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Community Chaplaincy for Nones and Dones

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Renee Roederer

It’s always risky to begin a conversation with a controversial statement, but I’ve decided to take the plunge here. From time to time, I motivate myself with a particular observation:

In the Gospels, there are no stories — not even one — of Jesus working really hard inside a synagogue on behalf of a synagogue.

I say that less as an effort to critique and more as an opportunity contemplate what is possible. Let me first assuage what is potentially controversial here: I value the ministry that takes place inside our church buildings. Ministry tasks of administration, programming, and planning create possibilities for faith to form and relationships to grow. They matter, as do the people who make them happen.

But I also know this: pastors frequently face expectations which limit their work to what happens inside the church — that is, inside the circle of congregational membership and inside the church building itself. In a time of congregational decline, members of churches are also anxious to increase activities inside their own circles and buildings.

If we aren’t careful, we can become isolated from the larger community and our local neighborhoods. We can get stuck in a Gospel narrative that doesn’t exist — working solely inside a church for the sole benefit of a church.

Last September, the Presbytery of Detroit decided to take a plunge with me. Together, we created a new role for ordained ministry. I had the opportunity to draft this role in concert with the Committee on Ministry. They took a creative risk and stretched their categories of validated ministry to make it happen. I am the first community chaplain in the Presbytery of Detroit. More specifically, I am a Community Chaplain for Nones and Dones. That’s my actual, quirky title. Strange as it may sound, it’s a perfect expression of what I’m commissioned to do.

Community – My work takes place primarily in the community. I attend community events, build friendships, and foster connections between people. I am often able to educate congregations about events, movements, and local needs in our neighborhoods.

Chaplain – Regionally within Southeast Michigan and on the University of Michigan campus, I meet regularly with people from a variety of religious backgrounds (and none, see below). Over coffee or lunch, we discuss large questions of faith and spirituality, discern purpose and calling, and talk about the gifts and stressors of everyday life.

Nones and Dones – This is the most unique part of my role. I am commissioned specifically to community members and students who feel disenfranchised from the church and organized religion. Long before there was an official ministry role with a title, there was a community. For the last year and a half, I’ve been organizing a new community called Michigan Nones and Dones. This community includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (Nones), people who have left established forms of institutional churches (Dones), and people who practice particular faith traditions but seek new, emerging visions for their expression. We meet in coffee shops and restaurants to discuss spirituality, and we make meaning together as we form friendships.

I feel absolutely alive in this calling, and it’s an understatement to say I’m grateful to serve in this capacity. I believe that the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs to open new possibilities for ministry service. We have creative seminarians who are nearing graduation, and many long to initiate innovative expressions of church and community life. They are completing their studies at the precise moment when fewer traditional ministry roles are available. In conversation with them, why not open the doors for new expressions of spiritual leadership?

My deepest hope is to see new expressions of community chaplaincy replicated and funded throughout the Presbyterian Church (USA). If we build this vision, we will inspire our congregations to venture more deeply into their local neighborhoods as well.


If you’d like to talk more with Renee about Community Chaplaincy, feel free to email her at revannarbor@gmail.com. Or better yet, come to the NEXT Church National Gathering and have a conversation with her over coffee (her favorite)! See also the rich history and vision of Community Chaplaincy at Focused Community Strategies in Atlanta.

Balancing Leadership

Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, just wrapped up her year of service with us. Here we post one of her final blogs about the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

It takes a whole village to make a movement. Sure, we have a few key leaders who facilitate groups to make progress on different projects, whether those are in churches, the little league team, girl scout troop, or office, but the core of a movement is multiple participants. Leaders often work with different types of people: those who are willing to do whatever is needed, those who eagerly commit to specific tasks, and those who are passive but will respond when asked directly and personally. All are needed for a successful action.

In meetings that go really well, the energy in the room is bubbling over. Folks cannot wait to be a part of the project! Those are the days facilitators live for, when all the slots on the sign-up sheet fill up in minutes!

tsr_4642_webOther times, the room feels dead.

Who wants to bring lemonade to the picnic?

