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Always Being Reformed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

A sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Reformation Sunday. Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

Today is the Sunday on which we focus on a major emphasis of our Reformed tradition – the promise that God is not done with us yet. The promise that we are always being called to ask the question – what is God doing here and now, with us, through us, in this world, in which we are called to be the church? Remember our Presbyterian motto – we are the church Reformed (big R, indicating the branch of our Protestant Reformation theological tree) always being reformed (little r, verb) by the Spirit of God. We are a part of the body of Christ who trusts that our work as God’s people in the world is ongoing and dynamic; a part of the body of Christ who trusts that we will never “arrive” at perfection; a part of the body of Christ challenged to constantly be about the work of disorganizing old ways of being that are no longer effective, in order to reorganize for faithfulness and witness.

So together, then, we are to continually be in prayer, in study, and in conversation with Scripture, the newspaper, and each other about “what’s next” for us. As we continue in this fourth programmatic year of our ministry together, who does God hope we will be here and now, for each other, for ourselves, for our neighborhood, for our city and world? And while it is undoubtedly a challenging way to live – always on the lookout for where God is calling us next – I cannot imagine any other more beautiful way to move through this gift of life with which God has graced us. Thus, on this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, I ask you: where have you seen new creation lately? Where – in your life, in your family, amongst your friends, in the world – where have you seen new creation lately? Will you show me?

I began writing this sermon on the plane Friday afternoon while feeling quite bleary-eyed and mentally full. I spent last week in Baltimore where I joined 60 other folks for one week of clergy-focused community organizing training. The leadership training was put on by a consortium of leaders from the NEXT Church movement (in which I continue to serve in leadership), Johnson C Smith Seminary – one of our Presbyterian seminaries – and the Baltimore affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation called BUILD – Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

The group being trained was comprised primarily of Presbyterian clergy (with a smattering of Presbyterian lay persons, Methodists and Episcopalians), but we were quite diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, church size, area of the country, etc. The week was jam packed, each day beginning with our first class at 8:30am and ending most days at 9pm, hence the bleary eyes. The week-long seminar was also, undoubtedly, the most powerful and challenging leadership development work I have ever done. I cannot recommend the training enough. We spoke a great deal about learning how to lead the church in the world as it is, while, at the same time, being fueled and inspired by what Scripture promises about the world as it should be and will be one day by God’s power.

I came away from the week deeply convinced that while what we think, what we believe, what we say is important, our more privatized faith expressions will probably not be what changes our world into being more just, compassionate, and merciful. Rather, the ways we actually treat each other and those we call stranger, the ways we act on and engage with our world, the concrete ways we demonstrate our love for each other – our relationships – will be the most powerful testimonies to the Reign of Jesus Christ, to the way the world should be, to the way of new creation. So though words are necessary; words are important; words carry power and shape our imaginations, it will be the relationships we develop with each other and with our neighbors, relationships fueled and sustained by God’s Spirit, that God will use to transform our church and our city.

We see this emphasis in today’s Scripture from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Though Paul does use personal language, “if anyone is in Christ,” he does not simply concentrate on the individual. Rather, he immediately takes it to its communal end – in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self and entrusting us, as community, with that message, that purpose, of reconciliation. Preachers Boring and Craddock put it well, I think, when they say that in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hope God doesn’t just save souls; God renews the world. In Jewish theology it is tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Therefore, “the meaning [of Paul’s words] is not that the individual becomes a person while the world remains unchanged. Nor is the meaning psychological, as though the world remains the same but for those who have come to faith, ‘everything looks different.’ No, Paul means the statement “If anyone is in Christ” objectively. In the Christ event something happened to the world (to everything), not just to individual souls.”1

Building on that foundation, New Testament scholar Tom Wright claims that if God was doing all this [death, resurrection, forgiveness, reconciliation] in the Messiah, that work now needs to be put into effect, to be implemented [by us]. The great symphony of reconciliation [being made new] composed on Calvary needed to be copied out into orchestral parts for all the world to play.2 So while God initiates the work of reconciliation, [that work does] require a response on the part of those whom God reconciles to Godself.3 Or, more simply put, “When a new world is born, a new way of living goes with it.”4 Remember our two words from the last two weeks – grace and responsibility.

