  Among the several ‘small actions’ Karl has already initiated with neighborhood volunteers was connecting some willing volunteers and a community member in need.   Here is the brief story in Karl’s own words.

“For the past month, we have had an elderly resident, that has recently gone through surgery.  She has received letters from the City, pertaining to her fence being out of code due to vandalism.  I met her through community involvement and interaction.  I informed her that Americorps has volunteers that could repair her fence to code.  Adam Lavas, not pictured, and Terry Williams repaired her fence to code, and our resident forwarded a note stating that she was profusely Glad!!”

These ‘small actions’ go a long way toward changing the character of the neighborhood.  Neighbors have the experience of receiving appreciated acts of kindness from other neighborhood residents, who experience the joy of doing something they enjoy for a neighbor.  A small action – just a few people involved, but little by little Westown is on the way to a better day – no big expensive programs, just neighbors working together with each other – for each other.

Jim Schepers
Volunteers In Service
Grand Rapids, Michigan


It is a common enough word – renewal.  It has the sense of getting back to basics, of starting again, not so much ‘starting over’ as starting again with the wisdom hard earned from experience.

That is the path a small congregation in Battle Creek Michigan has embarked upon – getting back to basics, reminding herself again of just what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, in these times, in this place.

Several years ago, Washington Heights United Methodist Church was a thriving congregation with more than 125 active members.  It was a pillar in her community.  They had, as an expression of their compassion for their surrounding community, formed a community ministry non-profit to deliver mostly direct service care for their changing neighborhood.

Over a long period during which the community changed to become predominantly African American, the congregation dwindled in size and energy to the point where viability had be a concern.  Presently, some 25 – 30 faithful, mainly African American members gather Sundays to sing the Lord’s praises.  Also along the way, through changing pastoral leadership and the addition of ‘outside’ directors, the community ministry nonprofit lost contact with the congregation.  Due to poor financial practices, the ministry of the nonprofit was recently suspended.

But with a sense of place, albeit diminished in numbers and a continued sense of God’s calling to be a blessing, the congregational leaders decided, rather than to close their doors, to embark upon the effort of renewal.

This past spring, the church partnered with Volunteers In Service, a West Michigan nonprofit experienced in equipping churches who wish to more deeply engage their local community.  A process of Congregational Discovery was initiated to recover a deeper sense of just who God had made the current members to be:  What are there joys, what gifts do they have, what are their dreams as a congregation?  The result has become a portrait of a congregation gifted and passionate about youth, inclusive and non-judgmental, and yearning for a new opportunity for making their local neighborhood a better place.

A couple of weeks ago, training was held to kick off the Community Discovery process.  Congregational members were trained in how to listen to their local neighbors to understand their desires for a better community, what they liked and didn’t like about the neighborhood, and what they might themselves do with others of a like mind to improve the community.  Maps were marked up as to the specific streets around the church building where this listening would happen.  Planning for ‘asset mapping walks’ was done to gain a better awareness of what the neighborhood already has in the way of structures, business, green space and parks.

This work of developing a better understanding of how the congregation’s gifts for ministry and the assets and dreams of the community match is nearing completion.  This fall, new and ‘renewed’ ministries in and with the community are anticipated – ministries based on a prayerful, clear-headed awareness of the ministry future for which they and community have been prepared.

Renewal is hard work.  Facing reality often is.  Approaching that task with a clear sense of your gifts and calling can produce a confident witness, one the community will notice and appreciate.

Rambing Up to a New Future!

The word ‘community’ gets used a lot these days, in many ways, and with a variety of meanings.  The story that follows reflects an example of how a small ‘community’ within a larger community of faith can respond to the needs of its neighbors when the need is discovered.  In this case, that discovery was aided by Volunteers In Service, a Grand Rapids nonprofit with over 20 years of helping communities of faith connect with their neighbors.  This story is representative of a typical outcome churches and recipients of their care experience when obedience meets need.

It was so new it seemed like he didn’t even want to touch it.  Chris Mullennax was a bit hesitant as his wife, Bonnie, guided him down his new ramp for the first time.  “Wow, this is really nice,” he said, as he reached out to touch the railings on the ramp which had been completed just minutes before at his house on Cleveland Street in Wyoming.

The ramp was donated and constructed by members of Messiah Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville.  They were connected to the project through Volunteers In Service who became aware of Chris’ need from St. Mary’s Home Care.

