To build effective ministry organizations, urban ministers need to develop both a theoretical understanding of how urban systems work, and a whole range of practical professional leadership and managerial skills. The foundation of any successful work in the city is the ability to build and maintain relationships and partnerships.This chapter will explore how the ability to correctly interpret what is going on in our cities can make our ministries more effective. It will also identify some of the most important skills in three professional areas: Organizational Development, Ministerial Leadership and Relational Development.


Urban ministries usually come into being in response to some breakdown in the larger social systems of the city. As leaders of ministry organizations, we need to understand this larger context.

The ability to adequately analyze the context of our work and to effectively isolate the trends that affect our constituencies within the broader urban community is very critical for the effective undertaking of ministry within the urban setting. As urban ministers we have all learned basic skills in Biblical exegesis. However, we oftentimes lack the training to properly analyze and interpret the city landscape. Exegesis of the urban text, or how to read the city and its various "subtexts," is an art which urban ministers need to develop.

The process of relating our work to the larger urban community involves some understanding of urban systems: the inter-related forces that shape the community, including the man-made physical environment (infrastructure and superstructure) the cultural environment (social, political, economic, educational, etc.) and the spiritual (religious) environment. As we learn more about how urban systems work, we will get a better sense for what kind of ministries might ultimately transform those systems. As one urban practitioner came to realize,

Principalities and powers are far more complex and destructive than the limited personalized notions of sinfulness that I had long carried with me. Individual conversion will not address the power of structural evil.

Understanding urban systems is the larger context. How well our ministries operate within that context depends to a large extent on the strength of our management and organizational skills. As ministry professionals we owe it to the urban peoples and communities we work with to be as fully equipped and competent as possible. A high level of professionalism is also expected by the donors who support urban work and by the other agencies to whom we relate in our work in the city.


Even the simplest urban mission work deserves our best professional efforts.. However, the desire to do all things as well as they can be done and the need for Christian agencies to model the highest quality in urban work may be a drawback if we exclude people because of lack of skill. Excellence can motivate us to provide the necessary training so that people of all types and backgrounds can be involved in the work.

True professionals are not mechanical and unfeeling. In Christian ministry where the whole ethos is about being Christlike, the absence of care for those with whom one works definitely shows a lack of spiritual values.

In working relationships where there is pressure to maintain a high standard of professionalism, many leaders fear they will lose control if they try to introduce a more caring, open atmosphere. This mindset reflects the old fashioned, top-down, secular value system which unfortunately has been co-opted into the Christian world as well. That model has already failed; the most innovative industry thinkers and corporations are now finding new more democratic directions. Yet for the sake of keeping their jobs, employees will continue to tolerate almost any abuse as long as human institutions carry on with the same old ineffective model.

We all know we perform at our best and find our jobs more fulfilling when we work out of a sense of joy and feel supported in every aspect of our work. In urban ministry however, more than anywhere else, one has to work very hard at creating a caring and loving environment while still maintaining the highest standard of professionalism. Try it-it works!

Before the actual task of building an urban ministry organization begins, it's important to get to know the community.


On entering an urban community the first thing for the urban minister to do is slow down. Pause; take a step back and discover the signs of God's hand in public life. Various authors have emphasized the fact that God has gone before us in our communities. Oftentimes Christians enter urban communities at top speed, full of arrogance and zeal. We develop strategies for ministry and launch projects, before we've adequately discerned God's Spirit at work, before we've found signs of the presence of God in unexpected places. We lack the humility of Christ, so impatient to develop our own vision that we fail to see God quietly at work. Remember, we are working with God, not on our own.

Learning to exegete the community takes a certain level of discipline at first but can easily be cultivated into a natural process employed whenever one is in a new environment. The following are some tips to use to read and assess an urban community:

1. Look at the structures. Determine what kind of structures predominate or are being built: are they residential or commercial? They will help determine whether it is a residential, business or some other district. The level of maintenance needed and currently employed can suggest the ability of the residents to maintain or how invested the landowners are in maintaining the community. Also, determine how long the buildings have been around. Usually the style and materials used can suggest the period when the community or neighborhood was built. Are there changes in the uses of the structures: is the theater now being used as a marketplace or a church? What other changes are occurring? Who is leaving and who is replacing them? Why is this happening?

