Congregation-Based Community Organizing

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Building Vibrant Congregations and Just Communities

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Author Phil Tom

“And what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” -Micah 6:8

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2012, the Rev. Emily McGinley, a Presbyterian minister, began her ministry to organize a new United Methodist church-start on the Southside of Chicago, with outreach to the Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. She spent the first year reaching out and having one-on-one conversations with her neighbors on the street, at neighborhood events, at soccer games – wherever she could talk with someone about the hopeful new church plant. Rev. McGinley cast her net wide and far. She set a goal of making 25 contacts a week.

Every time she talked with someone, she always asked who else she should talk to. In doing this neighborhood outreach, Rev. McGinley had organized a core of folks to launch the Urban Village Church in Hyde Park in 2013, which is now a growing, multiracial, welcoming, justice-oriented, and evangelical interdenominational congregation.

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It is no secret that Presbyterian congregations across the country are seeking to experience spiritual renewal, to revitalize their congregational life, and to transform themselves and their communities.
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In 2008, Rev. Judy Hay, pastor at Calvary St. Andrews, and Rev. John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, had a conversation about how the Presbyterian Churches in Rochester could have a more powerful presence and prophetic voice in order to meet the city’s needs and create a better future for all of Rochester’s residents. Hay and Wilkinson began to imagine how they might positively impact the future of Rochester by reaching out to all of the Presbyterian churches in their urban core.

UPT-logoThe leaders and members of these 11 Presbyterian congregations – ranging in size from less than 50 members to more than 1380 – spent the next year getting to know one another. They hosted monthly lunches at each other’s churches so that they could build and deepen relationships. In doing so, they discovered clarity of vision and unity of mission: every one of these congregations wanted to share in hands-on ministry as Presbyterians committed to the city. In 2009, these congregations organized themselves as Urban Presbyterians Together and committed to work together to make a positive difference in serving their city. Today, Urban Presbyterians Together is working in partnership with their neighborhoods and city to address issues such as education, hunger, and poverty.

The most recent PC(USA) General Assembly urban ministry strategy, Urban Strategy to the Year 2005, adopted in 1995, did not lay out a plan of “how to” for urban ministry but rather lifted up a set of 6 principles that it deemed essential in the development of any healthy and vital urban ministry. The first three principals are:

  • Person Centered and Interpersonal
  • Congregationally Enacted and Interacted, and
  • Community Partnered.

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They took the time to have one-on-one conversations in order to get to know one another, hear each other’s stories, and learn about each other’s passion and concerns.
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The players in the two stories I tell above up exemplify these principles. The leader(s) of the Urban Village Church and Urban Presbyterians Together organized their church or coalition by first building relationships with their neighbors. They took the time to have one-on-one conversations in order to get to know one another, hear each other’s stories, and learn about each other’s passion and concerns. In doing this, these folks developed a base of deep relationships through which the leaders developed congregational and community interest and commitment for shared vision and mission. This, I believe, is what led to the development of vibrant and healthy church-community partnerships.

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Photo Credit: Creative Commons/notanalternative (notanalternative.org)

The three principals at work in the development of the Urban Village Church and Urban Presbyterians Together – Person Centered and Interpersonal, Congregationally Enacted and Interacted, and Community Partnered – illustrate the principles of congregational-based community organizing (CBCO).

Since the 1950s, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and its predecessor denominations have been supporting CBCO, nationally and globally. During the past thirty years, thousands of Presbyterians have undergone CBCO training. The One Great Hour of Sharing Offering, through the Presbyterian Hunger Program, continues to provide financial support for pastors and congregational leaders to attend CBCO training. These folks and their congregations are utilizing this training to strengthen their relationship-building and organizing skills so that their congregations can become more effective in reaching out and – in partnership with their neighbors – in transforming both their congregational and community life and mission. Many pastors and church leaders are employing the principles of CBCO to start new churches; some presbyteries support their congregations in attending CBCO training as part of a presbytery-wide congregational and community development strategy.

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Public protest and/or confrontation are sometimes the outcome of an organizing strategy, but they are employed only after conversation with the other party fails to produce a workable solution to the issue in question.
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However, I recently mentioned CBCO in a conversation with staff from an interfaith organization and the reaction from one staffer was not positive. I’ve found that some folks think that CBCO simply means creating public protest and acts of confrontation. I would argue that this is a very narrow view of CBCO. Yes, public protest and/or confrontation are sometimes the outcome of an organizing strategy, but they are employed only after conversation with the other party fails to produce a workable solution to the issue in question. When church leaders dismiss CBCO right off the bat because of a misunderstanding of its goal, they fail to see its value as a tool and strategy that can revitalize and strengthen the life and ministry of a congregation.

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Urban Village Church takes Ash Wednesday to the Streets

Effective use of CBCO as a tool as well as a strategy is a means for congregations to engage their members, connect with their neighbors and communities, and address social inequalities – while simultaneously transforming communities and their own congregational life! It’s a model that provides congregation members the opportunity to share their stories, deepen their relationships with one another, discover issues of common concern, and work to improve the lives of members of their communities.

It is no secret that Presbyterian congregations across the country are seeking to experience spiritual renewal, to revitalize their congregational life, and to transform themselves and their communities. They want to create a deeper sense of community – to fulfill the biblical mandate to pursue God’s justice and create a better world. CBCO is certainly not the only resource available to help build and revitalize urban congregations, but the stories told by many congregations indicate that it is a powerful and effective resource for enacting the transformation and renewal that congregations and communities alike are seeking.

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AUTHOR BIO: Phil serves as Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He previously served as staff for the Presbyterian Church USA’s Urban Ministry Office and served urban congregations for 23 years in Chicago, St. Paul, MN, and Indianapolis, IN.

To read other articles from Week 3: God in the Midst of the City, click here.

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