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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. 

Anger That Saved Me

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sara Dingman is curating a series on the #metoo movement and the church. The series will feature recollections, sermons, and art. We honor the women who have shared their stories, and hope their courage might inspire others to seek the support they need to speak their truth too in ways that are best for them. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is always available to support survivors of sexual assault. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Sophomore year of college. It was not a good year. For a variety of reasons, depression was consuming me — me — not sure who I was or what I believed. The world seemed very unsteady under my feet. This was not my first dance with depression, but this was different, this was brought about (or arrived concurrently) with that very natural part of growing up, figuring out the difference between what you believe and what you were taught as a child. I’d grown up going to church. Ministry had appeared as a possible calling before, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what that meant, and didn’t enter college with that in my heart. Still, faith in God was my baseline.

Now, I wasn’t even questioning if God was real. I’d not dared to say those words aloud — I could hardly admit such doubt to myself. It seemed blasphemous. Weak. Scary.

And then, I found myself at a party where I was introduced to a man who was a student at a nearby seminary. It seemed providential. I immediately had a million questions. I know that it wasn’t fair to place that burden on him. He was in school. He wasn’t my pastor. But I certainly wasn’t going to take these questions to church, and he had appeared before me.

I waited to open up to him. We drank. We were really getting along. Finally, it became clear that I would probably be spending the night at the house (my friend who had brought me was staying. She was my ride. She was staying.). He invited me to stay with him. I did what most of my friends did in similar situations. I stated my intentions. I could stay over, but I wasn’t going to have sex with him. I didn’t do that. But we could kiss. We could cuddle. He agreed.

We went to his room, where we got in bed. I was clothed. And we talked, his voice soothing and comforting. I asked him question after question about what he was doing in seminary, what he believed about God. After a while I went in for the big question: “How do you know that there is a God? What if God doesn’t exist?”

My question came with tears, released with the desolate reality of what I had suggested.

As I cried, he made his move. I said no. I tried to move away. He wasn’t violent, but I couldn’t fight. He raped me. And he didn’t even answer my question first.

Morning, or something close to it, finally arrived. As soon as enough light came through the window I went to find my friend and told her we had to go. I made it to the car before I started to weep. I don’t know what I told her. I don’t know if I ever said what had happened. I do know that he had no idea anything less-than-delightful had happened.

The next few months were hard. Depression seemed to be winning. But somewhere, sometime, a few months later, anger began to rise from within me, and it was an anger that would save me. Anger at knowing that what happened wasn’t right. Wasn’t okay. Wasn’t of God.

I put myself in the presence of preachers, women preachers, whose words were the Holy Spirit to me, helping me rebuild my faith, block by block, moment by moment. I began to understand what a call to ministry meant, and that I was, in fact called, a call that had been within me for some time, I just hadn’t had words to name it.

This understanding of call, the one I still inhabit today, decades later, had a new companion that I hadn’t known the first time God tapped me on the shoulder: anger. Anger at what had happened. Anger that the man who had assaulted me was someone who would be entrusted with a congregation.

I never spoke to him again and never told anyone else until I told a therapist, years later. I still google him from time to time — on the surface, at least, he’s doing fine. He’s still a pastor. He has a family. I have no idea if this was an isolated incident or not. I hope that it was.

I’m still angry. Angry, because the church deserves better. Jesus deserves better. And over time I’ve come to embrace that this is part of my call — if I detest what he did, then I cannot leave. I must stay and do better, show better, live better. Love deserves no less. Jesus deserves no less. The church deserves better. I will do everything within my power to keep #churchtoo from happening on my watch.


This post was written by an anonymous author.

Resisting Toxic Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katie Day

When I was asked to write about resisting and building immunity to toxic power, my first thought was, “I don’t know how.” After all, I participate daily in systems of toxic power as a white, heterosexual, cisgender middle class woman. Power and privilege have worked to my advantage more often than not, and while my participation in those systems is often unconscious, I cannot let myself off the hook and must acknowledge my complicity.

