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Relational Power Over Coercive Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jim Honig

Twenty-five years ago, I was a young pastor in Naples, Florida, and got a hard lesson on power. Our congregation operated a preschool in a relatively small room in our church building and wanted to move it to a house that we owned next door to the church. The house had a wonderful open floor plan, a large backyard that would be perfect for a playground, and a circular drive out front to make drop off and pick up relatively simple. To move the preschool required a zoning variance. So, we hired an engineering firm and an attorney, and prepared to make our case. A few of the neighbors we enthusiastic supporters; most had no objections.

Most. One key neighbor was opposed to the notion, and he had friends on the city council. When we made our case before the city council, one of his friends actually got up and left the room during our testimony and came back just in time to vote no. And so did his other friends. I naively assumed that since we had good intentions, we were good neighbors, and the city needed more preschool spaces, we would get the zoning variance. I had my head in the world as it should be and neglected to pay attention to the world as it is.

Participants in the 2018 organizing cohort learn from a panel of clergy.

It’s not enough to have good intentions if we want to accomplish good things. In order to act, one has to have power. Broad based organizing is about organizing people and organizing money so that one can act. That’s the exercise of power, the ability to act. Since that difficult and expensive lesson, I have seen organized people and organized money get things done; it works.

A key distinction we make is the difference between coercive power and relational power, power over in contrast to power with. Coercive power operates from the place of position and privilege. Coercive power is like the manager who can make her employee do something unethical because she can threaten to fire him; the politician who can choose to make a decision that is good for his contributors rather than the ordinary citizens because his position and privilege allow him to. By contrast, the ability to act with rather than over is a way for ordinary citizens to push back against the coercive power that stems from position and privilege.

The exercise of relational power is countercultural and counter-intuitive. It is not the way we are taught or formed. “You can’t fight city hall,” we say, symptomatic of our willingness to give away our power and bow to the systems, structures, and powerful individuals. Building relational power is a way to take back the ability to act in the public realm.

The exercise of relational power is not demonstrated primarily through the big, dramatic public actions — although the public actions is where the hoped for change actually happens. The fundamental exercise of the relational power happens when we actually relate to others. The primary tool for building relational power is the one-on-one individual meeting. When we take the time and effort to relate to one another, we build a large and strong network of relationships and as a consequence have the ability to exercise that relational power.

Acts of resistance are also part of exercising this power, especially when resistance is undertaken in community. Part of our baptismal identity is to resist the structures and manifestations of evil, those forces that defy God. So, in this sense, it is also a subversive power, a countercultural means of throwing a wrench into the gears of the systems and structures that work against human thriving.

Though I am committed to doing the work of the kingdom by the arts and practices of organizing and exercising relational power, there are still points of tension for me. I still struggle with the paradox of exercising power vis-a-vis the theology of the cross. In the theology of the cross, power is exercised in the contrary — strength through weakness, wisdom through folly. The theology of the cross supposes that God acted most powerfully to reclaim, redeem, and reconcile the world through the humiliating and shameful crucifixion of Jesus. Paul builds on this notion in 1 Corinthians 1 when he says that God’s ultimate power is demonstrated through human weakness and God’s wisdom through human folly. God works not through coercion, but through love; inviting rather than coercing.

I believe God has intentions for the world and calls the church to work for the sake of enacting those intentions. In over 30 years of pastoral ministry, this exercise of relational power is the most effective means I’ve seen to get that work done.


Jim Honig is pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin. He is a writer, blogger, and the author of the novel, By Paths Untrodden. He is passionate about congregation based organizing and trying to figure out how that works in a new context after spending 15 years in the Chicago suburbs.

The Ability to Act

by Jessica Tate

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

I say these words almost every time I’m asked to offer a benediction. I’m struck that in church we talk a lot about grace and certainly about love, but I don’t hear too many conversations about power.

Power is, simply, the ability to act.

Participants in the 2018 community organizing cohort are taught about power

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest faith-based organizing network in the US, teaches leaders about power – what it is, how it works, how to build it and use it for the aims of justice. A key teaching from the IAF is that in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

As people of faith, we dwell in the world as it should be. We are charged with sharing the promises of God where justice rolls down like water. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Where love reigns.

