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The following is a description of the use of Relational Organizing in the context of a church. In the neighborhood where I live we have been using this approach in community organizing with good results. For more information on the results visit:

Questions? Comments?


Sustainable Action: Planting the Seeds of Relational Organizing By Rev. Louise Green

Louise is currently Director of Social Justice Ministries at All Souls Church,

Unitarian in Washington D.C. She is a community organizer and UCC

minister who worked for 10 years with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a

congregation-based, multi-issue power network with over 60 affiliates

around the country. The ideas below come from her IAF experience and

training, particularly through Michael Gecan, National Staff for the Metro

IAF in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. For an in-depth look at this

method of community organizing, read Gecan’s Going Public, published by

Beacon Press.


The first principle in Unitarian Universalism is to affirm the inherent

worth and dignity of every person and the second is to promote justice,

equity and compassion in human relations. Yet sometimes it is our own

congregations that treat our most precious resource—our people—with a

bureaucratic disregard. This is not intentional, but results from perpetuating

static structures that drain leaders of life and initiative. We don’t mean to

drain the energy of our top talent, but the way we do business can be far

from just or compassionate.

If we say we respect the inherent worth of each person, we owe it to

our congregants to create a culture in the church or organization that is

dynamic, life-giving, and fulfilling for all participants. Voluntary groups are

an elective choice that people make in order to add something positive to

their lives. The reason why so many people eventually elect out is that they

become tired and de-energized working in repetitive ways. This article is

about another approach to organizational life, a way that seeks to find new

leadership and encourage new campaigns: relational organizing.

Relational organizing is working with and beyond the bureaucratic

culture of a congregation or organization. What is a bureau, literally? The

word “bureaucracy” comes from a chest of drawers, where everybody has a

proper compartment and place. This kind of organization is necessary in a

large group, but it often works against close relationships between people.

Sometimes there is very little communication between or within the drawers

and no change in the overall structure for very long periods of time.


The idea of organizing relationally does not preclude the standard

mechanisms we need to function in large groups--rather, it adds a dimension

that can transform the culture of bureaucracy. Instead of a bureaucratic

culture dominated by fixed activities that endlessly repeat, a relational

culture is flexible, dynamic, and responsive to growing or changing needs.

In most congregations, bureaucracy reigns. We are so accustomed to

group meetings, collective agendas, and task-oriented activities that it is easy

to perpetuate a system that creates only very minimal relationships between

people. Communication happens via worship bulletins, newsletters, email

and phone calls, and we rarely meet with someone individually unless we

have a job to do or crisis to address. Talented leaders are recruited for many

tasks, and attend multiple group meetings until they risk burnout and loss of

interest. Congregants may meet for months or even years, and never have a

conversation about anything but what is on the agenda page for their

committee night.

How can congregations and organizations break out of this

constraining, de-energizing, and often depressing situation? The solution is

to create a culture of relationships that is served by the bureaucratic

apparatus rather than dominated by it.

The primary tool of relational organizing is the individual meeting, an

encounter with a person that is rare in our culture. Individual, or 1-to-1,

meetings are critical to create bonds between existing teams, find new talent,

identify new issues, or develop a new constituency. There is no short-cut

around them, and they produce results that nothing else can. Very simply,

doing individual meetings is the strategy that is essential in order to create a

relational culture over time.

What are the hazards of operating in a bureaucracy that has no

relationship-building initiative? The same people do the same things in an

unexamined way. New talent and energy is not discovered or engaged.

Group meetings get certain tasks done, but only use the skills of folks which

apply to the set agenda. Leaders and followers grow fatigued over time and

echo the perennial complaint: why do the same people do everything around



What is a 1-to-1 meeting?

· A 30-45 minute meeting of face-to-face conversation with one person.

· Getting to know the other person and being known

· An inquiry into what matters to a person and why.

· A chance to go outside of the repeating tasks and small group

activities that dominate congregational and organizational life.

· An opportunity to know the private motivations each person has for

doing public action such as congregational volunteerism or social

justice work.

· A search for leaders and participants with the talent, motivation,

initiative, energy, or anger to change a situation.

· A way to identify issues that need to be addressed and are not on the

current action plan.

What is not an individual meeting for relational organizing purposes?

· An interview of non-stop questions or survey.

· Going through the whole life story or resume of an individual.

· A recruitment device that fits someone into a set agenda or committee.

· An intellectual conversation about policy or strategy on issues in the

congregation, neighborhood or city.

· Search for personal friendship or a social encounter.

What do you need to do individual meetings?

· A firm decision that you will make the time to engage in this

important leadership task. You must invest time and energy for this to


· A clear context for your introduction on the phone and in person, and

a reason for doing this that you can explain to others simply.