Power comes in many forms, in the world and in the church, and training officers to recognize and resist toxic power would benefit not just our sessions, but our neighborhoods, schools, and places of business.

When does power within the church become toxic? I’m sure if we were all in a room together talking about this, we would have as many opinions and definitions as there are voices. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define it like this: when power ceases to empower, equip, and liberate others and is used primarily to elevate the one or ones holding the power, to silence opposing voices, and to marginalize, undermine, or sow seeds of mistrust, it has become toxic. Toxic power can be seen within the church in individuals and groups who participate in unhealthy and unhelpful practices of control and domination, as well as in corporate participation in systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.

For a scriptural example of what discerning toxic power might look like, consider Acts chapter 5, beginning in verse 12. The high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem was “filled with jealousy” (a clear indicator of toxicity) after witnessing the apostles healing the sick and converting new believers, and has the apostles arrested. The Pharisee Gamaliel spoke to the council these wise words:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. … I tell you … if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

The high priest and his jealous rage did not prevail against the power of God at work in the early church. Toxic power is of human origin, born of jealousy, fear, hatred, complacency, or the idolatry of privilege and success. The power of God is still at work in the church, even today, and it is on that power that our leaders can always rely.

Toxic power will fail, in the end, but can and will cause a lot of harm before it fails. How might church leaders build up immunity to toxic power? Begin by creating awareness. We have to know there is a problem before we can start to work on it. Where do you see toxic power at play in your community?

And if you cannot see it, start researching and learning about the oppressive systems I’ve named above, seeking out resources and conversation partners from groups who are affected. Andrew’s initial post in this series comes into play here: church leaders will need to take a long, prayerful, and honest look at our congregations, without letting fear of failure cloud our vision. We confess in worship each week the ways we have failed to live into God’s calling, and failing to notice or to take action against toxic power in our community is part of that. Hiding our mistakes out of fear is not a healthy option.

When we create awareness of the problem of toxicity, when we can name it and learn about it, and discern where it exists in our congregation, we begin to build immunity to it. I am not a medical professional, but what I recall from high school science class is that immunity can comes after exposure to the harmful bacteria or virus; only after acknowledging our churches’ experiences with toxic power can we begin to resist it, trusting in the power of God that guides us, sustains us, redeems us, and calls us into new, healthy, non-toxic leadership practices.


Katie Day lives in Monterey, California, with her husband Kevin, son Elijah, dogs Lola and Mr. Wiggins, and cat Fred, and serves as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.

The Power of the Church

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 Kate Foster Connors

The timing of Easter – the great celebration of God’s power over death – just before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – whose organizing acumen and brilliant preaching challenged (indeed, threatened) the white majority’s tight grasp on power – has gotten me thinking.

Power is not often talked about in the church, apart from the sovereign power of God. In fact, in 17 years of ministry, I have never encountered a congregation with an adult education class on the topic. Which is curious, because most churches I know are struggling mightily to reinvent themselves in a time when the Church has less and less power in society. You would think that our lack of power would create an urgency in the Church to understand and use it.

The story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15 is a reminder to us, and perhaps to the North American Church, that even one who is not granted societal power can find power and use it to create change:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

A gentile, the Canaanite woman is outside the House of Israel, to whom Jesus’ mission was targeted. She is clear in her self-interest: she wants to find healing for her daughter, and she will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. Here is how her action unfolds:

  • She begins her action with a plea for help, which Jesus ignores.
  • The disciples urge Jesus to send her away – she is being irritating, shouting after them (the word for shouting implies moaning or loud crying out, such as a woman might do during labor).
  • Jesus dismisses her verbally by reminding her that he was not sent to minister to her people (the Canaanites, historical enemies of Israel).
  • She revises her strategy on the spot, placing her body at his feet, addressing Jesus as “Lord,” (appealing to his self-interest to be known as and believed in as the Messiah) and again asking for his help.
  • Jesus responds with an offensive admonition that his healing power is not meant for her or her people: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
  • The Canaanite woman again revises her strategy in a wise use of power that engages Jesus’ self-interest and redirects the conversation entirely – using Jesus’ offensive comment, she retorts that “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Understanding that Jesus’ self-interest is in teaching and sharing God’s message widely, and in being known as the Messiah, she again addresses him as “Lord” and refers to him as “master.” She thus demonstrates her faith in Jesus as Lord, despite her “outsider” status. (She also might know that his preaching and teaching focused largely on challenging the Powers, making space for those at the margins – but we do not know what she knows of his teachings).
  • In the face of power, the Canaanite woman does not back down or shrink away, but rather engages the conversation, prepared to appeal to the Jesus’ self-interest until she gets what she wants.
  • Jesus changes his response to the woman, and (as we know from the story) the Canaanite woman’s daughter is healed.

In this action, the Canaanite woman used a strategy of agitating Jesus by appealing to his self-interest. She interrupted the apparent prejudice against Canaanites that led Jesus to dismiss her, and instead forced him to listen to her. By doing so, she changed Jesus’ mind, and got what she wanted: healing for her daughter.

Often, we read this story from Jesus’ perspective: we should be open to people who are different from us, who we might at first dismiss.

But what would happen if we read it from the Canaanite woman’s perspective? Maybe, in this time when our society often dismisses the Church, we can learn something from her persistence, courage, and use of power.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.

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.

A Theology of Power

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 Cristina Paglinauan

A few weeks ago when a wicked nor’easter blew through town, “Do you have power?” was a common refrain.

Thinking about power is something I find myself doing a lot these days. Perhaps it’s because of the seemingly never-ending examples of abuses of power, rampant in the news. Perhaps because, as a parent and as clergy, knowing how to responsibly and appropriately use the power I have is paramount. Perhaps it’s simply because power, as a theological concept, is both interesting, relevant and important to noodle over and wrestle with.

The passage from scripture that first comes to my mind when reflecting on a theology of power grounded in the Christian tradition is from the second chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This idea/concept/image, of the fullness and power of God, the Source of all things seen and unseen, emptying Godself into human form — the limitless, infinite God becoming limited, finite, human — in the service and for the sake of humankind, lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology.

Alongside this central image arise other images of power associated with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit: the power that flows through Jesus to cure the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48); the power Jesus commands to silence the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25), to restore sight to the blind (Mark 8:22-26, Luke 18:35-43, John 9:1-41), to raise people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26; Lazarus: John 11:1-44); the power of the Holy Spirit that alights on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), to inspire them to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, the very power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and to conquer death for all time.

It feels important to note that in performing healing miracles, Jesus acts in response to requests put forth to him by others, or only after having asked someone, “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” and listening to the response. In other words, Jesus uses his God-given power to heal in respect of and in accordance with the free will and free choice of a human being; Jesus’ power is relational.

Flickr photo by Dallas Epperson

Today’s most popular contemporary myths and stories centering around power, and the right use vs. the abuse of power, mirror a similar theology of power presented in scripture: power used in the service of and for the benefit of others, to heal, uplift, and empower them, in harmony with their own desires, free will, free choices, and self-identified needs, is “good”; whereas power used to control, manipulate, harm, take advantage of, abuse or oppress others, against their own free will and self-determination, is “evil.” Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars mythology, and Voldemort in Harry Potter lore, are evil precisely because they view and use power as a tool to dominate and control others for their own self-aggrandizement, against individuals’ free will.

Power that empowers and uplifts others, to be able to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, is Godly and goodly power; power that is accumulated for the purpose of being shared, given away and multiplied, for the healing of individuals and communities, likewise, is Godly and goodly power. Power that is accumulated, hoarded, and centralized in the service of a select individual or an elite group, at the expense of and against the free will of others, is not of God.

