How Can My Congregation Become a Host?
"Is not this the fast that I choose?… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…" Isaiah 58:6-8
Family Promise and the Interfaith Hospitality Network program offer an opportunity for a truly unique congregational outreach. Volunteers of all ages work together within their own congregation, among many in the community, to help bring about a real change for families who have lost their homes.
How do we start? First of all, almost any congregation can host. It takes planning, perseverance and passion-and the belief that this is an opportunity for a congregation to engage in a truly transformational outreach.
Start with the basics:
- The network consists of 10-13 hosting congregations which provide space for typically 3 or 4 families (5 maximum) and no more than 14 individuals, mostly children, to stay for a week at a time.
- During the day, families are at the day center or family center, where the Network Director works intensively with them on a plan to move to self-sufficiency.
- There is transportation provided to and from the day center and the congregations.
- Social service agencies partner with the network to refer qualified families who are screened before they enter the program and additional services to help the families striving for independence.
- Volunteers are the heart of the program and range from people cooking meals or moving beds to those sleeping overnight or playing games with children. A host congregation will host @4-5 weeks out of the year; approximately once a quarter.
Key Steps to Start
You need to communicate. Talk about the program with people in your congregation. Are the specific individuals who are movers and shakers? Is the clergy aware of the program and its benefits? Arrange for a meeting with key decision makers and be prepared. Show the intro DVD, have handouts and make sure everyone understands the basic elements.
Networking is critical. Before the mission or outreach committee is going to vote, you want to have talked with several members to make sure they understand and endorse the program. Likewise, you will want to get the clergy’s support.
People want to help homeless families, but there are many misconceptions and fears that people will have and you will need to anticipate and answer-even if they are not asked.
- Who? This is a program for families with children. Our primary concern is that we provide children and their families with stability and start them toward self-sufficiency.
- Safety? There is professional management and specific rules, and all families undergo an intake process. Families with active substance abuse problems, untreated mental illness or domestic violence are not accepted into the program.
- Volunteers? Congregations of all sizes host, because the commitment is only for 4 or 5 weeks a year, and for each individual, only a few hours. Everyone participates: children, working parents, senior citizens. And some congregations partner with others to bring in additional volunteers-a wonderful opportunity for collaboration. Whether from within or another congregation, there will always be enough volunteers
- Space? Classrooms, meetings rooms, or a large space divided off into discrete areas. A congregation typically will need 3 or 4 areas for families; the program is capped at 14 individuals (mostly children) and no more than 5 families. Again, since it is 4 or 5 times a year, it is a question of moving activities only during those times-to other rooms, the sanctuary, or even better, involving those groups in that week’s hosting.
- Insurance? This is outreach involving families, and no different than other programs you run at your congregation-remember that it is a hospitality program, not a shelter.
- Money? This costs the congregation very little-you are responsible for all meals, linens (but not the beds), and a few personal items. Volunteers generally provide this, but if not the congregation would not need to budget more than @$200 per host week.
Those are the big questions. Others come up and our FAQs cover most of those; have that on hand and be familiar with the basics. Also have handouts like Typical Host Week, Program Benefits, the Introduction to IHN brochure and What a Host Congregation Needs available.
After getting people in the congregation excited and the clergy on board, the next step is usually a meeting with a committee. Make sure that everyone in the meeting fully understands the program, and use the DVD to establish the parameters as well as the appeal. If there are questions you can’t answer, contact others in the core group or at Family Promise for answers. Sometimes a "no" comes about because of a simple misunderstanding, such as whether or not showers are needed. (They are not.) Try to avoid having people decide if there is still uncertainty about the operations of the program.
Always leave with a next step-does this go to the board? The council? The entire congregation?
Presenting Family Promise as an Opportunity
What can make you effective? Well for one, a passion for the program. When people realize just how transformational it is, they get excited, so you should always be excited too. Knowing the basics. And connecting with the right people so there are advocates within the congregation. Don’t let a few naysayers get you down; they often come around to be the most enthusiastic supporters.
Of course it helps to be a clear and commanding presenter, but even more important is being informed and prepared to address standard objections. (Do we have enough volunteers…do we have enough space…)
Presenting the program should involve a short overview, a lot of passion, a personal connection, and a viewing of the introductory DVD. Don’t spend too much time explaining-figure that you’d like to spend 1/5 of the meeting introducing, 1/5 viewing the DVD, and 3/5s in Q&A. Encourage people to visualize how the congregation gets involved and to envision the positives-interaction, families, fellowship. Repeat key points about frequency of hosting, diverse roles for volunteers, safety of the program and its track record of phenomenal success.
Once it gets to the decision-making body, be prepared to have a covenant written on congregational letterhead. Throughout the process, encourage members of your congregation to attend core group meetings.
And don’t hide your light under a bushel. You’ll need 12 other congregations to make the commitment to host. If you are excited about the program and like sharing that enthusiasm, consider becoming involved in the recruitment of other hosts. It is through personal contacts and in-person presentations, that congregations understand and embrace the program.