“We have done other building projects in other parts of the country, Biloxi, Mississippi for example, but we wanted do one closer to home, Harold Leep, Director of Outreach at Messiah noted.  Leep said that because they had to wait for better weather, the project didn’t happen until the end of March (2009).  Mullenanax, 57, has suffered multiple strokes and a heart attack.  He has been disabled since 1994.  Thanks to Messiah CRC, he and his family now have very much improved mobility through the use of the new ramp.

“We view what we’re doing here as just being obedient to what God has commanded us to do,” said Leep.  “We’re using our skills and abilities to make life better for Chris.”

Those skills and abilities were put to the test early in the project when the crew had to deal with the roots from two large trees located in the front yard.  A Friday morning filled with cutting and chopping finally ended with about half of the initial framing complete.

The crew was back at it early Saturday morning as they used a gas-powered ‘digger,’ instead of manual labor, to remove the remainder of roots and dirt.  “That saved us lots of time.”  The ramp was completed about 4:00 p.m. and Chris came out to venture out on the new construction for the first time.

“This is really something,” he said as he navigated down the ramp that now encompasses the entire front yard.  “Thank you for it.”

Leep understands the importance of projects like this and hopes that this is just the beginning.  “We [at Messiah] get to make the initial contact by building the ramp.  I’ve already contacted the pastor of Lee Street CRC just down the road, and we’re hoping the can continue the relationship we’ve started.”

And Leep knows these projects are important for the team from Messiah also.  They not only get the pleasure of knowing they have really helped a neighbor in need, they also get to enjoy the long term camaraderie that has developed within the group.  When people of faith simply offer the things they love to do, so that the lives of others can be better, joy flows both ways.  It’s contagious, and brings them back for more.

The team is already looking forward to its next project – another ramp, this time in Jenison.

Enhancing Skills for Life

Roosevelt Park Ministries is a partner of Volunteers In Service, the West Michigan Communities First partner.  In 2008-2009, Volunteers In Service coached Roosevelt Park Ministries through some ministry planning, including community listening in review of their programs.  Out of this work came a new program offering in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood – English as a second language, or ESL for short.

Below is an excerpt from a recent newsletter, written by the ESL provider, and Roosevelt Park Ministries Board member:

The students work hard to improve their English at ESL classes.

Most commonly ESL stands for “English as a Second Language.” But here at Roosevelt Park Ministries it could also mean “Enhancing Skills for Life.” Everyday activities that are usually simple become much more difficult when there is a language barrier. How do you greet someone at work? How do you explain to the doctor what your symptoms are? How do you discuss your child’s progress at school?

These types of situations determine the topics for each ESL class. We focus on words and phrases common in daily living situations. Proper pronunciation is stressed each week – knowing the right words to say is only helpful if the listener can understand what is said. Weekly lessons build somewhat on each other but not exclusively. Students are encouraged to come to as many classes as they are able, but missing a class does not make the student “fall behind.” We want the classes to be structured for success, teaching students what they want and need to learn.

ESL classes benefit the students and enhance their daily living. But another benefit is the friendships that develop along the way. Because the classes are less structured, conversations often center around the lives of the students and teachers. We get to know each other and learn to care about each other. We are building a community as well as language skills.

The students love having conversations with English speakers. It’s also one of the fastest ways to learn English.

Vicki Vermeer

For more information on Volunteers in Service visit their website:

Reaching Out: Intentionally and Purposefully

It was among the Church’s first acts of compassion more than 2,000 years ago-providing food for hungry families. But yet, for Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI, it was being done in a brand new way, intentionally and purposefully. Using an “action play” that was developed with the help of Volunteers In Service , a CFA member, Plymouth Heights CRC saw the distribution of food as a “first stop” towards starting significant relationships in their neighborhood. The church believes that by cultivating these relationships they can invite others to share in a new/renewed life with God.

“We know that God has placed our church in this neighborhood for specific reasons and to do specific things,” said Tom VanWingerden, a member of the church’s Missional Action Team, the team that developed the action plan.

“By understanding what our neighbors wanted as well as what we, as a church, can do well, we decided to host a mobile food pantry.”

Wayne Squires, a Congregational Coach for Volunteers In Service who has worked with Plymouth Heights since 2007, said church leaders realized they weren’t living out their mission of “equipping disciples to become neighbors and inviting neighbors to become disciples.”

“They did real well with events and programs,” Squires said, “but they were limited in their relational engagement. They identified their biggest challenge as relationship in mission. But they also understood that they needed to begin with a serving opportunity.”

The church, in partnership with Feeding America, has recently hosted two distribution events in their parking lot on Saturday mornings. While the first one drew 36 families, the second-on September 26-saw 50 families receive fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and juice.

Before receiving the food, residents were served baked goods, coffee, and juice and were engaged around tables by some of the more than 60 volunteers who came out to help.

