Family life ministry that works!

Most churches feel the need to develop a program of family life ministry but often their attempts to do so are less than satisfactory. Monte Sahlin, in a two-article series, lays out in detail how you may plan and carry out a successful, ongoing family life ministry in your church. In this article he covers how you can define the needs in your area, how to figure how many to plan on, packaging the program successfully, and more.

Monte Sahlin, a pastor and formerly the chairman of the Pennsylvania Conference's Family Ministries Committee, writes from Worthington, Ohio.

A church board recommends disfellowshiping a young business executive for (l adultery. " In the strained silence, an elder turns in anguish to the pastor and says, "We have to do something to prevent this sort of thing from happening. This is the second family that has broken up in our church this year. '' A conference president discusses with a church board its needs as a new pastor is selected. A young mother, trying to participate and oversee a toddler at the same time, offers, "We need a pastor who can help parents. People criticize us for our noisy children, or because of their Sabbath afternoon activities, but we really don't have anyone to turn to with questions."

A local church planning committee reviews data from a self-study profile. "I can't believe this!" exclaims a commit tee member. "This says the majority of our adult members are single. Is that true?"

Such scenes are becoming common in Seventh-day Adventist churches, pointing up the need for a stronger ministry to families. The divorce rate among Adventists has increased since the 1978 study by Crider and Kistler demonstrated that 12 percent to 17 percent have dissolved marriages through the courts. 1 "Baby boom" Adventists have reached the child-producing stage, significantly increasing the number of parents in most Adventist churches. Single Adventist adults may not have increased in numbers recently, but they certainly have been getting more attention. 2

Drs. John and Millie Youngberg, family life educators at Andrews University, see this interest in family ministries as a fulfillment of prophecy. "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers" (Mal. 4:5, 6, N.I.V.). * According to the Youngbergs, the "Elijah message" has a concrete form in our world today as families experience healing from conflict and oppressive relationships. Many other Adventist scholars and lecturers agree that the quality of relational life in Adventist families has theological meaning.

Some Adventist leaders have discovered that an emphasis on family life is also fruitful evangelistically. Family life concerns are one of the major reasons that unchurched young adults begin to shop around for a church home, according to recent studies by the Princeton Religious Research Center and the Glenmary Research Center. Other studies also indicate that churches meeting the needs of single parents and couples with young children will reap impressive increases in membership. 3

As a result, hundreds of Adventist churches have decided to move ahead with family ministries. Unfortunately, most have come to a complete halt a short time later, faced with the reality of the question: How do we organize a family life program in our church? A clear view of the difficulties becomes quickly apparent. Where do we get qualified people? How do we develop something that has substance and continuity; that will have integrity among the general public? We don't want people to feel that our program is a gimmick that moves immediately into other doctrines.

Observation of successful programs in several churches and work with a score of Adventist congregations that have started family life activities leads me to believe that the key to successful family ministries in the local church is careful program development: a definition of the needs, adequate targeting and planning, quality communication with the target audience, a small team of church members who are willing to learn some key relational skills (they do not need to be mental health professionals), and a keen sense of how this ministry relates to the total church program. With these five items in hand, any congregation can succeed at family ministries.

Defining the needs

Of course the church board or the pastor have a general sense of the needs or they would not be seeking to get something started. But this general sense of urgency is not enough. Successful programs "scratch where people itch." You need to know where your people, your congregation, and your community "itch" right now. How many are interested in parent skills? In grief recovery? In divorce recovery? In improving their marriages? In coping with single life? In strengthening family worship? In friendship and recreation with other Christian families? What kinds of activities would be helpful to them? What are they willing to invest in time, money, and personal involvement?

