Organised Church

How Community Organising leads to Growing Disciples

Keith Hebden

Primarily this is the story of a frustrated parish priest learning the hard way how to organise with his congregation and make it possible for them to act on him as well as the other way around. A year after my second curacy I attended Citizens UK 6 Day training and came away angry that no one had ever introduced me to these simple tools for change before and suggested I apply them to being a vicar. Below is a rough sketch of the initial results of this experience.

As a curate – apprentice Church leader – I hated doing home visits. This was not because I did not like the people; they were lovely. I just did not know what to do with a home visit and was not happy with the ‘tea, cake and pastoral ear’ model that I lazily thought was what everyone else was doing. Because I disliked home visits, I would put them off. Eventually I would steel myself to an afternoon of visiting: I would take a list of our members, pick someone at random and go and knock on their door. When I finally found someone in, the parishioner, slightly surprised, would invite me in, maybe fetch the China cups and we’d spend around an hour and a half making small talk. I would leave feeling deflated and useless, they would wave me off probably slightly baffled. We had built a relationship based on an odd sort of power-difference. I listened, they spoke, neither of us were challenged or changed.

Home visits became increasingly infrequent. I retreated to my computer, devising events or services for people to attend. Of course, few people came to these events, despite posters, notices in the pew sheet and announcements from the front of church. I was designing things for imaginary people since I did not know the real ones very well at all. When it came to congregational development I felt like a complete fake, we were a parish with plenty of baptisms, weddings, and funerals some schools and nursing homes so I could content myself with being the paid professional, doing ministry on behalf of a congregation who I could never quite persuade to join in. You may have met church leaders like me before!

What changed my approach was Community Organising – I was interested in campaigning for justice and would much rather do that work than my pastoral work. But the Community Organisers, the staff at Citizens UK, challenged me to think about leadership differently and to see how Community Organising could also be Congregational Organising. Below is my account of what was for me an incredible journey of discovery.

What is Community Organising?

The tradition of Community Organising can be traced back to Joseph Meegan and Saul Alinsky’s work in Chicago in the 1930s although it built on precedent methods. In Britain there are many organisations using Community Organising tools but two that emphasis doing so through civic institutions: ‘Together Creating Communities’ (TCC) on the North Wales Coast and ‘Citizens UK’ which has chapters across England and Wales and has been organizing local institutions for around 25 years. Understanding what organising is depends on who you ask but here’s a couple of helpful definitions:  

Organizing, at its core, is about raising expectations: about what people should expect from their jobs; the quality of life they should aspire to; how they ought to be treated when they are old; and what they should be able to offer their children… Expectations about what they themselves are capable of, about the power they could exercise if they worked together, and what they might use that collective power to accomplish.

The starting point is: if you want change, you need power. You build up power through relationships with other people around common interests.

Citizens UK brings together faith, unions, education, community institutions in a formal alliance with a commitment to one another that is demonstrated by paying dues, listening to each other’s concerns and acting together on shared interests. In coming together, they are trained in how to organize their people and money within their institution and across their alliance in order to build greater relational power; power being simply ‘the ability to act’.  The fundamental principle then is that as we build deeper, thicker public relationships then we can be more effective instead of just busier. It’s a principle that applies across the alliance but, as I was to discover, it also applies instead the institution.

Maun Valley Citizens: Founding a new Chapter of Citizens UK

In September 2013 a group of 100 civic leaders met together to explore the possibility of forming a local chapter of Citizens UK – Maun Valley Citizens. Because of some significant funding from the Anglican diocese, we already had access to a part-time organiser. As an Anglican priest myself, but with a half time role across the whole town I was able to start having conversations with civic leaders – leaders of institutions – a year earlier and so we already had the beginnings of a leadership group.

Over the following two years we had some good wins on housing, pay, jobs, and road safety. We were able to act together in dramatic and imaginative ways and built good public relationships with local politicians, the mayor, and the press. By the summer of 2016 we had enough paid-up members to employ a part-time Community Organiser.

Organising in the Church

In my role as Co-Chair of Maun Valley Citizens from 2012 to 2016 I visited church leaders of various denominations. But a particular conversation with one parish priest challenged and changed my approach and led to the experiments described below and to nearly a decade of working with Church leaders on building relational leadership in churches. Revd Phil was, and still is, a gracious pastor and leader in the church. And as we sat in his front room, he named the elephant in so many vicarage conversations. He said, “Keith I love the idea of what you’re doing but if my church joins Maun Valley Citizens then you’ll want members of the congregation to get involved. And I can’t afford that – the few people who do nearly everything – and the ones who will say ‘Yes’ are already stretched too thin.” As I thought about his honest and vulnerable concern, I realized that it wasn’t that different in my own congregation, and it was about time I followed Phil’s lead and got honest about it too. But equally, I wanted to know if relationship building might be the key to the problem, rather than yet another thing ‘to do’.

