The Church Model of Community Organizing

Sharon February 23rd, 2012

Note: I wrote this in 2008 on the oldest iteration of this blog, and I think it bears repeating.  A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a Transition Group that began by passing out their list of committees to get people to join, and was struck by how often I hear the same things over and over – it is hard to get anyone but the obviously previously engaged.  But some of that is how we present it.  My sense is that many organizations get going with a lot of enthusiasm, build up with core membership among those with time and leisure and previous understanding, and then often stagnate, and fail to become truly community organizations.  This isn’t universally true – I’ve run into some great, growing, really integrated groups, but it happens often enough, and I see and hear it in my talks to various groups often enough that it is worth repeating.

Not too long ago, I had an argument with another peak oil writer about what level political action on peak oil and climate change should proceed. I suggested that perhaps the municipal level was thinking too large – that what we need are neighborhood groups, he argued in favor of city levels. Now I’m not at all sure that this is an either/or issue – I suspect we need both. But the discussion was useful for helping me clarify some thoughts I’ve had about what might be needed to move the “peak oil” and “climate change” groups from their present role – as thinly spread “special interest” groups and towards becoming a larger, and more powerful network.

The fact is, historically speaking many large scale social changes have worked best on a neighbor to neighbor, very intimate scale, either instead of or in conjunction with larger scale practices. For example, food and gas rationing during WWII were being flouted until neighborhood pledge groups were started, and block captains became responsible for helping people adhere to new policies. The same programs were used to manage civil defense and volunteer labor groups. The reality is that top down management is very difficult without some micro-level programs to work with – which is why in times of war, women’s groups, and other social and cultural institutions were always among the first groups mobilized.

Please understand, I begin this with no implied critiques of any of the response groups out there – on the contrary, I admire what all these groups have accomplished, and believe their work to be of the utmost importance. But there are several limitations to such in-person programs – first of all, unless you live in a population center, they are thin on the ground. The nearest such groups to me are 15-30 miles – an awfully long drive for someone committed to cutting emissions.

And such groups suffer from the same problems almost all political/special interest groups do – small membership and heavy burdens on the few people willing to do the work. If, in fact, we’re in the process of sliding off the plateau, as the data suggests, we are going to need to get more people involved, and quickly. Moreover, these groups reinforce the notion that community is something you mostly create with “like minded” people who agree with you. But there’s simply no chance that most of us are going to spend the coming decades working primarily with people who live 15 miles from us – we are going to have to get local – real local. That is not to say that I don’t see the real and practical value of spending time with people who already “get it,” or of devoting some time and energy to exchanging ideas about approaches with others in person, but our primary work must be local – perhaps on the municipal level, but if we’re really returning to a foot economy, probably even more so at the neighborhood level.

So I began to consider what would be required to start neighborhood groups that might engage people within our existing communities, and enable those communities to start preparing for climate change and peak oil. And instead of looking at leftist community groups, I started by asking myself what the most successful social organizations are in my area – successful at attracting membership, but also successful at getting members to do their share of the work.

So far, peak oil and climate change groups have focused on the other people who have figured out what is going on. But right now, in the early stages of the crisis, there are simply too few people who have put all the pieces together. With another decade to prepare and teach, such an approach might work. With only a short time, the odds are against it. Compare this to churches or synagogues or mosques, who invite in nearly everyone in a given community, opening their doors as widely as they can.

If we are to have success we are going to have to use a different model, one that I call “the church model” – I say this not to be alienating to those who are not religious, but in recognition that religious communities have been far more successful at building community structures than many secular community organizations, and that if we are to create overarching community organizations that sustain us in hard times, and enable us to manage our communities in the face of crisis, we’re going to have to use a successful model.

The “church model” has three factors that are very different from groups like the Relocalization and similar groups I’m familiar with. They are:

1. Low Barriers to Entry
2. They have something to offer immediately to many different demographics
3. They have a plan and a routine for dealing with crises

The first factor is enormously important if we are to move beyond regional groups to the local level. Right now environmental groups tend to have a fairly high entry barrier – that is, you have to be fully aware of climate change or peak oil, and aware enough to consider working on these issues a high priority. Given that the majority of the country still considers these problems secondary to others, that’s fairly unusual. It is unlikely that in a crisis involving energy shortages, we’ll have the gas to drive the distances between such groups. This means that we need to engage not a few aware people half an hour from us, but our neighbors.

