Never Do For Someone What They Can Do For Themselves. Never Do For Someone What They’re Not Willing To Do For Themselves.


I heard both of these sentences uttered at this week’s NEXT Church national gathering in Atlanta. The first version one came from Bob Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, a book that has been referenced in at least fifteen of my conversations over the past month. The second was pronounced by Andrew Foster Connors, pastor at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and an IAF community organizer with BUILD.

“Not willing.” That changes everything, doesn’t it?

When you refuse to do something for me that I can do myself,  you must assess my ability and decide that it is sufficient to the task that you would otherwise perform on my behalf and that helping me actually hurts me and diminishes my dignity.

But when you refuse to do something for me that I’m not willing to do for myself, you’re assessing not my ability but my intentions. It’s clear I could do it. I just don’t want to. That also hurts me. But it hurts you too, because you resent me and we can never be friends.


You Say You Want A Revolution–Er, Institution?

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

Grounded wants to document a “revolution” occurring in the world and the church. There are several threads to this revolution. One of them is the demise of institutions–including religious ones.

Butler-Bass takes it as a given that most peoples’ experience of institutional, organized religion these days is either bad or boring. There’s plenty of data to back that up. At the same time, religious belief remains widespread. “Spiritual-but-not-religious” is a well established self-descriptor for growing masses of North Americans who, when asked for their religious affiliation, report “None.”

So, “People believe, but they believe differently than they once did.” This amounts to a revolution, and our religious institutions are mostly on the wrong side of it.

I’ve gone back and forth in my conviction about institutions. I worked for awhile on a national initiative that wanted to rescue civic engagement  for young adults and that drew heavily for inspiration on books like Bowling Alone and Loose Connections. I marched off to a big institutional flagship seminary in a fit of devotion to organized religion.

My devotion waned during my first decade as a pastor, though, for a couple of reasons. One, the people most committed to preserving church institutions for their own sake seemed to me to be the people doing it the most harm. And two, I read a lot of people like Diana Butler-Bass who were urging the church to get over its institutions and find new, “missional,” ways to connect to the “Nones” all around them.

But now I’m experiencing a renewed concern for strong religious institutions which has everything to do with exposure to broad-based relational community organizing. Community organizers organize  institutions, not individuals. They are obviously committed to organized institutions–many of them religious–and they’re doing undeniably powerful things.

I don’t know if the church should assume that the world has moved on from religious institutions and run headlong into some ill-defined post institutional expression of church.

It’s also clear to me that doubling down on our institutions–from congregations to national denominations–is not getting us anywhere. Our neighbors are finding little compelling evidence that those institutions are worth their interest or commitment.

Where are you on this? If all of the structures of organized religion disappeared tomorrow, would that be an advance for faith? Or would it be the worst thing ever?





The Marriage of Information And Experience

Chronic isolation. The breakdown of social capital. Chronic economic uncertainty.

The big three.

I spent six hours yesterday afternoon with a community organizer who presented these as the three biggest challenges facing the region we live in. She has spent months conducting one-on-one conversations and house meetings. She has done her homework. And yesterday she framed for us the challenges we face every day here but haven’t the perspective to take in all at once.

So. Valuable.

I’ve been in so many sessions like this that get bogged down in competing interpretations of data, but this one married data with personal and group conversation about our own experience. It was masterfully done, and I want to learn how to work like this.

Organizers organize people and communities. And in the service of those, organizers organize information and experience–at the same time, which seems to me to be the key to avoiding both debates over data and excessive personal sharing.

That’s a really important key.

The Last Six Words

My colleague and I sat down yesterday with a community organizer. She is the new leader of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organization that we have been involved in building for the past five years, and she is helping us to intentionally embrace the principles of IAF organizing for congregational life.

Listening is the foundation of this organizing philosophy. Listening for the sake of listening. Not listening for the sake of learning or listening for the sake of acting, but listening, first and foremost, for its own sake, because people deserve to be heard and both learning and acting are agendas that make it hard to hear.

The great gift that listening gives is the earnest gesture of interest in a person’s experience, perspective, and desires–their story. Most people amble through their days without this gift, to the great detriment of themselves, but also the world that is missing their story.

Our organizer talks about the “credential” that we look for in someone if they try to listen to us. The credential: what are you selling? What is your project? What use am I to you? Because we find it almost impossible to believe that a person is genuinely interested in us and our story simply because we are us and this is our story. There must be more.

We suggested talking with people in our congregation about their experience of work. We would explain, “We’re trying to better understand the issues people in our community are facing, and we’d like to hear your story.” Our organizer smiled and took a long pause before editing our pitch down to the last six words.

We’d like to hear your story.

In all of our wailing over church decline we are missing the great gift the church still has to offer to our culture today, a gift people badly, badly need. We can cultivate a sincere interest in peoples’ lives and provide spaces and invitations for them to share their stories. Nobody else is doing that. Nobody.

Imagine if people in your neighborhood recognized your church as the place that, more than anything, was eager to hear their story.

ICON: Resolve

Last night I attended a delegates’ assembly of the Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON), the community organizing group that my congregation has been helping to launch since early 2011. Four years in, and the “Founders Convention” is later this year. This is slow work.

Last night, ICON leaders shared stories of what we’ve done so far: built a high-skilled jobs training program; significantly altered plans for a proposed waste transfer station; agitated for thousands of street lights. The stories were full of frank admissions of failure, because the high-skilled jobs still don’t pay enough to live on and the waste transfer station was supposed to be blocked. This is community organizing work. It’s takes a long time and you often lose.

But the assembly was a joyful one, because the leaders of ICON aren’t motivated by bitterness or anger but rather a resolve to make things better where we live. That’s the word that keeps coming back to me about what ICON is building: resolve. Now we have a task force pushing for a moratorium on recycling and waste management facilities in the city with a win already under its belt.

Resolve: I’ll take all I can get.

“Getting Organized” at NEXT

This month community organizing emphasis month over at the NEXT Church blog. There have been some great posts, like this one by my colleague Karen Sapio and this one by Ashley Goff. I was asked to contribute a post to the series, since my church has been building a regional community organizing entity here in Southern California. Here’s an excerpt

What started as the Inland Empire Sponsoring Committee has now become the Inland Communities Organizing Network (ICON). Building this regional organization is teaching us some things. I’ll highlight two. First, community organizing is not inherently Presbyterian. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but it’s been a valuable learning.

Read the whole post here.


To learn more about relational community organizing, visit the website of the Industrial Areas Foundation or read this book.