Dis-Organize and Re-Organize, Repeat

by Jessica Tate

One of the “universals” of community organizing is this: All organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.

That makes me tired just hearing it. I’m a “J” on the Myers-Briggs. I like closure, decisions, orderliness. I want systems in place that function smoothly. I prefer stability and predictability.

That is fine and good, except when the stable stable system isn’t working well. Faced with that reality, I’m learning to embrace the constant flux of disorganizing and reorganizing.

Here’s an example of how dis-organizing and re-organizing put new life into the deacons’ ministry at the church I served.

Years ago the deacons had divided the congregation up into nine geographic “parishes.” Two deacons were assigned to each parish and asked to be the primary caregiver for their parish. The theory of the system was that people who live near to one another have more opportunity to be involved in each other’s lives on a day to day basis….to literally be neighbors to each other. 

Over time, the congregation began to draw members from further away and the parish map started to annex territory into its parishes. It looked like a gerrymandered congressional map. Since deacons weren’t nominated to fill geographical positions, it usually didn’t work out that the two deacons assigned to the parish actually lived in that geographic area and even if they did, it was unlikely they necessarily knew the people in their zip code. It was usually the case that each pair of deacons ended up with a parish of 40-50 individuals or families, three-fourths of whom they did not know. 

The deacons tried valiantly to make the parishes work. They hosted potlucks and five people would come. They tried making cold calls to everyone in their parish to introduce themselves. They sent letters every year with their pictures and asked people to say hello on Sunday morning and to call if they needed care. 

It didn’t work. People in the congregation “fell through the cracks.” The deacons felt disconnected from the people for whom they were asked to give care. They often felt like “the last to know” when a baby was born or a surgery was scheduled. Though they were trying hard and wanted to succeed and felt called to this caregiving work, they continually felt like they could not do their job well. But we kept at it. The system was predictable and stable. It was easy to manage. It just didn’t work.

One night at the monthly meeting, when frustration at the parish system was being voiced yet again, one deacon said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” 

The room froze. A rebellion. 

“I’m tired of trying to find ways to get strangers to let me be their deacon,” she continued. “I’m just going to be the best deacon I can to everyone in my Sunday school class and everyone who sits near me in worship.”

A few seconds ticked by and then another voice said, “Well I’m in the choir, I can be their deacon.” And another, “I’ll take my circle and the quilting group.” Suddenly, everyone was volunteering to be the deacon for the people in the congregation to whom he or she was already connected.

“Wait, wait,” someone said. “We can’t just choose these various groups that we like. We’ll leave out some people that aren’t in any of these groups.” “Yeah,” another person said, “choosing our own parishes feel too much like a popularity contest. That’s not fair to everyone.”

The debate went back and forth for a while when at the end, they decided that it made a lot more sense to anchor caregiving ministry with organic relationships and small groups that exist in the church. Those relationships and groups already provide care and often have more insight into what’s going on in someone’s life. To make sure no one was missed or left out of the new “relational parishes,” they spent their next meeting going through the membership rolls of all 700 members and making sure every person had a deacon. 

Dividing the congregation up by relationships worked and it didn’t even take that long to go through the roles. Between the two parish deacons, the ratio of relationships flipped. The deacons now knew three-fourths of the people in their parish and had much less anxiety about trying to meet and get to know the few families or individuals they had not yet met. They still send out letters to let the congregation members know who their deacons are. And those cold calls? Most of them aren’t “cold” anymore. It’s a friend calling a friend to check-in, pray, and offer companionship for the journey.

There are some downsides. There are fewer instances of the completely random friendships developing in the congregation because of a random geographic sort. The deacons have to re-divide the list every year when new deacons come on and bring with them whole new sets of relationships. They can’t just play favorites — they have to hold themselves accountable to get to know the handful of people in their parish to whom they aren’t already connected. It’s more work administratively to figure out which parish someone is in…you can’t just tell by the zip code anymore. But in exchange for real care actually happening? In exchange for caregiving done with a joyful heart? I’ll take the chaos of dis-organizing and re-organizing over predictability and stability any day.

 Jessica is the Director of NEXT Church. Prior to this call she served as Associate Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church and Co-Chair of the VOICE (a northern Virginia community organizing effort)
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