Finding & Building Relationships with Faith-Based Groups

During my presentation in Chicago on the Sandra Sullivan Learning for Life Program Pilot, there was a question I don’t think I answered completely: “How did you find these faith communities & faith-based organizations and build relationships with them?” Actually, this is two questions in one, but here’s my best thoughts on the subject:

Finding Faith Communities as Community Partners
Step One: Know Where to Look
To find faith communities to partner with for community outreach, the key is to start with those that have service as part of their mission. I was a religion major in college and studied a wide variety of religions, so I found it helped to have a sense of which religious subgroups or denominations include social justice as a core element of their spirituality & theology. For example, Catholicism, United Methodists, Unitarian Universalism, and most sectors of the Jewish faith are particularly strong in their social teachings…that is they have a fully developed philosophy of meeting felt human needs as a central part of religious practice. For more information on these movements, research “religious social teaching” or “liberation theology.” Those groups are generally a good place to start reaching out in your region. In most places these religious organizations have well developed networks of community outreach and social service agencies; however, this can vary from region to region and from church to synagogue. As an example, most regions or Dioceses have some kind of Social Action Office or other administrative office designated to coordinate service activities. Start by attending an event and introducing yourself to some people. It helps to start by supporting others and also being very clear about your intentions.

**NOTE: I am aware that recently Glenn Beck declared that social justice is equivalent to communism, and the sentiment behind this drivel is an important consideration for those aiming to work cooperatively with faith-based groups. There are large sectors of American Christianity (and other religions, too), particularly within Evangelical churches, who emphasize God’s hatred of sin and thirst for blood in recompense. This mindset is behind lovely comments like “God cause Hurricane Katrina because the week before New Orleans had a gay pride parade (link to quote).” However, there is a younger generation of Evangelicals–represented in the public sphere by people like Mike Huckabee–who consider social responsibility and tolerance to be more central to Christ’s message. These “new” views that Christ’s suffering on the cross was an act of God’s identification with those who suffer and therefore a call for us to alleviate (not aggravate) the suffering of others is now causing an uproar through books like Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity and Campbell & Putnam’s American Grace. It’s a trend to watch and an important tension to understand when approaching faith communities.**

Another excellent place to start looking for partner organizations is with any inter-religious organizations in your region. Inter-religious dialogue usually centers around what is shared across belief systems, and pretty much every religion that has survived the test of time includes compassionate response to human suffering as a spiritual practice. Inter-religious organizations often develop relationships between faith communities through social service opportunities. Here in Cleveland our interfaith organization is called InterAct and they coordinate a Homeless Stand Down every year, in addition to ongoing service activities like after-school tutoring and a food pantry. Once again, I would recommend the strategy of attending events, introducing yourself, and being very clear about your intentions.

Step Two: Tapping Into Networks
Once you start communicating with an umbrella organization like a Social Action Office or an Interfaith Organization, ask specifically for help to find organizations looking for partners. It’s a good idea to get your idea down to an elevator speech to explain who you are looking to serve, how you’re looking to serve them, and why you need faith-based groups involved. For example, our project specifically targeted organizations who were trying to provide adult literacy (GED, ESOL, Workforce Development) as part of a broader community outreach because they built relationships of trust to recruit & serve clients who might otherwise not have the resources to travel to increasingly centralized literacy programs. I specifically approached organizations who previously had literacy organizations sending their teachers & resources to provide GED/ESL classes to their adult clients as an “outreach site”, but when funding dropped the books, teachers, and records were taken away…leaving the clients, volunteers, and space. These faith-based organizations were doing what they could to keep providing tutoring without the literacy resources, and I imagine the same scenario is currently playing out all over the country.

Networking to find the right organizations is a very organic and regionally-sensitive process, but it helps to have some key questions answered broadly before you go looking for partners:

  1. What types of students are you looking to serve?
  2. What concrete resources can you offer the organizations (books, training, funding, etc)?
  3. What are the requirements for them to participate (space, volunteers, staff time, etc)?
  4. How much time do you have to build & maintain these relationships?
  5. Why do you want to work with faith communities & faith-based organizations?

Once you know what you want, then create a series of documents ranging from short blurbs to white papers to explain the proposed partnership.  Ask the regional groups to help you target & recruit potential partners who meet your criteria.  Introductions are everything in the faith-based world.  Use the documents you created as the basis for phone calls, emails, and meetings.  Decide what your flavor for an approach is: do you want to invite folks to a big exploratory event to get their input?  Or do you have a specific grant you want to apply for and need to visit each site to check them out?  Make sure your invitations are brief, concrete, and tailored to a broad audience–be prepared to cast your net wide and use a variety of ways to communicate, not just those easiest for you.