Since learning how to organize, this had not been my experience. As an Associate priest at St Mark’s Mansfield, I observe to important things about how the church related to community organizing: first, people have time for the things that matter to them; second, an organised church develops leadership and adds strategic capacity in the church.

Organised Visiting

As a church leader, when visiting your congregation at home the first decision is about who to visit and why. Is this a pastoral visit or a relationship visit, or what I called ‘mutual discipleship’? I developed better methods and principles for home visiting. I drew a distinction between pastoral visits and organizing visits. Although this distinction was inevitably a fuzzy one it was still important. I made a commitment to myself, as a half-time parish priest, to make at least four home visits each week. I would book ahead and tell them why I was visiting and ask to see them for about half an hour. I would always leave within 40 minutes. When I arrived, I would start with us working out what we both wanted from meeting which could be as simple as “I just wanted to get to know you and share some stories together.” I would begin the sharing. Most of what I’d been taught about being a good listener went out of the window. I told them a story to illicit one back on the same theme and of a similar degree of vulnerability. I also did it because expecting someone to tell you about their life without being willing to first offer some of your own seems unfair. Finally, telling a story first makes the other person feel safer: you have set some parameters for them so that their talking doesn’t feel like such a risk. Often, we would pray. After the visit I would make notes in a prayer diary, so I could remember to pray for their aspirations, activities, souls, and relationships more pertinently. This would also help me learn what mattered to them; this is powerful knowledge since people will act if the action meets their self-interest.

Through my own visiting I learned who was willing to go on two-day organiser training, for various reasons. I learned about the strength of people’s networks and activities outside of church. I learned about people’s struggles with care for relatives or their own physical and mental struggles. I also learned how they saw themselves and one another and began to see what their common vision for the church was.

Transforming Bible Study through Organising

At St Mark’s we had a group of people who formed a team to look at both the pastoral care of members and our shared identity as a member of ‘Inclusive Church’. Inclusive Churches seek to “not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality.” This issue went to the heart of faith for some in the Church, was peripheral to others and a source of discomfort for a few. For those for whom it mattered most, getting the values of inclusion more deeply embedded in the congregation was in their self-interest. We also had people who worshipped with us on Sunday but felt otherwise isolated from the congregation and longed for some sort of home-based element to Church. Meanwhile Oliver, one of the most hardworking and committed leaders in the church, invited me to the Church Bible study. Too my shame I had not yet been – but neither had most people! A small group had been running a monthly bible study for four years with attendance never high and dropping to around four people. Oliver wanted to see more members take Bible Study seriously and he wanted young people taken more seriously in the Church. Together we began to use one to ones to explore the problem with other members of the congregation: One admitted to fear of Bible study either because of the vulnerability involved or a previous experience where they’d felt trapped into being their every week for ever with people they did not like. Another couldn’t travel, another longed to offer hospitality, and didn’t mind too much what the meeting was for. In our conversations we also discovered leaders struggling with depression or anxiety and leaders with hidden disabilities that they wanted to find a way to talk about with other Christians. This huge diversity of self-interests was discovered through one-to-one conversation by me as minister or by other trained members of the congregation and then through small groups.

Across the teams, we decided to run a Bible study on Disability in three homes for just five weeks, three times over a year. People that it would stop after five weeks and reorganize later in the year on a new theme (mental health) and could choose different group to join if they wished. On week five, the groups were challenged to invite a visitor with a disability from another church to speak. Each week we shared something of ourselves, heard a story of a churchgoer with a disability, then used this listening as a lens through which to read scripture and challenge us. Attendance at Bible study went from four to twenty-five. Lives were changed, friendships were made or rekindled, and people had encounters with God with a few witnessing to their faith with strangers for the first time. Instead of building a program and expecting people to turn up we raised the expectations of people that they could formulate a plan and implement it. Because we put relationship before program the turnout was easy – people understood who they wanted to invite and why.  No one felt coerced to attend and everyone knew why they wanted to be there. Even if the reasons for being their varied a lot. But best of all, we had developed new leaders, hosts, readers, prayers, storytellers, and bible study leaders developed from out of the congregation. And this was just the start.

Transforming Liturgy through Organising

When I first arrived at St Mark’s I quickly changed a few Orders of Service which were in urgent need of repair. One went well, the other was a bit rubbish for all sorts of reasons but not least because I didn’t really know who I was worshipping with. I needed to put relationships before program again. Two years later, it was increasingly clear, through conversations, that our Advent service book was no longer fit for purpose. The congregation had changed considerably in outlook since it was written. Up until this point, my practice had been to write the liturgy alone, like so-called-expert I thought I was and give it to someone else to proofread. Changes were either too superficial or pastorally clumsy and divisive. They were often more about my idea of better worship than the congregation’s ideas. In an organized church this had to change.

