If You Build It They Will (Not) Come

NEXT Church regularly pulls on wisdom from community organizing as we think about being the church in the 21st century. For our purposes this month, we focus on the way in which congregation-based community organizing places emphasis on developing new leaders. Read Jeff Krehbiel’s post for another example.


By Jessica Tate

“If you build it, they will come.”

We held that maxim for several years in children’s ministry at the congregation I first served.

It is not true.

“We need better curriculum,” I thought. One that more fully embraces the Presbyterian theology we preach, is attentive to multiple intelligences, one that takes children and their spiritual questions seriously, and is easy for our teachers to use. That is what good curriculum should do, according to my Masters’ degree in Christian Education. So we researched and acquired a new curriculum.

The children did not come.

“Our teachers need better training so they will be more invested, more prepared, and developing spiritually themselves.” We did more training. Our teachers were ready!

The children did not come.

We need better snacks, more play time, less choir, more choir, more bible drills, parent education, family events… the list went on and on and we tried it all.

They did not come.

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

Anita Patterson Peppers/shutterstock

The children’s ministry team had been eager for their shiny new pastor to arrive with a pristine education degree and solutions. Starting this new call, I thought the stagnation of the children’s ministry was simply a matter of technical fixes and re-energizing volunteers. Two years in we realized we were wrong and we were frustrated. All of us believed in the value of forming our children in faith, but we couldn’t get more than a dozen families engaged. We didn’t know what else to try.

During those same years we were trouble-shooting the children’s ministry problem, the mission portion of my job had me deeply engaged in community organizing through VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement), where I was learning about the power of relationships to make change in our community around issues we cared about. In Northern Virginia, these were issues of:

  • affordable housing (as we watched developers tear down apartment complexes to build luxury condominiums – “staring in the $700s!” – and knew firefighters and nurses who commuted an hour or more to work.)
  • the foreclosure crisis (that blighted neighborhoods in Prince William county and trapped homeowners in endless bureaucratic cycles of refinancing and foreclosure because banks weren’t devoting enough human resources to deal with the huge increase in the number of families needing these services in the burst of the housing bubble.)
  • affordable dental care for the uninsured (I had never before thought about the social and financial impact of dental care until I talked to some of my neighbors and realized the poor condition of your teeth makes you wary of opening your mouth to speak.)
  • increased identification requirements for drivers’ licenses that unfairly targeted immigrants and prevented them from getting legal identification.

Through these organizing efforts I was learning the marks of relational (v. bureaucratic) culture, how power works in a community to get things done (or prevent things from happening), the ways in which people’s own interests and passions get acted on (or not), and that all organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.

I was learning skills like relational meetings, power analysis, listening campaigns, and evaluation. I was participating in local trainings and actions in our area and being constantly support and challenged to grow by the organizers and other leaders with whom I was working. Three years into my first call I went to the Industrial Areas Foundation national training, which completely reframed the ways in which I understood how to do my job as a pastor, namely, by working primarily relationally within and outside of my congregation (as opposed to programmatically) and to strategically align my energy and time with the passions and interests of others with whom I was in relationship to develop ourselves into disciples and be the church for the world.

I was participating in a Community Organizing Cluster in my presbytery that encouraged pastors to use the principles of organizing inside their congregations when it became clear that the wisdom and skills I was learning in organizing to make change in our community might be relevant to the stagnation we were experiencing in children’s ministry.

What if the children’s ministry committee gave up our frantic “build it and they will come” mentality and returned to our values as a relational culture?

One of the organizers for VOICE helped me design a listening campaign for the summer. A team of five leaders who were invested in children’s ministry came together to get trained in relational meetings. We let all the families in the church know that we were embarking on a children’s ministry listening campaign and encouraged them to respond if called upon by one of these leaders. The leaders met individually with twenty families in the congregation and then came back together to share what they heard and notice themes. We held “listening sessions” with members of the congregation who have a stake in children’s ministry to talk what matters to them about the faith formation of our children. For what do they most hope? What obstacles prevent their participation? To what are they willing to commit?

We discovered the most valued component of children’s ministry was caring adults who know the children and act as guides in Christian life. (Not biblical knowledge, entertainment value, or snack, despite that these are the areas I heard most about in the usual grumblings.) Meaningful relationships.

We learned the schedule everyone took for granted was a hindrance to participation and we worked together to find a schedule that suited most.

We also watched as those present at the listening sessions took responsibility for their own opinions and took power back from the squeakiest wheels. When one person said, “A lot of people think X…” the others present respectfully disagreed and shared what they did think, which prevented us from following a programmatic rabbit trail based on one person’s experience.