As people of faith, we are confronted with the world as it is. Where people are suffering. Where we harm one another and are victims of harm. Where we forget our interconnectedness and become isolated. Where power reigns.

Again this key teaching: in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

The kind of power we’re building matters. The IAF (and I would argue they borrowed this from Jesus) argues for building power with people. Not power over them or power for others, but power with people. This is the kind of power that is engaged, reciprocal, dynamic, expansive, open, and accountable, based on respect and trust. It is the kind of power Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The church at its best builds power with people in order to alleviate suffering and move us ever closer to the promised world as it should be. I have watched as congregations –

  • built up trusted relationships between adults and teenagers and engaged in education around mental health, anxiety, and depression as suicide rates rose in the community;
  • worked together to lobby the county for a new bus line so that folks can get to and from the Department for Health and Human Services more easily;
  • came together in the wake of blatant racism on the part of elected officials to examine the legacy of racism and forge new ways of leading together; and
  • developed a strong enough coalition to demand that banks reinvest $250 million in principal reduction and loan modifications to keep thousands of families from losing their homes in one of the counties hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

There are countless other examples of congregations building their power to act in the world as it is on behalf of the world as it should be.

This month our blog will explore power through the reflections and experiences of members of the 2018 community organizing cohort. The reflections will range from scripture to theology to experiences with power and the lack of power to using power in ministry settings. Our hope is that their reflections will give shape and texture and nuance to the concept and use of power in the life of ministry.

People around us are suffering. As Christians, we claim good news. I am convinced that for this good news to be more than a nice idea, church leaders need to understand how power works and claim our own power to bring these values to life.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC. 

Power as Fluid

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 Kathryn Lester-Bacon

Power is absolute. Power is permanent. Those who have power, deserve it. Those who are without power, deserve it. Nothing will change. All is set in stone. It’s useless to try to change things.

These are the dictums about power that I’ve absorbed over the years. From history lessons, political rhetoric, movie narratives, and other places, we often receive this underlying narrative: there are protagonists and antagonists, right and wrong, the revered and the reviled, the powerful and powerless. And we all fall in place behind one or the other.

Yet, this view of power is not accurate, it is not helpful, and, most particularly, it is not biblical.

Power is not absolute. Instead, power is always situational and fluid.

My work in the NEXT Church community organizing certificate (offered through Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, in partnership with Metro IAF) has shown this to me. Through case studies, bible studies, and on-the-ground experiences, we’ve explored the dimensions in which power comes and goes, the ways in which power can be claimed and lost and reclaimed again.

This challenges me. “Power Is Fluid” challenges my theology and my way of seeing the world. This exposes how often I approach certain narratives and dialogues — be they religious, civic, political, familial, professional, etc — as fixed things, as discourses locked into templates of absolute power/ powerlessness.

Understanding power as fluid changes this. Understanding power as fluid means that I can never be certain of my own inherent “rightness,” even if I’ve ended up with the power in a situation. Power as fluid means I cannot understand an issue only by closing myself away in my office to think deeply about it. Power as fluid means that I must continually engage with others who are involved in an issue, looking around to learn from them, to learn who has power, who needs to get power, and how that exchange might unfold.

When power is framed as situational and fluid, those without power are invited to figure out ways to claim their power. Likewise, those with power are forced to confront that their own standing is temporary, impermanent.

Of course, those exchanging the power can block others from joining the exchange, block them from joining the board or the party or the informal golf dates. In this way, from the outside, power can look like something that is fixed and inherent.

But it is not. It is not. It is not.

Power is not absolute. The lowly shall be lifted up and the mighty brought down from their thrones. In Christ, all our earthly power is impermanent.

Yet, as a Christian, I must admit that there is one exception. The only power in the universe to remain absolute, fixed, inherent is the love of God in Christ revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit —and even God is always “doing a new thing!”

This adapting, “try a new thing” principle is brought home to me by the IAF stories — oh so many good stories! — of what it takes to get “to the table,” to get into a one-on-one relational meeting, to hold a decision-maker accountable. Clearly, it takes adaptation, agility, creativity, and failure.

Power is grasped when people understand that power is not absolute. Power is exchanged when people gather together and free themselves from the idea that power is a locked-up, locked-tight, done deal.