2. Look for "scraps of life." Do not overlook the artifacts people leave about their property: do they reflect certain age groups or types of households? Are they ethnically or culturally specific? Are certain values articulated by them? Also, make note of the kinds of items or services offered by the local businesses: Again, are they ethnically or culturally specific? Are they for the immediate residential community, or for others from "outside?" What do the costs say about the clientele?

3. Look at the signage. Competitive marketing companies have done the demographic research and will promote products and services in a manner appropriate to the target populations who live in or frequent the area. Therefore, read the billboards: what is being sold? Is the language used the dominant language of the area? Who is the target audience? Likewise read the window ads or signs placed by business or land owners: what is being sold and for how much? Do not overlook bumper or printed stickers as they reveal much about the people buying them: what religion or political perspective is being espoused? Where did they go to school? What is their ethnic ancestry?

4. Look at space. No, not outer space, but how space is used. Looking at the kinds of structures in a community is one way to assess how the local population or political powers interact with the space, i.e., how they define it or use the land. Most urban land is defined by topology: a river or mountain range, or by human construction, the placement of a rail system or freeway. These elements of the natural and built environment can become demarcation lines for certain communities.

On a more personal level, living space reveals certain values or priorities that residents may hold, for example, vehicles parked on what would be considered the front lawn or raising crops or livestock on the land immediately surrounding the residence. In some cultures, the front yard is an extension of the living room and everyone is welcome to participate in festive occasions. But in other cultures, the back yard or garden area is host to private celebrations.

5. Sounds and smells. Exegeting a neighborhood can be a sensory experience. Keep your ears attuned to the kinds of music played by the residents or heard on the street: Does the music cater to a specific age or cultural group? Also, you do not need to be a linguist to appreciate different languages, as intonations and speech patterns will differ from one group to another. If you hear many different patterns, it may be a sign of a rich multicultural setting. Aromas can reveal preferences in certain foods, which in turn point out the ethnicity of the resident or restaurant clientele. The smells of an elegant boutique will certainly differ from the smells of an alleyway in skid row.

6. Look for signs of hope. Keep an eye out for evidences of God's people at work-they could be future partners and certainly key resource people. On an immediate level, look for the presence of churches and parachurch organizations. Read the leaflets handed out in the neighborhood or notices in the local paper about religious activities or programs.

It will take time to get to know and be accepted by the community and to learn to work together as a team. Make this time quality time. A thoughtful initial introductory period sets the right tone for a collaborative spirit and the building of a good team foundation.

As urban ministers move more slowly in developing a ministry or project we open ourselves to learn from those who came before us. As we discover signs of God's presence, a vision for ministry will evolve.


Unfortunately, the urban church has largely neglected this process of discovering God in the city. The overall failure of Christians to engage in public life and to see God at work in the city has undermined our theology and distorted our Biblical understanding. The remedy is to find ways of identifying God at work in the city and in its people. If we have to escape the city to find God, our understanding of who God is and of His transformative presence in urban communities is inadequate. If we're not able to discern God in public life, our understanding of the Lordship of Christ should be questioned. In effect, we implicitly question God's ability to survive by some of our conduct.

Urban spirituality simply means finding God in the city. The city should be a place of hope and growth. We need to develop the skill of living in the city as Christians while we grow spiritually as persons, and professionally in our ministries. Urban spirituality is an art, a distinctive style of living, of connecting what we know of God to what we understand about the complexities of the urban world.

One of the best ways of making this connection is through networking. Networking has become something of a buzz-word in urban ministry. However, without networks we would fail to discern much of God's work and presence in the city. Networking is not about information; it is about communication, the interchange of ideas and resources and the building and development of relationships between various groups-churches, businesses, leadership and other service organizations. In networking, the urban minister is able to identify where God's Spirit has already planted vision, and how He has already erected signs of his Kingdom. As urban ministers we need to identify these footprints of the Spirit, and then connect and build on them.