Lately, I have enjoyed learning and thinking about power through a new lens: the lens of community organizing. Thanks to a week-long training last fall co-sponsored by Metro IAF, NEXT Church, and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and the work I’ve been engaged with through BUILD, the Metro IAF affiliate in Baltimore, I have come to understand an additional perspective of power. Power “in the world as it is” (as opposed to the world “as it should be”) = “organized people” and “organized money.” Further, the accumulation of power around people’s shared values and common self-interests — “self-interest” having to do with the true “essence” of each human being — and where these interests align, can lead to effective action, moving the “world as it is” bit by bit towards the realization of “the world as it should be.” In my view, this new understanding of power complements and helps to “ground” and “bring down to earth” the theology of power that I understand through the lens of Christian scripture. It provides a practical “how to” approach, to help realize more pockets and places of “heaven on earth” for all of God’s people.


Cristina Paglinauan serves as Associate Rector for Community Engagement at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, MD. She enjoys spending time with her husband David Warner, their two children Grace and Ben, and their feline child, Olmsted the cat.

Organizing in Esther

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 Angela Williams

A sermon preached at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Scripture: Esther 3:12-4:17.

To the king’s satraps, to the governors over all the provinces, to the officials of all the peoples, to every province, and to every people: I hereby order you to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day…and to plunder their goods.

What would you do if you heard this message? How would you respond?

No, these words do not come from Hitler’s regime during World War II, but they do come from the Bible (Esther 3). But the question remains, how do you respond? What do you say when such a decree is proclaimed in your community? How do you respond when a city enacts a “stop and frisk” policy? What do you say when your state legislature passes a “show your papers” bill? How do you respond when a state wants to legislate the bathrooms people can use?

The text tells us that Mordecai, a Jew living in exile in Persia, responds by tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes, going through the city, wailing with a loud, bitter cry all the way to the king’s gate. And he is not alone.

There was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and lamenting. The targeted and oppressed people took their communal lament to the streets, disrupting the law and order of the empire.

They were activists. Perhaps you’ve heard their lamenting today in the chants of “Black lives matter!” or “Water is life!” or “No human is illegal!” or “Love is love!” or “No ban, no wall!” or “Enough is enough!”

I invite you to read this story of Esther through the lens of activism and community organizing. Activism is when people with loose relationships and shared ideals gather in a vigil or march against an idea or person who is not physically present. Activists try to shift public opinion and absolutely have a place in the public sphere. The work of activists can create an atmosphere where it is easier for organizers to create change. Community organizing, on the other hand, builds long-term relationships with people and organizations. It uses specific tactics to create change with powerful people at the table. Organizers build power to create a desired change.

Back in Esther, the Jews’ chants sounded in the king’s court. There, Queen Esther heard about her uncle Mordecai in his sackcloth and ashes publicly mourning at the gates. This distressed her, and she, with the best of intentions, wanted to fix the problem. Clearly, Mordecai just needed more clothes. Then he could stop causing such a ruckus. Then he could keep his respectable reputation. Then the queen would not be embarrassed by his antics.

When Mordecai refused the clothes, the queen sent someone to learn more about the situation. Hatach, the assistant, came down from the queen’s quarters to the open square outside the gate to deal with Mordecai. Mordecai told him exactly how Haman bribed the king for the edict condemning the Jews; he gave him a copy of the executive order. He beseeched Hatach to show it to Esther, the foreigner who was married to the most powerful man in the country.

In this moment, Mordecai shifts from being an activist in the streets to being a community organizer working to create change for his people. Reading the story of Esther through a hermeneutic of community organizing, it becomes clear that principles of organizing are also biblical themes.

