Maybe It's Time to Rethink Church Directories
by Jere Mahaffey
For years, a common practice among churches throughout the United States has been funding and creating a good ole' church directory. You probably know exactly what I am talking about. Families get together in their "Sunday best." Some even coordinate matching color wardrobes. Photographers are setup in the church, and families take portraits that are then used in a published book with name, address, and phone number. Church directory projects like these carry a few benefits. Of course they provide contact information for everyone in the church, but they also create an event for families to get together and have a nice family portrait made. Churches often make a meal or church service out of the events. It's a dynamite combination of community building and information gathering that even produces a nice takeaway gift for the families.
However, in recent years with the coming of Facebook and digital address books, printed church directories are becoming more and more obsolete. The projects typically cost a great deal to fund as well, which often makes them a burdensome tradition rather than a helpful resource. It seems that people within a church congregation are already connected well enough.
What if a church directory didn't connect just one church but instead networked the entire community? That is exactly the kind of directory Arthur Tung from the Upper Darby-Drexel Hill Ministerium realized could be a powerful tool in his local community. ESA was happy to partner with the UD-DH Ministerium to complete project, which had never been done before in the Upper Darby and Drexel Hill community.
The vision was simple: try to tap the diversity and find some unity and mutuality among the different congregations, ministries, and service organizations. According to Tung in a recent interview, the community has seen trends over the last few years of lower income and more diversity.
Tung explained, "One of the challenges for the community leaders, congregations, and service organizations has been how to make connections with those we're trying to help and to become more aware of the needs of people in the community. How can we learn what others are doing so that we can work collaboratively and not in the dark?"
Tung also expressed a concern for the evolving role of Christians in the community as well. "Especially with all the diversity, how can we as Christians express our unity of faith? There's an evangelistic component as well."
With this vision in mind, three goals were laid out for the directory:
- providing a resource to help churches and organizations build a network to better serve the people and community,
- making churches and organizations aware of what programs and services already exist in the community, and
- enabling more collaboration between churches, as well as between churches and other services organizations in the community.
The UD-DH Ministerium and ESA hope to help churches and organizations save money by helping them become more informed about what services are already happening in the community, thus eliminating the chance of duplicate services. The directory will also provides a framework for building a network of partnership and relationship in the community.
Putting the directory together proved to be an arduous task. Marquita Bell, a scholar-intern of the Sider Center for Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary came onboard the project to see it through to fulfillment. Bell worked to find and contact all the congregations and service organizations within the community in order to piece together the directory's network. The current version of the directory has fifty-five churches, three ministry organizations, and three other faith communities. Each entry is complete with contact and leadership information, denomination affiliation, services and times, languages spoken, and demographic diversity. The directory even includes demographic charts and stats of the community taken from the 2010 census.
One of the helpful and important achievements of the directory has been creating information about what is happening geographically in the community. "New racial/ethnic churches will not necessarily meet in tradition locations, like gothic church buildings," Tung explained. Pictures of each congregation or organization are included with every directory entry to provide a helpful visual for people within the community.
"One of the interesting things that happened was to see images of buildings we were familiar with but had no idea there were churches inside," said Tung, describing the project. "We were vaguely aware [of existing churches] having driven around and seeing church signs, but beyond that were new churches that have just started that we had no idea were meeting in some locations."
Tung explained the directory helped the UD-DH Ministerium to understand the change that was happening in the community, racial/ethnic changes as well as new Christian traditions. The community has historically been congregated by mainline denominations. In recent years charismatic and Pentecostal congregations have grown throughout the community. One of the benefits of this project is that helps those churches become more recognized. When asked if the directory helps legitimize those congregations, Tung responded, "They will be legitimized anyway as they grow, but this helps them find more legitimacy by the Christian church community."
At the December kickoff last year to launch the directory and put it into the hands of community leaders, Tung was still surprised when seeing the final project: "Even as I flipped through I thought 'I didn't' know that community was there,' and I'm pretty plugged in."
The next major step for the directory project is to go digital. The current version of the directory only exists in print. Tung and Bell are working to create an online version of the directory that will be more accessible to the community and more easily kept up-to-date as the church and service organization landscape of the community changes over time.
I asked Tung if he had any advice or encouragement for other communities to create a networking directory like this project.
"I'm a bit reluctant to put too much stock into some of the trappings churches and even organizations like ours put money into, like buildings and directories. Such things can become congealed, but you have to start somewhere."
Tung offered these insights for creating a church-networking directory:
- Take the necessary time. It is essential to start with an established network of pastors and leaders who believe there is value in having a network of relationships.
- Use discernment. Think about what can happen to help foster and build relationships. It may be a directory project like this. It may be something different and unique for your community. Projects like these cost too much time and money to not be relevant.
- Create something attractive. Putting money into a well designed website or color printed covers shows that the project is something you believe in.
Jere Mahaffey is a Sider scholar alum at the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary. The interview with Arthur Tung was conducted February 2012.