Congregational Power (Relational) Analysis

By Rebecca Messman

Power copyChristians often shy away from the use of the word “power” because it is seen as bad: power over, corrupted power, violent power, greedy power. Goliath bad! David good! Jesus blessed the meek, after all. God’s power is made perfect through weakness.

However, Christians do not shy away from conversations about the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer. I remember the old gospel song that crooned, “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder workin’ pow’r, in the blood of the lamb!”

Power is defined in community organizing simply as the ability to act on one’s values, from the Latin word poder, which meansto be able.” Power in organizing is not coercive power but relational power, the engine of relationships that are at work inside and outside of a congregation.

What is a power analysis?

Michael Gecan, one of the leading community organizers within the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), wrote,

“Many leaders of congregations operate without a clear and honest picture of the relational terrain in which they function – both inside the congregation and with the surrounding community. A basic understanding of which leaders have followings and influence, how they relate to one another, who determines what decisions are made and how money is spent, is what we call a power or relational analysis. At bottom, a power analysis is a relational map of the way an institution really functions and how that institution actually interacts with other institutions in the real world.” (Effective Organizing for Congregational Renewal, 13.)

Why do a congregational power analysis?

Without knowing who the true influencers of a congregation are, it is nearly impossible to do anything. The dynamics are constantly shifting, so this is not a “once and done” process. Most importantly, a power analysis grounds organizing to the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. The powerful people within a congregation may not be the ones whom the pastor thinks should be the leaders. Pastors or any would-be change agent cannot be held captive to stereotypes or wishful thinking. Leaders may not be the same from one Presbyterian Church to the next. For example, PW may hold significant sway at one church and be sidelined at another. The Session at one church, or even a subset of the Session, may decide everything at one church, while at another church, nothing moves forward without the support of the pastor.

How to do a congregational power analysis?

First, mapping out relationships and doing a power analysis require trust and sensitivity. There are always egos to be managed, antique grievances and hurts to be understood and either buried or ignored, and there is spin to be un-spun, as Gecan cautions. So, those best positioned to study the congregation are the leaders themselves. It cannot be done by outsiders. It is a confession about how things really happen, within the church and in its connection to the outside world. Second, it is based upon many trust-building individual meetings. Until church leaders and members know each other, through sitting down and listening to each other’s stories, there is not enough trust or knowledge to identify current leaders or tap future ones. A church that is acting as a transactional body, where leaders are only seen as committee chairs who run programs, misses many contours of its own life, and the leaders it does have get pigeonholed and eventually burn out. Finally, a power analysis needs to be done repeatedly, because all relationships are fluid. These shifts in congregational understanding are naturally done when a pastor leaves or arrives, which is why those can be such ripe moments for a church to change. But, it can paralyze a congregation and doom a pastorate if this is the only way major change occurs. People are constantly, whether blatantly or quietly, stepping up and stepping down, forging new connections and severing them.

Tapping new leaders.

For our congregation, a power analysis revealed to us that we could not rely upon the Service and Mission committee alone to do community outreach. The committee of deeply committed leaders was simply too small. We had exhausted their bandwidth. With training in community organizing, we embarked on a season of relational meetings, a relationship campaign of sorts, starting with Session and Deacons. In the summer, we incorporated these conversations into worship. Instead of a sermon, for two Sundays, the congregation spoke in small groups about what they believed broke God’s heart in the community around us. Where were we called, even gifted, as a church to speak to those needs? Those relational meetings were like a giant spoon stirring up energy and affecting the chemistry of our congregation. New leaders surfaced.

Before doing an individual meeting with a woman I’ll call Margaret, I – her pastor – knew her only through fellowship events and through the pastoral care space in the death of her aging family members. So, I noticed my own inclination to tap her for the fellowship committee or the congregational care team of deacons. But after hearing her story, of being a first generation American, of her passion for education, and her ability to organize just about anything she approached, I saw her differently. Now, she is leading our congregation’s new partnership with the elementary school across the street and has become a leading advocate for immigrants in our community.

What we can really do.