Bueller?

Bueller?

In Worldchanging 101, David LaMotte differentiates between the hero myth and the movement narrative. The hero myth says that when a crisis arises, we need a hero, someone fundamentally different from us to come save the day. Normal folks like us should just sit around and wait for that hero to show up because it could never be us. Sometimes in a meeting, when you ask your team members to commit to future action, it can feel like everyone is waiting for that hero to show up.

The movement narrative shows the truth of how social change and progress have happened. It takes more than one hero’s split-second reaction to a crisis to create real change. Our school textbooks tell us stories of key leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks who made the change happen. As LaMotte points out, Rosa Parks was a part of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and Women’s Political Council for twelve years before she was arrested. Once she refused to move to the back of the bus, hundreds of women mobilized to print and distribute flyers calling for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Folks showed up to organize ride-sharing services so that people could still get to and from work. The movement was organized!

Still, how does that happen? When everyone has multiple pulls on their time and attention at every moment, how do we come together as a movement today? In my own leadership and facilitation this year, I have struggled with these questions. How do we keep moving forward when everyone feels stuck? As leaders, we cannot take all of the burden onto our own shoulders while our team is spinning its wheels.

In an ideal world, sending out a blanket email asking for commitments to the church potluck would receive many committed responses from volunteers ready to act. But we do not live in an ideal world. The general ask is always important. It allows folks to step up if they have not had a role in the past or to self-identify their own interests and take ownership of a project. The general ask is always essential, but it is rarely sufficient. Sending one email asking your team to sign up to be at a booth will not fill every single slot. In those cases, leaders must specifically ask certain individuals to commit to certain tasks. “Tim, can you be in the booth 10:00-12:00 on Saturday morning?” That puts more of the burden on the leader, but it achieves the end goal of maintaining a presence in the booth throughout the event. At the same time, it is important for leaders to balance adjusting their work in response to others. It is not sustainable to continuously hunt people down to follow through if they never respond.

If we are truly building movements and not heroes, then leaders must find that delicate balance of delegation and micro-managing. When that happens, we can make successful and functional progress. We’re building something together.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams just wrapped up her year with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Victory! Now What?

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

This week, Washington Interfaith Network celebrated a win after a three year organizing campaign around closing a homeless shelter in Washington, DC! DC General used to be a hospital. After the hospital closed, the city decided to turn it into transitional family shelter to handle the crisis of family homelessness the city faced over ten years ago. The grounds of DC General are dilapidated. The building has extreme maintenance needs that have gone unaddressed for years. Up until a few years ago, the children living at DC General had no playground or park. The laundry facilities are in disrepair. The food served in the cafeteria is often past its due date and/or moldy. The facility frequently has rats or even raccoons inside! The shelter was not a priority for City Council until 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from the campus over two years ago. Clearly, this is not a place for any humans to live.

dc generalMayor Muriel Bowser committed to closing DC General and opening up smaller family transitional shelters throughout the city when she took office in January 2015. I have been aware of and involved in this campaign since September 2015. This week, the City Council approved Mayor Bowser’s bill to close DC General and open transitional shelters! The bill has experienced a series of edits and the version approved is different from the original plan Mayor Bowser originally proposed. While the plan may not be perfect, the city has made great strides in actively striving to improve lives of families experiencing homelessness. It’s a victory! Hooray!

So now what?

In organizing, we know that a win only means that we have more work to do. Yes, the bill has been approved by the City Council; however, the work doesn’t stop there.

  • Many of the proposed shelter locations require zoning changes in order for construction to begin.

  • Providing housing for the 250 families currently housed in DC General does nothing to slow the affordable housing crisis happening throughout the city.

  • Sure, the council unanimously approved this plan, but we still have to be proactive about holding them accountable to their actions.

We “won,” but the work is far from over.

In a similar vein, after a year of searching, my home church has just called two associate pastors. Hooray! We will finally have a full staff of called and installed teaching elders after many years of transition.

So now what?