One way to define needs is simply to assemble the statistical data already available. You can construct a family profile of your congregation by spending thirty minutes with the church member ship list and using the score sheet on page 18. For each person in the congregation, simply make a mark in the category or categories to which you believe he or she belongs. (If you are not acquainted with everyone in the congregation, have someone else go through the score sheet with you. The very largest congregations will probably require a survey.) The U.S. Census data on file at the public library will quickly give you similar information about families in the local community the number of teenagers, married couples, single parents, divorced per sons, widows, or families with children under age 13, et cetera. 4

Statistical data will reveal the raw number of potential participants in various kinds of family life programs but cannot indicate their degree of interest or their felt needs. Various surveys will be necessary to uncover the felt needs of the congregation and the community. A simple questionnaire like the one on page 20 can be distributed to active members during a Worship service. You will have to interview inactive church members and the general public by telephone or doorstep visits. Compare standard sampling ratios with population totals in your area to determine how many interviews must be completed in order for the survey data to be reliable. 5

But you can obtain even more specific information about the kinds of activities, topics, publicity, and locations that will draw a crowd by setting up one or more small group discussions with potential program participants. Marketing experts call these "focus groups." For example, our statistical data indicated that twenty-two families in the Central church and 413 in our ministry area had children under 6 years of age, In surveys, 65 percent of these expressed interest in attending parent education classes. So to get more specific information we formed a discussion group made up of two couples and two single parents with preschool children. One couple and one single parent were church members; the others were not. Another church member led the discussion, using a detailed list of questions compiled by the program development committee. A second church member sat in on the discussion and took notes. This method not only helps gather information; it also builds interest in the program under discussion.

Putting the plan together

When you have defined needs, you can put together a specific plan of action for an initial family ministry. The church board should authorize a planning committee to put on paper (and bring back to the board for consideration) a proposal that includes a specific target audience, nominations for program coordinator and the ministry team, program design, curriculum resources, written objectives, a budget and a suggested starting date.

Douglas W. Johnson, director of the Institute for Church Development, Inc., gives a formula for calculating how many people might be expected at a well-advertised "entry event. ",6 Start with the number of persons in the category as given by the census data and multiply this figure by the percentage that Adventists represent among the total church members in the community. This is usually between .5 and 2 percent. 7 Next, add the number of Adventist members who are in the same category. Let's suppose your community contains 4,250 single adults, your church represents one percent of the total churched people, and you have seven single adults in your church. The figures would look like this: 4,250 x .01 + 7 = 49 persons.

This will be the number of participants you can reasonably expect to at tract from among the single adult target group. Johnson says, "On top of this figure may be added a goal that represents the number of members of the target group the congregation will work to involve." 8

Current research in group dynamics indicates that an ongoing class or seminar will enroll no more than 40 people. 9 If a church expects to involve more than 40 participants in a family ministry, it must design a program with several groups, perhaps meeting on different nights or in different locations.

The coordinator for the program need not be an expert or a professional, but it is essential that this person have ability in organizing and carrying through projects, and have the trust of the target audience and the church board. The program coordinator need not be one of the target category, but he must be able to communicate with these people. He should be an individual with a clear commitment to the church and to Christ, and a willingness to see this ministry as a long-term activity, an opportunity to learn new skills and be exposed to new ideas. It is foolish to move ahead without this. If you must wait for a qualified individual to develop this sense of call, the investment of time will eventually pay off in a program with a deep spiritual dimension.

The program coordinator will need a supportive team of volunteers. The size of the target audience and the anticipated program will indicate how large a team, but at least four specific roles must be filled. You will want two working assistants one to deal with paperwork, purchasing, setting up equipment, making phone calls, distributing advertising, et cetera; and another to chat with people as they gather at the events, to get to know them personally, answer questions, be available to listen, and set up personal visits in the home. And you will need two "behind the scenes" supporters one—(possibly the pastor or an elder) to serve as an administrative counselor and a channel of communication between the ministry team and the church board; the other to rally intercessory prayer oh behalf of the venture. The entire team should meet monthly or quarterly for evaluation, prayer, brainstorming, planning, sharing, and caring for one another. The quality of relation ships within this team will determine to a large degree the success of the program.