After listening well to each other and responding as a community (not just a committee), we made significant changes to the emphases in children’s ministry and the schedule of Sunday activities. Children’s ministry doubled the next year. And increased again the next.

Then it was time to listen again because, as we learned,

  • relationships are essential to the community’s life together,
  • people will act on their interest when they are able to name what that interest is, and,
  • because our lives are constantly changing, our programs needed to be continually dis-organized and re-organized.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church. She previously served as Associate Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church.

Congregational Power (Relational) Analysis

By Rebecca Messman

Power copyChristians often shy away from the use of the word “power” because it is seen as bad: power over, corrupted power, violent power, greedy power. Goliath bad! David good! Jesus blessed the meek, after all. God’s power is made perfect through weakness.

However, Christians do not shy away from conversations about the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer. I remember the old gospel song that crooned, “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder workin’ pow’r, in the blood of the lamb!”

Power is defined in community organizing simply as the ability to act on one’s values, from the Latin word poder, which meansto be able.” Power in organizing is not coercive power but relational power, the engine of relationships that are at work inside and outside of a congregation.

What is a power analysis?

Michael Gecan, one of the leading community organizers within the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), wrote,

“Many leaders of congregations operate without a clear and honest picture of the relational terrain in which they function – both inside the congregation and with the surrounding community. A basic understanding of which leaders have followings and influence, how they relate to one another, who determines what decisions are made and how money is spent, is what we call a power or relational analysis. At bottom, a power analysis is a relational map of the way an institution really functions and how that institution actually interacts with other institutions in the real world.” (Effective Organizing for Congregational Renewal, 13.)

Why do a congregational power analysis?

Without knowing who the true influencers of a congregation are, it is nearly impossible to do anything. The dynamics are constantly shifting, so this is not a “once and done” process. Most importantly, a power analysis grounds organizing to the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. The powerful people within a congregation may not be the ones whom the pastor thinks should be the leaders. Pastors or any would-be change agent cannot be held captive to stereotypes or wishful thinking. Leaders may not be the same from one Presbyterian Church to the next. For example, PW may hold significant sway at one church and be sidelined at another. The Session at one church, or even a subset of the Session, may decide everything at one church, while at another church, nothing moves forward without the support of the pastor.

How to do a congregational power analysis?

First, mapping out relationships and doing a power analysis require trust and sensitivity. There are always egos to be managed, antique grievances and hurts to be understood and either buried or ignored, and there is spin to be un-spun, as Gecan cautions. So, those best positioned to study the congregation are the leaders themselves. It cannot be done by outsiders. It is a confession about how things really happen, within the church and in its connection to the outside world. Second, it is based upon many trust-building individual meetings. Until church leaders and members know each other, through sitting down and listening to each other’s stories, there is not enough trust or knowledge to identify current leaders or tap future ones. A church that is acting as a transactional body, where leaders are only seen as committee chairs who run programs, misses many contours of its own life, and the leaders it does have get pigeonholed and eventually burn out. Finally, a power analysis needs to be done repeatedly, because all relationships are fluid. These shifts in congregational understanding are naturally done when a pastor leaves or arrives, which is why those can be such ripe moments for a church to change. But, it can paralyze a congregation and doom a pastorate if this is the only way major change occurs. People are constantly, whether blatantly or quietly, stepping up and stepping down, forging new connections and severing them.

Tapping new leaders.

For our congregation, a power analysis revealed to us that we could not rely upon the Service and Mission committee alone to do community outreach. The committee of deeply committed leaders was simply too small. We had exhausted their bandwidth. With training in community organizing, we embarked on a season of relational meetings, a relationship campaign of sorts, starting with Session and Deacons. In the summer, we incorporated these conversations into worship. Instead of a sermon, for two Sundays, the congregation spoke in small groups about what they believed broke God’s heart in the community around us. Where were we called, even gifted, as a church to speak to those needs? Those relational meetings were like a giant spoon stirring up energy and affecting the chemistry of our congregation. New leaders surfaced.

Before doing an individual meeting with a woman I’ll call Margaret, I – her pastor – knew her only through fellowship events and through the pastoral care space in the death of her aging family members. So, I noticed my own inclination to tap her for the fellowship committee or the congregational care team of deacons. But after hearing her story, of being a first generation American, of her passion for education, and her ability to organize just about anything she approached, I saw her differently. Now, she is leading our congregation’s new partnership with the elementary school across the street and has become a leading advocate for immigrants in our community.

What we can really do.