The flip-side of a power analysis is that is grounds a congregation in hard reality. It is easy to talk about justice, making an impact, loving our neighbor, speaking truth to power, and feeding the multitudes, but a power analysis forces the questions, “How?” “Who would do that?” “What impact are we hoping to make?” “What kind of coalition would we need to even be noticed by the ones really making the decisions in our municipality, in our county, in our state?” But it has been energizing for a group of faith communities in Fairfax County, Virginia to talk in these stark terms, but then to realize, if all 13 of the faith communities that we had already gathered, talked to 13 other specific faith communities with whom we already had relationships conveniently, and we worked together, we would have the power to get to the table with half of the Board of Supervisors of our county, one of the largest counties in the country.

Those relationships are allowing us to do more than talk about homelessness or feed the homeless, which we have all already been doing, but to find homes for them and prevent others from losing their homes as a new Metro line makes its way to our area and threatens to expunge our region of affordable housing. Alone and disorganized, we did not have the power to do this. But together, we were able to preserve one particular affordable housing community called Crescent Apartments. That victory was documented in the Washington Post. That effort fueled our imagination and brought out more new leaders.

Our communities were ravaged during the foreclosure crisis. Alone and disorganized, we would have raged against the machine, preached until we were blue in the face, and homes would have still been blighted and vacant, full of broken bottles and broken promises. But together, we were able to highlight the issue, gather congregation members from nearly 60 faith communities, 500 people packed into high school gyms or sanctuaries, over and over again, which got all sorts of media attention, and over the course of two years of pragmatic and deliberate action and agitating leaders, we were able to deliver $30 million dollars for mortgage modification and community investment.

And as the Bible says over and over again, seeing what the power of the Spirit can do, “we were amazed.”

Rebecca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA and a leader in Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. She is a regular blogger for the Presbyterian Outlook.

From the Files – Community Organizing, TBT Edition

filesHere are a few posts from the past NEXT blogs that are worth a re-read:

Andrew Foster Connors suggests that good stewardship requires more than better preaching and shares how their congregation has used discipline of organizing to create a relational stewardship campaign.

Jessica Tate explores how the organizing universal of Organize, Dis-organize, Re-organize, Repeat helped to give new life to the deacons’ ministry.

Patrick Daymond shares the power of relational ministry in this video from the 2013 NEXT National Gathering.

And if you haven’t yet looked at the community organizing bibliography Jeff Krehbiel compiled last year, here it is.

photo credit: nhighberg via photopin cc

Getting Organized

By Rocky Supinger

ICON-LogoThe congregation I serve as an Associate Pastor has been working in earnest for a few years on community organizing. Last week my colleague wrote about the impact this kind of organizing has had on the life of our church. I want to say something about the extra-congregational part.

In places like New Orleans, El Paso, and Chicago, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) style community organizing networks are well established, as has been impressively documented by Jeffrey Stout. Leaders and churches wanting to make an impact in those places can get connected to those networks and begin learning how organizing works hands on. But what if there is no network?

Claremont, California is on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles county but the western edge of what’s known as the “Inland Empire,” a vast unorganized swath of communities and municipalities with some of the highest jobless rates in the country. There’s no network here. There’s hardly anything unifying this region, save for the Ontario airport, which is dying a slow death. So a few years ago some organizers decided to try and build one.

This is where the Claremont Presbyterian Church got involved, on the ground floor of efforts to build a regional community organizing coalition. A major part of this ground floor work has been to learn the IAF philosophy and to reflect theologically on it. Friends like Jeff Krehbiel and Bob Linthicum have been invaluable resources here. But another major part of this work has been building an organization. And that’s a different kind of work altogether.

What started as the Inland Empire Sponsoring Committee has now become the Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON). Building this regional organization is teaching us some things. I’ll highlight two. First, community organizing is not inherently Presbyterian. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but it’s been a valuable learning.

The organizer in charge of getting ICON up and running became impatient with our church’s discernment. He was clearly used to working with church leaders whose churches did what the leader thought was most important; waiting for a congregation to learn about and a session to authorize public commitment (including financial commitment) to IAF’s ideals and aims created some tension we had to negotiate.

The other major learning concerns the conflict between getting important things done and strictly adhering to principle. The first issue ICON took on was a proposed waste transfer station in a neighborhood dotted with elementary schools. We joined rallies and wrote editorials decrying the proposal, and we surrounded more than one City Planning Commission meeting with megaphone-led chants. In the end, the proposal went forward, but with hard-won concessions about the station’s citizen oversight and the volume of traffic it was allowed. For these concessions our networked was branded as sellouts. We were shouted down by an angry crowd of fellow demonstrators wielding “no compromise” signs as we celebrated what we’d accomplished.

