I wrote last month about the church and nonprofit culture, and in particular the ways that churches tend to focus on issues over relationships. This focus can result in practices of paternalism when the issues we choose to work on are disconnected from people who are experiencing the problem we hope to solve. This month, I’d like to focus on another facet of nonprofit culture and its expression in our community engagement work—short-term planning.
Short-term strategy vs life-long practice
So much of our world operates on an annual, quarterly, or seasonal schedule, and that includes our workplaces, our organizations, and our churches. This makes a lot of sense for so much of the work we do as congregations. Our Sunday school programming may follow the liturgical calendar and our budgets are the way we outline the resourcing of the church’s mission and vision for the next year. Things change, and we want to have the flexibility to adapt from year to year. That is wise planning.
But this way of planning and thinking starts to break down when we focus on community engagement and connection. Community engagement is about building trust and deepening authentic and mutual relationships. And trust is not a short-term project. Trust is built over time through real-life relationships and the experience of someone demonstrating trustworthiness.
When we get stuck thinking and planning primarily in the short term, we can be tempted to overfocus on immediate results, measurable objectives, and our own pet projects. This is another way of keeping our neighbors at arm’s length and even objectifying the communities we are a part of. But God has called us to something different (Heb 13:1-3).
As churches, it is essential for us to remember that community engagement is life-long generational work. It is not short-term. This means making a move from short-term strategies to life-long practices. Practices are those things we do regularly and with intention, and they help to form our identities. We practice the life-long work of community engagement and connection because that is who we are, and who God has set us free to be.
The good news is that many of these life-long practices are incredibly simple—they just take intention and attention.
- Spend time together in your community. All too often our neighbors only see us when we are walking from church to car. What if, instead, we developed a regular practice of walking our neighborhood, chatting informally with our neighbors, and shopping local? You would be surprised how much trust can be established between two people just by seeing one another regularly.
- Meet offsite when possible. We often think of our buildings as assets, and they certainly can be. But think about how you might be able to do the work of the church out in your community. Maybe your Sunday School Team can lesson plan at the public library. Maybe your Bible Study can meet at a coffee shop or brewery. Let the neighborhood see the church being the church and loving the community while we do it.
- Show up. So much trust has been lost between churches and communities through a regular practice of silence and absence on the part of faith communities. When something challenging or tragic happens in our community, do we show up? Not as fixers or saviors but as fellow grievers and neighbors? When something needs to change, or some action needs to be taken, do we ask our neighbors how we can do our part? When there is something to celebrate in our community, do we add our voices to the joyful din?
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but these three practices alone might help us to shift our thinking about community engagement from short-term strategy to life-long practice. Following the lead of Jesus, we can set aside our own agenda and enter into the lives of our neighbors, trusting that God is already at work and waiting for us to show up and take part. That’s a vision to get excited about. Amen.