The Importance of Community Organizing

In my relatively short time in ministry so far, I often find myself asking the question, “How in the world could I have done this job if I didn’t know at least a little bit about community organizing?” When I talk about community organizing, I am referring to various ways of operating that stem from a set of core beliefs about people and power. The first and primary belief is about power: the problems communities face do not stem from the lack of solutions, but from a lack of power to implement them. The second is about vision: long-term power stems from organizing people and resources around a common vision. A third important belief is about leadership: true community organizations do not become viable because of one or two strong charismatic leaders, but through building a strong, broad-based leadership.


I had the privilege last night of listening to Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman talk about her experience negotiating the Iran nuclear deal ( the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). We were at the Annual Conference for Peace hosted by the Coalition for Peace Action. As she talked about the negotiating process—the lengthy conversations, the endless negotiating over details, and the various different personalities that needed to be considered—I remember thinking how complex those conversations must have been and how many different areas of expertise were probably at the table. I wondered how any one person could be smart enough to keep up with it all. And then, my mind naturally went to community organizing.

After getting home late last night, I immediately opened her book and right from the beginning, this is what she said:

“Negotiation cannot be reduced to a set of techniques or strategies that can be applied regardless of the situation or who is negotiating. We have to negotiate with the people in front of us, with their peculiarities, hunches, and particular interests, and we in turn have to bring our authentic selves to how we negotiate. The best negotiators rely not on stratagems or manipulation but on their own experiences… We should think of our skill set, in other words, as everything we’ve done that has formed our sense of judgement—our upbringing, our education, our early achievements, and our mistakes” (xvi-xvii).

After a brief discussion about her background and how she ended up in a career as a diplomat, she then makes a bold and important statement.

“As I grew into my new life…I couldn’t have survived on lessons from business books or political science classes. To tell the truth, my best guide was a core set of skills from a master’s in social work in community organizing that I put to work at each turn in my life” (xviii).

While we may not be negotiating nuclear deals with diplomats from across the world, pastors are often faced with important, complex problems that affect the our communities. It is crucial for us to remember that the best way to lead a community is to empower the community. Our faith communities do not need strong, autocratic know-it-alls to come in and solve their problems. They need community organizers. They need leaders that can help them honestly identify the problems they face, to inspire them to believe they have what it takes to discover workable solutions, to rally them together around a vision, and empower them to do great things together.

As Ambassador Sherman says, we need diplomats not autocrats. Diplomatic leaders know that their decisions affect people. That is why the skills that mobilize and organize communities are the most essential to effect change.

“The contrast we’re facing now in leadership is really between the autocrat and the diplomat. The diplomat weighs things and chooses words and actions carefully: the autocrat acts impulsively…without checks and balances. The diplomat is inclusive and expansive, the autocrat is transactional and lacking in empathy. The diplomat understands that every decision is grounded in present and past history, with an obligation to the future; the autocrat sees only what’s in front of him and what’s at stake right now. The diplomat knows that every conversation, every negotiation, every action, is like a move on a giant chessboard that affects all other pieces; the autocrat simply tries to find a way out, the way a child scrawls all over a pizza parlor placemat puzzle with a blunt crayon” (xx).