As we grow with ICON, our church is working some muscles it hasn’t worked in a while, and not without some strains. The NEXT Church is a building church, though, and we’re learning how to build something of value with partners who have different instincts. I think that’s making us better, and I think it’s making ICON better.

Rocky Supinger is Associate Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church. He blogs at

Alika Galloway (2014 National Gathering)

Alika Galloway preaches at the 2014 National Gathering Opening Worship and invites us into “contested spaces.”

Help Us Remember – A Prayer of Sending

Pastoral Prayer from the 2014 National Gathering Closing Worship

Gracious God, as we prepare to go out from this place:

Help us to remember. That is our prayer as our attention and our calendars start to turn back toward home. Help us to remember because in remembering, O God, we find your faithfulness to us, and so we find hope. And we are hungry for hope. Help us to remember the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that kindled in this place, the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that we found in each other and rediscovered in ourselves. Help us, O God, to remember the stories of the church that persists not because we have all the answers, but because you simply will not let us go. Your steadfast love endures forever. Help us to remember and trust that “the church lives by a thousand resurrections,” and resurrection does some of its best work in the dark. Help us to remember the calling you have placed upon us all: to shine light into the darkness, to offer an anchor in the storm, to bind up the broken and proclaim release to the captives, to seek the welfare of our cities. Help us to remember our people, our places, where the needs are great and the ache is strong: where chemo treatments continued in our absence, where hungers persisted, where families fell apart, where guns were used, where grief was renewed. As we head home, help us enter into those places but God almighty, you come, too, for surely they need you more than they need us. Help us all to remember that. Help us to remember your story, O God, your story of creating and longing, your story of building and planting and prompting, your story of prophets who raged and disciples who didn’t get it, your story of angels stuck on repeat saying, “Do not be afraid,” your story of a brutal cross and a broken son, your story of a stone rolled back and a brand new day… which is, of course, your story of reconciliation and redemption and grace and good, good news. It is the story that is saving our lives. So help us to remember, O God. Write it on our hearts because the church that is next is about the story that always has been and the love that always will be. Help us to remember today and every day that follows. Amen.

~ written by Jenny McDevitt, Pastor of Pastoral Care, Village Presbyterian Church Prairie Village, Kansas. (Jenny writes: “My theology professor Dawn DeVries assures me that “the church lives by a thousand resurrections” comes from John Calvin.)

Christ Becomes Visible

By Lois Bingham

A mouse and a frog met every morning on the riverbank.
They sat in a nook of the ground and talked.
Each morning, the second they saw each other,
they opened easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back.
To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it is written
when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.
(From Essential Rumi, 13th Century Sufi Poet)

V.O.I.C.E. (Virginian’s Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) is an affiliate of the IAF in Northern Virginia and last night I attended an Action Team meeting of 75 leaders from congregations across Northern Virginia. I found myself sitting beside a lovely woman who reported that she had never been to an Action Team Meeting. She had been involved in V.O.I.C.E. for some time and had even pushed for her congregation to join some years ago, and thought it was time to expand her knowledge and experience with the Community Organization. I had a small role in the meeting and afterward she leaned over to me and said, “I didn’t realize when we first spoke, that you were actually a leader here.” Her comment took me back to my early days when my congregation became involved in Congregational Community Organizing. It took me back to my very personal and internal struggle around becoming a leader in V.O.I.C.E. at both the community level as well as my church team level.

I was drawn to the idea of congregations combining forces – organizing people and money – to bring about real change in the places that really count: across race lines, in ecumenical and interfaith networks, and in civic and legislative discussions around issues of social injustice. As my church wrestled with its concerns about how best to engage these issues, I wrestled with mine, namely, what did I think I had to offer? I had never been an activist by any stretch and I did not see myself as a church leader.

At those early VOICE meetings, I listened to people’s stories: people losing their job, leaving the country of their birth to come here to find work but finding difficult working conditions instead, difficulty finding affordable housing near ailing family members or jobs, family members deported and other immigration issues, complicated dental problems that have a domino effect in people’s lives, lack of housing for the chronically unemployed because of mental illness or multiple medical problems – stories about the things that concerned them most in their lives and stories that made my heart sad every time I heard them or read a newspaper.

