Doing Justice: The power of relationships

Jun 11, 2019 by

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When I joined the pastoral team of a Mennonite congregation after seminary, I asked myself: What does it mean to be a pastor of a predominantly white church in America in the 1990s? After pondering this question, it seemed that as a congregation we ought to at least be in relationship with African-American brothers and sisters. This would help us remember that we are an incomplete part of a broken body, and that we need the experiences and perspectives of black Christians to help us more fully understand the gospel and to live faithfully in our context.

Gingerich Stoner

Gingerich Stoner

But where do you start? I knew several black pastors, but the contacts were few and the relationships were superficial. Around this time, I learned about one-on-one relational meetings. I realized that if I spent 45 minutes a week in an intentional conversation with one black pastor, after a year, I would know 50 pastors.

One-on-one relational meetings are the building block of community organizing. They are also a remarkable tool for deepening relationships within a congregation. And I once heard a seasoned church planting coach say that every church planter should spend at least 30 percent of their time doing one-on-ones.

A one-on-one is an intentional conversation for the purpose of building a public relationship and learning about another person’s self-interest — what they care about and what motivates them. It is a simple but powerful tool, an art that requires skill, training and practice.

After a brief introduction that includes sharing a bit of one’s own story, the conversation can start anywhere: asking about the picture on the wall or about the person’s church community. Though there may be a little discussion about who, what and where, a one-on-one is not an interview or trying to piece together someone’s biography.

One-on-one conversation training participants get to know each other in Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind. — André Gingerich Stoner

One-on-one conversation training participants get to know each other in Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind. — André Gingerich Stoner

It can often be fruitful to go deeper at one place: For example, what did it feel like when your father lost his job? And asking “why?” can uncover what moves and motivates people. Why did you decide to become a pastor? Why did you decide to move? Curiosity and careful listening are key components of a good one-on-one. One-on-ones generally involve 30 percent sharing and 70 percent listening.

A one-on-one is not about becoming chummy, though friendships can develop. This is about getting to know what a person cares about to help find shared interest for working together in the public arena.

Churches often rely on newsletters and social media to get the word out. Social change groups often end up “preaching to the choir.” One-on-one relational meetings are a way to expand the web of significant relationships and draw in new people. The heart of the turnout strategy in organizing is a team of people building relationships and then extending personal invitations based on what people are interested in.

Often people are anxious about getting started with one-on-ones. It can help to meet with acquaintances (“we’ve been on the same committee, and I realize we don’t really know each other”) or getting a referral (“so and so told me you’re a leader I should get to know”). Sometimes you just need to make a list and then make the calls!

After I got to know a number of pastors, our congregation eventually built a strong relationship with a black Baptist church. We started with a shared tutoring ministry and pulpit exchanges, followed by civil rights heritage tours, anti-violence prayer walks, community organizing efforts and more. And it all started with relationships.

It’s hard to work together if you don’t know each other!

André Gingerich Stoner works as a neighborhood networker for the Near Northwest Neighborhood in South Bend, Ind., and as an organizing fellow for Faith in Indiana. He has served as a Mennonite pastor and on denominational staff. His Doing Justice blogs at explore how communities of faith love their neighbors by organizing to address policies and funding priorities in their cities, counties and states.

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