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Practice Justice

Both Personal and Public: Community organizing as leadership practice

Show up for each other and the community
by Faith+Lead | December 9, 2020

By Eric Hoffer

When I first started my call at Salem Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, I wanted to begin well. So, I compiled a big list of all that I had learned in my first five years in ministry and spent some time filtering through the myriad ideas. Eventually, I decided: I would use community organizing to build interpersonal relationships and positively impact our surrounding community.

There are several different ways of understanding community organizing, but a simple, working definition is people coming together around shared interests to make a difference in their community.

Community organizing has transformed how I lead, as well as how our congregation members show up for each other and our community. Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.

One to ones are absolutely essential.

When I started at Salem, even before unpacking the boxes in my office, I set up a schedule to do one to ones with the congregation and surrounding community. Of course, meeting members of the church through face to face conversations or cottage meetings is a fairly standard practice early in one’s call. One to ones are a little different, though. One to ones are a conversation between two people, during which one person listens deeply for the other person’s passions, their pains, and their self-interest. 

At my congregation I asked two main questions: “What keeps you up at night?” and “What gets you up in the morning?” These questions helped people share the things that weigh on their hearts, as well as what keeps them going in difficult times. I made sure to keep track of everything I heard after each one to one, as these were sacred conversations.

Since then, we’ve started teaching the practice of one to ones to lay leaders and are already beginning to see the Spirit work through deep listening and new connections across the community. We are definitely noticing that the line between “church” and “neighborhood” is fading.

If you’d like to learn more about one to ones, Minneapolis faith leader and organizer Nicholas Tangen has a great post about one-to-ones as an Advent practice on his blog

Power is not a dirty word.

A fundamental component of community organizing is understanding power. Power determines whose voice is listened to. Throughout the Bible, God shares power with God’s people to bring peace and justice into the world. Before his Ascension, Jesus even promises that the disciples will be imbued with enough power to do greater things than him.

And yet, power can be a dirty word in faith communities. 

Maybe it is because we’ve seen powerful people use their power for exploitation or abuse? Maybe it’s because we’ve overly valued meekness as a virtue? Whatever the reason, I notice church folks’ bodies tense upon the mere mention of power.

The truth is that—if we are to boldly love our neighbor in ways that are both personal and public—we have to build power. After all, power is the ability to act, and we have to increase our ability to act alongside those most oppressed in our world. We must understand who holds the power to give our community what we need, and we must build the power (usually through numbers of people) to make that person listen.

At my congregation, we’re getting pretty comfortable talking about power. Power is regularly mentioned as we discuss white supremacy in conversations around Scene on Radio’s “Seeing White” podcast. We’re leaning into teaching our members, especially younger members, how powerful they can be. We have a long way to go in building power, though. If we want our voices to be influential in decisions around community safety or the newest land development projects, we need power. If we want that power, it’s going to require people. Organized people. 

Your mission is only as strong as your plan.

Goodness gracious, the Church can be skilled at talking about important things, including community organizing. Actually acting on our stated values, though, is much harder for us. Salem is no exception.

We’re learning that doing one to ones and talking about power doesn’t magically make the kingdom of God real in our lives or the lives of our neighbors. It requires a plan or strategy. God has blessed us with all sorts of opportunities to love our neighbor and share Good News, but we’ve often stumbled through our attempts at doing either. 

This past summer, in the face of rising hunger needs in our neighborhood, Salem stepped up to provide weekly curbside dinners to our community. The Spirit provided a way initially, but we stumbled through the first few months and considered ending the ministry. Our good intentions didn’t get us very far. Eventually, we came up with a plan. We sat down, named the issue, listed our resources, set goals, and determined concrete steps to those goals. Our strategy has made all the difference, and the curbside community dinners are set to continue into 2021.

In community organizing, it doesn’t matter how passionate, right, or knowledgable you are. Your strategy is what’s important—demonstrating your power to a specific target, with a concrete demand. 

If you want to better understand strategies in community organizing, turn to Midwest Academy and pick up Organizing For Social Change for further reading, as well as an incredibly helpful strategy chart. 

We look forward to many more one to ones and many effective strategies in the years to come. I hope that these tools will develop into building lasting power and participating in concrete issue campaigns. I’m grateful to those who have taught me community organizing and look forward to learning more. 

Get Your Congregaton Involved

Explore these national networks for faith-based community organizing:  Gamaliel Network and the CCDA(Christian Community Development Association. They will connect you to others in your region and give you action steps for how your congregation can build power for change.

About the Author:
Pastor Eric Hoffer lives in North Minneapolis, where he serves as pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in the Webber-Camden neighborhood. He spends most of his time with his spouse, Kirsten, and pets, Twyla and Harriet. He believes in the power of a shared meal and is passionate about food justice issues.

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