Now comes the process of welcoming these new members of our community. One of the pastors was serving as an interim, so this transition means she can continue the good work that has already begun. She can put more energy into seeing a longer term vision now that she knows she is not leaving when the nominating committee finds someone else. The other pastor is receiving her first call out of seminary and moving to a new place physically and vocationally. Now is the time to lay the groundwork of new relationships, to continue fostering ministries, and to create space for new perspectives.

We’ve ended our pastoral search, but our work is far from over.

Through both of these times of transition, relationships and listening to others is crucial in paving a healthy and functional way forward. Some work is over and should be celebrated! And there is more work to do. God is working through these transitions to continue to create the world as it should be.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

The Art of Meeting

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

Meetings are a fact of life. Our schedules are full of them. Before this year, I had a few ideas and understandings of what meetings where and how they operated. They never start on time. They always go over time. You never get through the entire agenda in the time limit. Something will always come up that takes more than the budgeted time to flesh out, or someone will focus on a miniscule detail for far too long. I will be the first to admit that I have been the reason for every one of these unpleasantries in many meetings.

tsr_5246_webBefore working with NEXT Church and learning about organizing from Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), I thought that was the only possible way to meet. What I have learned, though, is that it is possible to bring a group of people together on the phone or around a table for a productive and relational conversation, covering every point on the agenda, creating space for questions, and ending on time. It takes a combination of planning ahead, moderation, and, perhaps most importantly, being in relationship.

As I have mentioned before, the foundation of community organizing is built upon relational meetings. When we sit face to face with another person, share a bit of our journey and listen to another’s, each of us opening up to vulnerability, it brings us into community with each other. We can better understand what the other brings to the table and what motivates that person to act, which allows us to empathize more in conversation. The solidarity of community that I feel in NEXT Church leadership meetings and at WIN action planning meetings are what fuel me to be better and to do more to create the world as it should be.

Each of us have likely experienced a meeting that became more of a social hour to catch up on life or an airing of grievances than a time to brainstorm to develop a plan of action. This is where the moderation and planning is key. When planning a meeting, organizing has taught me to ask key questions: What reaction do you want? What is the goal of this time together? What is something tangible you want to take away from this hour? When planning an action, you may want a set of next steps with people responsible for each part. When you need to create space for people to voice concerns, ask questions, share stories, or think about the bigger picture, perhaps a listening session is the better staging for a gathering. In any of these situations, it is still important to create time to build and foster relationships, which can be built into the agenda as a rounds question. At the most basic level, identifying names, locations, and organizations represented is helpful for every person to become more acquainted with others in the room. At a deeper level, folks can share where they are feeling stuck in their work, challenged by the world, or hopeful in their context, which will spur the conversation forward.

In any meeting setting, the moderator holds the important role of keeping the team on task, respecting all voices, and discerning when to allow a fruitful discussion to continue for the betterment of the group. Sometimes this means respectfully interrupting someone to refocus to the agenda. Other times, this means amending the agenda because someone raises a fundamental question the leaders had not considered, but it is one that deserves special thought and attention. By developing and distributing an agenda ahead of time and giving an overview at the beginning of the meeting, a moderator can prevent some of the tangents in the first place. From participating in, planning, and leading meetings with WIN and NEXT Church this year, I have come to believe that planning, moderation, and relational time make for the best meetings.

What are some of your best practices for leading meetings effectively?


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Challenges of Organizing a Movement

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

When a group tries to bring together people from many different backgrounds, it can be unwieldy… and beautiful. Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), my local community organizing affiliate, has over 50 member institutions, including labor unions, Protestant and Catholic churches, a mosque, a synagogue, and community organizations representing thousands of DC residents. With such a broad base of people bringing their different perspectives to the table, it is definitely challenging to focus energy around a specific cause or plan of action. In these days of extreme polarization, one may ask how it is possible to build consensus or find common ground on anything. From my experience, inviting so many to the table is one of the most difficult parts of this work, but it is also one of the most essential. To lose any part of that broad base is to lose power, or, as organizing defines power: the ability to do something.