For an effective program, content must clearly and helpfully address the needs expressed by the target audience. But "packaging" is also vital. Where will the group meet? Where the Adventist Church is well known and perceived positively, suitable meeting rooms at the church itself may be best. But sometimes the program will get off to a better start if you use the "Y," a local bank, or some other public facility. Often you can secure such community rooms without charge, but even if not, to have a comfortable meeting room at a recognized address is usually well worth the cost.

What time of year will the seminar or class be offered? Every community has favorable seasons, and seasons also when low attendance is guaranteed. For example, our church offered a healthscreening event on the weekend that the football season came to its climax. Few came out. The same program, with the same advertising, in the same location a year earlier during the spring attracted ten times as many people.

When will the group meet? A young mothers' group might best meet on a weekday at midmorning. A teen/parent communications seminar might work well on Saturday afternoons. A couples group might need to be over by 8:30 P.M., while a singles group might flourish by starting about 8:00 P.M. And how many times will the group meet? Although one-shot events (all day or a weekend) would seem to make it easier for more people to be present, educational research indicates that for a program to have significant impact (especially in changing habits or attitudes) a number of sessions over several weeks is necessary. Lyman Coleman, author of Serendipity materials for small groups, says that people will attend six to ten weekly sessions more readily than twelve to forty weekly sessions, and he points out that if a "beginners group" is rewarding, people may be willing to take on a more extended commitment. Also, groups that meet every other week can be as effective as weekly sessions if the number of sessions remains the same.

The more amenities included, the more attractive a group or seminar becomes. Something to drink, refreshments during a break, a notebook or folder, pencils and notepads, audiovisuals and handouts, name badges, et cetera, make the program more attractive and authoritative. See that participants have an opportunity to mix and get acquainted. Clearly identify in your printed materials the sponsoring organization and the leaders, so that further contacts can be made and questions asked.

With some target groups, child care is a crucial service. Young couples, parents—and especially single parents—cannot be expected to attend a class if child care is not provided. Grandparents and older brothers and sisters are almost never at hand to watch the children.

Baby-sitters are difficult to find and costly. Quality child care is essential in your planning even if this means a slightly higher registration fee. Church volunteers are not your only source for child care, although this may be an ideal way to involve a teenage girl or a grandmother who feels she does not have other skills. You can also pay people for this service. The cost of a single baby sitter for six couples is far less than all six getting individual baby-sitters. Use qualified non-Adventists if the available pool of Adventist volunteers are involved in other tasks.

One reason that family ministries are within reach of every Adventist church, no matter how small, is that a vast number of curriculum resources have been published recently. Most have detailed guides for the group leader and textbooks or other materials for the participants. More recently Adventist Life Seminars has begun to produce packages that include videotape lectures by such well-known Adventist speakers as Dr. Kay Kuzma, family life educator at Loma Linda University. 10 (The second article of this series includes a sizable list of available resources.) Many of these use inexpensive audiovisuals: overheads you can reproduce on a photocopy machine, flip charts, et cetera. The planning group must choose which curriculum resources to use, whether to follow one (perhaps in modified form) or to use two or three curricula together. Ask these questions, too: What supplies must be ordered? How long does shipment take? What are the policies concerning minimum orders and returning unused materials? Never plan to start the group, see who shows up, and then order materials. That appears inept to participants and guarantees a large number of unused materials. Of course the program coordinator needs to be involved in the decisions about curriculum as do any guest instructors who will be helping. For example, a nurse may teach one unit and the pastor another, instead of the coordinator doing the whole thing.

No plan is complete unless it includes a simple, specific description of expected results. What is the desired effect on those who attend? What are the criteria for success? You need to list expectations precisely, not to satisfy academic or bureaucratic urges but to help the working team, the church board, and others involved to understand clearly what the activity seeks to achieve. This list is the ultimate measure of success or failure, and it keeps the program moving in the right direction.