So again I ask, on this day when we celebrate God’s constant work of reforming the church in and for the world, where have you seen God’s gift of new creation lately? While you are thinking about that, I want to do what one of my preaching professors once suggested strongly – in a sermon you have got to show people, don’t just tell people. So let me show you where I saw new creation during my time in Baltimore, just to start stimulating your own imagination and memory.

We took two field trips as a part of our training, so that we could see with our own eyes what a priority on building a relational culture and the power created by those relationships in the church and in the neighborhood looks like in real time. The first place we visited was a Baptist church in West Baltimore. As we drove through the neighborhood, I saw scenes that reminded me of neighborhoods in Chicago, several of which are not too far from here. Many homes had windows boarded up with no trespassing signs posted. Liquor stores dotted most of the corners while empty lots stood neglected, overgrown with weeds. But then, we walked into the church. And there in the fellowship hall were 70 folks from that neighborhood, many of them returning citizens (people who had recently been released from incarceration).

They were there because they desired to find meaningful employment, a new start. They were there to learn how to live as part of God’s new creation. Every Tuesday, those residents gather with clergy and other leaders from that neighborhood to be a part of the Turnaround Tuesday movement – a movement of/by/for those who need jobs.

Each week, for four hours, they meet for a time described as “one part AA meeting, one part religious service, one part boot camp, one part job-preparedness training, and all parts remarkable.”5 The movement has been gaining steam for the past two years and because of the leadership and commitment of those participating in the movement, as well as the deep commitment of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, over 300 residents returning from prison or jail have found full-time, living wage work, with many more in the pipeline.

We had a chance to hear the stories of the participants and to experience their hard-won hopefulness. Frankly, even though we were at a leadership development experience, that afternoon, we had church. For at root of all of it, the very foundation, was a profound sense that God had made all of them and all of us new creation. The participants talked about this transformation openly and they challenged each other to see it both in themselves and in each other. For while the road ahead is undoubtedly going to be full of steps forward and steps backwards, as long as they stay in honest and accountable relationships with each other and with the Turnaround Tuesday movement, new creation will continue to be discovered. It is who they are. It is who God has created them to be, both as people and as important leaders in their neighborhood.

The participants are committed to figuring out their own orchestral parts to play in God’s transformation symphony. For not only does Turnaround Tuesday train people for work, but it also then stands alongside them so those newly trained leaders can help create more jobs for those following them. All of the people in the movement are helping each other discern the new way of life that goes along with the new world being created in their midst. They are being reformed, their neighborhood is being reformed, and the church is too.

On Thursday afternoon, we went on another field trip, this time to East Baltimore, where we gathered in another Baptist church sanctuary and listened as the pastor of that church, someone who had grown up there, told us about the work that congregation had been doing alongside other congregations and residents of that neighborhood, empowered by BUILD. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood had fallen into a state of disrepair and depression, a common story in many urban areas, including here in Chicago. When jobs and possibility moved out, the drug economy moved in and settled. People who dared to speak out against it were threatened. Some were killed. You could not safely leave your home no matter the time of day, not even to walk the block to church. No one, the pastor said, deserved to live like that.

66% of the homes of that neighborhood were vacant. The whole place felt forgotten by the rest of the city and its leaders. But then, encouraged by others, that pastor and other neighborhood leaders decided that God was calling them to both proclaim and embody new creation right there, in the community of that church. So after years of organizing work, last Thursday the pastor was thrilled to walk us around the neighborhood and show us the massive rebuilding that has been taking place for the past 7 years. Using a fund called The Reinvestment Fund, currently at $10 million, that neighborhood has redeveloped over 250 homes for residents currently living in the neighborhood, and built new ones. But it is not gentrification in the way we experience it here in our city, because people are not being priced out. And now, the home vacancy rate is 6% and more and more residents of the neighborhood are purchasing their own homes and learning how to be responsible homeowners and members of the neighborhood together. New creation. Right there, all around that church. And those are just two of the stories I heard. I have many more.

But I feel it is important to show you those two experiences because I know that we, too, are committed to being a church that tries to not settle for the way the world is, but who actively works with God for the way the world should be. That call to be a Light in the City has been a part of our DNA for decades. I also know, however, that we are still not sure exactly what that looks like for us in our immediate and long term future just yet, beyond doing what we are currently doing which continues to be vitally important. But do know I am committed to working alongside other leaders in this congregation and staff as we actively discern over the next year and following years our next steps into God’s transformative work for this church and for our city. That commitment was why I went to Baltimore.

