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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.

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/.


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.

Field Guide Preview: Mutual Accountability as Assessment

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

Today, we’re sharing the third sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the second movement of the guide: mutual accountability as assessment.


Of course, we understand that the harvest is ultimately in God’s hands. Yet we also know that even though the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few.[i] Jesus nurtured a culture of utmost accountability. He demonstrated relational power, clarity of purpose, and giving of himself fully in joy, love, and grace. We may not be able to attain that level of accountability, but we can lift that up as our guide as we seek to bear fruit that will last in our particular ministry contexts. To do that, creating a pattern and discipline of mutual accountability is essential.

Mutual accountability is not driving by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there, combing through last year’s itemized spending reports to find where someone made a mistake, or sending out a bunch of surveys or paying a consultant to tell you what is and is not working about your ministry.

If mutual accountability is present, ministry will feel:

  1. Transparent

Participants in the ministry can talk about what they are trying to do and are on the same page. They are upfront about who is involved and who is not. They make realistic goals and plan to be in communication. They are honest with each other when something could be improved or when a ministry or event does not meet expectations. This is handled without blame but also without avoidance.

  1. Energizing

Participants are able to articulate in real time what they seek to achieve. They become more future-oriented than backward-looking. The past is understood a learning tool. Failures are shared. Successes are celebrated. Little time and energy is devoted to those who want to complain but do not want to participate in the ministry’s improvement. Participants are honest about their energy level and make space for different reactions to the same program or event based on how different human beings are wired.

  1. Relational

Participants come to feel connected with God and with each other. They don’t dread responding to emails or attending meetings because they have care for the others involved beyond simply the short-term activities of the project. They spend time in each meeting finding out more about the passions, gifts, and animating stories of the people around them. They hear about the impact of their actions through stories of those impacted.

  1. Empowering

The work becomes transcendent and participants offer grace to one another when a tough season befalls someone in the group. There is less talk about “filling the slots” or “finding new blood.” There is more talk about building leaders and inviting someone into the work because of their particular story and how that generates appetite for the work. People don’t micro-manage each other because they have respect for each other’s commitment and can freely talk about issues as they arise. People don’t fade off or burn out because they are serving in an area where they are known and the work engages their primary areas of interest.

[i] Matthew 9:37


Editor’s note: The full field guide is now available for free download! Check it out —

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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