Writing It Up

It may seem strange to include writing among a list of tools for community engagement. Typically seen as a solitary activity undertaken by people dedicated to working out their innermost thoughts in isolation, writing gets a bad rap by activists. Most churches would benefit from a little less doing and a little more writing it up.

Writing forces reflection in a way that could benefit even the most actively engaged. Ten years after the event, Dee Ann reflected back on her experience as a student on a travel and study seminar to Central America sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (USA). She described a feeling of “danger and cautiousness” in visiting Guatamala, El Salvador and Nicaragua during the El Salvador civil war, and recounted visits with business, church and social justice leaders that gave her “new eyes, new heart, new view of life.”“Through many of the people were met. . .we experienced a level of faith that before had been unimaginable.” Writing can be used not only to recollect, but to maintain a real time record of events. Some mission groups keep a group journal, asking a different person each day to record the group’s experience from his or her perspective. The resulting account can be copied at the end of the trip and shared with everyone, or excerpts can be used for articles and presentations about the trip.[1]

Whether kept by individuals or groups, journals come in all stripes. It could be a record of the facts of the case: Who? What? When? Where? It could consist of short notes to aid memory or ideas to think about later, or include detailed descriptions in case you want to write about it later. Your journal could contain something more personal, like stories you hear or observations you make or even be a more reflective piece focused more on your thoughts, memories and feelings evoked inside rather than the experience itself. Some writers use the journal as a place to dump negative feelings about their experience, so you can either put them aside or return to them later when you are feeling more calm and collected. For the more analytical types, it could be used for theological or ethical analysis about the situation you encounter.[2]

Some outreach teams find a mission statement helpful for clarifying purpose. This brief statement describes why your team exists, and it helps you to focus on what’s really important. The process of forging a mission statement enables the group to achieve a shared understanding. For that reason, be sure to include time for discussion and debate, even though some may object that seems seems tedious. Before beginning the process, instruct the group, “When we craft a mission statement, the statement is more than words. It represents the debate and discussion we’ve gone through to write it. It gets pulled out and used regularly. It helps us make good decisions.” In the revision process, it helps to focus on your broad intentions rather than on wordsmithing. The end result should be a brief, clear, inspiring statement as to why you exist. Read it aloud at meetings and spend a few minutes discussing key words or sharing stories about how you fulfilled it. The usefulness of having a mission statement is demonstrated by a large Presbyterian women’s group that worked hard on a shared statement at a women’s retreat. Three months later, the group was approached by the senior pastor with a request to take on a new task. After spending about one minute to review their mission statement, the members decided the project was not in alignment with it. The pastor was impressed with their focus.[3]

A memo of understanding serves a similar purpose to the mission statement, though its focus is not on internal purpose but collaboration with others. Such a statement can ensure that the team’s partners, which might include donors, expert advisors, social service agencies, and even the program’s beneficiaries, do not work at cross purposes due to misunderstanding. The memo of understanding creates a blueprint for action, stating the goal of the program, activities to be carried out, and what would be expected of each partner. Consider including a plan for resolving differences, such as an arbitration team consisting of representatives of each partner group. This memo, usually no more than one or two pages long, is not a legal document but a statement designed to ensure understanding by everyone involved. Imagine a church mission team wanting to develop a community garden in order to supply the neighborhood with fresh produce. Such a project might require volunteers supplied by the church or community, expert gardeners from the local garden club, and approval of the city.[4] The memo of understanding can help to keep the parts working in harmony.

Some ministry programs use another writing tool, the program history, to keep track of actions taken over time. When Christ Lutheran Church in Whitefish, Montana created Shepherd’s Hand Clinic, a free medical clinic for people unable to afford health care, its leaders felt compelled to keep track. As the ministry began to expand, leaders documented their steps by maintaining a simple history from the beginning with dates of what happened when. This “running history” gave the leadership an idea of the amount of time needed for each step, and allowed them to look back and evaluate how they met their initial goals or fell short.[5]

Everyone, not just outreach workers, should be invited to write. Writing can be used to empower folks in the community. A few years ago, Brown Memorial Church in Syracuse, New York offered writing exercises for customers at its food pantry. Located on the city’s impoverished Near West Side, the church serves as a community center for the neighborhood. After shopping at the pantry, residents were invited to sit a a table in the corridor where people lined up to enter. Writers were offered printed sheets with writing prompt (a question or brief description to respond to) at the top of a page which is otherwise blank. One topic was sidewalks, with the prompt: “Do you use the sidewalk? What do you think of the sidewalks?” Non-English speakers were offered prompts in Spanish, with the account later translated into English. Those who could not write could draw a picture, and others chose to both write and draw pictures. Used initially as an organizing tool for residents groups to seeking action from the city council, the results were also published in a small inexpensive paperback, West Side Walks, published by New City Community Press. The project is the brainchild of Steve Parks, the press’s Director and Associate Professor of Writing at Syracuse University. He got the idea from the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, in the United Kingdom, a thirty year old network of community writing groups. “Our mission is to provide opportunities for local communities to represent themselves by telling their stories in their own words.”[6]

Writing belongs to everyone. For some people, writing may seem to be a difficult, unpleasant, and nearly impossible task. For others it can be exhilarating, satisfying and self-revelatory. Yet everyone should have the opportunity to try it. While considered by some critics to be heady and ethereal, writing represents an undeniably hands on activity, whether undertaken with pen and paper or a computer keyboard. This tool has been underutilized.

[1] Debby Vial, When God’s People Travel Together (Louisville: Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, 1999.), 54, 46.

[2] Jean McNiff, Pamela Lomax and Jack Whitehead, You and Your Action Research Project (New York: Rutledge, 1997), 87-88.

[3] Susan Waechter and Deborah Kocsis, How to Energize Your Volunteer Ministry (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2004), 104, 42-43, 37.

[4] Sandra Swan, The New Outreach (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 156-157.

[5] Linda-Marie Delloff, Public Offerings: Stories from the Front Lines of Community Ministry (Bethesda, MD, 2002),73.

[6] New City Community Press, http://newcitycommunitypress.com/ (accessed March 9, 2018).

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