Once we have a strong sense of the community, and of God's presence there, it's time to look at what it takes to build a successful organization.


Organizational development is the process of creating structures to implement and develop a ministry vision as it unfolds. To build sustainable, effective organizations the urban minister needs to develop professional skills in participatory development and community mobilization, human resource management and organizational management.

Participatory development and community mobilization

If an urban ministry is to be self-sustaining over the long run, the urban minister needs to ensure that significant input into all strategic planning comes from the community itself, including the decision of whether or not to pursue a particular ministry.

In our strategic planning for self-sustaining ministry, it is vital to develop work which builds on the capacities of community people. One should beware of a leadership style from which the community is excluded or isolated. Participatory decision-making and organizational development require that the ministry team, as well as the community, have a voice in strategic planning.

The urban leader should have a style which fosters not only participation but ownership of the ministry. Lasting, sustainable ministries are only built where the local people own them. The urban minister will know some of the goals have been reached once community people start to challenge and question ministry leadership. We have to create an environment in which people are challenged to grow to independence and maturity.

The question of sustainability is a key question in urban ministry. Many organizations and groups set out full of vision and develop creative and exciting ministries, only to stumble when their own capacity to work or outside resources fail. An initial part of any strategic ministry plan should be asking hard questions about the appropriateness of a specific project in a certain community, especially in terms of whether the local community will be able to carry out management of the ministry long-term, and whether the project can be funded until it is financially viable.

Human resource management

No one urban leader will have all the diverse human resource skills needed for ministry. However, at a minimum, the whole process of staff development: recruitment, training, evaluation, mentoring and team-building should be familiar enough to the urban leader so that he or she can develop a team who will share the responsibility of ministry. It is up to the leader to model the quality and excellence, in preparation and action, that will be expected from the ministry team.

The other critical human resource skill for urban leaders relates to community organizing. The most skillful community organizers take care not to create dependencies, but to mobilize tangible and human resources so that the community can address its own issues and concerns.

In the development of sustainable organizations, the ability to empower others is probably the most important ingredient. The time we invest in community leadership development and the upbuilding of human capacities on our ministry teams will return the strongest results in effective and sustainable ministry in the city.

Organizational management

With respect to organizational management, the urban leader should have the ability to establish clear goals and objectives for ministry, which can be turned into workable, operational plans. As these plans are carried out, the urban leader should engage in ongoing analysis and evaluation, with clearly defined measures of success, to assess whether or not the ministry is on track and meeting its goals.

Fund development, marketing and financial management are also important in an era which calls for entrepreneurial churches in the city.


John Stott has defined leadership in urban ministry as "a holy discontent with things the way they are," a discontent which leads to the construction of alternative visions for the city. But vision alone does not define leadership. Keeping a vision alive is the true test of a leader, and for that we need skills in envisioning, motivation and communication. A leader's relational abilities, social skills and personal qualities also play a profound role in an organization's success. Question the leader who does not entrust the vision to others or who does not invest in new leadership.


It is useful for urban leaders to be skilled in the art of envisioning. Envisioning is the ability to construct a mental picture of what the solution looks like, conveying in simple language how we get to the destination, and constructing a basic strategy of how we are going to get there. Visioning, that is, actually drawing out a metaphorical picture of the solution, may be a helpful tool in this process.

Motivational and communication(s) skills and tools

Urban leaders should be able to motivate and encourage wherever they engage people in the community or in their own organizations. Motivational skill is the ability to inspire others on the journey into the city, to convince people of the importance of the city for the church and for missions, and to recruit others to join the urban journey.

Urban ministry leaders will usually have well developed inter-personal communication skills. Leaders should be able to tell the story of their community and to convey their ministry vision to others, using a variety of media. Using appropriate technology can greatly enhance a leader's ability to communicate. Whatever the medium, it is important to share information without condescension. We need to openly bring to the table the gifts and abilities that God has given us. But equally important is that those gifts are brought without judgment.

