In my work with congregations in the Minneapolis Area Synod, I’ve been trying to encourage faith communities to focus their attention on building mutual and accountable relationships with their neighbors. This means showing up in our communities without an agenda and with a willingness to set aside our own vision in service of building a collective one.
What I’ve noticed in my years working as a community engagement worker is that the simple practices of relationship building and accountability are surprisingly challenging in our churches. And while there are a number of reasons for this, one that I’ve been incredibly aware of recently is our churches’ adoption of nonprofit culture and its attending practices.
What do I mean by nonprofit culture? A lot of what I’ve observed is outlined most clearly in Tema Okun’s well-known work on White Supremacy Culture. For Okun, there are a number of identifiable characteristics that show up regularly in organizations rooted in the dominant culture, including perfectionism, defensiveness, and power hoarding. And I’ve seen some additional and related characteristic in our churches, especially around our community engagement work. I want to name just a few of them over my next few blog posts.
Issues vs Relationships
In many of our faith communities, we focus our community engagement and social justice work on issues that we hear about in the news or from the many books we read in our small groups. And from a genuine desire to serve, we craft strategies and programs to address the issues that seem most pressing or that seem within our capacity. We know that there’s a lack of affordable housing, so we start a committee to study the issue, we raise money to give to organizations that are addressing the problem, and maybe we organize a rental assistance program.
Now, to be clear, those are not bad things to do. But notice what’s most often missing from that equation—our neighbors who are experiencing the problem.
Issues are not abstract. Every social ill, every issue we study and seek to address is connected to real human beings. And those human beings are not as far from us as we often imagine. They are in our communities, our neighborhoods, and our pews. There is a community organizing principle that says, “nothing about us without us,” and that must apply to our engagement work as faith communities.
Furthermore, our neighbors are more than the issues we want to work on. There’s a way in which our focus on issues keeps the spotlight focused on our action, rather than on our neighbor’s dignity and belonging. Again, this is rooted in a sincere desire to help, but it misses the mark on what it means to love our neighbor.
I don’t believe any of our faith communities want to stay put in patterns of paternalism and disconnection. But making a shift and practicing something new will require some unlearning and some new attention.
First and foremost, I believe we need to devote attention and resources to the practices of relationship building—deep listening, patience, informal gathering, and accompaniment. This means hitting the pause button on prioritizing effectiveness and focus first on practicing deep connection. Social transformation emerges from connected communities with shared self-interest. The first level of this is in your congregation, and the second is in your neighborhood. How connected does your church feel to one another? How connected to the neighborhood? How can you deepen that connection?
Secondly, we need to develop a regular practice of critical self-reflection—as congregations and individuals. When you meet to imagine your work as a community, ask yourself, “Who is missing from this table?” and “Which voices get heard less often?” and “Whose self-interest is being centered here?” In the Christian tradition, we call this confession, and it’s something we can practice every time we gather, trusting in God’s mercy and our community’s call.
This is just one dimension of nonprofit culture and its practice in our churches. My hope is to name and discuss some additional characteristics in future months. My prayer in this season is that we remember that we have not been called to be effective organizations but liberating communities, embodying the radical relationality of the God made Flesh.