Our power is in knowing that all power is fluid — except for the inherently creative, abiding, loving, transforming, all-consuming power of God.

Thanks be.


Kathryn Lester-Bacon is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. She is currently finishing up NEXT Church’s Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership. She enjoys life in the city with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Josie.

Ecclesiology Informed by Organizing

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 Ian Burch

I remember a chaplain supervisor years ago saying to our intern group, “I am a powerful person; it took me a long time to claim that.” He reflected that some people have charisma or passion that allows them to influence others. Power, in that sense, is related to charm and hopefully tempered by integrity. Our supervisor’s confidence and self-possession were a kind of power. His place higher than us in the organization gave him another kind of power. As baby chaplains, we were encouraged to think about the places where we have personal power — our gifts in ministry and our connections with others — and places where we have professional power — the collar, the title, the place in the institution.

That early introduction to personal and professional power has served me well in my ministry. I know that my ability to connect with others, my integrity, and my charm let me act persuasively in groups. I also know that my role in the church — as a priest, a senior pastor, a boss, a mentor — give me a place of power in the institution. From this position, I can influence policy, hire and fire, and release funds for projects I care about.

When we use the word power in community organizing circles, we’re talking about something different than the personal and professional power dialectic I was taught as a chaplain intern. The community organizer’s power can’t rest on charisma, and it certainly can’t rest on institutional position. To parrot back a common organizing mantra: power is organized money and organized people. Put another way, one person — no matter how gifted and no matter how well placed in an institution — simply cannot amass enough power for real change without first organizing money and people.

You might say that we’re not really talking about theology as classically understood — creation, sin, redemption, eschaton — rather, a discussion of an organizer’s power is really a kind of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? How is the Body of Christ organizing itself to be the hands of God in the world? In my Episcopal tradition, ecclesiology concerns itself with the proper roles and powers of bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity. It creates dioceses and provinces and calls councils to discuss pretty boring stuff. This is the inheritance of the church after Nicaea, with its mimicry of Roman hierarchies and state structures.

What if we looked at the pre-Nicene church for our inspiration to create an ecclesiology informed by organized people and money? I’m thinking about the book of Acts where Lydia is so moved by the preaching she hears that she brings her entire household — and her not insignificant checkbook — down to the river to be baptized (Acts 16). I’m thinking about the letter of Paul to the people of Philippi when he thanks them for their gift of money while at the same time sending them new co-workers for the building up of their church (Philippians 4). It seems that our pre-Nicene ancestors knew quite a lot about organizing money and organizing people to create change in the Mediterranean. Our ancestors created an archipelago of churches all over the world by connecting people and connecting money. That is a powerful witness that can inspire us today.

Church planters, by the way, know all this stuff. They meet, one-on-one, with people in the community to hear about their stories and share their own. Before you know it, four people are meeting in a living room and reading scripture. Those four meet four more. Now they are eight. Their concern is the connection between people. Those eight people each give ten bucks. Now you have some power to make some kind of change in the world. Eight Christians and $80 can do a lot, and not one of them has a fancy title. Organized people, and organized money — just like our sisters and brothers in the New Testament.

My modest proposal is this: our generation of theologians ought to look to the inspiration of the pre-Nicene church and their successes in organizing people and money as a blueprint for a new ecclesiology — one less concerned with rank and tradition and more concerned with being the Body of Christ as healing for a hurting world.


Ian Burch is an Episcopal priest and serves a medium-sized parish in Milwaukee. He is deeply interested in supporting and sustaining the growth of congregations and believes that community organizing principles have a lot to say about how to foster growth and vitality. The Presbyterians were very kind to let him crash the week-long community organizing training in Baltimore last Fall.

Getting Out of the Boat

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 Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

Power in Relationships

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 Jon Nelson

Reflecting on power in the context of my tradition, I immediately think of Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church. Paul inverts assumptions about power. He writes, “Christ [is] the power of God.” And yet, Christ was crucified. Paul concludes: “God’s weakness is stronger than [so called] human strength” and “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:18-31). This is Paul’s proclamation and he manifests it in his preaching, saying that God’s power is being revealed in even his weakness, fear, trembling, and faltering words (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Later, Paul writes that the whole ministry of the apostles is apparently weak. Apostles of Christ are of ill repute, hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten up and homeless, weary, reviled, persecuted, slandered — the rubbish of the world (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Paul is telling the Corinthians that what counts for power in the world is not the power of God. Any discussion of power, if it takes seriously Pauline discourse, must reckon with this inverse.