However, as time went on, I caught a vision of the possible cultural change that was possible, certainly for me, but also for my congregation. You see, community organizing is all about forming relationship with members of a congregation, and influential people in any community. These relationships cannot be shallow or transient – they must be consistent and persistent. I think it was the possible depth and power of these intense relationships that captured my imagination because I believe this is how people grow and develop. These intentional relationships can bring about change at every level.

Because the work is shared, and because training was available and even required, I slowly began to believe that I could contribute to this change – one day at a time. I was filled with both fear and determination to build relationships with people who share the values and concerns that I care about. Over time I have been changed by V.O.I.C.E. It has been a learning curve including all that is inherent in a learning experience. Even at age 72 I feel that I am still learning to be a true disciple for Christ as I try to discern the human need in my community and church. With the power of the Holy Spirit moving us forward, we continue, as members of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, on this journey of encouraging others to speak to issues that are unfair and unjust.

And like the mouse and the toad, Christ has become visible to all of us.


Lois Bingham is a VOICE Core Team Leader at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.



Building in Relationality

By Karen Sapio

safety net copyI’ll admit — when my congregation first began to be involved in broad based organizing, I was intrigued by it only partly because I saw its potential to make our community activism more effective.  I was equally–and perhaps more–attracted by its potential to help rebuild relational capital within our congregation.

I arrived as pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church in 2006.  For the first few years I assumed that I was the newcomer and that everyone else in the congregation knew each other.  The longer I was there, however, the more I learned that this was not the case.  There were some in the church that had long-standing friendships, but those were the exception.  Many felt that they had a strong connection to only a few other members of the church, or only to one of the pastors.  When we held a listening campaign during Lent 2013, the biggest thing we heard was “We really don’t know each other very well.”

This disconnectedness can impact ministry in so many ways:

  • good ideas don’t gain traction because the person with the good idea doesn’t know who else might be interested;
  • those who volunteer to lead teams or chair committees turn to the Pastors to recruit other team members because they don’t know others well enough to invite them directly;
  • folks make decisions about coming to worship based on whether they “like” what’s on the program for that Sunday rather than upon relationships with friends with whom they long to gather after a week apart;
  • invitations for playdates among children aren’t extended because the parents aren’t one hundred percent which kids belong to who.
  • And it impacts wider activism as well: people who are not having sustained conversations rarely discover common cause.

We certainly haven’t solved this problem yet, but I think we are making progress.  We haven’t done this by adding another layer of programs to help us get to know each other– that sounded like a burden to everyone’s over-scheduled lives.  Instead, little by little, we are trying to build relationality into things we are already doing.

A few examples:

  • Instead of the Pastor offering a generic opening prayer at the beginning of a meeting, we asked people to break into groups of three and share any burdens that might keep them from attending to the work that was before us.  This was followed by a bidding prayer in which those concerns could be lifted up by anyone in the group.
  • When the Session met with potential new members, instead of our former practice of having each one give a brief introduction to the whole Session, we broke into several groups and asked each person in the group–new members and Session members– to give a five minute “snap shot” of their faith journey.
  • Both pastors have preached at least one sermon recently in which they asked a question and invited those gathered to turn to those close to them and share possible responses to that question for a few minutes before the sermon resumes.  We’ve also begun to invite more testimony into worship through interviews and storytelling.

None of these are wildly creative, but this slow cultivation of relationships does seem to be bearing fruit among us.  We are trying to discipline ourselves as leaders to seek opportunities to make small shifts toward relationship building in everything we do.

Jesus found his earliest disciples when they were at work mending their nets.  We like to think that we too are mending and re-weaving a network of relationships that will lead to stronger ministry.

SapioKaren Sapio is the Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Why Congregations are Stuck

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

We can do itI had an “aha” this weekend about why many of our congregations seem so stuck.

I attended a “Building and Empowering Communities” leadership training sponsored by VOICE, a group of congregations and institutions in northern Virginia that are doing community organizing around issues of affordable housing, immigration, and other issues.

The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.

The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”

To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.

Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”

Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.

But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.

Here are three realizations I had:

1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.

Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”

It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!

2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.

“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why andhow. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”

Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?

3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource. 

Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”

There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.

My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?

mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church and and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a Co-Chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team. This post was originally posted to her blog The Blue Room in June 2013.

photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc

Change Rooted in Relationships

By Ashley Goff

children_youth_1Why do the same people do everything around here? Why do I feel burned out? Where are all the new people? Where can we find people to do all this work? Who can we get someone to fill “x” position?