· Regular phone call time set aside to ask for and schedule meetings.

· Patience and persistence to work with people’s availability and

possible resistance.

· Curiosity about other people and an ability to listen.

· Willingness to practice this skill over and over again, in multiple


How do you do an individual meeting?

· Have a clear introduction and ending: the middle is improvisation

that is particular to the person with whom you are talking.

· Talk more deeply about a few things instead of covering 20 topics.

· Ask “why?” much more often than “what?”

· Ask the person to tell stories and personal history, talk about

important incidents, time periods, or mentors—not just recite facts

and dates.

· Offer back conversation and dialogue: it’s not just for the purpose of

the other person answering your questions.

· Close by asking the person who else they think you should be meeting

with, and what questions they have for you.

How do you use individual meetings?

When you decide to do an individual meeting campaign, it is important to

establish a context: Are you the only one doing meetings, and for what

reason (i.e. committee chair, task force/study leader, leading on developing a

new project)? Is a team going to agree to do them with a particular list (i.e.

new members, youth, seniors, religious education teachers)? Is staff preparing to do them with a certain constituency (i.e. people of color in the congregation, young adults, worship associates)?

Keep track of each meeting by making notes on each individual, deciding

ahead of time what kinds of things you want to remember. Just write down

important items, not everything you heard. However, don’t ever take notes

while you are having the meeting itself: this makes you a surveyer or

interviewer, which is not the right purpose or tone for the conversation.

Create a process for evaluating what you learn once you have a

significant number accumulated. This may be your individual work, or

involve a meeting with the team that is working on the campaign. It’s

important to go into the meetings with an open mind: you can test for

certain interests or issues, but if you have one specific purpose in mind (need

to recruit teachers, for example) you won’t be finding out what you need to

know. Your goal is to ask questions and listen, without fitting the person

into any fixed spot. Individual meetings are an exchange about what is

important to each of you, not a session where you work to get the person to

do something.

After you have met your goal for a certain number of meetings, either

individually or as part of a team, evaluate what you learned. This may lead

to various choices:

· additional individual meetings with new people,

· some kind of different group action,

· second meetings with especially interesting or strong leaders,

· a new project or event,

· revising how you have been operating based on what you heard,

· asking people to take some sort of new initiative based on what

you discovered about them.

The entire process is improvised and created out of what you actually

hear and how you decide to respond. You can’t plan this response until you

have a number of individual meetings.


What are the benefits of building a relational culture of organizing?

· Leaders who come to know each other beyond a task-oriented agenda

and can do new things in new ways.

· New people who can be engaged around their own interests, not an

existing plan.

· The capability to do a new project or campaign based on people’s real

energy and motivation, not an annual or monthly repetition of activity.

· A network of people who know and trust each other, able to take

action in a variety of ways over time.

· A stronger, more dynamic, more creative congregational or

organizational life.

A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. That which

dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and

character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for

what we are worshipping we are becoming.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Reading 563 in Singing the Living Tradition):

When we inadvertently worship bureaucracy instead of letting our

structures serve a greater goal of relationship, when we are not deeply

committed to innovation and dynamism in our congregations, we are not

affirming the inherent worth and dignity of each person. We limit all the

rich ways that talent can flourish and congregations thrive.

Building a relational organizing culture over time is the best way to build

our churches’ strength, our leadership potential, and our full participation in

all the possibilities of life. May we have the courage and the wisdom to

explore all the great and varied potential within the congregation and its



Examples of Ways to Build Individual Relationships

Bureaucratic Organization (Structure) plus Relational Organizing (Process)

· Knowing people more deeply in an existing group or committee

Meet with a fixed group agenda Do individual meetings during

and between group meetings on

a regular basis

Work on tasks and plans Add individual reflection at the

beginning or end of meetings on

topics that vary over time

· Looking for new committee participation

General announcement in bulletin Individual meetings with 5-10

interesting people you don’t know

· Inviting a group to attend a meeting or event

Email the list or print announcement Personal phone calls (Try for

conversations, not voicemail)

· Starting a new group or action

Announcement in the newsletter Individual meetings with those

who respond and express interest

· Expanding your network of relationships in the congregation

Say hello during greeting time at worship Schedule individual meetings

before or after worship

· Working on knowing people across differences

Attend program on diversity Have individual meetings with

or anti-racism training five people who are different from

you and each other

· Knowing the staff and being known

Read the newsletter. Listen to sermons. Set up an individual meeting with

Talk on the phone. Email. no set agenda to accomplish

Views: 62

Replies to This Discussion

It is always the same thing - you need to know someone to ask them to do something. Great post.


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