tsr_4472_webWIN meetings are some of the most diverse spaces of my week, but with that diversity comes different theologies, political ideologies, genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, values, and ideas. Maintaining focus on a given campaign or keeping interest in a particular method of action can be incredibly difficult. I greatly admire organizers who can read a room and smoothly run a meeting while respecting the voices of all at the table. I am committed to that broad base and keeping as many voices at the table as possible because I believe that’s how Jesus Christ lived. Our society is still segregated by race and class, but when we all join around a table, we live out the body of Christ. I see glimpses of heaven, the world as it should be, when we are in community around a table discussing door knocking, phone calls, listening sessions, and planning an action. I feel closer to this city and closer to God when I am in the room with folks I may have never met had I not been involved with WIN.

However, we all know situations when sitting around a meeting table felt more like hell than heaven, when one person derails the entire meeting to go on an irrelevant tangent, when not every person is on the same page regarding the agenda or planned method. Meetings can be particularly difficult for folks who are just getting a taste for organizing (an experience not unlike walking into our sanctuaries for the first time!). Maybe this is their first organizing meeting and a friend invited them to come, or maybe they are simply fed up with not having a voice in community changes. Perhaps this is the first time they are engaging with a particular issue agenda, and they are lacking the background context. Maybe this is the first time they have sat at a table and had real discussion with folks who do not look, think, or act like them. Just as it would be impossible to give 500 years of history of the Reformed order of worship at the beginning of every service, trying to cram all the philosophy of the organization and history of the issue into the first five minutes of every single meeting is impossible. Unfortunately, not every person connected to WIN comes with a background knowledge of community organizing and jargon dictionary at the ready. Often, they come in with a friend, some questions, perhaps some anger or agitation, and a desire to make change.

So, how do we welcome people into a movement? How do we welcome others into a conversation and community that is already in progress and will continue when they are gone? How do we invite others to the table to be the body of Christ with us? How do we invite them to make the world as it should be with us? How do we live out Christ’s call to love each other as we love ourselves? I think each of us could learn a bit about how to expand the we to include folks who may not have had a voice in the meeting and a seat at the table before.

What I have learned from organizing is that it is all about the relational quality of the gathering. Every organizing meeting begins with a rounds question, just so we all know who is in the room, a bit of where each person comes from, and what they are bringing to the table. Giving each person a voice at the beginning of the meeting can help those uncertain to speak the confidence to share their voice again later.

What are some practices that you have experienced that help to welcome people into a new institution so they feel involved and integrated quickly?


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Activism vs. Organizing

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in two direct actions, one focused on the federal government and the other directed toward local transportation authorities.

Planting the Seeds of Action

angela-dem-springFor the federal action, I first received news regarding the plans for massive acts of civil disobedience via email a few weeks beforehand. Democracy Spring was a 16-day action that began with an 8-day march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, and culminated in 8 days of sit-ins at the US Capitol building in the name of getting big money out of politics.

When I originally received the emails, I thought about what brought me to DC. I first felt the call to activism, advocacy, and community organizing when I attended a memorial service and march of 20,000 people protesting the Philippine government’s response to Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. That day I felt God calling me back to my home country where I could use my voice to create positive social change. When the #BlackLivesMatter movement was marching in Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago, and New York, I longed to stand in solidarity with people who have historically, and presently, experienced systemic discrimination. I have lived in Washington, DC, for seven months and participated in zero protests, demonstrations, or marches. Plus, the kickoff for the week of sit-ins was on Monday, April 11, my day off. I could totally make it work.

Within an hour of signing up, I received a phone call from a Democracy Spring organizer checking in to see if I had any questions and asking me if I was willing to risk arrest. Well that was not on my to-do list, but I considered it. In talking to my parents, my YAV community, my supervisors, and my site coordinator, I pondered a few questions. What would be the consequences of getting arrested? Would there be legal support? Would I actually go to jail? Would this go on my permanent record? Could I get a job with this on my record? How long would I be detained? What would that say about my privilege to be arrested and detained without experiencing police brutality and misconduct? As a YAV working with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, how would I be representing those organizations? Is ending government corruption and getting money out of politics the issue for which I want to be arrested? Is this the best way to use my time, body, and voice? Will my arrest actually accomplish anything?