Since the summer of 2017, I have been involved in the organization of an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Additionally, I have been involved in the Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership training put on by NEXT Church, Metro IAF, and Johnson C. Smith Seminary. Through my involvement in these, I have encountered a use of power that at first seems counter to the Pauline presentation. I have been impressed by many stories of people of faith exerting power. As clergy myself, I have been encouraged by the manifestation of power among my colleagues. The stories that stick out are those where a pastor stands up and makes public demands of persons in political power. I have been inspired by people of faith who have stood up to powerful organizations and secured jobs. And I have been amazed by the way faithful people have organized large sums of money in responsible ways.

In an age where pastoral authority seems to be shrinking, I must confess delight in the assertion of will, clear demands and concrete actions by clergy. Community organizing enables people of faith to use power most commonly associated with wealthy institutions and federal government. And still, in the back of my mind, Paul’s depiction of inverse power has me wondering if stepping up to corporate and political power in this way is the way in which Christians ought to exert themselves.

However, those who have been in IAF organizations for long periods of time always insist on relational meetings as the basis for every powerful action. This is where I think there is an inverse. Our society places high value on positions of power that are gained by solitary means and are manifested by individuals. I am thinking of business executives and politicians who pride themselves on their own achievements. I am also thinking of the many corporations who are gaining strength by creating isolating job positions. Power, in the North American context at least, is solitary and personally secured.

IAF teaches the inverse. Power is achieved through relationships. Even the achievements wherein million-dollar deals are secured by organizers stand only on the ground of interpersonal relationship — the long slog of getting to know stories and passions, the tender moments where vulnerability leads to collective action. I suppose I am less and less impressed with the deals and public displays of personal and monetary assertion. I am more and more impressed by the many, many relationships that make for change. Here, people of faith are turning upside down and inside out power as it is often esteemed.

This seems evident in Paul’s discussion of the apostles. The “rubbish of the world” find strength in relationship. Think of the beaten apostle — the victim of abuse — who meets with the reviled apostle — the victim of systemic abuse. They find a mutual anger in meeting together. They have a mutual interest in disrupting patterns of abuse. United by faith in a crucified Christ, they find that the One who strengthens them is the One who was victimized by personal and systemic abuse. Their power comes from within and without. Power, in this Christian context, is realized as they meet the Crucified Christ in one another and commit to use their resurrection strength and will. The powers that be cannot stand against power that is built from the ground — even the grave — up.


Jon Nelson is the associate pastor at Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, MD. He enjoys a rigorous running routine, a good book, his talented wife and hugs from his one-year-old son.

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.  

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.

2017 National Gathering NEXT Church Update

Karen Sapio, Lori Raible, and Shavon Starling-Louis give an update on the work of NEXT Church at the 2017 National Gathering. Following them, three writers of the Sarasota Statement give more information on this new confession of faith.

Reflections on the Massacre at Mother Emanuel

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Perry Perkins is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of this post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Perry Perkins

Editor’s Note: This was first published in the Democratic Faith Journal in June of 2015. We have edited it slightly to reflect the passage of time.

In the introduction to his book The Social Teachings of Black Churches, Peter Parris says that Black churches have at the center of their social teaching a Biblical Anthropology that is based on the Biblical narrative of the Creation. In the Genesis account we are told that all human beings are created in the likeness and image of God. Parris says that African American Churches teach that this means all human beings are equal and kin because we are all children of the one Creator.

Parris goes on to say that this anthropological theology defines how black churches approach the world. He says that white people historically were accepted as members and even Pastors of black congregations because they accepted this very basic tenant of the African American Church.

Charleston_Shooting_Memorial_Service

photo credit: nomader via wikipedia

On Wednesday evening [June 17, 2015,] a young man who authorities believe has white supremacist views, entered the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as mid-week Bible study was in progress. The young man asked to see the Pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, and Rev. Pinckney asked the young man to sit next to him during the Bible study lesson.

