Last month, I wrote about how nonprofit culture has impacted the ways that churches practicing community engagement understand the relationship between their work and time. In organizations we tend to think annually, but the kind of relationship-building work churches are called to rarely operates on an annual schedule. Rather, community engagement is slow long-term work that spans many seasons, years, and generations. This month, I’d like to reflect on one more element of nonprofit culture and its influence on the community engagement work of the church—self-preservation.
Getting stuck in the structures
When congregations and organizations practice community engagement, they will necessarily need to construct structures and processes to ensure that the work is done intentionally and effectively. This includes committees, task forces, and programs. These are important structures that ensure our work is not simply reactive or slapdash, and every collection of people trying to accomplish a goal will have some kind of organization.
Where we can stumble is when these structures become self-justifying, and their survival prioritized over the relationship-building that we have been called to practice. This is another way of highlighting programs and process over people.
There are several reasons that we get stuck in these loops, and they are often coming from a desire to be effective and accountable. However, in my experience, especially in dominant-culture churches, these structures, programs, and processes can be used to avoid the more vulnerable and less predictable person-to-person work that community engagement demands. Building mutual relationships with other people is never linear, rarely easy, and subject to change at every turn. In this work, flexibility is key.
At their worst, our community engagement structures can become self-serving when we over-focus on our own desires—the desire to serve, to build reputational capital, or to “save the church.” This is how we fall into patterns of what Robert Lupton has called “toxic charity,” where we use community engagement as a vehicle for serving our own self-interests, rather than building the kinds of mutual relationships that strengthen and transform a community.
As followers of Jesus, we have an incredible theological concept to combat the temptation to stay stuck in the structures—kenosis. Kenosis is the Greek word for “self-emptying,” and we get the clearest vision of this practice from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself …” (Phil 2:5-7)
What might it look like for our churches to center a practice of self-emptying as an essential element of our community engagement work? Firstly, I think it looks like setting down our need to achieve and complete tasks, instead practicing significant and deep listening among our neighbors. I think it would look like inviting neighbors and community stakeholders to be part of any decision-making structures with full capacity to influence any and all next steps. I think it looks like ensuring that any funds intended to support community engagement ends up in the pockets of community members or supporting opportunities for connection with and among community members. And I think it means holding our plans and our agendas loosely—so loosely that we can shift and respond to the rhythms of neighborhood life.
Building mutual relationships is the work of community engagement—our neighbors are not a means to an end. Emptying ourselves of the need to structure, formalize, and program the work clears the way for us to build authentic connections in the Spirit of Jesus. Emptying ourselves of the need to be the provider opens us up to be impacted and transformed by our neighbors and reminds us that we belong to one another.
Setting down the habits and practices of nonprofit culture creates space for us to remember what it means to be communities of faith. Do the small things with great love, and trust that God is already at work in your community—you may be surprised at what happens next.