After talking to the parties listed above and some faith leaders who have been arrested, I discerned that this was not my time to risk arrest. Another deciding factor was the fact that I was planning another action with WIN that was scheduled for the evening of Monday, April 11. I couldn’t quite organize my own action if I were sitting in a holding cell somewhere in the Capitol.

The Local Context

One of WIN’s campaigns has focused on safe transportation and fair wages for transportation operators. The DC Circulator is a bus line in DC that is funded by DC tax dollars but outsourced to a private multinational transit corporation. Even though DC Circulator operators do the same jobs as the Metrobus operators, the public bus company in the District, Circulator operators receive on average $8.22 less per hour than Metrobus operators. Additionally, a maintenance audit released in April showed that 95% of buses on the road had enough safety defects that they should not be in service. So what do we do with this information? As a WIN leader at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, I talked to members interested in WIN and young adults about the issue and encouraged them to take action. The plan was to meet and listen to Circulator operators themselves about the situation and then hop on a bus to tell passengers what we heard.

Who is in the Room?

Before I could participate in an act of civil disobedience at the Capitol, I had to attend a nonviolent action training. People from all over the country had traveled by train, plane, automobile, and foot to take a stand against big money in politics. Washington, DC, is one of the most diverse cities in the country and definitely the most diverse place I have ever lived in the US, so it struck me that the training room was predominantly filled with white people. I would venture to say that the vast majority of them support Senator Bernie Sanders for president. This anti-corruption movement had billed itself as a non-partisan action that brought liberals and conservatives of every background together, but that was not who I saw in the room. It was telling of who is able to drop everything to travel across the country and risk an arrest record in an effort to reverse Citizens United, end super PACS, and enact campaign finance reform. On the day of the action, it was difficult for me to be fully present and passionate about this issue because, based on my research, the five bills that Democracy Spring wants Congress to pass have 0-1% chance of becoming law. When we chanted, “I believe that we will win!” I was not convinced that we would win. What would winning even look like?

angela-parachuteMonday afternoon I helped to carry a parachute bearing the words “Democracy Spring: Protect Voting Rights,” and we approached the Capitol plaza, marching up to the steps where members of the Capitol Police Department were waiting for us. After ten minutes and two warnings, I had to move or risk being arrested. The police officers herded us back across the plaza so that about 150 feet stood between the group legally protesting and the group sitting in risking arrest. Those first moments of movement were the most tense with protesters chanting, singing, and even yelling at the police. I wondered why some were yelling at the police rather than trying to start a dialogue with them. I realized that organizing had ruined me for activism.

Organizing Basics

The root of community organizing is the relational meeting, one on one conversations with leaders and individuals in churches, neighborhoods, government, unions, and other institutions, in order to learn what drives people, where their self-interest or deepest passion lies. Thinking theologically, Roger Gench describes relational meetings as opportunities to encounter the risen Christ in our fellow humans. Organizing is a pragmatic alternative to yelling in the streets outside of a building where no one is listening. An organizing strategy would be to engage directly with those in power to act on your issue, learn their self-interest (it is in the interest of most politicians to be re-elected), and plan a campaign to build the power you need to create change around that issue that you care about.

Confrontation or Conversation?

Back at the Democracy Spring event, I stood in the sun for five hours, waiting for Capitol Police to arrest each of the 400 people who continued to sit in. During that time, I was able to have a pleasant conversation with one of the officers standing on the front line between the groups of demonstrators. From what I observed, all officers acted professionally and responsibly with both groups, for which I am extremely grateful.

Faith on the Bus

Eventually, I had to make my way back to church to meet my WIN action folks for our local action. Our group of seven concerned citizens, organizers, and Circulator operators discussed the issues that the operators face and learned the relevant facts. Then we took to the buses. During our rides, we talked to every passenger on our respective bus. About 25 people sent tweets and left messages for the DC Department of Transportation, holding them accountable for the safety of the buses and fair wages for the operators. While it was a much smaller action, the goal was clear, and success is much more probable since the operators are organized and currently in negotiations with the contracted company regarding bus safety and operator wages.