The flip-side of a power analysis is that is grounds a congregation in hard reality. It is easy to talk about justice, making an impact, loving our neighbor, speaking truth to power, and feeding the multitudes, but a power analysis forces the questions, “How?” “Who would do that?” “What impact are we hoping to make?” “What kind of coalition would we need to even be noticed by the ones really making the decisions in our municipality, in our county, in our state?” But it has been energizing for a group of faith communities in Fairfax County, Virginia to talk in these stark terms, but then to realize, if all 13 of the faith communities that we had already gathered, talked to 13 other specific faith communities with whom we already had relationships conveniently, and we worked together, we would have the power to get to the table with half of the Board of Supervisors of our county, one of the largest counties in the country.

Those relationships are allowing us to do more than talk about homelessness or feed the homeless, which we have all already been doing, but to find homes for them and prevent others from losing their homes as a new Metro line makes its way to our area and threatens to expunge our region of affordable housing. Alone and disorganized, we did not have the power to do this. But together, we were able to preserve one particular affordable housing community called Crescent Apartments. That victory was documented in the Washington Post. That effort fueled our imagination and brought out more new leaders.

Our communities were ravaged during the foreclosure crisis. Alone and disorganized, we would have raged against the machine, preached until we were blue in the face, and homes would have still been blighted and vacant, full of broken bottles and broken promises. But together, we were able to highlight the issue, gather congregation members from nearly 60 faith communities, 500 people packed into high school gyms or sanctuaries, over and over again, which got all sorts of media attention, and over the course of two years of pragmatic and deliberate action and agitating leaders, we were able to deliver $30 million dollars for mortgage modification and community investment.

And as the Bible says over and over again, seeing what the power of the Spirit can do, “we were amazed.”

Rebecca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, VA and a leader in Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. She is a regular blogger for the Presbyterian Outlook.

Christ Becomes Visible

By Lois Bingham

A mouse and a frog met every morning on the riverbank.
They sat in a nook of the ground and talked.
Each morning, the second they saw each other,
they opened easily, telling stories and dreams and secrets,
empty of any fear or suspicious holding-back.
To watch and listen to those two
is to understand how, as it is written
when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.
(From Essential Rumi, 13th Century Sufi Poet)

V.O.I.C.E. (Virginian’s Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) is an affiliate of the IAF in Northern Virginia and last night I attended an Action Team meeting of 75 leaders from congregations across Northern Virginia. I found myself sitting beside a lovely woman who reported that she had never been to an Action Team Meeting. She had been involved in V.O.I.C.E. for some time and had even pushed for her congregation to join some years ago, and thought it was time to expand her knowledge and experience with the Community Organization. I had a small role in the meeting and afterward she leaned over to me and said, “I didn’t realize when we first spoke, that you were actually a leader here.” Her comment took me back to my early days when my congregation became involved in Congregational Community Organizing. It took me back to my very personal and internal struggle around becoming a leader in V.O.I.C.E. at both the community level as well as my church team level.

I was drawn to the idea of congregations combining forces – organizing people and money – to bring about real change in the places that really count: across race lines, in ecumenical and interfaith networks, and in civic and legislative discussions around issues of social injustice. As my church wrestled with its concerns about how best to engage these issues, I wrestled with mine, namely, what did I think I had to offer? I had never been an activist by any stretch and I did not see myself as a church leader.

At those early VOICE meetings, I listened to people’s stories: people losing their job, leaving the country of their birth to come here to find work but finding difficult working conditions instead, difficulty finding affordable housing near ailing family members or jobs, family members deported and other immigration issues, complicated dental problems that have a domino effect in people’s lives, lack of housing for the chronically unemployed because of mental illness or multiple medical problems – stories about the things that concerned them most in their lives and stories that made my heart sad every time I heard them or read a newspaper.

However, as time went on, I caught a vision of the possible cultural change that was possible, certainly for me, but also for my congregation. You see, community organizing is all about forming relationship with members of a congregation, and influential people in any community. These relationships cannot be shallow or transient – they must be consistent and persistent. I think it was the possible depth and power of these intense relationships that captured my imagination because I believe this is how people grow and develop. These intentional relationships can bring about change at every level.

Because the work is shared, and because training was available and even required, I slowly began to believe that I could contribute to this change – one day at a time. I was filled with both fear and determination to build relationships with people who share the values and concerns that I care about. Over time I have been changed by V.O.I.C.E. It has been a learning curve including all that is inherent in a learning experience. Even at age 72 I feel that I am still learning to be a true disciple for Christ as I try to discern the human need in my community and church. With the power of the Holy Spirit moving us forward, we continue, as members of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, on this journey of encouraging others to speak to issues that are unfair and unjust.

And like the mouse and the toad, Christ has become visible to all of us.


Lois Bingham is a VOICE Core Team Leader at Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.



Many Ways to Build Houses

This month, we’re curating a conversation around congregationally 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. Read more