Building Community with One-to-Ones

Sep 21, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Nicholas Tangen

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic was a powerful reminder of the basic human need for connection and community. Even those of us who consider ourselves introverts often found ourselves longing for the kind of human contact that would normally have us hiding in a corner. The truth is that deep abiding relationships are essential for our flourishing, and there are few things like a global pandemic to remind you of that fact.

And now, as we navigate a return, or at least a partial return, to congregational life in person, we have an opportunity to focus on building those abiding relationships that we have found so essential to our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities. We need to center a practice of intentional relationship building as part of our re-entry plans, and in my opinion, the one-to-one is just the tool for the job.

Intentional one-to-ones are the lifeblood of community organizing and community engagement efforts, and the community organizer’s most essential tool. They are stunningly simple and immensely impactful as a regular practice in community.

At their most basic, one-to-ones are intentional conversations between two people where we get curious about our neighbor’s self-interest, their gifts and strengths, and their experiences in community. One-to-ones are conversations that are intended to dig deep and seek out those core values that motivate and ground another person’s action. It is this depth of conversation that builds the kind of abiding relationships that form tight-knit communities and animate powerful community action.

That seems simple enough, but I think we all know that just because something is simple, does not mean that it is easy. One-to-ones challenge us to listen more than we speak, to ask the probing question, and to pay attention to the subtext at work in our stories. In one-to-ones we center our neighbor’s story and experience, and we set aside our own agendas and plans. We just listen. That’s very simple, but often very difficult in a culture that runs as individualistically as ours.

One-to-ones also help us to hear directly from our neighbor about the challenges and opportunities that they are facing. Far too often our ministry strategy is some version of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” and when it fails, or when people don’t respond, we can’t understand why. We often fail because we don’t have a clue what our neighbors are really going through. One-to-ones help us to root our ministry in the actual experience, the real gifts and strengths, of our community and our neighbors.

I am reminded of how intentional Jesus was to connect with his followers one by one, and the depth of relationship he modeled for each of us. His connection with the Samaritan woman, Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostles can guide us to center practices of relationship building in our ministry. So, as your congregation begins to imagine what you are being called to in this moment, think of a neighbor you’d like to get know more and invite them out for some coffee, a walk, or a virtual meeting. Get curious about their life and their experiences and see what the Spirit might animate in the forming of your relationship.

One of my favorite guides for how to do one-to-ones has been developed by the Franciscan Action Network, which offers free outline and reflection sheets.

Topics: Adults Ministry, community

Nicholas Tangen

Written by Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is the Director of Faith Practices & Neighboring Practices at the Minneapolis Area Synod. He graduated from United Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Leadership, focusing on Social Transformation. He writes about the church, community, and social change at


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