While I do not doubt that the organizers of Democracy Spring used relational meetings to set up the logistics of the action, it was clear that the marchers were a group of individuals who may not have had any connection to an institution that was working with Democracy Spring. For the WIN action, each person was connected to a member institution of WIN (New York Avenue PC and Amalgamated Transit Union). As leaders and organizers, we had to establish relationships with everyone at the action before we came together to tell others about the DC Circulator. Since the WIN action was focused on a local issue, it was easier to build a sense of community amongst everyone who showed up for the Circulator without needing a large social media presence. For me, the intimate setting and great efficacy of the WIN action was more of a win for me than sitting in at the Capitol with Democracy Spring. Our society probably needs both symbolic activism and long-game community organizing efforts to create the change we want to see.

In my heart and mind, organizing has won over activism.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Community Work, Transforming the World

by Angela Williams

When I was discerning a second year in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, I felt called to focus on activism, advocacy and community organizing. At the time, I did not know that working with NEXT Church would dip my toes into the world of community organizing. I did not know that splitting my time with NEXT and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church would place me in direct contact with pastors who have been organizing for more than 25 years. I did not know that I would become a part of a core team of leaders in the church organizing with Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), an affiliate of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. I did not know that this would be my perfect placement.

tsr_5500_webIn the past seven months, I have learned practical and applicable skills to work in the world as it is in order to help transform it into the world as it should be. In the church, we use language like “redemption” and “reconciliation” to describe how God is working with us here and now to create the world as it should be. As resurrection people, we see many cases of injustice, indecency and death in the world around us, but we have faith in the good news of Jesus Christ that tells us God is not done working to reconcile, redeem and resurrect every part of Creation. Because of this truth, we must continue to have hope that God is working to make all things new, to make the world as it should be.

Together, as a community of beloved children of God, we are called to do our part in reconciliation and redemption efforts. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a sister organization to WIN, shared some of their organizing story at the 2016 National Gathering, which continues to inspire me. Their leadership illustrated what is possible when faith leaders, community members, governments and businesses, representing all colors and creeds, come together to improve the community. However, Alison Harrington reminded me, the nitty gritty work is not sexy, nor does it make headlines. Often, it is difficult, mundane and frustrating. Still, I remain committed to the idea that organizing is a necessary and essential part of creating the world as it should be. If you missed Alison and BUILD at the National Gathering, I encourage you to check out the videos of their time at the National Gathering, as well as all of our other challenging, yet inspiring speakers.

I invite you to join me on this weekly blog journey of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in my community. Perhaps you may find possibilities to act in your own context.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

2016 National Gathering Ignite: Gwen Brown & Tim Hughes

Gwen Brown, organizer with BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and Tim Hughes, associate pastor at Brown Memorial Park Ave Presbyterian Church, share their collaboration in the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project.

What is saving your ministry?

By Jessica Tate

It’s a busy season in church and in life, without much time to pause and reflect. This season the NEXT Church blog will offer bite-sized reflections in which church leaders answer the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” It might be a spiritual practice or a book or a mentor or a mantra. It might be a skill or a scheduling tool.

Read more

If You Build It They Will (Not) Come

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Read Jeff Krehbiel’s post for another example.

 

By Jessica Tate

“If you build it, they will come.”

We held that maxim for several years in children’s ministry at the congregation I first served.

It is not true.

“We need better curriculum,” I thought. One that more fully embraces the Presbyterian theology we preach, is attentive to multiple intelligences, one that takes children and their spiritual questions seriously, and is easy for our teachers to use. That is what good curriculum should do, according to my Masters’ degree in Christian Education. So we researched and acquired a new curriculum.

The children did not come.

“Our teachers need better training so they will be more invested, more prepared, and developing spiritually themselves.” We did more training. Our teachers were ready!

The children did not come.

We need better snacks, more play time, less choir, more choir, more bible drills, parent education, family events… the list went on and on and we tried it all.

