Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Is It Ministry?

These days at Neighbors Together, most of the time I prepare for the leadership program, which meets on Fridays.

I draft and revise a class agenda with my supervisor, the community organizer. We debrief on the previous class. We select icebreakers and team-building activities for the next class. We review our "curriculum" and gather materials for the next presentation. We prepare questions to prompt discussion. Then I transform our conference room into a classroom. I get out my markers and colored paper. I draw charts on butcher paper and tape them to the wall. I outline class activities on a dry-erase board. I get snacks and juice ready, as well as meals-to-go from our kitchen so our students can stay in class while dinner is being served in the cafeteria. In all, I spend about six to eight hours every week to plan and prepare for our 90-minute class on Friday. I may not be the model of industry and efficiency, but I fulfill my responsibility.

The remainder of my time is given to pastoral outreach to our members: any time in the cafeteria, Tuesdays at the general membership meeting, or on outings such as our march with Occupy Wall Street, the mass meeting for the NYC living wage bill at Riverside Church, or our recent trip to the Bronx to ask Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to preserve funding for food stamps.

The upshot to this arrangement is that I spend much less time with the larger body of our members. Nowadays I rarely serve meals with the kitchen staff and volunteers. My free time in the cafeteria is limited, which means I have fewer opportunities to meet new people or faces lost in the crowd. I know only a handful of people well -- the activists who attend our meetings, programs, or actions. The rest of the people who come for meals, the tired souls behind sleepy faces, they remain strangers to me.

Is it they who are sleepwalking through Neighbors Together, or is it I?

The staff have asked me to focus on outreach and organizing. Trusting in the Holy Spirit, I have agreed to do this and tried to follow through the work with my whole heart. I do my work faithfully. But is it ministry? Is it loving service to the Lord and one another? To open the question: does what I do at Neighbors Together bring out in and around me, and among my neighbors, the presence of God? Does it bring out God's words and works? And how fully do I give myself in service when I am removed personally from many of the people of God? Do my works of mercy, amass with deeds purporting to cause justice, weigh too light on the scale of charity?

I am thinking about the class itself, into which I am investing all my talents. It has only four or five students. They are our most active members, and while they are committed to the program, they are a little resistant to the class philosophy. Unlike our campaign-oriented membership meetings, these classes have no intended outcome other than to give a model of just leadership to live by. However, my supervisor and I trust that this is enough. And it is everything. We are challenging our members to adapt from a goal-oriented focus to a process-driven approach to life. It has been an adjustment, and I hope a positive one.

The way we are learning about power, organizing, and change is how we are becoming leaders, and how we are becoming leaders is changing who we are. We are looking at power differently than the world and conceiving it differently. We are learning together, not as master and pupil, but as friends under the guidance of wisdom. We are not driven by a thirst for information or a hunger for results. Rather, we are looking for enlightenment. We don't just want to change the world; we want to change the way the world changes so that it begins finally to look like the world where dreams of peace and justice come true.

If what I have said about the class is honest and true, then the leadership program is a work of love. For ministry, that may be enough, no matter how few people I serve in the training. For I am bringing the highest quality of attention I can give to each class, and the highest quality of attention is nothing less than love.

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