The most useful way to think of community organising is as a process, entailing five steps which if followed in order will help churches be healthy congregations where power is shared and help change the world for the better.
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The following article uses the example of ministerial training to illustrate this process. It was written by Andy Griffiths, the then Head of Training, but draws on work by Caroline Beckett.
What does a community-organising approach to ministerial training look like?
In 2021, The Diocese of Chelmsford faced a dilemma.
On the one hand, it was a strategic partner of Citizens UK, and longed to see a move in the direction of the five phases of community organising – *relational culture, *triple listening, *bottom-up planning, *action for justice, *getting everyone a seat at the table. Or to put it more negatively (though community organisers are glass-half-full people) we could say that we were aware of the five-fold ever-present dangers of *not relating to one another as human beings, *failing to listen, *top-down planning, *exclusion from the tables of power and the table of God.
But on the other hand we were developing a new direction of travel as a diocese, recently articulated as Travelling Well Together, with an approach focused on enabling and empowering parishes, deaneries and worshipping communities to discern how they are to be God’s people in their own very different contexts and as part of one diocesan family. An approach that means moving beyond top-down diocesan initiatives. In any case, imposing a relational culture top-down is never going to work in any context. The only thing you can successfully build top-down is a hole.
So: how do you change diocesan culture bottom-up? I don’t know. But one small partial answer is to start with curate training. So we re-thought curacy, for those starting curacy in 2021 and 2022, as in part analogous to an apprenticeship in community organising. When new curates arrived in the Diocese, the very first thing we taught them is how to have a 121 conversation – 40 minutes in which each person discloses something of their story, passions, significant others and gifts, and listens to the same things from their conversation partner[ii]. I made them a promise: ‘If you have a 121 a week every week for three years, you will be the best-connected person in your community – including your Training Incumbent’.
And then, over the next years, they learnt Community Organising as a process – one that may not yield the quick results of some other approaches, but one which gradually builds to a point where all God’s people have a seat at the tables of power and the Table of God. This is typically expressed in five stages, which can be called Relational Culture, Listening, Planning, Action and Negotiating, with at each stage a rhythm of Research-Action-Evaluation. The claim being made is that
- the best way to change the world is to get people a seat at the tables of power and the Table of God
- the best way to get people a seat at the table is through action by public story-telling
- action through public story-telling needs to be planned bottom-up
- planning should follow careful and curious listening,
- and listening can only work where a relational culture has been built.[iii]
So, we told curates, it really matters that things are done in this order. Try to plan before you form a relational culture and you’ll achieve nothing but resentment. (As community organisers often put it, you get everyone on the bus and then work out where the bus is going, rather than setting the destination and then recruiting people to get on board). Try to take action for the community before you’ve listened to the community and you’ll find yourself in power over rather than power with.
Although changes of personnel mean that curate training in Chelmsford no longer exactly follows this scheme (though it's as high-quality and community-oriented as ever), the programme curates followed for those two years will give a clear sense of what ministerial community organising brings to the table.
The first step: Building a relational culture (or: organising)
The state has a bureaucratic culture. It can’t help it; it’s just the way it is. And it exercises power-over you. (If you doubt the reality of the state’s power-over you, try resisting it, and you will find the police involved first and then, if you find a way to refuse to back down when the police move in, the army).
Business has a market-oriented culture. Again, it can’t help it. It has power-over its employees (and if the employees do not comply, it will find a way to fire them).
But alongside the state and business, there is another culture, which we call ‘civil society’. Residents’ associations, mosques, student unions, charities and churches are part of civil society, and, at least in theory, these institutions do not have power-over but power-with. The first stage in Christian community organising is making sure that churches are indeed operating this way. It’s not that churches are not teams, and need to become them; churches are already teams by virtue of being made up from the faithful baptised, but they need to live in accord with that reality.
Internally, this entails lots of ‘121s’. If I become a Vicar again – and I assume I will be doing a parish job again at some point before retirement – I would start by training everyone in the congregation to do good 121s, expecting everything else to flow from that. Meanwhile, the first six minutes of curate training attempted to put training in the context of gift and relationship, as recorded on the video below.