How do we do that? We lower the barriers to entry. Instead of having “peak oil” or groups for the climate change aware, we have “neighborhood coops” or “community preparedness” groups. Robert Waldrop, founder of the Oklahoma City Food Coop, observes that he doesn’t talk much about “peak oil” with the people he works with – instead, he talks about how good local food tastes, and about how hard it is to make ends meet. The name doesn’t matter (except in the sense that a cool one would be helpful) – the common ground does.

We also have to lower political barriers – the truth is that environmentalism is associated with the American left. But the left has been too powerless too long to bring about massive social change in most regions. The nation is too politically divided for that. Thus, for these groups to thrive, they must avoid political purity tests – it doesn’t matter whether your neighbor hates Obama or loves him. What matters is that the two of you have common ground in other areas. I don’t deny this can be tough – but it is necessary. In some regions, the political idea of environmentalism will be a positive advertisement – in other places, the emphasis will have to be on personal security, autonomy, conserving what we have, saving money. We will need to be culturally flexible to create such a network.

The second and perhaps most important thing that such groups have to do is offer members an immediate reason to work together. There are some of us, who will do thankless work for long periods with no reward, but most of us join groups for selfish reasons – we want to find community, we want support, friendship, a platform for our ideas. We may also care about the larger world, but we get some gratification from being together and doing the work. Churches do this well – when people join a church, eventually they are asked to do their share of the work, to donate money and volunteer, but initially, they are offered something – friendship, a pleasurable worship experience, a meal, religious education for their kids. We need our groups to provide something now, not just hypothetical help in the future.

Meeting the needs of multiple demographics is challenging, but it is one of the things churches historically do well.  Consider ride programs for the elderly or disabled, babysitting for young families, youth groups for teens, often support groups for those undergoing hardship – many churches consider the range of their possible audiences and consciously seek to make a place for them.

One of the things most deeply missing from many environmental organizations is fun – come to a meeting, join a committee, write letters, watch a depressing movie about the crisis, share a potluck while you do it is what passes for a party.  And there is a place for this – but someday watch _Eyes on the Prize_ or another history of the civil rights movement, and watch the part where they point out that much of what was done between times was just getting people together and singing, celebrating, reassuring.  Throwing parties when there’s something to celebrate – or reassurance gatherings when there’s something to fear, singing, dancing, drinking, eating, having fun – these are an important part of gathering people together.

We are now in the early stages of a crisis, and many of the people who join with us may be undergoing personal difficulties and troubles. It is not feasible to have a “climate change” group that has no support or solutions for the victims of climate change now, for example.  Saying “work with us right now for a troubled future, but we have nothing for your troubled present” is not an answer.   That doesn’t mean we have to be able to fix everything, or that we have to immediately have the funds for major investments, but we do have to be able to offer emotional support, a lift for someone out of gas, a casserole for a neighbor dealing with illness. We need to start where we are again. We also need plans for the longer term, but we have to start small, with the ordinary work of human exchange – I think too often, our community building efforts have ignored the importance of these small things.

Finally, such groups need to begin creating a fully community focused (ie, includes all the people who are here now) plan for the longer term. How will people in your neighborhood get water? Who has space in their yard to grow food? How will you check in on the elderly and disabled? Where will the kids go to school if the buses stop running? Your first steps should take you towards your next ones – today, a carpool to get neighbors to the grocery store, tomorrow a bulk buying club and a Victory garden group to make fewer shopping trips necessary.

Right now there are municipalities dealing with some of these questions -but for the most part organizations attempting to prepare for a complicated future have tended to be limited, smaller, narrowed – and to assume that these smaller groups will be able to step in to gaps when a crisis comes.  In fact, however, we have historical evidence that community organization starts with the full buy-in of the community.  At this moment, there is no chance of getting that around peak oil and climate change – the latter is too politically charged, the former simply too esoteric to most people.

At the same time, better communities, better food, safer neighborhoods, better public health, healthier kids, more greenspace -these things do exercise the minds of most of us.  Establishing truly communal organizations that can step into the gap in the long emergency or as the long emergency becomes acute will require we take lessons from communities that have been successful in the past.


7 Responses to “The Church Model of Community Organizing”

  1. What a great post! Thanks so much, Sharon. In the village where I live, a group of us are trying to start a Transition Town. I have many of the concerns you addressed in this post, and I will be printing the post so that I can easily refer to it. I’ll be using recycled paper, course ;)

  2. Eden Balfour says:

    Excellent post. I think you’re right about grassroots initiatives and social movements, and your advice is spot-on. The two trends I can see that present obstacles are the mobility of most of the population (do many people consider themselves as living in ‘neighborhoods’ these days?) and the decline in formal group memberships (which can perhaps somewhat be linked to perceptions of irrelevancy, which you address).