And here is what else we do know together, today, what we base our life on together – God is not through with us yet. God is not done with us as people or as a people called Fourth Church. For God does not desire for us to simply maintain the way things are, no matter how good or how healthy they are. God does not call us to get all settled in and comfortable. Remember, we worship a God who is, according to the biblical story, always on the move. We worship a God who, through Christ, has made and is constantly making us new creation. We are always being invited to dis-organize and re-organize so that we can be wide-awake and ready to play our orchestral parts in God’s symphony of transformation and reconciliation.

For we are a church Reformed, for sure. But we are also a church, a people, trying our best to be open to God’s reforming power – a power we will not just speak of, but a power we will learn how to build and embody in relationships with each other, in relationships with our neighbors, in relationships with others in our city who also long to be a part of God’s making this world new. Thanks be to God for the gift of being a church Reformed who is always willing to be reformed by the wild, creative, powerful, free, active, on the move Spirit of God. Amen.

1 Boring and Craddock, p. 559. Quoted from a paper Jessica Tate presented at The Well, Montreat, 2012.
2 Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. p. 65.
3 Matera, p. 142.
4 Wright, p. 63.
5 http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-turnaround-tuesday-20170313-story.html. Article written by Mike Gecan.


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

Trusting in God, Always at Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Derrick Weston

“We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy, and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.”
– The Sarasota Statement

Underpinning the confessions, griefs, and commitments of the Sarasota Statement is a hope. That hope is rooted in a belief that God is at work, remaking the world in justice in love. It is this deep hope that allows us to carry on even when It seems that the world is at its darkest. We trust that God is working in our lives. We also trust that God is working through our lives. It’s that trust which keeps us from wavering in our work, recognizing the privilege we are given to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

For the last year I have had the privilege of working as the neighborhood organizer for Arlington Presbyterian Church just outside of Washington, D.C. Facing struggles similar to many congregations in the denomination — namely a large, aging building and a small, aging congregation — the church took a faithful step. They sold the building to a local, mission-oriented developer who is in the process of turning the space where the building once was into affordable housing, a major need in Northern Virginia. It was a courageous move, one that could only be made with a firm belief that God is doing a new thing and the church gets to be a part of it.

APC is in the middle of a process. Once the new building is constructed, the church will relocate to the first floor of the new affordable housing complex in a newly designed storefront. While there is incredible excitement for what the church will be once the new space is completed, it is in this in-between time when that trust is tested. The imagery of desert and wilderness feel less like abstract notions and more like lived realities. And it is in this “here but not yet” mode that the church relies on God for her joy.

We find our joy in thinking through new ways of being church. We find our joy in creating new partnerships that will help us to serve the community. We find our joy in knowing that the trail we blaze now may be for the benefit of other congregations that will follow our path or one like it. The joy that we experience is no fleeting emotionalism, but a deep satisfaction in knowing that we are striving to be faithful to the vision that God has given us. It is that joy, based in hope and perseverance that sustains us when the way ahead feels uncertain.

None of what the Sarasota Statement calls for is easy. The work to which it calls us is the work of many lifetimes. These words from the closing of the statement remind me of Dr. King’s insistence that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The work of God’s Kingdom is a slow, incremental climb toward love of God and love of neighbor. The importance of this reminder is that we should work in a way that builds on the legacies of the past while preparing to pass the baton to the leaders of the future. This ensures that the vision to which we are being faithful is indeed, Christ’s vision and not our own.


Derrick Weston is the neighborhood organizer at Arlington Presbyterian Church. He is the co-host of two podcasts, “God Complex Radio” and “The Gospel According to Marvel” and blogs regularly at derricklweston.com.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Turnaround Tuesday

Members of Turnaround Tuesday, a campaign of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, give a testimony presentation at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore.