Ahead of our AGM, I announced to the Church that I would be devising a new Advent Order of Service. I could do this alone but would much rather do it in company and would like to use the AGM to elect a team. I promised it would take a team no more than four meetings of one and a half hours per meeting with some work between. The team would then disband, I assured them. Through one-to-one conversations I was able to make sure that people with very different ideas of what worship should be like all felt confident to put themselves forward: some hated the current liturgy, others wanted to make sure we didn’t go too far, others wanted to make it more inclusive and expansive, some cared about the music, others the choreography, others the opportunity for discipleship. Others just wanted to be part of an interesting conversation.

Not only did the team get to know each other better but they were tasked with undertaking one to one conversations with other members of the congregation in order to produce a liturgy that reflected their needs. The level of theological engagement was intensely exciting, and the liturgy was far braver than I could have managed alone. By early November we had our team of eight who knew the new service book inside out and had a sense of ownership and expectation that they could communicate to the rest of the congregation. I have never known such a buzz of excitement on a Sunday morning like the first Sunday of Advent that year.

Transforming Welcome through Organising

One Saturday evening I received an unexpected phone call from a member of the congregation, “When can we meet up? I need to talk to you.” Barbara had just been on a Citizens UK two-day training event and was about to have her first post-training one to one. She had evidently decided that the person who most needed acting on was the vicar: I was chuffed! As we got to know each other in the coming months Barbara’s leadership in the church developed from not seeing herself as a leader at all to bringing about significant change to the whole culture of the church.  She was angry about the level of welcome people experienced in the hall after our Sunday morning service. Many people avoided going from the Church to the hall at all. No tables or chairs were put out anymore, so people huddled around radiators, often in the same groups each week. Any newcomer would stand lost in the middle of the room and would rarely come again. Among those who did come each week nothing much was made of the opportunity for discipleship it offered. In the past the after-church-coffee had done all these things but not anymore and many people felt the loss of it.

Because I had been learning to listen better to my conversation than previously, I had some sense of who might share Barbara’s concern enough to act with her. We chose to experiment with a five consecutive Sunday’s of reorganizing the space and the people in it. We chose the church season of Lent because some people felt that we should go back to our practice of fasting before Church each Sunday while others might just manage that for five weeks if there was cake after the service. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until I got word that the tea and coffee volunteers were worried. At St Mark’s, and perhaps at your church too, bands of volunteers will often choose an informal union representative whose job it is to let the vicar know when there is unrest. It is not always a pleasant job to tell the minister that they are wrong, and it often takes diplomacy, courage, and leadership to do so. Clearly our plans for Lent were not going to work without better negotiating with these key volunteers. We had a large team of people on the tea Rota. I phoned each one (I missed one, but she forgave me) and invited them to come to the vicarage along with other people who had an interest in the experiment. Sixteen people turned up. We shared our hopes and anxieties in a round, read the bible in a way that coached us into attentiveness to one another and only then discussed how to move forward.

By the time we got to Lent more than a third of the congregation had a good understanding of what was to come. For five weeks there were dressed tables, a buffet of goodies, and structured conversations. Members were invited to sit with a “Reasonably friendly looking stranger” – language borrowed from Partnership for Missional Church – for fifteen minutes and ask each other two specific questions: “Why did you first come to St Mark’s Church?” and “What do you love about this Church?” Relationships deepened, we learnt a great deal about evangelism, a member of the congregation who had been on the fringe got more involved in the week-day life of the church, new friendships were made, and old ones were rekindled. What had felt like a doctor’s waiting room had turned into a party: the extroverts were happy because they had new people to talk to, the introverts were happy because they were able to have time-limited structured conversations. And in the end the tea Rota were happy too: thanks be to God!

Relationship Before Program

It may be that I am unusually naïve or ill-prepared for ministry. I am certain that there are church leaders around who, either by instinct or education, do this sort of organised ministry all the time. For me it was a revelation that transformed my leadership from a struggle to a joy. The outcomes are as diverse as people are, but the principles are universal. People act on the stuff that matters to them; this includes the ministers of churches and their congregations. Deepening relationships in congregations increases their capacity to lead and act. Members of congregations who develop their capacity to lead and act increase the depth of relationships. Community Organising is about campaigning for a Living Wage, better housing, or safer streets by acting with and acting on those with positional authority in the public realm. But it is also about discipleship and congregational renewal as congregations learn to act on their ministers, wardens, elders, and other leaders and re-energise worshipping communities by challenging ministry-as-usual. St Marks could be described as a liberal Catholic congregation: our worship is formal and elaborate, our hymns are rarely modern, and our ministers and choir are always robed. The tools of Community Organising can help grow churches of all traditions; rather than stretch an increasingly precarious human resource, involvement in social justice can raise expectations of ministers and laity alike for who among us might lead us and how.