Sharon Yancey

Founder and Executive Director of The Matthew Initiative.
Helping raise the next generation of Christian leaders.

M.A. Religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, 1979

Five years ago, Yancey discovered that many churches had few or no children, a minimal budget and no plan to start a kids’ program. Unable to ignore the need, Yancey established the Matthew Initiative to empower under-resourced churches to become places of joy, hospitality and hope for the children of their communities.

The Matthew Initiative was born on Maundy Thursday in Cedartown, Ga. At the time, Kresge United Methodist Church averaged between five to ten children. Following Jesus’ command, a group of members gathered to pray for Matthew 19:14 to be realized in their congregation. As a result, the church identified and developed an outreach ministry to the invisible children of their community, targeting a trailer park and local public housing facility.

“The church’s red van rolled out to get the children for the Wednesday evening program, returned with 20 children, and then went back for 20 more!” Yancey said. “On a single evening the church went from 10 to 40 children and never looked back.”

These revitalization efforts are effectively changing the lives of their young attendees. Each partner church in the Matthew Initiative provides a weekly meal for its children. Although the kids come for the food, they leave with hope.

Yancey relates the story of a 12-year-old who missed the bus on taco night. Instead of going hungry, he borrowed a bike and rode four miles to Kresge UMC.

“Can I come anyway?” he asked, on arrival.

Instead of just food, he found friends. Although wearing an ankle bracelet for a previous crime, he found mentors who provided love, guidance and belonging.

Over the past 5 years over 65 children have found their new church home and a place to belong at Kresge. The church is now running four vans, and is collaborating with other sister churches in the area who are sending their children to the “Kresge Kids” ministry. Many of the original Kresge Kids are now part of their growing Wednesday night youth program.

Yancey and her team use the model of “launch, build and sustain,” to provide curriculum materials, resources, staffing, on-site mentoring and strategic planning free of charge to new churches or churches that want to grow their children’s programming.

In exchange, the partner church commits to provide leadership, volunteers and a weekly meal to community children. Most churches are self-sustaining within six to twelve months. By the end of 2015, the Matthew Initiative will have impacted more than 600 children.

“Because the Matthew Initiative shares leadership and resources with partner churches, the rebuilding of our children’s ministries never once felt like a Hail Mary pass,” Tim Emmett, Pastor of Waleska UMC, one of the Matthew Initiative’s partner churches, said. “Instead, it was like a well-orchestrated drive. We were down, but not out. We weren’t dying; just rallying. But we needed the leadership of a proven QB to help make it happen.”

Currently, the Matthew Initiative has been part of the revitalization of eight churches in the North Georgia Conference and plans to work with more than six churches in 2015.

“At a time when mainline denominations are seeing a decline in membership, and losing children and young families, the Matthew Initiative is joyful news for the church,” Yancey said.

Sharon Yancey shares what she wishes she would have known just beginning her ministry, as well as practical advice for those just starting out.

What are 3-5 things you wish someone had told you before you started your ministry?

  • Listen to the still small voice urging you to move forward.  Do not listen to those, or the voice in your head, saying you can’t do it.  When it is God, nothing is impossible.  

  • When you are given a God-sized dream, God will also provide the resources to make it a reality.  Walk through the doors that open for you, and they will.  God has already given you the resources  you need to be successful; your mission is to discover what they are. 

  • Pray and read.  Carve out blocks of time for prayer, because that is where the power will come from.  “In the Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day” and the “The Circle Maker” by Mark Batterson were powerful reads in the early days of The Matthew Initiative.  

  • Move forward, be bold and have fun.  Lean into the urgency of your call, because God sees something you can’t at first.  Trust and get started.  

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

  • Form a powerful prayer team around yourself and your ministry.  Nothing is more important than this.  

  • Put a great deal of time into funding the ministry on the front end.  The need your ministry will address will always be there, but getting the ministry funded will help you go further, faster.  Seek out people who can help you do this, and God will put them in your path.  

  • Good things take time and so does establishing transformational ministries.  Make sure there is margin in all aspects of your life for the first two to three years.  

  • There will be “turbulence,” and you can count on that. When you are moving the needle for The Kingdom of God you will catch the crosswinds.  The greater the turbulence, the greater the breakthrough that often comes on the other side of it.  

  • Get comfortable with “uncertainty,” because this will be the new normal.  However, know that miracles seldom happen in our comfort zones.  In fact, I can tell you that the greatest miracles happen when we are way outside our comfort zones, which is exactly where God wants us to be.  

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