Building Relationships with Faith-Based Groups
Step One: Listen & Learn
When working with faith-based groups, it is very important to understand as much as you can about the motivation and mindset behind their work. Cultural sensitivity is necessary in any type of partnership, but religion in particular can be both a deep well of strength and beauty as well as a bitterly dividing tool. You have to ask yourself if you have the curiosity, respect, and patience to wade through the very heart-felt and sometimes annoyingly petty concerns of your partners. People are people everywhere, but they tend to be most raw and sincere when spirituality is concerned. Be prepared to do research into the histories and philosophies of a wide variety of organizations. Ask for tours and do plenty of interviews.

Most of all, be prepared to be very open and sincere about your motivations and limitations. This doesn’t mean you have to proclaim your religious beliefs or discuss your political opinions, but groups who view their work as ministry need to know that you will support them without suppressing them. Ministry is an act of personal and spiritual expression, and as such faith-based groups often share some commonalities with artists: they tend to open deep wells into minds and hearts and build bonds that are not easily severed; they can be inflamed with passion one moment and completely unreliable the next; and they can have a deep need for both authentic recognition and transformative challenge. Since they tend to rely heavily on volunteers, you also have the added joy and strain of working with people who do what they want to do, not what’s required of them. You have to lead by influence and meet felt needs.

Listening and leading by influence can take some very concrete forms. If you haven’t read Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea, add it to your nightstand. As suggested above, you could hold exploratory meetings to introduce the topic and get structured feedback. This is a strong option if a part of your goal is to create networking opportunities and to help organizations share their resources to generate referrals. You could also hold site visits, which is a better avenue if you have more time to devote to getting to know the specifics of the culture, people, & buildings of your potential partners. Site visits also make it easier to cultivate commitments and design implementation plans that actually work. Sometimes it’s enough to just send an email or make a phone call if you know the people well and they are good at distance communications, but the movers & shakers in most faith-based groups are juggling 20 other hats which means it’s your job to call, email, show up, nudge, prod, remind, and generally harass people to make your project a priority. Also, know your limits and be willing to move on to another partner or idea if it’s just not working. When things get slow, then it’s most important to KNOW & feel in your gut WHY you want to work with faith-based groups because it has to be a good enough reason to make the investment of time, heart, and energy.

Step Two: Propose & Negotiate
Once you have some interest and possibly commitments, it’s time to get things in writing. Based on the feedback from your partners put together proposals, Memorandums of Understanding, or at least an executive summary that details the goals, priorities, and responsibilities of the parties. Spend some time discussing the details before signing on the line. It’s also a good idea to create something as a rallying point, whether it’s a name, mission statement, video, prayer, or other concise expression of the heart of your new ministry. Our group uses the Mustard Seed Prayer that’s a part of every meeting, training, handout or anything involving the group. As part of our pilot, each site is receiving a framed version of the prayer to put in their classroom. When people ask about & remember your rallying point, then you know you’ve got traction.

The real negotiation comes while creating an implementation plan. Personally I have derived a lot from Appreciative Inquiry (developed right here in Cleveland! http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/) and I insist on getting feedback from all levels of the faith-based organizations I work with. I have learned I have to make deliberate efforts to make sure that the movers & shakers know that I respect that they are the ultimate decision makers. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t feel successful until I have empowered the students and ultimate recipients of the services and partnerships. The first step of that for me is including them in the decision making process and this requires their trust. If it’s optional for clients to participate, you either have to know them well or have an incentive. The same is generally true of volunteers, but they are often easier to recruit and plan with because they often have more stable lives and modes of communication available.

Step Three: Walking the Walk
The real key to a good long term relationship is a strong yet flexible implementation plan. It also involves a lot of back-and-forth to work out exactly who is responsible for what tasks and what the incentives/consequences are for your collective work. It is something you’ll want to revisit on a regular basis and can provide a framework for continuous improvement: What got done? What didn’t? What additional resources are needed to actually make this work? (I end up creating a lot of student/tutor-friendly forms & handouts) What is not helping us reaching our goals? What could be done in an easier way? Having an action plan is helpful in the right hands…as long as it is used to build on strengths & motivate, not assign blame & divide. MOUs are a stepping stone, mission statements look nice on the wall, but flesh & blood bodies sitting in a room and learning together are the ultimate measures of success. When working with the strengths and limitations of faith-based groups, always remember: authentic recognition and transformative challenge. Dream big, love large, and don’t forget the details.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s