Grammar, language, even correct spelling, are not essential in writing a good objective. Three considerations are fundamental however: 1. Make it specific, not general. 2. Make it something that can be done, a behavior. It ought to be something that one could observe on a videotape with the sound off! 3. Make it measurable. Some numbers need to be included: percentages, head counts, or whatever. No one other than the pro gram team and the church board needs to see these objectives.

When you have reached this point, the planning committee can then work out a budget and schedule for the new ministry. The schedule provides specific deadlines for maintaining accountability, and the budget provides for realistic funding. When you know the total expenses, you can calculate a proposed program fee. The initial calculation may produce a fee that is unreasonable. If so, the church board needs to discuss the possibility of providing a subsidy for the program.

In most circumstances, charge a registration fee. Resist the urge to provide free programs. The public usually considers "free" programs to have some kind of "payoff" or ulterior motive, and is justifiably unwilling to get involved. (What was your response the last time you got one of those "free trip to Florida" offers in the mail?) When Adventist family ministry programs are offered to the public with a modest registration fee or charge for materials, it enhances the public image of the program and makes it appear more professional. Charging a fee will actually increase enrollment in most circumstances. There may be exceptions to this rule in small towns where the Adventist church is well known and in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

We will discuss three more elements necessary for successfully running family life programs in your church in a concluding article, which will appear in the August issue of MINISTRY. We will point out how you can effectively advertise your programs, the necessity of having someone with relational skills on your working team—and suggest a pro gram for training in relational skills, and we will indicate how you can create pathways into church fellowship for participants in your programs.

Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy
Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1978
by the New York International Bible Society. Used
by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.



1 Charles C. Crider and Robert C. Kistler, The
Seventh-day Adventist Family: An Empirical Study
(Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University
Press, 1979), p. 196.


2 Such as the new monthly column entitled
"Single Life" in The Adventist Review.


3 George Gallup, Jr., and David Poling, The
Search for America's Faith (Nashville: Abingdon,
1980), pp. 41-55, 79-107; Edward A. Rauff, Why
People Join the Church: An Exploratory Study (New
York: The Pilgrim Press, 1979), pp. 72-86; J.
Russell Hale, The Unchurched: Who They Are and
Why They Stay Away (San Francisco: Harper &
Row, 1980).


4 For more information on how to do this see
Pastor's Planning Workbook, available from the
Seventh-day Adventist Urban Ministry Resources
Center, Box 287, Worthington, Ohio 43085.

5 While there are many complicated ways of
determining the size of a sample, you can use this
chart as a guide. The suggested numbers allow for
the fact that some interviews will not be com
pleted. However, you must interview 80 percent of
the sample in order for the survey to be accurate.


Source: Use a Survey to Fight Poverty (Trenton:
New Jersey Community Action Training Institute,
1967), p. 12.


Many practical books describe in detail how to
do survey research. See, for example: Earl R.
Babbie, Survey Research Methods (Belmont, Calif.:
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1973); Robert
P. Vichas, Complete Handbook of Profitable Marketing
ing Research Techniques (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.:
Prentice-Hall, 1982).


6 Douglas W. Johnson, Reaching Out to the
Unchurched (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press,
1983), p. 29.


7 Herman Anderson, Martin Bradley, Paul
Goetting, Patty Shriver, and Bernard Quinn,
Churches and Church Membership in the United
States: 1980 (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center,


8 Johnson, ibid.


9 Lyle E. Schaller, "The Rule of Forty," The
Christian Ministry, November, 1983, pp. 17, 18.


10 Roger Morton, Adventist Life Seminars, RD
1, Box 248, Crystal Springs, Mississippi 39059;
Audiovisual Department, Kettering Medical Cen
ter, 3535 Southern Blvd., Kettering, Ohio 45429.


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Monte Sahlin, a pastor and formerly the chairman of the Pennsylvania Conference's Family Ministries Committee, writes from Worthington, Ohio.

June 1984

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