I heard these questions a lot when I arrived on the scene at Church of the Pilgrims in 1999.

We were living in a “this-is-sucking-the-life-out-of-us-culture.” People were compartmentalized into committees, with tasks and identities cementing them into an endless cycle of administrative anxiety rather than relationships and community building.

Pilgrims became aware of this dynamic, acted upon this realization, and in a prophetic sweep blew apart the committee structure to make way for a more fluid, open, organic way that was grounded in process rather than mind-numbing bureaucracy.

When Jeff Krehbiel arrived, he introduced community organizing and the foundational organizing tool—the relational meeting.

Over time, with our process-oriented structure, we’ve shifted into a “culture of possibility” with the relational, 1-on-1 meetings.

What is a 1-on-1 meeting?

  • A 30-60 minute meeting of face-to-face conversation with another person
  • A conversation about what the person’s passions, hopes, and dreams.
  • An opportunity to go outside the bounds of traditional congregational meetings that usually have an “ask” at the end.
  • A way of creating space for new ideas and possibilities.
  • A way of identifying new leaders with the ability to create change.

A 1-on-1 meeting is not:

  • A chance to find someone to fit into long-standing tasks and preconceived agenda.
  • Therapy or pastoral counseling.
  • An intellectual conversation about politics and head-trippin’ theology.
  • An interview of non-stop questions and putting someone in the “hot seat.”

What Happens During a 1-on-1 meeting?

  • “Why” is woven throughout the conversation.
  • The person who initiated the 1-on-1 structures the beginning and end. The middle part is improvisation based on the story of the particular person.
  • Risks are taken to go deeper into one or two things about the person’s story, especially when the person says something like, “I thought about being a physicist but became a personal chef.” Huh. I wonder what that transition is about.
  • Have a conversation! Share about yourself in the back-and-forth.
  • Close by asking who else you should meet with.

Organizing in the Flesh:

When do I experience organizing in the flesh? What difference do these meetings make? What does a “culture of possibility” look like at Pilgrims?

I try to do relational meetings at least twice a month. I can feel it when my calendar runs low on these meetings. I feel more rooted in myself and my work when I am consistent with this discipline of organizing. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone new at Pilgrims the congregation feels even more alive. When I do a 1-on-1 with someone who has been at Pilgrims for 30 years, I cherish their story and commitment to this place with more fervor.

Several weeks ago, Hannah Webster, our Elder for Hospitality and Evangelism, led a meeting to organize for the annual Capital LBGTQ Pride parade in June. Neither I nor Jeff was at the meeting. I ran into Hannah at the conclusion of her gathering and asked how it went.

Hannah’s reply, “great, we are going to make our festival booth more “like us” this year. Meaning, they want our booth at the Pride Festival to be more participatory and experiential. That means handing out essential oils made from honey and herb from Pilgrims urban garden and getting a photo booth.

Eight people showed up to this meeting because Hannah had done the relational work. Long-time members, new members and non-members were at the meeting. Hannah led the meeting, allowing space for free flowing ideas to erupt. Hannah didn’t control the meeting. She let the relationships in the meeting drive the vision for Pride. The group realized our booth needed to fit into our “culture of possibility” with participatory, relational experiences.

Change is happening all the time in our permission-giving space from creativity in worship, how we run meetings, who leads the meetings, and how new ideas are embraced and rise-up. Leaders at Pilgrims are cultivated through passion and interests, rather than inserting folks into long-standing, nostalgia based “to-do” lists and “this is what we’ve always done” repetitious activity.

We know names and stories. We know how to make our culture intentional. We appreciate each other and know that we are in this Jesus movement together. We take risks. We trust each other. We know we have something to offer to those who walk through our door—it’s a Story of transformation and change rooted in relationships.

worship3Ashley Goff is Associate Pastor at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC. She blogs at God of the Sparrow.

Cooking Up Trouble: Building a Church-Based Micro-Enterprise Kitchen

By Mark Greiner

If you want to change people’s ideas, you shouldn’t try to convince them intellectually. What you need to do is get them into a situation where they’ll have to act on ideas, not argue about them.

–       Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School (training labor leaders, civil rights leaders, and community organizers in Appalachia and the South)

cooking“Acting on faith” drives learning. Ministry often feels like getting into enough trouble that we’re propelled to pray and create a way through.