After the lesson ended, this young man began killing those who had gathered to study the Bible, those same people who had welcomed him into their historic church, as they have always welcomed and embraced visitors from around the world. He experienced the practice of the Biblical Anthropology that has been at the center of Emanuel since it broke off from the predominantly white Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 and was officially co-founded by Morris Brown in 1818.

Emanuel AME, the oldest African American Episcopal Church in the south, has stood throughout its history as a beacon of hope, teaching the Biblical Anthropology in opposition to the dominant social anthropology of the country, white supremacy. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, Mother Emanuel’s other co-founder, along with other members of Emanuel, plotted what would have been the largest slave rebellion in the country. Vesey and five other members of Emanuel were executed when the plot was discovered. Shortly after the rebellion was foiled, Emanuel was burned to the ground. The white establishment of Charleston and the state of South Carolina were so frightened by the plot that they built a fortress, the Citadel, which aimed its guns toward the houses of the Emanuel members.

Despite the loss of the church building Emanuel continued to thrive and was often the beginning station of the Underground Railroad. For many years it was forced to function underground, but despite these obstacles Emanuel stood as a symbol against white supremacy. Emanuel continued to proclaim that all of God’s children are kin. Emanuel’s very perseverance as a congregation stood as a vibrant testimony against the false ideology of white supremacy.

The gunman who entered Emanuel on [that] Wednesday night experienced the welcoming of the stranger as an unknown brother. Despite this, the hatred and rage within him, spawned by the ideology of white supremacy, led him to take the life of the Pastor and eight other congregation members who had welcomed him. This despicable act cannot simply be passed off as the act of a lone deranged man, but must be seen as a product of the original sin of this country, the ideology and even theology of white supremacy. We have come a long way around race in this country; however, until we fully deal with the demons unleashed by the false doctrine of white supremacy we will continue to see events like the massacre at Mother Emanuel.

Many ask how do we deal with exorcising the demons of white supremacy? There is no easy answer or formula. However, for the last almost 31 years I have been a part of a guild of organizers called the Industrial Areas Foundation. IAF, founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940, is the nation’s oldest and largest network of organizers. IAF partners with local institutional leaders to build local non-partisan political organizations aimed at crossing the divisions of community life to build vehicles of civic engagement that we call Broad Based Organizations. The major division or road block to constructive civic engagement is the construct of race that grows from the false doctrine of white supremacy.

Organizations like Working Together Jackson, a coalition of some 43 institutions in Jackson, Mississippi, are deliberately organized across racial lines. Working Together Jackson was publicly founded in June of 2012, after three years of Sponsoring Committee work, carefully building relationships across racial, religious, political, and economic divisions. These years of groundwork have helped to achieve a measure of public trust that crosses racial barriers and testifies to the Biblical notion of kinship of all creation.

Acting together through this new found trust that flies in the face of the white supremacist history of Jackson, the leaders of WTJ have created the first Housing Trust Fund in Mississippi, as a financial instrument to combat the blight that plagues most of Jackson’s predominantly black neighborhoods. The leaders crossed race to secure 6,600 signatures in one month on a constitutional amendment proposal to fully fund public education in the state. In one week they secured 3,000 yes votes on a ballot initiative to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of Jackson and to invest $1.2 billion over 20 years in rebuilding Jackson. WTJ is also crossing racial lines to partner with the city of Jackson to recruit and train underemployed and unemployed local residents to fill the living wage jobs produced by this infrastructure reinvestment program.

This evidence of our work is not enough to prevent other tragedies like the one that occurred in Charleston on Wednesday, but the slow and systemic work of building public relationships that teach in word and deed the Biblical Anthropology proclaimed by Mother Emanuel is part of the solution to exorcising the demons of America’s original sin.


 

perryPerry C. Perkins, Jr. has organized for 37 years and has been affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s oldest network of organizers. He is the IAF Supervisory Organizer for Louisiana and Mississippi. He, along with organizer Kathleen O’Toole, are leading a workshop at the 2016 National Gathering entitled “Forging Public Relationships after Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Charleston.” The workshop will explore the essential discipline of the “relational action” fundamental to authentic conversations and action that move us forward toward God’s beloved community, especially as “America’s original sin” continues to breed mistrust in our public life and discourse.