Starting A Community Service Project: Step One

Steve Compton, a student at Emory UniversityÕs Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, loads potatoes into trucks for distribution to area food banks during a student-organized "Potato Drop" on campus in this 2002 file photo. The Society of St. Andrew hunger relief organization looks back on 2002 as a qualified success. Like most charities, the Society of St. Andrew experienced a decline in revenue, but the ministry had its third-best year in two decades of getting food into the hands of hungry people. Cash donations dropped in 2002 from almost $2 million in 2001 to a little more than $1.8 million. This reduced the amount of produce the society could ship from the fields to where the food was needed. In addition, drought in some areas of the United States meant smaller or no yields from some of the regular producer-donors. A UMNS photo courtesy of Emory University. Photo number 03-111, Accompanies UMNS # 186, 3/31/03


What really defines a community service project is the burning desire to bring about social change. 

  • Start locally. 
  • Do something to address a specific problem in your surrounding community, whether it’s your school, work or residential neighborhood.  Something needs to change! 
  • It can be overwhelming:  The list of possible issues to address—hunger, joblessness, crime, environmental hazard—seems endless. 
  • Get started! 

 Or wait, let’s be clear about a few definitions:

A Faith-Based Approach

What I’m talking about here is a faith-based approach.  I am assuming that faith or spirituality plays a role in your life and cannot be put aside for social action.  In fact, faith can provide a springboard for action—whether it’s grounded in worship with a congregation, study in a small group, or a disciplined and personal spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation. 

The Importance of Community

Make no mistake: a community service project is not something you can do all by yourself!  It requires the presence of a community—whether this means mobilizing a congregation, joining an organized project sponsored by a non-profit agency, or mobilizing a circle of friends.  Community service means not only service to others, but mobilizing others to join you in taking action to solve a social problem.

A Project, Not a Program or a Ministry

I deliberately use the term “project” and not “program” or “ministry” to describe what we’re about.  Harold Lerzner, an authority on project management, says a project  (1) has a specific objective, (2) has a start and end date, (3) may have funding limits and (3) uses resources such as money, people or equipment.  (R.E. Quinn, Becoming a Master Manager, Wiley & Sons, 2003, 139). 

By “project” I mean something unique and time limited, not ongoing and repetitive like a program.  Though many Christians may prefer to use the term “social ministry” to describe this action, I prefer “community service project” because it’s more generic and useful for Jews or Muslims whose synagogue or mosque wants to get engaged in community action. 


Choose a Goal (Not a Resource or Activity)

Wrong way: 

Let’s say you have heard from someone that the local supermarket has excess produce at the end of every week.  (That’s a resource.) So you organize to pick up and distribute food to the hungry.  (That’s an activity.)  So you ask around and discover that there are hungry families in your neighborhood and you organize your friends (or a team in your congregation) a develop way to deliver it to them.  (Your team is a resource.)  All along you have been working on this assumption:  it’s good to end hunger in the neighborhood  (That’s your goal.)

Right way

Choose a goal (to solve hunger in your neighborhood).  Then design a project (using resources like groceries and volunteer help) to reach the goal.  The real problem beneath hunger may be low income due to lack of jobs in your area or the prevalence of lowing paying jobs, not food itself.  

  • With the resources of your time and talent, you might volunteer for an agency that does job training (that’s the activity). 
  • Or you might organize a group from your congregation (that’s a resource) to advocate with the city council to promote better paying jobs (that’s an activity.) 

The moral of the story:

Start with the goal or you may end up on a treadmill of activities without a clear purpose.


Source:  S. Swan, The New Outreach (Church Publishing, 2010, 16-56).

Photo:  United Methodist News Service courtesy of Emory University.  Photo # 03-111, Accompanies UMNS # 186, 3/31/03


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