Turnaround Tuesday was born of the engagement of BUILD member churches with their communities and has grown into a jobs movement that is making a unique and powerful contribution to the fight against recidivism and for neighborhood revitalization in Baltimore City. Sponsored by BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a broad-based community power organization, Turnaround Tuesday has connected 366 people to employment with living wages and high retention rates in 2.5 years. Turnaround Tuesday’s community-based, open door approach makes it uniquely accessible to jobseekers experiencing any barriers to employment, and it works especially hard to attract and employ returning citizens. A combination of intensive relationship building with participants and employers including the delivery of essential skills, leadership development, and issue organizing experiences has made Turnaround Tuesday into one of Baltimore’s most respected jobs pipelines.

A Culture of Accountability

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Andrew Foster Connors

We kicked a pastor out of our community organizing group not too long ago. Technically, he chose to leave. He was in the middle of lecturing the rest of the clergy on what needed to happen. One of our seasoned leaders called him on it. “I’m asking you what are you going to do about it.” The pastor equivocated, returning to his pontifications. Again, the leader interrupted him. “We know what you think about the problem. My question is how many people are you going to bring from your congregation so you can turn your thoughts into action and actually change the situation instead of just whining about it.” I was uncomfortable in the tension, but I confess I was glad that he got up and walked out. I have little patience for people who do not want to be held accountable. There’s too much important work to do to spend our precious time and energy when people want to be “right” more than they want real change.

Accountability is one of the most challenging practices for the church and certainly for pastors. Pastors typically want people to like us and we are often better at caring for people’s feelings than we are at developing them into disciples of Jesus. I know from personal experience that I sometimes enable bad behavior in the name of pastoral care. But accountability is not just the responsibility of a pastor alone. I’ve come to see it function best not so much as a practice, but as a culture.

When I first got involved in community organizing, I developed a relationship with an organizer who met with me monthly to discuss my goals. The first difficult part of the work was moving from amorphous goals like “change our culture of leadership” to “meet individually with all Session members over the next six weeks.” Big goals are fine, he encouraged me, but you have to break them down so I can hold you accountable to them. Of course, if those smaller goals fail to produce the larger outcomes, that’s okay, we can adjust. There’s no reason to be afraid to fail. But you have to be held accountable to your decisions.

The second difficult part was showing him my calendar. “Why do you have to see my calendar?” I asked him. “This is my calendar. Nobody gets to see it.” “Don’t waste my time,” he told me. “If you tell me these are your top three goals for your congregation, I’m going to make sure you are spending your time on them.” Sorting through the calendar, the organizer helped me see that in order to focus my time, I’d have to let go of some other things.

At its root level, accountability is simply the practice of naming our work and aligning our time with what we’ve said is most important. When we fail to run our calendars, they run us. This is as true for the congregation as it is for pastors. Leadership in the church is about identifying leaders who are willing to do this work. Together they discern God’s direction, naming the work and following through on it. The culture of accountability that is built over time attracts new leaders who want to be held accountable to meeting the goals they set for themselves and dissuades “positional holders” who do not.

I realized that culture had taken shape in my own congregation when an elder threatened the Session to either take a particular action or he would resign. I felt the urge to “manage” the situation. Before I could, a ruling elder said kindly, but directly, “you have raised really important considerations that deserve careful attention, but this is not the way we relate to each other.” Others chimed in to remind him what we had named as our work and what we had discerned was not our work. He resigned from the Session. The best accountability the church can deliver is public, transparent and relational. We hold each other accountable.

This culture makes what is often the dreaded annual review meaningful and spite-free. Instead of a few lay people giving their personal opinions about what they like and don’t like about the pastor’s leadership, they are asking questions that are aligned with what the Session has said is the work of the church. “Is our pastor’s time aligned with our church’s goals?” is a much more helpful question than “do I personally like how she spends her time?” More importantly, this culture expands the annual review beyond that of the pastor to the leaders themselves. “Did we achieve the goal we set for our congregation in 2017?” “What did we learn from our successes and our failures?”

I’ve learned through the years that I function best with colleagues (pastors and lay leaders alike) who are holding me accountable to the claims and call of the gospel. That means spending time with other leaders who I respect and who are willing to be held accountable and willing to hold others accountable. In includes learning from leaders across the usual lines of denomination, race, and ideology. And it means learning from leaders who are more experienced as well as less experienced than me. Together we flesh out the specific places where the Gospel is calling us so that we can grow in our commitment to Christ and keep awake to God’s dynamic movement and mission in our own contexts.


Andrew Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He serves on the NEXT Church strategy team and is a co-chair in BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore.

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.