121s are one of the basic ways curates learn. But building a relational culture also entails team-building[iv] and liturgy. Liturgy, because community formation is more difficult if you don’t have a liturgy that members can grasp and rely on; when the rest of the world changes they can count on the liturgy not because the words will be unchanged but because the ordo, the shape of the liturgy will still be there[v]. Externally, yes, lots of 121s, but also committing ourselves to be a creative minority, and be really good at forming alliances and partnerships for justice and the common good with the other creative minorities that make up civil society. And liturgy is as necessary externally in these alliances as it is internally in churches; there is a way, an ordo, of holding core group meetings and civic assemblies and Citizens chapters, and we need to become proficient at living in tune with these liturgies.
If you want biblical examples of God as an organizer, you will find them in Genesis 12, where God starts again with a creative, blessed and blessing minority after the great disorganizing work he did at Babel; in Jeremiah 29, a call to exiles to organize for the common good after the great disorganizing of the exile; and in Luke 1:39-45 where, after disorganising the lives of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, God engineers the mother of all 121s as the first step to a new community. ‘Love one another’ is not a complete guide to how churches should operate, but it’s not a bad start.
The second step: listening
Our culture encourages us to listen to our hearts, listen to our guts, listen to our inner voices, but rarely do we listen carefully and with intent to other people. Online and in person, we’re defining ourselves and shaping the narrative and staying on message, while checking Facebook during Zoom meetings and drafting responses to the latest government announcement as the podium is being set up outside 10 Downing Street. Some Christian leaders are an exception, in that they are adept at therapeutic listening – listening to those who are bereaved or unwell or in trauma. But even those leaders seldom take time, outside this special case, to listen; and especially not to listen curiously.
So learning community organising means learning to listen. Alinsky encouraged ‘double listening’ - listening to our institution (in this case our congregation), and listening to the community[vi]. Organizers listen to their community – not by conducting surveys but by having 121 after 121 after 121, and house meetings, and conversations of various kinds. They do it to listen to stories, and the feelings behind stories, and the gifts that people bring to the table, and hopes and dreams. They don’t assume, with glass-half-empty pessimism, that they will find nothing but trouble and lack; they assume, with a theology that believes in abundance and the goodness of creation, that they will find gifts and assets and leaders. ‘Organizers enter a community not to catalogue a litany of the community’s deficits, but to see gifts and identify and train leaders. A fundamental assumption of organizing is that every community has within it leaders capable of acting on their own behalf in relationship with others. A goal of organizing is to find and cultivate these leaders.[vii]’
For Christians, of course, along with this double listening is a third: listening to God. The term ‘triple listening’ was coined by John Stott. So listening needs to include an aspect of contemplation and of bible-open theological reflection, the primary ways in which we ‘listen to God’ today. The truth is that these three kinds of listening are intimately connected. Christians have an advantage as community-listeners, if they have learned contemplative prayer – me being me in the presence of God being God. Contemplative prayer isn’t easy; our attention frequently wanders, and we have to draw it back (gently, as if we were training a kitten) to our breathing and the reality of the presence of God. In fact, contemplation is important for two reasons – first because listening to God is a good in itself, and fundamental to our calling as Christians, and second because the process of learning to listen to others is honed by learning to listen to God. Remember, God is a listener too (think of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21[viii]).
