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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Hope at work

Congregation-based organizing offers a different way of ‘doing church’

Iyou want to be hopeful, you have to work toward what you hope for.

So goes a central axiom of positive psychology. Hope doesn’t play out very well if it’s just another Christian character trait. Like faith or grace, hope is strengthened and realized in actions. You can see hope at work. You can:

• See it in the faces of worshipers at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, Calif., where East African immigrants add richness to worship and join with other members in working for immigration reform.

• Hear it in the laughter of children and families enjoying a park in Milwaukee brought to life by Incarnation Lutheran Church.

• Find it in the labors of Faith Lutheran, Lexington, Ky., where members work side-by-side with 21 other community churches to address injustices.

• See it in the faces of children and teenagers in Farmington, Minn., where Light of the World Lutheran, a new congregation, evangelizes and grows partly because of a strong youth ministry.

(Read about these congregations below).

These hopeful efforts aren’t completely new, of course. The ELCA and its predecessor bodies have a history of putting faith into action as a way of sustaining congregational life. Over the years we’ve seen the worth of asset-based planning and care teams, and led the way in hunger and justice ministries and stewardship. We’ve encouraged each other toward excellence and effectiveness. For the most part, we’ve avoided long-term commitments that could have sucked the energy out of a significant proportion of our congregations.

A few years back, congregation-based organizing (CBO) appeared as another approach to congregational health. Pastors, lay leaders and seminarians were trained in its methods. Leaders and congregations fit organizing principles into their skill sets and identities. Now CBO is an established feature of ELCA identity.

But what is it?
Congregation-based organizing is an approach to mission that’s based on positive relations among people. It uses proven methods for moving from thought to action. This approach to congregational vitality has a spiritual core that includes the example of Jesus, the lives of other biblical leaders and the stories of Scripture. Wisdom and principles of generic community organizing complement it.

Why does it work so well, reliably moving congregations toward sturdiness, stability or growth? A simple answer: It’s not a program.

CBO is a practical approach or way of thinking about how groups — propelled by a purpose — can get things done. Yes, there are skills to be learned and precepts to follow, but at its heart CBO offers a different way of doing church — one that’s possible for any congregation.

What characterizes CBO and why does it work anywhere? This method of organizing can add integrity and accountability into a congregation’s culture, guiding leaders toward effective meetings and using continuous evaluation to guide next steps. This approach to congregational life rests solidly on relationships formed in natural conversations.

At a practical level, CBO helps churches deal with money realistically and honestly. It analyzes and uses personal and corporate power toward achievable outcomes and cuts massive, overwhelming problems down to matters that can be managed. Members develop skills such as inviting, insisting, planning, researching, listening and team-building.

CBO starts with the passions and assets already present, depending more on the group’s will and hopes than on leader charisma. It addresses issues without being trapped in neediness.

This way of thinking and acting motivates and encourages over the long haul. Members remain unfailingly honest, both emotionally and intellectually, about how they and their congregation actually function.

Plenty of surefire programs have come and gone over the life of the church. This approach is different. It’s not a flash in the pan headed for the ecclesiastical dumpster, and it’s going to be around a long time.

Several factors support that view. CBO discourages ego- or personality-driven ministries. It gathers together and makes sense out of most other effective ways of thinking, like mentoring, asset-based planning or prayer-centered programs. It avoids the lock-step, heavy-handed insistence of programs that can weigh you down or wear you out.

Churches can apply CBO to outreach — such as social justice or mercy ministries — but it works well in other endeavors too. New leaders emerge in surprising ways.

Congregations that are part of organizing efforts become politically powerful without being partisan. (At its root, “political” has to do with the things people want to accomplish together.) Without the false promise of quick results, CBO encourages patience, humility and gratitude. And because it works well with any group of people, this approach breathes new life into tired leaders.

The outcomes of these organizing efforts last over time because leaders are strengthened, small successes are strung together, a positive feeling about the congregation grows and spreads, and people learn skills that apply anywhere in life. Energy returns to those who thought their church was dead or dying.

Use “Next steps” to help you examine passions and wishes for your congregation. Pick an action that can be done without calling a meeting or asking permission. And when you’ve taken that step, think about what that action compels you to do next.

Whatever you do, keep acting on your hopes for your congregation. The Spirit is at work, ready to put you to work and offering hope.


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