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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.

Cultivating Political Judgment

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. You can read more about organizing here. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Having been trained in community organizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation early in his ministry, Jeff Krehbiel (pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC and member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team) views congregational life through the lens of organizing. Jeff pulled together a community organizing cluster in the presbytery to continue to develop leaders who have discovered the power of community organizing principles for congregational development, spiritual formation and significant community engagement. This piece is representative of the kind of reflective work done by this group.

By Jeff Krehbiel

I’ve always thought the conventional wisdom that you should make no changes in the first six months of a new call to be rather silly. The congregation has called you to be their pastor, and then you sit on your hands for six months? Trust that they saw something in you that they were waiting for, and then offer it. In my experience, at that moment of transition the congregation is ready to try something new, and is just waiting to see what you will bring to the mix.

On the other hand, most of us know pastors who arrive on the scene and push too hard and too fast with their own agenda, and the honeymoon is over even before it began. What’s the difference? It comes down to a matter of political judgment. When we are new, we have no choice but to act. The question is: Which actions are appropriate?

Learning from Community Organizing

In an earlier post, I offered this maxim from my experience in broad-based community organizing: the authority to lead comes from the strength of your relationships not the power of your ideas. There I wrote that the most important task of leadership is building relationships of trust that make change possible. Leaders are much more likely to listen to your good ideas when you have taken the time to really know them. People who trust one another are able to take great risks together.

In a new community organization, the organizer spends months, sometimes years, building relationships, identifying and training leaders, listening in individual and small-group meetings for issues the organization might take on, and conducting research with those leaders to vet ideas and narrow options. But eventually the organization needs to act. But how? And when? Wait too long, and the organization begins to atrophy. Act too soon and fail, and the organization may flounder before it even gets started.

Power Analysis

An important step in organizing—and equally important in congregational life—is doing a power analysis. In organizing, there has to be an assessment of the organization’s power in relation to your intended target so you can evaluate the campaign’s chances of success. In a new organization you build on early victories as the organization develops its political muscle. You don’t want to lose your first political fight or leaders will not be willing to engage the next one.

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

photo credit: dgray_xplane via photopin cc

For many church leaders, asking who has power in the congregation seems crass. We’re not in a battle, this isn’t a fight, and we all just want to follow Jesus. Yet we also know that in every congregation there are leaders who can stop something from happening without even raising their voice. Often those with power in the congregation are not those who are most obstinate or opposed to change. (Often the loud complainers turn out not to have any real power at all.) More often those with power are the ones who are most loved and trusted. A power analysis is simply figuring out the pattern of relationships within the congregation. Who is in relationship with whom? Who are the people that others most trust? That people listen to? That they look to in times of controversy and change? In a small congregation, it might be a matriarch or patriarch. In a large congregation, there may be several centers of power.

This doesn’t mean that you never act in a way that challenges powerful people. It means that you never act without taking powerful people into account. Every pastor has certain leaders they are in closer relationship with than others. A power analysis helps you determine which leaders you need to connect with more closely, including those who may be outside your usual orbit. Change that is supported by a broad base of key leaders is much more likely to succeed.

Redefining Success

In organizing, deciding which issues to take on is not simply a calculation about whether you can win. Organizers also ask what impact this issue will have on the organization’s health and future. Will taking on this issue enhance our power? Will it develop new leaders? Will it help prepare us to take on the next issue? What are the consequences if we are not successful? How can we use this campaign to develop new allies?

In the same way, when pastors and other leaders are contemplating change, they need to do more than determine if they have the authority to make this change happen. (A corollary to the above maxim: the authority given to you in The Book of Order is not sufficient to sustain change in congregational life.) The process of change is as important as the change itself. How can we use this problem or issue before us to develop leaders? To cultivate relationships? To strengthen the congregation as a community of trust and risk-taking? Defining success is broader and deeper than asking simply “Did the change happen?” A more important question is, did the change contribute to the congregation’s health and future?

A Case Study

Before I was even called to be pastor of Church of the Pilgrims, a member of the PNC asked my thoughts on rearranging the sanctuary. There were many in the congregation anxious for new experiences in worship, and he hoped I would bring about change. When I began, changes in worship were introduced gradually, with lots of input from church members in the planning process, often in the spirit of experimentation: “Let’s give this a try.” But raising the issue of renovating the sanctuary seemed premature. In my third year, rearranging the sanctuary came up again in a planning meeting. Immediately it was clear that some people loved the idea and others did not, meaning there was no decision the Session could make that would make everyone happy.

In response, the Session determined not just to listen to the loudest voices (a bad habit from the past) but to listen to every voice. Over the next three months, we studied the history of sacred space, and held a series of congregational dialogues, in both large and small groups. Then we appointed a diverse team of leaders, representing several different constituencies in the congregation, and asked them to engage the services of an architect and explore options. The Session listened to congregational input strategically. There were pockets of resistance. All voices were honored, but leaders took special note that some of our newer, younger members experienced the sanctuary as cold and uninviting. The leaders helped these newer voices to be heard by the entire congregation. People felt listened to and respected, even though not everyone was on board. At the end of the process, when we presented a plan for a new design, we raised the $80,000 needed to carry it out with a single fund-raising letter.

 

Jeff KrehbielJeff Krehbiel is Pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Board, and a coach in the NEXT Church Paracletos Project.