The third step: planning
Ernesto Cortes Jr points to a paradox – how is that community organising is negative about Planning, yet includes planning in its five steps?[ix] The answer, for Cortes, is to distinguish Planning (with a capital P – the kind of Planning that community organising doesn’t like, which is done from above, championed by one single leader and ‘comprehensive’) from planning (the kind of planning that community organising does like). planning is simply the middle stage between listening to the community and action. Stories are turned into bite-sized, ‘winnable’ issues (‘problems lead to conferences, issues lead to action’[x]); when the gifts local people bring, and a power analysis (see below) are brought to bear, a plan for action comes together. Cortes uses the Greek word metis to mean ‘local knowledge … gained through incremental learning and constant feedback and evaluation,’ and claims that it is metis that makes the difference between Plans and plans. Bretherton uses the adjectives ‘prudential’ and ‘non-ideological.’[xi] To which we want to add ‘local’ or even ‘parochial’. In her address to Diocesan Synod on 22 October 2022, Bishop Guli put it this way:
"For the foreseeable future there will be no more initiatives imposed from the so-called centre. Everything will be invitational and driven by the local context... We don't have a diocesan strategy... We don't, any of us, know the future shape of the Church of England, which has changed over the decades and centuries, and will continue to do so. But we do know that Christ who has called us is faithful. He has placed us, intentionally, in relationship with one another to make this journey into the future together, as God’s people. To journey alongside one another, supporting and upholding one another through times of joy, sorrow, loss, disagreement, challenge and opportunity. We are disciples of Christ, called to travel well together, and to glorify the one who has called us to be one body in his name... I want to encourage local contexts to share in the task of discernment, to discover and articulate what it means for you to be God’s people in your communities and how you might work in partnership, using as the basis for your discernment some shared values, alongside appropriate support from the Diocese. Everything we do must flow out of what we believe, rather than from a set of instructions we are told to follow... Everything we need to sustain us on the path is with us already. That’s what we praise and pray for.”
I take it that Bishop Guli's "post-strategy startegy" is built on two suppostions - one organisational, and one epistemic. Organisationally, "we don't have a diocesan strategy” (or top-down initiatives) – there are local next steps, taken relationally in local contexts (whether by parishes, benefices or other suitable clusters of churches), and the apparatus and personnel of the diocese exist in order, in an inverted pyramid, to support these local next steps. Diocesan employees like me have generally welcomed this repositioning – the only thing that can successfully be built top-down is a hole. However, this does not mean there are no constraints (and Chelmsford Diocese’s budget constraints are well-publicised), or no need for further direction (in particular, we are about to discover some diocesan values which are the fruit of a Bishops’ Retreat and will help discernment). Meanwhile, epistemologically, “we don't have a... strategy”, because the medium-term future is in principle unknown, and it is idolatrous as well as unwise to claim otherwise. So what we have is the present moment, the way we receive this moment as a gift, and the way we treat each other as we discern our way forward, in good relationships with one another, and in hope (because the long-term future is secure). Bishop Guli has recommended the book “How to Lead when you don’t know where you’re Going” by Susan Beaumont. "Strategy is the posture of the powerful. It sets goals and commits to measurable outcomes. It is not comfortable with uncertainties... Tactics are the tools of the weak" - Emmanuel Katongole in Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda.
For the Christian, the temptation to be the heroic, central, top-of-the-triangle or top-of-the-tower-of Babel leader is a familiar one. It is the original temptation of Genesis 3, the heart of the temptations in the wilderness of Jesus. But we are following Jesus, and that means we are not heroes but servants, not Planners but planners. ‘The Saviour rules, he gives life and breath, he heals us, he keeps us, he conquers sin & carries out decrees -yes, he does all this - but my sisters and brothers, he does all this after the pattern of the cross, and we must never present him as a despot with a way of power, but as a Lamb: patient, lamblike, gentle if things do not go his way’[xii].
So in community organising, planning is simply the thing that happens after listening and before action. You will do it carefully, aware of the pitfalls of power-over rather than power-with; but you will not fall for the opposite trap of rejecting power altogether. Power itself is neutral.[xiii] If we don't look to hold power, others will not hesitate to take it. An approach to training that is shaped by community organising will move power from the category of ‘temptation’ to the category of ‘gift of God’ and, when we see that, we can dismantle something else poisonous. Power is not a zero-sum game. There is not a limited amount of it, like a possession or resource, so that in order for me to have more of it, you must have less. Like all the gifts of God, such as peace, love and justice, power builds when it is shared.
We taught curates the acronym NAOMIE: Needs, allies, outcomes, methods, implementation, evaluation. We dream of all clergy using tools like this to make sure that planning is not haphazard, does not misuse power, and entails constant learning.