“We know that relationships are important,” said VanWingerden. “That’s why we have people at the tables. Even though we want to get to know them just a little bit better, and have them know us better, it’s not an ‘us and them’ kind of thing. We’re all in this together.”

Squires said the church is learning to understand what it means to be a good neighbor.

“They’ve identified that it involves ‘boundary-crossing’ ministry. It means they need to be with people who are different and they need to cultivate friendships in the neighborhood.”

Squires also sees two significant things happening through this work.

“They are working ‘with’ another organization (Feeding America) and they understand that beyond providing a service, they can build relationships, learn from those who are being served, and eventually have those folks serving as well.”

By Wayne Squires and Jim Schepers , Congregational Coaches, Volunteers In Service .

Tony and Kyle

Tony and Kyle from CFA Videos on Vimeo.

This is a video about Tony and his mentor, Kyle. Tony has Asperger’s syndrome and when his mother asked for a mentor Volunteers in Service stepped in to help find one.
Posted: Oct. 24, 2009          DOWNLOAD QUICKTIME
General (5:41)
 To download Quicktime right click (control-click for Mac) on the “DOWNLOAD QUICKTIME” text and choose “Save Target As,” “Save Link As,” or “Download Linked File.”

BreakTime Bakery

BreakTime Bakery from CFA Videos on Vimeo.

BreakTime Bakery is a bakery that is run by kids during the summer. Instead of just sitting around and playing video games all summer the middle school students bake a variety of goods including cookies, cheese cakes, breads, bars, scones, and fudge. The kids sell their products and in the process learn responsibility, new skills, and of course new recipes!
Posted: Sept. 6, 2009          DOWNLOAD QUICKTIME
General (4:37)
 To download Quicktime right click (control-click for Mac) on the “DOWNLOAD QUICKTIME” text and choose “Save Target As,” “Save Link As,” or “Download Linked File.”

Michigan Community Takes Another Cohesive Step

This spring, one of our partners in West Michigan decided to merge with another community nonprofit.  Sacred Suds, and Bethany Housing Ministries, both operating within the McLaughlin neighborhood of Muskegon, Michigan, had been working together for many years.  The likely community benefit beyond those efficiencies associated with combined operations seems substantial: a stronger McLaughlin neighborhood resulting from a highly intentional strategy of engaging neighborhood partners in both the process of forming the new entity, and inviting their participation as board members in the new body.

Part of the process of engaging the McLaughlin neighborhood in the process of forming the new body, was a Saturday morning gathering of some 40 neighborhood stakeholders to discuss neighborhood issues and give input on the organizational merger.  Alongside residents from the neighborhood, there were representatives from the neighborhood association, the local elementary school, the police department, the county health department, several local churches, and the two merging nonprofits.  The gathered group was quite varied, reflecting both the racial and religious diversity of the neighborhood.  Volunteers In Service (CRWRC / NAMT West Michigan partner) had the opportunity and pleasure of facilitating the community input meeting.

Following the community input meeting, the new organization adopted the new name, mission statement, and board reflecting its continuing commitment to strengthening the fabric of the McLaughlin neighborhood.

As a result of their inviting the community into their formation process, the new organization has broadened its neighborhood mission, and board representation.  As such, the new organization (Community enCompass) is now poised to seek the good of the neighborhood on a much higher level of connectedness, and involvement of community organizational partners and residents.

Assessment of Ministry Capacity

This tool is a general capacity assessment questionnaire used for congregational discovery work.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

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Community Stakeholder Interviews (Key Questions)

This tool is a basic interview template for talking with organizational stakeholders in community discovery work.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

View PDF

Community Walking Exercise

This tool is an outline of a community walking exercise intended for aiding in community discovery.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

View PDF

Congregational Listening: Potential Interview Questions

This tool is a basic interview template (based on Appreciative Inquiry) used for congregational discovery.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

View PDF

ECN: An Initial Framework

This tool is an overview of Volunteers in Service.

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“Neighbor” Conversations (Key Questions)

This tool is a three question template for starting “neighbor conversations” to aid in community discovery work.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

View PDF

Recognizing Congregational Assets (Key Questions)

This tool contains questions used to garner an overview of congregational assets for use in congregational discovery.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

View PDF

Screening Criteria for Entry into ‘Building Readiness’

This is a screening tool used to do an initial assessment of congregational leadership’s readiness to enter into the ‘Building Readiness’ part of the equipping Church Network process.

This tool is utilized within a coaching/consulting relationship. It is not intended to be a “stand alone” resource for analyzing data.

                      View PDF


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