Community organizing is people and money coming together in relationship to change the world as it is closer to the world as it should be. Theologically, we can say that the world as it should be is the kingdom of heaven flourishing on earth. Organizers work to build power. Notice the similarities between the English word power and the Spanish verb poder, to do. Power is the ability to do, and building power involves organized people and organized money. Organizers start by building relationships. They know that in the world as it is, everyone acts in their own self-interest, and that is ok. By tapping into folks’ self-interest, organizers build to a specific action with the goal of getting a particular reaction. They agitate and create tension in order to get that reaction. Through each action the moral arc of the universe bends just a bit closer to justice.

In the Jewish community, Queen Esther clearly has the most power to change the king’s decree. She has access to organized money and organized people in the court, and she can create change. Mordecai has a relationship with Esther. He asks her to leverage her relationship with the king to save the lives of her people. At first, Esther is resistant to Mordecai’s request. Anyone who goes in to see the king without an invitation will be killed. It is not in her self-interest to approach the king. Mordecai does not accept this and agitates her. He pushes back to create tension.

Mordecai identifies what is really at stake. Up to this point, Esther has kept her Jewish heritage a secret. The Persian king is only supposed to marry virginal women from prominent Persian families. If her secret is revealed, she will be killed for her deceit and due to the genocidal decree. But her silence means violence for her community.

If death is inevitable for Esther, why not at least die trying to make the world better for her people? Perhaps she has come to royal dignity for such a time as this.

Eventually, Esther acknowledges and accepts her identity as a Jewish woman who has the power in the palace to change the situation for her people. She recognizes that her self-interest is to keep her life and help to save her people from genocide.

Still, she cannot do this work by herself. Queen Esther needs a broad base of support. The community prepares themselves spiritually by fasting for three days and nights. The community includes not only the Jews in Susa but also Esther’s maids, who most likely were not Jewish, making it an interfaith community. Esther needs the support of organized people from many different places in order to successfully run the action on the king, which saves her people from destruction.

As the story continues, Esther confronts the king and corners Haman in his malicious plot. Esther, an orphan Jewish woman living in exile rises up to become Queen of Persia, exposes a corrupt plot to commit genocide, convinces the king to reverse his royal decree, and saves the Jews.

Let’s return to the question posed above. What will you do? How will you respond? Will you be an activist in the streets calling attention to injustice? Will you be a silent bystander in the Empire? Or will you organize to move the world as it is closer to the world as it should be? How is God calling you to act in your community?


Angela Williams is training to be a community organizer and a pastor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, TX. She finds life in experiencing music, listening to podcasts, and exploring creation.

Using Power to Make a Difference

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 Paula Whitacre

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
– Luke 12:48b

I am a recent graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2017). LTS is a progressive, United Church of Christ seminary which affirms and actively supports its diverse community of students.

My senior sermon was scheduled for Wednesday November 9, 2016, the day after the last presidential election. I thought that I had prepared a sermon that was an invitation to reconciliation, flexible enough that regardless of who won the election, the sermon would be relevant. I was wrong. Wednesday morning, I woke to a campus full of crying and scared men and women who, in that moment, felt hugely disempowered and vulnerable, fearful of what the future would bring for them, their family, and their friends. My sermon quickly changed from an invitation to reconciliation to a pastoral call to unity, determination, and hope in this unexpected reality.

That morning I was “woke.” In our modern vernacular a definition of woke might be a reference to how folks should be aware of current events in our society, especially as it pertains to the influence and use of power over people who are disenfranchised and marginalized. I wondered how I might use my white privilege, seminary education, and burning desire to make a difference in these days and weeks to come.

The language of power and the skills learned in the Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership certificate program has enlarged my understanding of not only the mechanics of power but that the crossroads of church community and the larger community has greater potential then I imagined.

One definition of power might be the ability to dictate norms, and create and enforce narratives in any given space. The opportunity to manipulate people, situations, and circumstances can bring out the best in some folks and the worst in others. Power in and of itself is neutral. The heart and ethics of the one wielding it will determine how that power is expressed and perceived by others.

