Reaching out through ESL ministry

One of the best ways to build connections with migrants and refugees in your local area is to provide opportunities for people to improve their English skills. Arriving in a new country presents a whole range of challenges, and being able to communicate well can play a big part in someone’s ability to overcome some of those difficulties. Gaining confidence and competence in conversational English can be the thing that helps someone find work, utilise services, join community groups or make simply friends.

Churches are often well positioned to meet the needs of people learning English as a Second Language (ESL), and can see this sort of activity and an opportunity to show love and friendship to their neighbours. Some churches may have the ability to run structured ESL classes. Others may choose to run less structured conversation classes. This sort of ministry can take a number of different forms which all serve as effective ways to reach out to those who are newly arrived in Australia. For this reason, it’s good to think about what will work best in your locality and what is possible with your resources.

Things to consider when starting a ministry for people with English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL)

Who will be involved in this ministry?

  • This sort of activity can’t rely on just one person. Consider people who be able to form part of a team to serve in this ministry. Make sure people understand the commitment and time needed.
  • The number of people involved and the skills they have will help shape the kind of program you run.

Safe ministry:

  • This sort of ministry involves interacting with people who may be vulnerable and who are trusting the church to help them in this way. Therefore it is crucial that all volunteers involved are compliant with the safe ministry policy of the church, Breaking the Silence.
  • Other practical safe ministry considerations include ensuring accountability by always having more than one leader present when interacting with the attendees of the program, and having a balanced mix of males and females on your team. 

Where and when will you run your program?

  • Using your church building or hall as the venue of your ESL program is a great way to familiarise people with the church site. It also creates easy ways to people to ask questions about what the church does and teaches.
  • Think about when you want to run your program – weekdays will often work for those who are not working full-time. You may want to find out if there are any other ESL classes operating in the area and make sure you don’t try to run at the same time.
  • Offering child-minding may allow parents to attend your program. Make sure you have the capacity to do this properly if you offer it, and consult your church leadership about any additional considerations.
  • Have a set time limit for your program. This is important in order to maintain a sustainable and intentional ministry. People who are eager for English practice may want to spend hours and hours conversing with your volunteers which may not be feasible. 
  • Advertise your program – Put a clear sign outside the church indicating the time, days and venue of the program. If you decide to display the information in multiple languages, make sure that any changes to the details are also updated in the translation. You may want to display a flyer for the program on a community notice board or other public places.

Equipping your team: 

  • Whilst you don’t need a team of fully qualified English teachers to run an ESL ministry, it is beneficial for at least some members of your team to get some ESL training. Anglicare’s Cross-Cultural Services offers training days twice a year for volunteer ESL teachers. 
  • Access free ESL Christian resources like those offered by Anglicare and the Okay English forum. These are a helpful starting point for you to get familiar with methods that work. 
  • For those who want to learn more about cross-cultural ministry and interactions, a book such as Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier can be very helpful.

What will each session involve?

  • When bringing together a group of people with varying levels of English, it is important to have a clear and simple plan that people can refer back to. A set structure for your time together will help you plan each segment and will help your attendees know what to expect each week.
  • You may decide to use a different theme each week – eg.  Food, catching trains, Christmas, occupations etc. There are lots of ideas available online about helpful topics.
  • If you are using your program as a way to introduce people to the Bible, you may want to use Bible passages as texts to read together and practice explaining the meaning.
  • Provide enough opportunities for everyone to have a go – in a large group, some people may not feel comfortable contributing to discussion. Ensure there are times where people can do activities in a small group or in pairs so that everyone has a chance to practice and learn.
  • If you are running a less structured Conversation Class, provide your volunteers with topics to talk about with attendees, and rotate people around where appropriate.

Relationship building:

  • Give attendees the opportunity to talk about their backgrounds.
  • Provide opportunities to invite attendees to church on Sunday for special occasions such as Pot Luck Lunch, Christmas Carols or Easter service.

Have questions about what ESL ministry might look like at your church?

Our Refugee and Cross-Cultural Support Worker, Andrew Adams, would love to chat with you and share some of his own experiences in starting an ESL ministry at church. 

Click here to get in touch