Relational abilities and social skills

Well developed relational skills are essential to inspire confidence and trust, to make people feel at ease, to create a space in which empowerment takes place. The urban leader should be a bridge-builder with the ability to cross barriers often created by culture and class, and also to translate the process for the other partners involved in the rebuilding of the community.

Other essential characteristics of the urban leader

Taking Jesus as our model, urban leaders should be servant leaders. This may mean choosing the road of downward mobility to authentically identify and show solidarity with urban peoples in our communities.

A servant leader is self-confident and a has a godly self-image, not grasping for control or manipulating people and situations, but willing to lead through service and example. It is especially important in working across cultures that the urban leader be willing to release control. The desire to control is not a fruit of God's Spirit; it is, in fact, a very real barrier to cooperation amongst those in urban ministry.

A Story of Servant Leadership from Ethiopia

Leadership development abroad requires a sensitivity to the indigenous culture and a willingness to redefine our concepts of empowerment. During my visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one of the tasks that I had volunteered for was the final preparation of the building to be used by the InterChurch Urban Congress. While I had intended to do the carpentry and electrical work as well as to set up the sound equipment, it was immediately apparent to me that I was being pushed into leadership. I went to Addis to be servant to the community, but it became obvious that the technical skills were already in place. What the community wanted was for me to assume responsibility and authority, to plan, direct, mentor, validate, and approve the final product. I discovered that I could model a servant/leader role by merely doing whatever the community called me to do with a servant heart.

Later, I learned that in Ethiopia, guests must be treated with honor and respect. To allow a guest to take a servant or worker role would reflect poorly on the host. I felt empowered by this community because they put the leadership mantle on me without requiring me to first demonstrate leadership skills.

During a seminar on indigenous leadership development at the congress, we shared the lessons we had both learned in the preceding weeks of preparation. We discussed the difference between leadership and management and identified the attributes of leaders as well as management skills that could be taught and learned. The seminar produced a design for another seminar to be presented to indigenous leadership that would respect Ethiopian culture in addition to teaching basic skills. Finally, we concluded that trust was extremely important to the process of leadership development.-John Hirt, Pittsburgh

Personal qualities

Besides professional leadership skills, there are a number of character and personality traits that will help urban leaders to be more effective in their ministries.

First, urban ministers need to be flexible. Things in the city just don't work the way they do elsewhere. Suburban models of ministry often do not fit in the city. Pre-planned programs or projects oftentimes prove to be failures. Flexibility is also a vital component of creative urban ministry; creativity is hindered if we lack flexibility.

Perseverance in the demanding urban context is a second prerequisite. Long-term involvement without perseverance will leave the urban minister disillusioned. The urban minister needs to surrender images of worldly success and quick solutions, and find ways of surviving in the daily struggle of urban ministry.

Patience is another essential character trait for the urban minister. The rebuilding of the community seems always to take at least three times as long as anticipated. If the need for results and the need to keep to predetermined guidelines is followed too fanatically, the result is the alienation of the community and the loss of personal faith. Impatience often leads to ministry without community participation. When the leader does things for people, planning and implementing on their behalf, real empowerment does not take place.

In the isolation and brokenness of urban communities, commitment is one of the most important qualities an urban minister could have. If God's people want to be trusted and if they desire to develop ministries with a lasting and transformative impact on society, they need to demonstrate long-term commitment .

Leaders who need to be the star of the show have limited value in urban ministry. It is unwise for urban leaders to be lone rangers, or for vision to be invested in only one individual. Although leaders oftentimes carry the seed of a vision, they need the skill to plant this seed meaningfully so a shared vision can unfold in a community. Urban ministry leaders should be people who can gather all the different role-players in such a way that mutual visions are discovered, which together can transform society.

Ultimately the real test for urban ministry leaders, just as for any other leader, is whether they have invested in the formation of new leaders. Only when new leaders have been developed through the ministry, leadership style and life of the urban minister can a leader be considered to be effective.


