As we get closer to the 2020 election, it is important for churches and pastors to mobilize. I meet pastors and church leaders who want to get involved but do not always know what to do or how to add justice and advocacy to the work their congregations take up in their respective communities. I also work with scores of pastors who believe justice work is only speaking on these issues from the pulpit. Yes, it is important to “speak truth to power” and help people in our congregations and communities see the vision God has for a world where we all can thrive together. However, there is more to justice work than this. The truth is more churches need to attend to issues of public policy and legislation. We cannot just speak out. We have to engage the policy-making mechanisms in our communities and the nation. We need a different approach in order to take up this work. So, I want to provide some suggestions on some things pastors can do to be engaged and, more importantly, effective in mobilizing people and resources, and organizing our efforts to bring change to our communities.
1. Community Engagement
• Pastor, I encourage you to schedule listening tours or sessions with people in your neighborhood and gather feedback into a file or list of some kind. You may even want to get staff members, associate ministers, and other lay leaders involved in this work.
• This next step is very important. You need to turn the feedback regarding community issues and concerns into data that can be organized into a report. You should include the numbers of persons interviewed and zip codes.
• Remember that pastoral visits and ministering to families when family and friends lives are lost are opportunities to understand broader community issues. You may want to consider capturing some of this work into a data file that can provide a community profile that gives context to issues mentioned by others. Please do not use names of persons in the report but by all means, tell their stories because it humanizes data, which is an aspect of social and political engagement. We are talking about people.
2. Community and Church Mobilization
• The first thing I want to say here is to shy away from the solo church model. You should seek out and develop partnerships with other churches and community leaders and organizations. You may want to consider adding a justice or political engagement component to your local ministerial fellowship or network.
• Community partnerships helps everyone to pool and maximize resources and impact. Let’s face it, individually we do not have enough money to take on large community projects.
• I should also say parenthetically that participation in a community network can provide a way for churches who are historically uncomfortable dealing with political issues to get involved. A community-focused approach may be a helpful first-step in a longer process of helping your church understand that the spiritual, pastoral, and political are all a part of ministry work. This approach is also vital because in politics you need breadth of influence for leverage. It is one thing to meet with a political official as a representative of a church but another to meet as a member of a partnership or alliance representing hundred and sometimes thousands of people. Black churches need coalitions and partnerships for leverage with officials.
• Use meetings with other pastors and community leaders to dialogue about and expand study of community issues and needs. Try to prioritize a list of needs for future meetings at the end of reports on community issues. The benefit here is that this level of organization helps in meetings with busy political officials. Their time is limited and so the more organized you are beforehand the better. Be disciplined in community meetings and focus only on a few issues. Your organization or coalition is not going to solve every problem but with focus can address and solve some of them.
• It is important to develop some kind of research mechanism or ministry that tracks local, state, and federal pieces of legislation and create reports to brief the group monthly or quarterly. Discussion should focus on how elected officials in their district or state voted and special attention to the impact of legislation on your communities.
• If possible, schedule meetings with city, state, or federal officials to discuss legislation to discuss how they voted and why, and its impact on their communities. It is important to engage with elected officials, sometimes sharing ideas that may help them better understand what communities need and why. This also provides one way to hold elected officials accountable.
3. Two Strategic Electoral Practices
• Use the data gathered from community engagement work to develop a local community agenda. The agenda does not have to be comprehensive. You want to be strategic and find solutions that address material needs. I think it is wise to connect the local agenda with broader national issues for African Americans.
• Organize strategic meetings with candidates running for office where mutual dialogue is required – you as pastor and other select leaders share community concerns and make recommendations (please have a report of some kind that they can take with them) and also hear the candidates plan (if candidate is running for re-election then discussing their voting record is required). This meeting is requisite before the candidate can schedule an appearance and give remarks during a church service. If candidates do not want to meet to talk about issues, then they should not be allowed to use the church to promote their campaign.
4. Get People Registered to Vote
• Studies show that the United States trails most developed countries in voter turnout. Slightly more than fifty percent of voting-age citizens show up to the polls. Nearly forty-five percent of the citizens in a democratic society exercise their right to vote. This has to change! It is incumbent on leaders in all communities to take up the important work of encouraging more people to vote.
• As a pastor and community leader you may want to take up the task of addressing the deeper reasons for so many disillusioned and apathetic voters. You should consider any of the following: a special Bible study series, a community workshop or panel, or even a sermon series that targets deeper issues for this disconnect with voters. Imagine your community organization getting data on voter turnout percentages and maybe you decide to improve the number of people who vote in your community by a small percent. The impact of this small campaign could be more important than you know.
• A second thing you should do is help people get registered to vote. Churches can work with their local board of elections to get people registered in time for the next election. A simple insert in your church program or announcement during worship can get information to people on this important step in the electoral process. Some black churches have a solid history of doing voter registration drives. We need more churches to do this.
I hope that these few suggestions will help you and your church mobilize for a season of thoughtful engagement with candidates running for office. I also hope these activities will result in initiatives that result in increased voter turnout in the 2020 election and, more importantly, informed citizens and people of faith who take their civic duty as seriously.
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Research Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.