Four years ago, Takoma Park Presbyterian Church did a five-month internal listening campaign. Engaging the entire worshipping congregation bore fruit: 5 key goals emerged, including “addressing local inequalities.”  Calling out inequalities upsets the “business as usual” equilibrium.

Our church’s equilibrium involved advocacy but not organizing. We had cried out for justice but had not moved into building ongoing relationships. Building multiple relationships in the local community makes conscious the tensions within which we are living. Personalizing tensions through relationship edges us into situations “where we’ll have to act.”

Addressing local inequalities has moved us into relationships across the power spectrum. Through interviews with both formal leaders and hungry people, we discerned needs in our community. As our project unfolded, we agitated legislators and learned how money and influence actually moves. Organizing has unveiled how power functions in our county, so we’re more capable of further action.

We rapidly became concrete. Surveying our assets, we recognized our church building could be offered in further service, particularly our unused commercial-grade kitchen. Working with partners in the local food justice movement, we interviewed Latina moms in one of the local schools with a high incidence of childhood hunger. Many told us they want to start food businesses to earn a living and need a commercial kitchen space to produce food to sell legally.

We spent a year engaging the members of our county council to change the zoning laws. Now, throughout our county, congregations with commercial grade kitchens (in residential neighborhoods) are allowed to rent out their space. Already, other area congregations have begun exploring how to alleviate hunger through the retail use of their kitchens.

Then we spent a year in fundraising, including getting $250,000 in grants through legislation passed in Maryland state government. Now we are designing the renovation so the kitchen can open, fleshing out both the architectural and business plans.

“The kitchen that can change lives” has three components: job creation through micro-enterprise, education (for employable skills and nutrition), and distributing food to hungry people.

Even before the kitchen is renovated and open, we’ve sponsored food handling licensing classes in English and Spanish. With licensing, people can gain better jobs or work in our kitchen once it opens.

At our recent gathering with neighbors, we had a variety of immigrants and others who wanted to learn how they will be able to use the kitchen. We also had about 8 candidates for local office and two members of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. We demonstrated our power to build bridges across ethnicity and class. We are “on the map” politically, able to exercise power for the common good. While we have ongoing neighborhood gatherings and much support, we do also have neighborhood opposition. Our opponents both signal our efforts are being felt and  raise valid concerns that are helping us better design the kitchen and program.

We could not have gotten this far without the generous outpouring of encouragement. Business leaders (who will eventually provide markets for food produced in the kitchen), microcredit organizations, and social entrepreneurs have provided extraordinary levels of insight. From our church and neighborhood, a tenacious, dynamic leadership team has emerged.

And yet, the work continues. Creating a micro-enterprise kitchen keeps us learning about “the world as it is”: both a welter of regulations and the limited credit available to small businesses thwarts job creation. We’ve come far in three years, but we’re still working through a variety of hurdles before renovation can begin.   The actions and challenges keep us at gut level learning:

  • Organizing is fun.

Organizing has engaged our church in many, many conversations and relationships would not have had otherwise. We increasingly know the complex texture of our county.

  • Action creates a chain reaction

Expect resistance. Organizing is continuous. Each action has called to further action and to engage new conversation partners.

  • Relentless persistence is necessary….and fruitful.

Myles Horton again: “Anything worth doing takes a lifetime to do….One of the jobs I enjoy most is to create little islands of decency, places for people to be human.”

  • Hunger is a symptom.

Hungry people want to work.   The lack of a living wage and affordable housing makes many neighbors hungry in seemingly affluent, suburban Maryland.

  • Poor nutrition is not about a lack of available calories.

Poor nutrition is about a food system designed for corporate profitability. Our food system is not yet about regenerative agriculture organized to feed people sustainably.

Action stirs up trouble and changes lives. Jesus inaugurated public ministry by reading the Isaiah scroll:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because the Most High has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim

liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

With these words as the church’s charter, I’m troubled. I’m pushed way outside my comfort zone to act in concert with others. Where the need is great and I begin with few practical skills, I’m moved more deeply into community and humbled repeatedly to rely on Grace.


Kittner_20130918_3524Mark Greiner is the pastor of Takoma Park Presbyterian Church ( To learn more about “the kitchen that can changes lives” visit  Action in Montgomery (AIM) is the community organizing group of which we are members. AIM is part of the Industrial Areas foundation.  


photo credit: notarim via photopin cc