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The Art of Meeting

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

by Angela Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Community, Curdled Milk, and Pancakes

By Marranda Major

YAVs join together for a community meal. Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

YAVs join together for a community meal. Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

Intentional Community. It’s one of the core components of the Young Adult Volunteer program, and by far the most challenging aspect and the most rewarding. The five Washington, DC YAVs (and one Lilly Fellow) share a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom row-house in Brightwood Park; but intentional community means more than just cohabitating the same space.

For us, intentional community means:

  • Weekly community meals that meet everyone’s dietary needs (and rejoicing together in the discovery that vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes are delicious!)
  • Choosing a new spiritual discipline to practice each week as a community (and taking advantage of the city’s diversity to explore our new home and meet people at Taizé services, Buddhist meditation, and yoga classes.)
  • When someone’s glass of milk gets left on the counter overnight, we must have a house meeting to talk about our feelings.

In fact, we spend a lot of time talking about how we feel. And oftentimes, those conversations make me feel like I’d rather rip out my hair than continue to share feelings with the group.

All of the feelings and processing of feelings began on our third day when we began creating our community life covenant. We settled into a shady patch of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden to begin hashing out house rules. With all six parties deeply invested in the community we would create, it was a very serious and deliberate discussion.

We shared our beliefs about what our household should look like:

  • We believe our home should be a space in which all of our community members would feel safe.
  • We believe that living in community means that burdens—like chores—are shared.
  • We believe that everyone should feel welcomed, valued, and a sense of belonging within our community.

We then created rules for our behavior that we felt would support that kind of environment:

  • A chore chart that rotates responsibility for keeping our house clean
  • An agreement to keep shared stories confidential and to respect one another’s need for privacy
  • Policies for dealing with conflict, guests, and alcohol

We hoped that by sharing these beliefs and committing to behave in this way, we would create a sense of belonging.


 

In Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass explains that for the past few generations, Western Christianity has relied a progression of first believing, then behaving, and ultimately belonging:

  1. First you find a tradition whose doctrines and creeds align with your individual beliefs.
  2. Next, you reshape your lifestyle to match that tradition’s prescribed pattern of behavior.
  3. And finally, you gain membership—a sense of belonging—to that community.

The author claims that this process no longer works for contemporary society where people crave belonging above almost everything else, and are more likely to connect their unique set of beliefs with spirituality than religion.

As it turns out, this progression of believe-behave-belong has also failed us in creating a sense of belonging within our intentional community:

  • Believing that our home should be welcoming is not the same as agreeing that a standard of cleanliness is what makes the space welcoming.
  • An abandoned glass of milk infringes on those rules governing behavior and the promise that each community member will clean up after herself.
  • The consequent argument about who will clean up the curdled remains creates so much hostility that the forgetful milk-drinker would not dare own up to abandoning the glass, let alone want to belong to a community that gets so heated over a simple mistake.

It’s a lot of fuss over a single dish to be cleaned, but it’s just one example of how quickly community can sour.

Diana Butler Bass calls for a “Great Reversal” to begin the process of growing in faith with relational community (belonging), then develop intentional practice (behaving), and ultimately lead to experiential belief (believing).

And so, the DC YAVs are working on belonging. It’s a struggle.

And it’s humbling: If the six of us chose to dedicate this year to living in intentional community and are struggling to make it work, what does that mean for our larger faith communities where folks may be less committed to making these communal relationships work? What does God see in us as we squabble and struggle to love the neighbor who looks and acts and believes like us, let alone the neighbors who are different?

It’s a reminder that we are flawed humans. We are imperfect in our ability to love. Sometimes we make mistakes. But we care for one another, and we care about each other’s feelings. We even care enough to clean up someone else’s curdled milk with minimal gagging.

The Washington DC YAVs are still learning how to be in community, but we take the deliciousness of vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes as a sign that there is hope for us all to be nourished and enriched by belonging to one another.


Marranda Major

Marranda is a second-year Young Adult Volunteer working with NEXT Church. Born and raised in Charleston, WV, Marranda graduated from Wellesley College in May 2013 with degrees in Music and Peace and Justice Studies. After serving in Northern Ireland last year, Marranda is excited to explore DC and welcomes any gluten-free vegan recipe suggestions to share with her housemates!

Building in Relationality

By Karen Sapio

safety net copyI’ll admit — when my congregation first began to be involved in broad based organizing, I was intrigued by it only partly because I saw its potential to make our community activism more effective.  I was equally–and perhaps more–attracted by its potential to help rebuild relational capital within our congregation.

I arrived as pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church in 2006.  For the first few years I assumed that I was the newcomer and that everyone else in the congregation knew each other.  The longer I was there, however, the more I learned that this was not the case.  There were some in the church that had long-standing friendships, but those were the exception.  Many felt that they had a strong connection to only a few other members of the church, or only to one of the pastors.  When we held a listening campaign during Lent 2013, the biggest thing we heard was “We really don’t know each other very well.”

