5 lessons pastors should learn from community organizers

December 22nd, 2014

When I graduated seminary, I had no idea how to run a church.

I had learned pretty well how to think critically, study the Bible, and preach, but when it came to dealing with the organization of a church and its work in the world, I knew next to nothing! My guess is a lot of seminary graduates can relate.

My ignorance led, predictably, to frustrating incompetence in my first appointment as a pastor. People spoke highly of my sermons, and they thought I was a nice, intelligent person, but beyond that I was in over my head. After two years I quit.

Luckily, my older brother took me under his wing.

He was serving his second church, had a lot more experience than me, and was ready to start something new. With the help and encouragement of many others, we started Matthew 25, a faith-based nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Over the next seven years, I learned a ton about how to create strong community both in middle-class churches and low-income neighborhoods (as well as effective strategies for connecting the two). I helped develop programs that engaged people of faith and local residents to become instrumental in rebuilding our city after the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history.

Much of what I learned came from on-the-job experimentation, but along the way, I also picked up some valuable lessons from community organizers and community developers. These teachers came from different backgrounds and schools of thought, but what they all shared in common was experience in the work of getting people together to get things done.

The church is meant to build the kingdom of God on earth.

Another term for the kingdom of God, popularized by Martin Luther King, Jr., is the Beloved Community. Like Jesus, King believed that Christianity was a movement for positive change, not a protector of the status quo. But positive change rarely comes without organized effort. I emphasize this because too many pastors and church members fall into the pattern of acting like their job is to protect the existence of the church rather than to be agents of community transformation.

But how do we do that work?

What follows is not even close to a comprehensive list of community organizing lessons, but these are some basics that I think translate really well to the job of leading a church. Speaking of which, lesson number one…

1. You are not the leader.

As a pastor, it is not your job to lead the charge or tell people what they are supposed to do. Instead, your job is to help people hear and follow God’s call.

Community organizers learn this lesson the hard way, by trying to lead people and having no one follow. People are not usually interested in following the organizer’s vision. People have their own needs, desires and self-interests. The job of an organizer is to listen to individuals, learn what matters most to them and help those with common interests work together for the change they desire. (Henry Moore used to tell a great story illustrating this point, called “If It’s Rats, It’s Rats!”)

Likewise, the job of a pastor is to listen really well to the members of his or her congregation. By listening, a pastor starts to learn where God is already at work, what people are dealing with and longing for, and who might work together.

2. One-on-ones are absolutely essential.

Listening to members of the community — or church — has to be a series of intentional acts. It is a disciplined practice that involves scheduling visits, asking good questions, taking notes and following up. (Sometimes it’s best to take notes after the conversation rather than during.) In community organizing circles, these listening sessions are called one-on-ones. Organizers are evaluated based on the number of one-on-ones they conduct each week and are expected to share what they learned from these intentional conversations. The church equivalent to a one-on-one is the home visit.

If you’re a pastor in a very small church, you might be able to visit every member of your congregation, but for most pastors that’s just not possible. The same thing is true for neighborhoods or any other group of people who might share a common interest. The way community organizers handle this is by recruiting leaders as soon as possible.

For example, when I was organizing blocks for a flood recovery neighborhood rebuilding program, the first people I looked for were potential block leaders. Why? To save myself some work! Block leaders helped me expand my reach into the community exponentially. Instead of me knocking on every door of multiple blocks each month, I quickly learned to find block leaders who would be in regular communication with their neighbors and share that information with me during block leader meetings. They also organized and hosted block meetings in their homes so I wouldn’t have to be in charge of inviting residents to every meeting.

The ideal block leader was positive, friendly, reliable, outgoing enough to talk to neighbors, believed in his/her neighborhood and had decent listening skills. These people exist in your church, and they would be great at visiting other members. If you set up a visitation ministry in your church and meet with your visitation leaders regularly, you will become an incredibly well-informed pastor. You and your team will see connections and possibilities you never knew existed. You will discover gifts within your congregation that may have been there for years, just waiting to be unearthed.

Note: Doug Anderson and Michael J. Coyner’s book, “Race to Reach Out,” provides great instruction on how to build a visitation team for newcomers to your church. I think most, if not all, of its lessons can also be applied to existing members.

3. Focus on assets more than needs.

Every community has needs. Every community has problems. In fact, a community organizer’s job is often defined as helping communities address needs or solve problems together. So, we can’t ignore those needs or those problems, but DO NOT focus on them.

