Seabury's community organizing course always gets high marks from students in the seminary's DMin in Congregational Development track. Stephen Applegate, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Granville, Ohio, says the reason is simple.
"This is one of the best courses in the entire sequence," said Applegate. "It is particularly valuable, in part, because of its practical application in congregational development and parish ministry. It is a very clear reminder that individual meetings are at the heart of what we do."
Applegate, a seminarian at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), took the course in 2011 as part of CDSP’s joint DMin in Congregational Development program with Seabury. The program offers church leadership courses in June at Seabury and in January at CDSP in Berkeley, California.
The core of the course is the Industrial Area Foundation's acclaimed national leadership training. It is co-sponsored by Seabury and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Office for Congregation Based Organizing.
Applegate said he did a lot of reading for the course, including Effective Organizing for Congregational Renewal by Michael Gecan of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.
"What Gecan says in the book is that individual meetings are, by far, the most important, most effective, and least used organizational tools in congregational life today," Applegate said. It was a truth Applegate saw being lived out in his own congregation of some 400 parishioners, where Applegate has served as rector since 2003.
"Larger churches are not just bigger, they are different," Applegate said. "One of the mistakes I made at St. Luke's was, as we continued to grow during the past eight years, I started to reduce the individual meetings, and most of the meetings were reactive rather than proactive. The upshot was a congregation that was highly relational in its culture was becoming less so. What the course and Gecan's book reminded me of was the importance of individual meetings and who you are meeting with and why."
Applegate took that concept a step further. He used his newly gained community organizing skills to reorganize St. Luke's committee on outreach, to which the parish commits more than 20 percent of its operating budget.
"Outreach is part of our DNA, he said. "When our outreach chair retired, I said let's use community organizing to disorganize and reorganize the committee. Three or four of us embarked on meeting with 40 individual members who were involved with the outreach ministries. Using the training model I learned in the class, we agreed the primary purpose was to create a relationship with these 40 people. Out of those meetings has grown a series of dinners where we invite people to have conversations about what is important to them.
"We are trying to identify people's anger," Applegate said. "It is anger that gets people motivated to do things. What Metro IAF says is people who are angry make good leaders. There was a guy in 2008 who became angry when he found out that people were hungry near here. That anger drove him to create the Fairfield County Community Gardens, and that provides tons of food from the 20 acres of donated land that they have under cultivation. So that may seem surprising: to look for a leader, look for someone who is angry."
Applegate said the outreach committee leadership is still emerging, and he continues to see the benefits of applying the community organizing principle of individual relationships.
"What is easy to have happen is to get caught in the "adminis-trivia" and to forget that you are in the business of people," he said. "The course's focus on individual relationships reminded me that I have to get out of the office, and there's not a week that goes by that I don't try to have at least five relational meetings, five meetings that I initiate. I want to create a public relationship with these people. Sometimes it is with parishioners, sometimes I meet with other people in the community.
"And I've certainly been able to see the results of this," Applegate said. "I will say this about the course: the training work in Chicago was top notch training."
Tom Lenz, the principal instructor for the course, is lead organizer for United Power for Action and Justice, a citizen organizing project that brings together churches, synagogues, mosques, health centers, and non-profit associations in Chicago and suburban Cook County to work for the common good on issues of shared concern.
The main training will be offered Monday, June 10, through Friday, June 14. Seabury is offering additional wraparound sessions for theological reflection on the Sunday before (June 9, 6 to 9 pm) and the Saturday after the main training (June 15, 9 am to 4 pm). These extra sessions include worship opportunities and are required for DMin and other students taking the course for academic credit or CEUs. The wraparound sessions are optional for everyone else.