In 2009, Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren asked Membership Pastor Tommy Hilliker to start a hub of free community services to aid Orange County’s “new poor”—those affected by the recession and mortgage crisis. Today, Saddleback’s PEACE Community Resource Center has helped more than 144,000 people with its volunteer-run food pantry, medical clinic, afterschool clubs, career counseling, legal services, support groups, classes and more.
Smaller churches might think they could never do what Saddleback has done. But Hilliker says they have mentored many churches that now offer life-changing community services on a smaller scale. Here, he breaks down eight steps to starting a community resource center at your church.
1) Start with senior leadership support. Getting endorsed from the top down is key to making a ministry like this go. It will take a pastor or leadership team who is passionate about ministry. Official backing is saying, “This is going to be part of the direction and vision of our church.” You want all the ministries of the church working together, and it takes a whole congregation to make our PEACE Center function. All of our volunteers are church folks—teachers, lawyers, counselors and more—who love to use their skills for his kingdom and glory.
2) Leverage available space. Many churches have a building that sits empty Monday through Friday. Ask yourself, Where in our building can we create some sort of ministry space? Do you have a room you use for Sunday school but that sits empty during the week? Our PEACE Center was originally a rat-infested storage building that we reclaimed and renovated.
3) Begin thinking about how you can acquire partners. Your partners will be your greatest friends and assets. Often churches are at odds with the county government or other local service providers, but we’ve chosen to partner with them, and they’ve opened their arms to us. They don’t care that we share Jesus.
4) Assess the needs of your community. Every community has its own unique needs. Here, ESL is important because we have a large immigrant population. We don’t have a huge homeless population, but we do have a huge medical need. Almost any church can start with a food pantry, though. That’s something the entire church can get involved in.
5) Create teams of volunteers. Utilize specific talents and experiences within your congregation. Younger generations love to serve, so enlist their passion.
6) Love, love, love on those volunteers. Nurture those relationships. It’s because of our volunteers that we can witness to so many people. Every member of your church is a minister. Teach them how to do it, and then step back and empower them to do it.
7) Minister in Jesus’ name. We see a lot of churches that do food pantries, but they are just handing out food. There’s no follow-up. We are trying to help needy people in Orange County physically as well as spiritually. If we’re not sharing God with them, we are missing the big picture. It’s crucial that we share God’s love with them.
8) Trust God and get going. Start small, but start somewhere. God will meet your needs. I love our story because it’s a story of faith. Early on, we ran out of food at our food pantry and realized quickly that the need was greater than our congregation could fill. We had to go out to local grocery stores and build partners. We found a couple hundred partners willing to help. For example, Post Cereal will occasionally give us a semi-truck full of cereal. Grocery stores have partnered with us to provide turkey dinners over the holidays. A donor stepped up and said, “Here’s $10,000 to go buy food.” It’s a journey of faith—just get started.