They did not come.

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

The children’s ministry team had been eager for their shiny new pastor to arrive with a pristine education degree and solutions. Starting this new call, I thought the stagnation of the children’s ministry was simply a matter of technical fixes and re-energizing volunteers. Two years in we realized we were wrong and we were frustrated. All of us believed in the value of forming our children in faith, but we couldn’t get more than a dozen families engaged. We didn’t know what else to try.

During those same years we were trouble-shooting the children’s ministry problem, the mission portion of my job had me deeply engaged in community organizing through VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), where I was learning about the power of relationships to make change in our community around issues we cared about. In Northern Virginia, these were issues of:

  • affordable housing (as we watched developers tear down apartment complexes to build luxury condominiums – “staring in the $700s!” – and knew firefighters and nurses who commuted an hour or more to work.)
  • the foreclosure crisis (that blighted neighborhoods in Prince William county and trapped homeowners in endless bureaucratic cycles of refinancing and foreclosure because banks weren’t devoting enough human resources to deal with the huge increase in the number of families needing these services in the burst of the housing bubble.)
  • affordable dental care for the uninsured (I had never before thought about the social and financial impact of dental care until I talked to some of my neighbors and realized the poor condition of your teeth makes you wary of opening your mouth to speak.)
  • increased identification requirements for drivers’ licenses that unfairly targeted immigrants and prevented them from getting legal identification.

Through these organizing efforts I was learning the marks of relational (v. bureaucratic) culture, how power works in a community to get things done (or prevent things from happening), the ways in which people’s own interests and passions get acted on (or not), and that all organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.

I was learning skills like relational meetings, power analysis, listening campaigns, and evaluation. I was participating in local trainings and actions in our area and being constantly support and challenged to grow by the organizers and other leaders with whom I was working. Three years into my first call I went to the Industrial Areas Foundation national training, which completely reframed the ways in which I understood how to do my job as a pastor, namely, by working primarily relationally within and outside of my congregation (as opposed to programmatically) and to strategically align my energy and time with the passions and interests of others with whom I was in relationship to develop ourselves into disciples and be the church for the world.

I was participating in a Community Organizing Cluster in my presbytery that encouraged pastors to use the principles of organizing inside their congregations when it became clear that the wisdom and skills I was learning in organizing to make change in our community might be relevant to the stagnation we were experiencing in children’s ministry.

What if the children’s ministry committee gave up our frantic “build it and they will come” mentality and returned to our values as a relational culture?

One of the organizers for VOICE helped me design a listening campaign for the summer. A team of five leaders who were invested in children’s ministry came together to get trained in relational meetings. We let all the families in the church know that we were embarking on a children’s ministry listening campaign and encouraged them to respond if called upon by one of these leaders. The leaders met individually with twenty families in the congregation and then came back together to share what they heard and notice themes. We held “listening sessions” with members of the congregation who have a stake in children’s ministry to talk what matters to them about the faith formation of our children. For what do they most hope? What obstacles prevent their participation? To what are they willing to commit?

We discovered the most valued component of children’s ministry was caring adults who know the children and act as guides in Christian life. (Not biblical knowledge, entertainment value, or snack, despite that these are the areas I heard most about in the usual grumblings.) Meaningful relationships.

We learned the schedule everyone took for granted was a hindrance to participation and we worked together to find a schedule that suited most.

We also watched as those present at the listening sessions took responsibility for their own opinions and took power back from the squeakiest wheels. When one person said, “A lot of people think X…” the others present respectfully disagreed and shared what they did think, which prevented us from following a programmatic rabbit trail based on one person’s experience.

After listening well to each other and responding as a community (not just a committee), we made significant changes to the emphases in children’s ministry and the schedule of Sunday activities. Children’s ministry doubled the next year. And increased again the next.

Then it was time to listen again because, as we learned,

  • relationships are essential to the community’s life together,
  • people will act on their interest when they are able to name what that interest is, and,
  • because our lives are constantly changing, our programs needed to be continually dis-organized and re-organized.

 

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church. She previously served as Associate Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church.