Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Church Power!

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Church Power!

Article excerpt

Building community and clout through congregation-based organizing.

In any genuine community... self-interest and public interest are not at odds, but are two names for the same thing. -Andrew Delbanco

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING has been around for a long time-cer¬tainly long before 2008, when it became a household word during Barack Obama's rise to the presidency. Not that it is understood nowadays any more than before.

I thought I knew what community organizing was when I served as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and was introduced to a newly formed faith-based organizing project called Inland Congregations United California. But I soon learned that com¬munity organizing had a different starting point, as well as a different methodology, than I thought.

As a pastor, I had always been concerned about challenging injustice. However, I came to understand that commu¬nity organizing is less about taking on yet another good cause and more about the important work of building human community.

As such, community organizing is a perfect fit for religious congrega¬tions and clergy. It addresses social justice concerns in the larger community, putting democracy to work by giving voice to ordinary families. But more important, community organizing can strengthen the life of the congrega¬tion. And it can bring power to the vocation of the religious leader.

There are four building blocks to community organizing-values, rela-tionships, power analysis, and self-interest.

VALUES. As I was being introduced to ICUC, I was also taking a continu-ing education course taught by Ched Myers on discipleship in the gospel of Mark. When he learned what our church was getting into, he threw out a challenge with an implied warning. You have no business getting into community organizing, he proposed, unless you ground everything you do in Bible study.

That made sense to me. I opened every meeting of our local organizing committee with prayer and a reflection on the scriptures. Every reading came alive when interpreted through the lens of the urgent needs of our community. For example, as we read the story of Jesus commissioning the 70 to take up his work by going two by two into the neighboring towns (Luke 10:1-11, 17-20), the group immedi¬ately saw a direct connection between what Jesus' disciples were doing in Galilee and what our church in San Bernardino was engaged in through community organizing. (And later-debriefing after a visitation cam¬paign aimed at listening to the concerns of neighbors-energized church leaders, like the 70 in Lukes gospel, talked with excite¬ment about how they too had "returned with joy")

While a professional organizer trained us in the tenets of organizing, it was my job to ensure that everything our church did was grounded in our core values: welcome, ser-vice, justice, love. These expressions became fundamental principles of our participation in this work: Organizing should always be values-driven, not issue-driven.

RELATIONSHIPS. During a service of installation celebrating the beginning of a new pastoral ministry, a good friend charged me with words that cut to the core: "Baker, let them know you love them!" That, of course, lies at the heart of every pastoral relationship.

What in ministry is commonly known as a "pastoral visit" is called by another name in organizing: the "one-to-one," or relational visit. Without mutual trust, nothing is possi-ble. Every effective pastor knows how essential it is to take time to get to know the congre¬gation before introducing major changes in worship and administration, to say nothing of challenging the membership to take on a controversial issue in the larger community.

This same attention to building pasto¬ral relationships is extended to lay ministry. With the help of the professional organizer, our church carried out a listening cam-paign-training laity to do one-to-ones with most of the members to discern their self-interests. …

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