Power may also be defined as the ability to organize people and organize money for specific purposes. The organizing of a diverse group of people for specific goals or long-term synergy is intentional and relational. It requires months, perhaps years, of face-to-face meetings between individuals or groups of individuals to find and articulate communal goals and paths to meet those goals. The ability to raise money in support of these goals, independent of grants or corporate streams, allows the group to maintain its independence and become a force to be reckoned with in local, county, and state agencies.

I believe Jesus’ words sit well within the context of community organizing, which is the local community coming together which forms an organization that acts in its common self-interest. It is identifying and training leaders as well as mobilizing people to take action towards a common self-interest. That action might take many forms, including public boycotts of products of services, and public shaming of officials for abuse of power or breaking of laws. It may include going to places of power – city hall, and state and congressional legislative bodies – to speak up for and even negotiate in the communities’ self-interest.

This community will consist of not only faith-based groups but civic organizations, schools, and likeminded individuals who are willing to use their own personal and collective power to reshape our world so that it better mirrors the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, I believe it is the leadership of the churches which must begin the conversations around power and organizing. To engage in relational meetings, cross social and political divides to create relationships is both time consuming and exhausting work. But it is imperative to meet others at their points of self-interest so that the self-interests of the community might be revealed and acted upon. To act upon an agreed upon self-interest takes power – organized people and resources.

It’s sometimes true that church members may be loath to consider investing resources into what might be construed as political activities. It can be difficult to persuade folks to see through a different lens. However, church congregations all exist as part of a greater community which may be quite diverse in their ethnicity, class, and faith communities. The boundary crossing to meet others where they are, to identify common interests to improve the life of the community is part of Jesus’ commandment to care for the least and marginalized. We recall that in Acts 4:32-35 that the apostles were out in the community giving their testimony and that the community came together under their leadership. Those who had much sold what they had (or used their skills) for the benefit for the community and none had need.

As Michael Gecan notes in Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, “There’s a powerful and fundamental tension between our political rhetoric…and everyday practices – a tension written into our founding documents and present in most of our public crises.” Community organizers and congregational leaders “live with the tensions, challenge citizens to confront it and … pushes the political world as it is in the direction of the world as it ought to be.”


Paula Whitacre is pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ. She and her wife Marge share their home with their sixteen year old tabby, KC.

Growing Power by Sharing Power

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 Jan Edmiston

As a person with power in Chicago Presbytery, I sometimes saw my role as one in which I tried to share power with young pastors who didn’t think they had much – either because of their age or levels of experience. My hope was to get out of the way when it was clear that the Spirit was working and to shift the culture from a “gotcha” mentality (i.e. those pesky oral exams on the floor of presbytery just before ordination) to a culture of curiosity (i.e. what can we learn from this person?).

This brings me to the unnamed woman in Matthew 26 who poured expensive oil over Jesus head as he reclined with his disciples. The woman never said a word but the men immediately expressed their indignance. Everybody was talking about her. Nobody talked to her. But then Jesus said something that has been dissected and studied for generations:

“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Jesus shared power with her despite her gender and their historical context. He lauded her theological chops, finishing with this:

“Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The community organizing training I have received through NEXT Church has shaped the way I’ll be stepping into a new role in Charlotte Presbytery in the coming weeks. I’ve learned that building coalitions – both in and outside the institutional Church – is essential if we hope to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus. When we share power, we find that our impact for good grows expansively.

Developing coalitions involves organizing the power of obvious leaders and the power of not-yet-obvious leaders together. As I look towards starting my new call on May 1st, I have collected a list of people recommended by my General Presbyter Nominating Committee with whom I plan to have one-on-one meetings with in my first six months. It’s interesting what names they have suggested. Some are well-known leaders (e.g. the mayor, a retired college president) and some are lesser-known leaders (e.g. a long time elder from a rural part of the area, a person from a small congregation with strong ties with the school board). Instead of decrying that the world is increasingly chaotic, we can take this opportunity to face the chaos, united in authentic relationships with many different kinds of neighbors. Serving together, we can do more.