This disconnectedness can impact ministry in so many ways:

  • good ideas don’t gain traction because the person with the good idea doesn’t know who else might be interested;
  • those who volunteer to lead teams or chair committees turn to the Pastors to recruit other team members because they don’t know others well enough to invite them directly;
  • folks make decisions about coming to worship based on whether they “like” what’s on the program for that Sunday rather than upon relationships with friends with whom they long to gather after a week apart;
  • invitations for playdates among children aren’t extended because the parents aren’t one hundred percent which kids belong to who.
  • And it impacts wider activism as well: people who are not having sustained conversations rarely discover common cause.

We certainly haven’t solved this problem yet, but I think we are making progress.  We haven’t done this by adding another layer of programs to help us get to know each other– that sounded like a burden to everyone’s over-scheduled lives.  Instead, little by little, we are trying to build relationality into things we are already doing.

A few examples:

  • Instead of the Pastor offering a generic opening prayer at the beginning of a meeting, we asked people to break into groups of three and share any burdens that might keep them from attending to the work that was before us.  This was followed by a bidding prayer in which those concerns could be lifted up by anyone in the group.
  • When the Session met with potential new members, instead of our former practice of having each one give a brief introduction to the whole Session, we broke into several groups and asked each person in the group–new members and Session members– to give a five minute “snap shot” of their faith journey.
  • Both pastors have preached at least one sermon recently in which they asked a question and invited those gathered to turn to those close to them and share possible responses to that question for a few minutes before the sermon resumes.  We’ve also begun to invite more testimony into worship through interviews and storytelling.

None of these are wildly creative, but this slow cultivation of relationships does seem to be bearing fruit among us.  We are trying to discipline ourselves as leaders to seek opportunities to make small shifts toward relationship building in everything we do.

Jesus found his earliest disciples when they were at work mending their nets.  We like to think that we too are mending and re-weaving a network of relationships that will lead to stronger ministry.

SapioKaren Sapio is the Pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around congregation ally based community organizing. Many of us in NEXT Church leadership have found the disciplines of community organizing to be helpful as we engage in ministry, work toward glimpses of God’s kingdom in our communities, and shape our congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. To see all that has been written on this topic, go to the blog main page.

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Here Come the Plurals

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By Michelle Thomas-Bush

I like to plan ahead, so this week I ordered the class t-shirts for the fall. Every year, our 6th graders receive a visit from an older middle school mentor who delivers their class t-shirt, welcoming them to the next step in their faith journey. That next step is Youth Ministry. What will youth ministry look like for these 6th graders? That is the question we all are boldly asking with each other for the church of Jesus Christ.

Youth ministry is at a crossroads. Those t-shirts look exactly the same every year, with the exception of their graduation year. The Class of 2021. This 6th grade class marks the last class of the millennial generation. We are at a generational crossroads.

Millennials are beginning to graduate, and we are preparing to walk alongside a brand new generation of youth who are ready to embark on a spiritual journey of their own. Leaders will need to shift their concern away from why millennials are leaving the church and towards trying to understand the generation born after 2004. Our excited, energetic, and eager 6th graders belong to a new generation that has been officially named the “Plurals”—a peer group that has experienced their entire life in a truly pluralistic society.

Diversity shapes this generation’s worldview, and they will compete to have their voice heard. Our young people are already asking for help articulating their faith. They crave a spiritual language that they might not have heard from their families and for ways of understanding the mystery of God that are not in their vocabulary as they are experiencing that mystery themselves. Youth ministry may begin to be more about faith conversations than ever before.

Does this mean lock-ins, mission trips, and Sunday School are of the past? I think it will depend upon each individual congregation. As youth professionals, we may need to shift from sharing the perfect program to sharing big ideas instead. (Follow #BigIdeas on Twitter for a conference on big ideas in youth ministry currently happening at Columbia Theological Seminary.)

Our ministry as youth professionals will need to shift from just being chaperones to also being spiritual directors. Whether in a formal spiritual direction relationship or simply as a guide that aids a young person’s life with God, it will be critical for this generation to have someone who knows him or her in a real way and can help them pay attention to God’s activity in their life.

The good news is that it does not matter what size church you are. Spiritual direction can happen with one or one hundred. Whether your church has hundreds of youth on the roles or a core group of six, our youth leaders and adult volunteers will need to be trained to help young people, along with their families, and join them as they move beyond the “stuck” areas in their soul and challenge them to articulate faith as they maneuver through their faith journey.

Imagine if each young person had a few adults in their life who help them identify God’s movement in their life, to laugh, and create sacred space, reminding them that the Kingdom of God is all around them. This next generation will need adults who are willing to meet them where they are with compassion, encouragement, blessing and intentionality in all areas of their life—not just at church.

Let’s not wait to move to what is “next.” Let’s begin engaging this new generation where they are now and inviting them to join us in the mystery of faith.


michelle-thomas-bushMichelle Thomas-Bush is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michelle and her husband Dave have a son in his first year of middle school ministry and a daughter who would love to join them. She cannot wait to see what comes next and is grateful for the community of youth leaders who support one another through these changing days of ministry.

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, John Vest has been curating a conversation around youth ministry. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

photo credit: Christiaan Triebert via photopin cc