The fourth step: action through public story-telling
So the next thing that needs to happen after planning, we tell curates, is action. However, we aren’t just saying ‘go and do something’. The action a Community-Organising-influenced training scheme envisages, has a very particular texture and character.
- Because we believe that Christian leadership should keep the diaconal/external roughly in balance with the presbyteral/internal, the location of the action is important. Christian leaders need to be spending about half their energy internally in hybrid church, and about half externally.
- Because we are following the five phases of community organising, the process of the action is important. Building community, listening and planning come before action. Get them in the wrong order and you risk unintended and destructive consequences.
- Because we believe in ‘action through public story-telling’, the definition of action is distinctive. Community organisers believe story-telling and testimony are the keys to enabling pastoral care, preaching, social action and holding business and the State to account, and Christian leaders who see their role as analogous to community organisers will be spending a lot of their time telling stories, hearing stories and helping others tell their stories.
- Because when Jesus was teaching about leadership he placed a child in the midst, something is lacking if children’s stories and experience do not have a privileged place.[xiv]
- And finally, because we live by the Iron Rule of Community Organising (“never do for anyone what they could do for themselves”), our action has a particular restraint. We don’t act for people, we act with them. Just as the God who can do anything with nothing chooses not to act towards us without us, we do not act on behalf of our communities without them.
But also, we’re saying ‘go and do something’. Do it gladly. Do it boldly. So in their second year, curates (or at least, all incumbent-path curates and some other new ministers) engage in action for justice of some kind in their communities.
The heart of all this is not meeting needs through service projects, not ‘protest’ as such[xv], but public story-telling, with a view to helping people get a place at the table. Externally, community organising ensures that decision-makers hear the stories of the people effected by their policies – accompanied by a large number of people having ‘turned out’ as evidence of the power of the alliance – at formal assemblies, or tea-parties, or rallies, or carol concerts, or flash-mobs, or Zoom, or wherever people gather for public story-telling. Internally, churches become places of testimony and pastoral care where it is normal for people to tell their stories, have them celebrated, and link them with the great story of God.
The fifth step: ensuring everyone has a seat at the table
As Bishop Guli has often said, we need to destroy the pyramid whereby the local and lay is at the bottom of the triangle, and bishops and diocesan officials at the top, and replace it with a system where we treat each other as equals, allow planning to be as close to the ground as possible, and form genuine teams. You sometimes pyramids in dioceses; you sometimes find them in churches, where the idea is that the person at the top or at the centre is the Vicar, and everyone else is just their helpers. And then you find the pyramids replicated so that the children’s worker is at the top in children’s work, and everyone else in that ministry is just their helper, and the music director is at the top of the music pyramid and all the other musicians or choir members or band members just have to help the music director achieve their vision. You certainly see pyramids in wider society, and when there is injustice it is not normally the result of no one knowing what justice looks like, but of those who have the solutions not having the power required to flatten the pyramid.
Community organising is not about creating a new community-organising triangle where the community organiser can be at the top and the centre. It’s all about enabling other people to shine. It’s about power-with, not power-over. And it’s about tables not triangles.
The table is simple, but it's well-made
because the man who made it was a carpenter.
It has many uses.
A table for meeting, talking around, thumping, signing treaties, debating, arguing, voting.
But mostly a table for eating.
You can't sit alone at this table,
you can't buy a meal here, or a ticket here,
everything is freely given.
You can sit here with people you don't know
and be bound together.
A poor man feeds you in a way that means you never go hungry again.[xvi]
Which brings us back to the fifth stage of community organising. We call this ‘ensuring everyone gets a place at the table’. It’s about the poor getting a place at the negotiating table with the State or Big Business. God wants to throw down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and meek, and if God does that, we’ll all end up on a level, eye to eye, face to face, Zoom to Zoom. It’s also about building flat teams in our institutions – breaking down the hierarchies and finding new ways to work that are more fully about power-with instead of power-over.