I hope to continue to grow power by sharing power. And I hope that power results in deeper relationships and broader justice for the people of God. This feels especially right as I consider how Jesus lived.


Jan Edmiston is co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA. She is a Teaching Elder member of Chicago Presbytery, soon transition into a new role as general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery.

Front Porch Church

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 Mary Harris Todd

A sermon for Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, NC. Scripture: Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus really did not cover a lot of distance during his ministry. He spent most of his time in the region of Galilee, an area about the size of two or three North Carolina counties, maybe Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.1

The region of Galilee was dotted with about two hundred villages, some larger, and some smaller, and to get from one to another you walked. Think about the old days when people around here used to walk up and down this road, visiting neighbors, and walking to school at Joyner’s Schoolhouse, which was across the road from where we are this morning — and it was the building in which Morton Church got its start. Picture what it would be like to walk from Easonburg to Langley’s Crossroads, and that’s a picture of the kind of traveling that Jesus did.

Capernaum, and specifically Peter’s house in Capernaum, was Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was more what we would call a small town, maybe 1500 residents. It was a center for the fishing industry. Jesus would go places, and then he would come home to Capernaum.

The story we read from Mark this morning took place very early in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t take long for word to get around town that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a dangerous fever. “Did you hear what happened at Peter’s house?” By evening excited kinfolk and friends crowded around and into Peter’s house, and Jesus healed many more who were sick or in the clutches of demons. No wonder Jesus went off alone for rest and prayer.

When they realized he was gone, Peter and his companions went looking for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!” they exclaimed when they found him. Jesus needed to come on back to the house and get back to work. There was so much more that needed doing right there at home at Peter’s house!

But Jesus said, “Let’s also go on to the neighboring villages so that I can proclaim the good news there, too. That’s why I came.” Yes, Jesus loved the members of Peter’s household, and his family and friends in Capernaum. But Jesus was also concerned about other neighbors and other neighborhoods. His concern reached to the ends of the earth. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” he told his disciples. And before it was all over, Jesus was going to send them on to the ends of the earth.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter and the others reacted to Jesus’ plan to visit neighboring villages and interact with other people, but if they were anything like the members of Peter’s household now — the church — I think they might have been dismayed. How can Jesus suggest reaching out to others when there is still so much to do right here? Shouldn’t we take care of the needs at home in Capernaum first? Shouldn’t Jesus give them his attention first? Besides, surely people out there will hear about the wonderful things happening here and come join us!

But reaching the ends of the earth has always been God’s intention. Early in Genesis2 God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home, to move outward, and God plainly stated, “I am going to bless you. You are going to have a lot of descendants, and your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Abraham and Sarah got up and went. This is all the more remarkable because they were 75 and 65 years old respectively, and they had never been able to have any children.

Through the prophet Isaiah God reiterated that concern as we read in our call to worship today: “I want my salvation, my blessing to reach to the ends of the earth,” God said.3

When God’s people were in exile in the city of Babylon and filled with homesickness, God told them to be a blessing right where they were, to their Babylonian neighbors. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you, for in its wellbeing you will find your own.”4

Or as Jesus put it, “You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”5

And, as in today’s gospel lesson, the ends of the earth aren’t always far away. “We must go on to neighboring villages,” Jesus said. “Let’s take the message to the neighbors.”

We live in an age where you can get on a jet and fly to the ends of the earth, and yet not know your next door neighbor, even by sight. People often live in side-by-side isolation. It used to be that almost every house had a front porch, an in-between kind of space where people could sit and talk and watch the world go by. Porches helped neighbors see one another and talk more often. Now back decks and privacy fences outnumber porches. People stay inside in the air conditioning and watch TV or stay on the internet, and family members might all be doing this in different rooms.

