5 Ways to Create an Empowered Community

I spend a decent amount of time talking with people about how to create a community where people feel empowered, have a sense of ownership, and display a high level of involvement. And though it doesn't happen overnight, creating an environment to foster those things is by no means impossible, or even treacherous.

But such an environment does require these five elements:

1)  A loss of control on the part of the pastor

If you want others to own something, you can't canvas the church with labels bearing your name. You cannot make the church look like a kindergarten classroom with everything you've brought or created labeled and tagged. I know that you worked hard to get this position. I know that you went to seminary and paid for it. I know that your denomination tells you it is all your responsibility—and it IS. Which is why you should do all you can to foster the kind of community that encourages every member to be a spiritually mature and responsible person. Let it go. Let other people shine. Create space for others to fill, and let it sit there empty until you think it will gnaw at your very soul. Everyone needs to find something on the chore chart to do, but they can't if you keep cleaning the whole house for them week after week.

2)  A willingness to value participation over presentation

If you ask any community-minded pastor, you will hear him say to be prepared that sometimes Sundays can be bumpy. Maybe the Scripture reader isn't the most eloquent or the new band member forgets the song or the person doing communion didn't do a Eucharistic prayer. (I know, half of you just inhaled loudly at the very scandalous thought). This is part of the process. It's a sign you have non-seminary people actually participating in worship. When this happens, I suggest breathing deeply and letting go of your preaching professor's echoing voice in your head and trying to see what is happening as the work of the people, the liturgy of the Word unfolding right before your eyes. It is beautiful, even as it is a bit awkward and messy. We are working it out, little by little, and that is the stuff of faith.

I confess there are still times when this one's hard for me. I like things to go well. But I try to remember not to consider myself that important. Because I don't think God is concerned about how my pastoral image is looking in that moment, or whether God cares about my desire to look like I've planned and organized well. I think God cares far more about a community of people working it out, little by little, with earnest hearts.

3)  Openness to feedback

Here's a clear sign that members are taking ownership of their community: when they feel free enough to question what you are doing, or to mention something they think isn't structured well, or when they really disagree with the way something is going. This requires some mature centeredness on the part of the pastor. It requires a little bit of tough skin and an ability not to take all criticism personally. (Please refer back to point #1.) And honestly, this seems to be where I see other pastors decide to give up and return to the way things used to be. It is not easy to have people critique something you've worked so hard to create. Also, it's not easy to accept that they might be right and to follow their advice and put it into practice. We may be hard-wired to see this as failure or as a loss of authority, when really it is a sign of strength and wisdom.

Of course, to be clear, openness to feedback also means an ability to discern whether the critique is valid or not. Criticism sometimes must be weathered when you feel what you're doing is on the right track for the community. And even more importantly, this feedback loop ought always to be respectful and kind, and never vengeful or angry. The loop goes all the way around, which is to say the community is responsible for upholding a forum of support and grace.

4)  Willingness to fail

The truth is, we all are making our way one step at a time, and invariably this means we will try out some things that work and some things that don't. Or, more commonly, we will try out things that work for a while and then a little while later lose their effectiveness. Don't be afraid to overhaul something, chuck something, or even scrap what used to be really helpful. Don't be afraid to attempt something you're not entirely sure how to do, because maybe it will fail, but maybe it will be the next best incarnation of what you're all dreaming to be together. And above all, be willing to apologize. You'll probably make some bad calls along the way, and risk something that doesn't pay off. Create an environment of grace by admitting it, and show some real hope by trying again anyway.

5) Creation over the long haul

Communities are organisms, and as such they are designed to change. There is this illusion of a church finding the processes that work and then just sticking with them until kingdom come. I have heard pastors even say they have found these processes, and attempt to tell other people how they can have these air-tight processes, too. To my knowledge, no living organism is that concrete. There are some basic rules of gardening, certainly, but every season brings its own unique challenges, every crop its own set of needs. And soil can vary greatly from region to region, and even from year to year. If you are looking into creating a community of faith that is empowering and open and participatory, you should know that it's a calling that doesn't really end. That may feel daunting, but it's honest.

I've been at Journey, my church, for six years now, and I have lost track of what iteration of incarnation we're on at this point. It changes based on who's here and what we're reading and what's happening in the world and what feels most meaningful for us as we attempt to construct a life of faith. And I don't imagine that ship will ever dock and drop anchor, eternally tied to one port. This calling is ongoing, which may feel a bit overwhelming, but the benefits of a life lived well together over the long haul is what makes this life worth living, and what makes this call, at its best, feel like a grand adventure.