Here’s what happens when you focus on needs and problems. People become negative, whiny, angry victims. Every conversation turns into complaining about what hasn’t happened and blaming the people “in charge” for not making it happen soon enough. This is hell for the community organizer, and completely derails forward progress.

I have yet to meet a pastor who hasn’t dealt with this same issue. When any group of people is given an opportunity to complain, there will always be individuals ready to spend an entire meeting blaming others for what’s wrong with their lives.

Likewise, every pastor knows how exhausting it can be to chase after needs or try to solve problems for others. The overwhelming stress of trying to meet congregational needs often leads to very unhealthy clergy. On a systemic level, the same is true for congregations. If a congregation spends all its time focused on needs and problems, it will become unhealthy and eventually die.

A much better practice is to focus on assets and solutions. You’ve probably heard this before, but it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder. In community organizing, this is called “Asset-Based Community Development.” Northwestern University in Illinois has an ABCD Institute devoted to this school of thought. Basically, ABCD asks us to recognize and draw from our own abundance instead of lamenting a perceived scarcity.

For instance, say you have a “School In Need of Assistance.” You could talk about how many poor kids attend the school, how low the test scores were last year, how many single-parent families there are, how the school staff, school district, or parents are failing to provide kids with an adequate education, ensuring a future without hope for these needy children. All these issues are real and have been measured in order to figure out who is to blame for the problem, and who will be punished if it isn’t fixed. The effect is teacher and administrator burnout, angry parents, opportunistic politicians and usually no improvement for children.

Asset-based community development starts with a different truth: All children are gifted, and our community has the ability to nurture these gifts. It identifies strong parents, good teachers, supportive businesses, churches, and volunteer organizations who believe in that truth and care about kids enough to work together as allies instead of adversaries. Instead of pointing fingers, people join hands and pitch in.

4. Connect the assets you discover.

If you listen to your congregation and look for gifts, you (and your visitation team) will discover opportunities to join complimentary gifts together for powerful ministry. You may find out that Jack Miller, a retired electrical engineer, has a passion for tinkering with computers. Meanwhile, Blake and Cody Simpson are trying to get a “makers” group together to experiment with circuitry. No one knew of this common intergenerational interest until your monthly visitation team meeting. Now you’ve got the beginnings of a “hacking ministry” you never knew you needed.

That’s a fun example, but the process can work for addressing deep and painful realities too. Over time, you may find out that three families in your church have gay children who have been bullied and ostracized at school. They shared that with you or members of your visitation team when you asked about prayer concerns, but they never would have during Sunday worship. Each family felt alone and uneasy about asking for support from their church, fearing judgment. Now they can connect with each other and maybe even help advocate for other families in the community whose gay children are being harmed.

Whether it’s a fun project or a serious issue, there is huge power in connecting people on common ground. A shared passion or experience can be the basis for lifelong positive relationships that strengthen the fabric of your congregation and community. Above all, it helps people feel like they belong.

One other important thing to note about this step is that your work is connecting, not doing. You are not leading the hacking ministry or the support group for parents with gay children. In fact, by not leading it, you give it a greater chance of success, because people feel most included when they are active as contributors rather than recipients. Your job is to support teamwork, not be the captain of every team.

5. Celebrate every win.

Successful community organizers and the people they work with always have an idea for the desired end result, their own version of the kingdom of heaven or the Beloved Community. That vision can drive communities to undertake enormous efforts and make huge sacrifices. But without small victories along the way, even the grandest dreams wither and die.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, participants sang and clapped while they were marching! They hadn’t even won anything yet. They were getting attacked by dogs and fire hoses, but for them, the very act of communal protest was a victory over their oppressors. Organizers like MLK and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were part of a movement that had been working for change for generations. They couldn’t afford to wait until all was well. Instead, they celebrated each step of progress along the way.

You want the whole harvest, of course, but go first for the low-hanging fruit, and celebrate each win, no matter how small. This will energize your congregation and empower them to adopt the identity of capable people rather than victims. Over time, each experience of victory will increase their capacity to accomplish even bigger feats. It will also signal to the rest of the community that you are a Good News people, and with God, anything is possible.

You can see more of Courtney's work at CourtneyTBall.com, or sign up to receive his weekly email, “Life and Depth.”

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