In urban ministry, as in any other ministry, Christ is our model; for us, demonstrating Christ-likeness is vital. In developing our working relationships it should be our goal to relate to others as we relate to (or are related to by) the Lord, taking into account that all human beings are thinking individuals with their own wills, wishes, dreams, values and human dignity. Anytime we relate to people we need to be sensitive to all these issues.

In this section we will touch briefly on some aspects of relational development, both internally within our own ministry team, and in partnerships with individuals and groups outside our ministries. We will also offer a model for building partnerships.

Developing relationships in the ministry team

Most visionaries find it difficult present a vision to their team in such a way that everyone can identify with it. However, for people to truly work together as a team, it is important for the leader to make a conscious effort to tune in the majority. It is easier for everyone if the whole group is on the same wavelength and able to work in a spirit of unity. Finding common ground will open lines of communication and bring about free discussion among all the people.

Urban ministers everywhere stress the importance of this kind of consensus-building. Yet, in our endeavor to reach consensus few of us spend the time and energy it takes to do things out of love and mutual respect . Very often it is easier to be pushy, manipulative or patronizing, in the interests of doing a job quickly, efficiently, on target. There is, however, no short way around; the work of building lasting and quality relationships requires time.

Impatience is counter-productive to relationship development. Sooner or later we lose the team we set out to build and end up alone, which is even more disastrous in urban ministry. Our Lord's relationship with us is that of companionship, friendship and participatory, joyful action in extending His kingdom. We too should relate in an environment which empowers participation, in a spirit of freedom, and not suffocating or obstructing the free flow of opinions and ideas, which are more enriching and wholesome and guarantee good relationship development and ensure good team building.

Conflict is a reality in urban ministry teams, just as it is in any group. The urban team leader needs skills in dealing with conflict resolution and mediation. The ability to negotiate between alienated individuals or groups is a significant leadership asset. The greatest enemy of the urban church is not conflict, per se, but unresolved conflict, which destroys teams, organizations and vision.

Networking and partnerships

Partnership is God's nature. The whole Trinity decided to create humanity. Together they called the first people of Genesis into partnership to serve as stewards and managers of creation. These beautiful accounts of partnership in the earliest chapters of the Bible should move us into bold and creative partnerships within our own urban contexts.

In this section we will explore some general thoughts on the importance of relationships as a foundation for partnerships in urban ministry, followed by a detailed description of how to partner and an outline of some possible obstacles and drawbacks to partnerships.

Partnerships = Relationships

At the foundation of all meaningful and transformative partnerships are solid relationships of commitment and trust, nurtured over long periods of time.

These kinds of relationships are even more vital in a complex urban society. Like it or not, urban ministry is rooted in a secular and pluralistic society which has come to consider the church largely irrelevant. To regain its credibility the church needs to engage this society and find ways of developing meaningful relationships with it.

At the same time, the only way to effectively deal with the overwhelming issues we face in some of our urban communities - deteriorating inner cities, shantytowns, slums, squatter communities - is to take a holistic approach in which the whole body of Christ will work as one, and in which the church will seek relationship and even partnership with those in the public arena. For the church to develop contextual ministry which addresses the challenges of its communities, it has to move away from a mentality of exclusiveness and isolation.

The unity of Christ's body should be rediscovered in the city. The urban church should affirm this unity and let it be very concrete and practical. For the church to impact the world, it has to move out into the public sphere with boldness, interacting not only with other churches or Christian groups, but also with the business sector, government agencies, secular development organizations and other groups which we encounter in our journey.

The ability to facilitate dialogue and partnerships is essential for urban ministry people, especially in interaction with groups outside of our own ministries. Given the fact that objectives, mission statements, styles, and personalities vary greatly, the ability to make sure that everyone feels heard and that mutually satisfying "win-win" solutions are found is extremely important.

Because partnerships are so vital to urban ministry, it might be helpful to consider what they are and how they work.

What is partnership?

Partnership is different from mere networking. Networks are groups who link and share information because of a common interest. A partnership goes beyond the simple sharing of information; partners commit themselves and their resources to work together to fulfill a common purpose.

Ministry partnerships are generally horizontally integrated or vertically integrated. An example of horizontal integration might be a group of youth ministries in a city who decide to buy and operate a youth camp in the country. It is horizontal because it is all one type of ministry.