    Personally, this is a good poke in the side for me. We’ve lived in our rental house for 3 years and I still consider us in transit because this is not where I want to settle. Most of our neighbours are pretty terrible. But I should probably try to bloom where I am planted. It’s hard, for an introvert.

  3. This is really resonating for me, being involved in several different community groups. All the problems you describe (lack of membership, all the work falling to the busy few, preaching to the choir, etc) ring true, and your thoughts on changing that have already given me several new ideas.

    Do you know of any books or other internet resources on the topic of How To Run A Successful Community Group? I’d love to read more.

  4. Paula says:

    Thanks for the re-post Sharon. Here is an hour-long debate at UW-Madison that, in the end, exemplifies what you are saying in this post. Enjoy! I really did.

  5. Brad K. says:


    Your article makes one aspect of organizing clear to me. That is, the church group model relies on social isolation. Members deliberately choose to associate under an alternate authority, whether secular, sacred, or personal.

    There has to be an agreement that the group finds leadership not aligned with the government, or with social trends of entertainment and marketing media. This, I suspect, is one of the important motivations to your “reason to work together”.

    The Tea Party was a more coherent response, because it claimed an alternate and accepted authority — the US Constitution, for the most part. Divisions with regard to various other causes active in ‘conservative’ issues has diluted and disenchanted both member motivation and limited growth of membership. The core adherence to the Constitution, though, in opposition to the current and previous administrations, keep the organization alive and potent.

    I think the Occupy invented an authority, the mythical 1% and a laundry list of villainizations, stirred a lot of local interest and opposition to things as they are. But they have no plan to build anything, they are capable and seem interested only in disrupting things. This nihilism won’t impress those involved in keeping their community and neighborhood secure.

    Home owners associations often organize around a communal covenant or other contract, usually imposed when property within the designated area is purchased. Membership is legally imposed on new members, and is enforced both at the association level, and by the larger community, state, and federal legal processes.

    Nursing home and assisted living operations, organizations, and projects, all persist under recognized authorities, with group goals and buy-in.

    Science Fiction conventions tend to unite people already skeptical about “normal” social norms of what is possible, or interesting. These mini-revolutions of social rules (SF cons), tend toward costumes and discussions of works of fiction — with often biting insight into the mundane world. But the diversity of recognized “authority” means these gatherings are, for most, an event, an occasion, and not a lifestyle or organized effort to change communities and nations. For the most part.

    Climate change for many of us lacks a coherent authority. Just as the Ecumenical movement a few decades ago reduced friction between some Christian communities, but didn’t merge all Christians into a single community, the diversity of directions and claims of climate change and peak oil proponents fail to move all that agree with parts of the vasty agenda. And there is an appalling lack of growth of those that consider climate change, and/or peak oil, problems with effective solutions.

    I think I would add to your list a fourth item — acceptance of an alternate authority, and willingness to reject elements of popular culture.

    Blessed be!

  6. Sharon, wonderful post. I expect the Transition group you had in mind was us in Albany. We are still struggling to find the right way to get our ideas out and to set up a sustainable long-term organization. I expect we’ll move toward something like the Church Model. Very insightful.

  7. Sophia says:

    One problem where I live is you have the Welsh and you have the English. It might be that they would all benefit from particular things but it’s really easy to turn the Welsh against the English.

    I was talking a lot about climate change and peak oil and all that stuff with my friend, and he is happy with what I am saying, agrees with the problems, agrees (but not to the same extreme) with the solutions. But then when it comes down to it he is against the real people implementing some of those solutions locally because it’s “snobby english hippies” who “come here, don’t learn welsh” (even when they do) “refuse to integrate with the local culture” and “ruin wales”.

    Now it’s true the englishification of wales is an evident problem, but that means it is so easy for the welsh to be told “look at those hippies they are bad they don’t want you to enjoy the bounties of economic growth, you should build a tesco” and the more that the english people (who probably came to wales to get away from all that instead of changing where they lived before) protest it the more the welsh feel like it must be a good thing.

    I know it isn’t that simple, but stuff like that really complicates things. It probably plays out generally in rural communities that get migration from city-dwellers who want to live a less urban lifestyle and on top of that it probably plays out with tensions between other ethnic groups.

    Interestingly most of the english people don’t seem to have a clue how people respond to their actions and blunder on with the political finesse of a bull in a china shop.

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