What’s more, cars make it fast and easy to go somewhere else to work or shop, and not pay that much attention to the neighborhood. And that makes it easy for things to happen behind closed doors without anyone nearby knowing it. No, the ends of the earth aren’t far away at all.

I read a blog post entitled “7 Reasons Your Church Should Have a Front Porch.”6 Our church building does have a front porch, so when I saw the title, I immediately imagined rocking chairs on the church front porch, and us sitting out there visiting and having Bible study. A very pleasant scene.

But that’s not the author’s point. Front porch is a way of thinking. It’s an outlook. He says that front porch oriented churches have their eyes on the neighborhood. They spend time getting to know their neighbors, and letting the neighbors get to know them. Contrast this with backyard-oriented churches that are looking away from the neighborhood, or only looking inward.

Front porch churches listen to the neighbors. They want to be neighborly right there in the neighborhood where God has placed them. The post asks, “Does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has the church developed trusting friendships that are there in times of need?”

Jesus said, “Let’s go also to the neighboring villages.” This is a call to listen to people, to listen for what is going on around here. And as we listen to our neighbors’ concerns, we will hear what God is concerned about. We will discover what God is up to. Eventually we will discover ways to get in there to work with God, and work with our neighbors.

What it’s not about is blanketing the area with flyers inviting people to come here and join us in what we are doing. It’s not about going around announcing our point of view or presenting a set of arguments we want to convince people of. I can hardly think of anything less appealing, and if that were our agenda, I wouldn’t blame people for hiding in their houses when they saw us coming.

What’s more, it’s also not about recruiting new blood for the church, and it doesn’t make people into mission projects. It’s not about dreaming up some program we think people need or developing a hook to get people to come through the doors. It values people around here just because they are here. It’s about seeing people through God’s eyes and listening to them through God’s ears.

The community organizing training that I started in Baltimore last fall is continuing, and we constantly talk about building relationships. There is power in making connections with people, building relationships, and then taking action together. A critical part of it is to spend time talking one on one with people, listening, sharing stories, finding out what’s important to them, what makes them tick.

In community organizing work they call these visits relational meetings. But to me, they sound a lot like good old front porch visiting, good conversation in that in-between front porch space where connections can happen, and sometimes grow deep.

God has richly blessed the family of faith that gathers in this house. And like all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, God calls this family to be a blessing. We could stay home in Capernaum, spend most of our time hanging out with each other here in Peter’s house, or we can visit neighboring villages with Jesus. We can stay inside, or we can find a way to get out on the front porch and spend time talking with neighbors. We can sit around and worry about our own wellbeing, or we can connect with neighbors and in their wellbeing find our own.

We can literally visit people with Jesus. Think about where our neighborhoods are. Think about where our homes are. There’s this little section of West Mount Drive right out in front of the church house. There’s Leaston Road down at the corner, and the trailer park there. There’s the Vick path. There’s the village on Great Branch Drive. And there are more. These are some of our neighboring villages. God has placed us here geographically. And God has placed us in workplaces and in different kinds of groups. These are neighborhoods, too. We can find out what brought these people to these neighborhoods, and what they’re concerned about, and what they need and hope for.

This is the place, and these are the places where God has planted us. These are the people we are called to listen to. These are the people we are called to love. Front porch churches are concerned about our neighbors because Jesus is concerned about them. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” Jesus said. “I want to proclaim the kingdom there, too.”

Or as he puts it in another place, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Which also means, you shall love your neighborhood.

Amen.

1 Nash is our congregation’s home county. Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson are the tri-county area that the congregation knows well.
2 Genesis 12:1-5a.
3 Isaiah 49:6.
4 Jeremiah 29:7.
5 Acts 1:8.
6 http://after.church/7-reasons-your-church-should-have-a-front-porch/.

Editor’s update: We’re gearing up for our second community organizing cohort, which gets kicked off in late October 2018. We hope you’ll join us! 


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.