A vertical partnership is more holistic, bringing together a variety of approaches and kinds of ministries to address multiple facets of a problem or a wider range of community issues. An example of vertical partnership might be a group of neighborhood churches who are looking for ways to meet the needs of their community in Christ. Their strategy might include youth work, elderly work, single parenting workshops, drop-in centers, camp ministries, day care and a host of other ministries all actively, consciously linked to reach the local community for Christ. The youth ministries cited as an example of horizontal partnership are a vital element of reaching and serving the community - but, they are just one of the strategies needed to fully reach the community.

The business world realizes the need for vertically integrated strategic partnerships in order to successfully complete complex tasks. To make a sophisticated product like a car, industry must integrate a number of specializations. Plastics can be used for many products, but plastics alone will not make a car. Building an automobile requires the integration of plastic with steel, electronics, engineering and many more techniques and materials.

So it is with building an effective urban ministry. Networking as a technique is important both for building relationships and as the first step in developing a partnership. But why is developing partnerships so important to urban ministry?

Why Partner?

Working in partnership with others rather than soldiering on alone is better for several reasons. We should partner in our ministries because:

Partnership is practical. It

Partnership is Biblical:

How to partner

Partnerships do not just happen. They require strategic vision and practical, steady deliberate work. Strategic alliances go through at least three stages from the first glimmer of an idea to an effective force for the Kingdom. The main stages are Exploration, Formation, and Operation.


  1. The final success of the work depends on building a common vision from the beginning. Start by listening. Find out what others are doing. Get to know their history, their vision, their problems and their needs.
  2. As you listen, also try to identify common objectives or common needs that most of the potential partners share.
  3. Build good relationships personally with each of the potential partners.
  4. Do not minimize the differences of partners; freely acknowledge distinctions of purpose, history, style, theology. Do not minimize differences but do focus on common concerns.
  5. Recognition of a common problem or need is an essential starting point. Potential partners must identify with a limited, high-value, achievable objective that will give participants a sense of fulfillment and progress.


  1. Pull the potential partners together in an exploratory meeting.
  2. Do not hold this meeting too early; not until you, as the partnership facilitator, have met individually and know their needs and have built a level of trust with each partner.
  3. Have limited objectives for the first meeting that are understood by all the attendees of themeeting.
  4. Aim to set limited project goals in the beginning. Setting too ambitious goals will probably cause failure.


  1. Having had the initial meeting and set objectives, now actions vs. words really count.
  2. A person with a vision and practical day-to-day follow-through is essential to get the partnership functioning and seeing it eventually bear real fruit.
  3. Evaluate progress
  4. Concentrate on communication. We all need specific communication to keep us encouraged and committed to a vision.
Obstacles to Partnership

Relationships in urban ministry are not simple and smooth. A few real dangers exist.

  1. Fear. The greatest threat to meaningful relationships are our own insecurities about the unknown. This fear blocks our ability to trust people we see as different from ourselves. Urban ministers rooted in God should be able to reach out to others across any barriers.
  2. Superficial relationships. Quality relationships are essential in urban ministry. Only when urban ministers are centered in quality relationships, only when partnerships are developed on solid relational foundations, will they contribute to the city in positive ways.
  3. Diversion. Some relationships may take us away from the focus and objectives of our ministry. We should be selective about the kinds of relationships we enter into and about the groups or people with whom we develop partnerships, not because we want to be exclusive, but because the wrong kinds of relationships can dilute our ministry focus.
  4. Prejudice, racism, sexism and classism. These evils are very real in every urban community. Look for them; be aware of them. Urban leaders need to consciously disentangle themselves from prejudice in their communities, taking steps to challenge existing prejudice and envision and propose alternatives.

Relationships matter. Urban leaders who know how to build and nuture relationships create ministry organizations that work.

Ask the Experts

According to twenty-five urban ministry experts polled at the 1994 USI, the most effective urban leaders are skilled in:

Chapter 9: Learning, Relerning and Sharing