By Warren Bird
Dr. Dennis Episcopo uses an innovative method for determining ministries at Appleton Alliance Church in Appleton, WI, where he is pastor. He asks community leaders what they see as the biggest unmet needs in Appleton. When possible, the church adds its resources toward finding a solution.
“After years of getting to know people, and them getting to know me, I started to go to these community leaders and ask, ‘How can we help you?’ ” Dennis explains. “I didn’t ask them to fit into our program, but asked what they needed.”
That approach is netting amazing results outside—and inside—the church’s walls.
Since Dennis took over leadership at Appleton Alliance in 1997, the church has grown from a weekend attendance of 500 people to close to 4,000.
To date, Appleton Alliance also has been involved with Habitat for Humanity and over 25 other charitable organizations. The church’s Community Care Fund assists about 30 families per month with various needs.
“The more we give out, the more God gives us to give away,” Dennis says. “Our approach is not to reinvent the wheel, but to come alongside existing ministries, and supply people and funds.”
“People are coming as they’re seeing that we’re more than a church that does nice services on Sunday, but that we’re trying to address problems that don’t have an easy answer.”
Seeing the Needs
Dennis and Appleton Alliance started getting a good view into community issues when he joined the Downtown Rotary, and became part of a once-a-year “Plunge,” where community leaders immerse themselves in a community problem and develop a plan to address it.
“It became clear to me that if we were going to have an impact here, we had to get to know the town fathers,” Dennis says. “It’s a great town cut out of old-town America where everyone is involved in their community. It’s all about relationships.”
The idea of Appleton Alliance Church partnering to build a free medical clinic to serve the community came out of those relationships and involvements with various community organizations. Many voiced a pressing need for additional free medical help, but that wasn’t the specific mission of any of the town’s nonprofit agencies. Upon seeing the gap, “I began praying about whether that was something God was calling Appleton Alliance Church to do,” Dennis says. “We heard how many people are uninsured or are falling through cracks of Obamacare. We learned that hospital emergency rooms are overflowing with people who have serious chronic problems. Plus, there are undocumented people who don’t have medical care.”
Meeting the Need
A young leader at Appleton Alliance Church was eager to develop the clinic. Medical and business leaders from within the congregation worked together to advise the project development. He built a “who’s who” board from the greater community, and coordinated the development of the clinic with other ministries and agencies around the city.
The Hope Clinic and Care Center opened its doors one year ago, inside of the church’s main campus. The clinic is open three days a week, and operates three examination rooms, with plans to grow as able. The Hope Clinic and Care Center offers general physical exams, disease management,referrals, medication assistance, laboratory services, physical therapy, recovery coaching, and pastoral counseling. Care at the clinic is provided by an enthusiastic and dedicated group of volunteer physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and therapists.
“It’s a unique and gospel-centered approach to caring for body, mind and spirit,” Dennis says. “The community is really enthusiastic about it. They keep marveling that we’ve carried it so far.”
“I’m kind of a walking, talking clinic promotion. The thing that scared me was that it could become too big for us, but we started small. I was afraid we would do too many things, and this would just be another thing to do. But we found a need in our community, and met it.”
Mike Polka, an emergency physician who is helping develop the clinic, agrees.
“In my opinion, this is very biblical,” Mike says. “What better way to bring someone closer to God than to heal the body, work to heal the mind and then the soul. I think it all goes together.”
A Common Goal
Before introducing the clinic idea to the congregation, Dennis preached through Luke 15 about the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son. The context of this passage is Jesus confronting religious leaders who are troubled by Jesus spending time with lost and broken people.
On the lighter side, Dennis said someone actually asked him, “Will we have sick people here?” Dennis affirmed that “we’re all sick and in need of the divine physician.”
Other than that, there was little to no pushback from the congregation related to the money and effort needed to get a clinic off the ground. “Ramping up our efforts on the medical clinic has almost been seamless” with church members, Dennis adds.
It helped that, even with the clinic plan in place, the church didn’t waver on its commitment to eliminate its debt. “We told our congregation that we’re standing by our goal,” Dennis adds. Church leaders solicited funds from individual donors in the church and community, and also applied for grants.
“We want to make a statement to say that God can heal mind, body, and spirit,” Dennis concludes. “We’re trying to get back to what the church used to do, without compromising in any way our focus on being a strong Gospel church.”
“It’s not bait and switch: You don’t have to hear a sermon to receive care. Rather, if you put people who need help in proximity with Christ-like people, the Holy Spirit takes care of the rest. We’re serving with a towel over our arm.”
Andy Williams contributed to the writing of this report.