Because we’re Christians, we can’t hear the word “table” without also thinking about the Table of God, the Holy Table or Altar or whatever you want to call it. It’s part of the task of Christian leadership to extend an invitation to the Banquet of God which is prefigured in the Eucharist. So evangelism is absolutely a part of community organising. I was an incumbent for 13 years, and I can only remember six adults who came to full faith and discipleship through the ministry of that church, who were not part of church life as a child. In every single case, they were people whose heart God opened first to justice and the poor, and only later – when working alongside the church in the effort to bring justice – to God in Christ. But an approach to inclusion that makes sure we don’t put obstacles in people’s way is also part of this process.
It might sound like the three things in this final stage – negotiating, flat teams and inviting people to Jesus and the Eucharist – are just three random things that are only connected by the use of the metaphor “table”. But while the metaphor does happen to be convenient, there is more to the connection than tables. The point is – the final stage of community organising is not about gaining anything for the organiser, it’s not about power-over. Community organisers try to get other people to the places they need to be. That might mean getting them into the room where it happens when decisions are made, or getting them appropriate power-with within their institutions, or getting them into the best place they possibly can be, which we believe is adoption as children of a loving God through Jesus. It isn’t standing above and handing down power like a favour, but raising people up to where they were always meant to be. So, instead of calling the fifth stage ‘ensuring everyone gets a place at the table’, we could have called it ‘ensuring everyone is in the best possible position in relation to the State, business, the Church and God, without the Christian leader exercising power over anyone’ - but that’s just not catchy.
We can’t emphasise enough, though, that not liking pyramids – hierarchies that exercise power-over, if you like – and liking flat or democratic or participative structures is in the essence of community organising. It stops it being just a set of tools to do expected or needed things more effectively, and enables it to breathe as a set of tools to do different things differently.
The work of community organizing is continuous: not a project to be completed but a relationship to be lived, grown and shared. Externally, the local alliance translates problems into issues, tells stories publicly and develops enough power-with to mean that the negotiations are ongoing, on an increasing number of issues. We become a society with the poor in the centre. Internally, more and more people are included at the heart of the church, and find their place at the tables of church decision-making, and the Table of God.
I’m sure there are other ways to change diocesan culture in a more relational direction. For example, the Diocese of Chelmsford is increasingly partnering with Heartedge, and finding great advantages in doing so; other Dioceses will have other, equally good, partnerships. My point is simply this: relational culture, listening, bottom-up planning, action for justice and getting everyone a seat at the table really matter. We must seek them, without imposing them. I hope my account of curate training in one place stimulates thoughts about how this can be done in different ways, elsewhere.
[i] +Guli Francis-Dehqani, Presidential Address to Chelmsford Diocesan Synod, 11 June 2022.
[iii] More on this at https://youtu.be/J2tpKNCkCro
[iv] For five practical steps towards building a Church of Teams see Andy Griffiths, Refusing to be Indispensable (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2013) p13
[v] Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998)
[vi] Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp99-102
[vii] Jeffrey K Krehbiel, Reflecting with Scripture on Community Organizing (Chicago: ACTA, 2017), p16
[viii] Four sessions based on this story, including video material from Vanessa Herrick and Andy Griffiths, can be found by searching for ‘Hope in the Wilderness’ at www.chelmsford.anglican.org
[ix] Ernesto Cortes Jr, Rebuilding our Institutions, (Chicago: ACTA, 2010), pp14-19
[x] Matthew Bolton, How to Resist (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p68
[xi] Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, p74
[xii] Nicolaus von Zinzendorf; see www.zinzendorf.webs.com
[xiii] Alexander Hamilton (yes, that one) defined power as ‘the ability or faculty of doing a thing’ – Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p52
[xiv] For much more on this, see Lallie Godfrey and Andy Griffiths, Schools Shaping Ministers (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020)
[xv] ‘Protest sounds like you’re reacting to someone else’s agenda, action means the people have a plan. They are initiating the change and someone else is going to have to react.’ Bolton, How to Resist, p77.
[xvi] Paul Bayes, The Table (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2019), p2. Punctuation mine.