When Ann Svennungsen began her first term as bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod in 2012, she brought with her a deep passion and energy for environmental justice.
“I spoke quite a bit about environmental issues and how, as Lutherans, we are really called to be in the community where God needs us,” she said. “[Martin] Luther would write, ‘If God needs you to become a mayor, become a mayor. If God needs you to build a school, build a school.’ And I could only imagine that Luther would say, ‘If your world needs intervention around the health of the planet, you should engage in that.’ ”
Acknowledging the scale of global climate change, those in the synod wondered how best to be strategic about making real change.
Two grants from a donor-designated fund of the InFaith Community Foundation (formerly the Lutheran Community Foundation), intended specifically for the synod to address environmental issues, provided the opportunity they sought. In 2016, Emilie Bouvier was hired as the synod’s first community organizer for environmental justice.
“I could only imagine that Luther would say, ‘If your world needs intervention around the health of the planet, you should engage in that.’ ”
In her work, Bouvier built up leaders, negotiated relationships with organizations and local watershed commissions, led legislative issue campaigns, and identified creative ways to continue funding and expanding the synod’s unique community organizing mission.
Like most synods, Minneapolis Area was limited in its ability to use Mission Support dollars to explore new staffing models while maintaining its other work. This made it necessary to explore alternate sources of funding to hire additional organizers.
The synod worked with Lutheran Volunteer Corps to bring on an environmental justice organizer, Grace Corbin, in 2017. And, through grants from InFaith Community and the Bush Foundation, as well as a small portion of the revenue from the sale of church buildings, the synod was able to continue its expansion of its organizing department, hiring Brenda Blackhawk as racial justice organizer and Meghan Olsen Biebighauser as economic justice organizer this year.
Each of the organizers is responsible for building a leadership team of lay leaders and rostered ministers that is focused on particular issues and campaigns, from battling payday lending to passing bills for inclusive financing to granting greater access to energy efficiency across the state.
Making connections, acting together
The need for leadership teams to be conversant in the language of organizing emerged early on. “The greatest challenge … was helping folks understand that community organizing is a particular discipline and set of tools,” Bouvier said.
To address this need, the synod partnered with Midwest Academy, a Chicago-based community organizing teaching institute, to offer weeklong trainings for lay leaders and rostered ministers.
Parishioners from across the synod gather in Buffalo, Minn., each January to learn about arranging one-on-one meetings, developing leaders and running issue campaigns that will have an impact in their congregation’s context.
Maria Anderson-Lippert, a pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn., attended the January training. She learned that “community organizing ultimately helps us to turn our focus outward to our communities and neighborhoods and provides us with tools for not only connecting with our neighbors but learning about the realities of their lives.”
“The church is a place not only to hear a prophetic word of transformation but to act together to build more just communities and systems, living out God’s justice and grace.”
By the end of Svennungsen’s current term in 2024, the synod will have trained nearly 400 people in the discipline of community organizing.
The effect of these trainings is already evident, as congregations increasingly find ways to add organizers to their staffs and engage the pressing issues facing their neighbors.
Biebighauser has found that the increasing number of leaders trained in organizing allows synod members “to make connections between congregations who are working through similar issues in their neighborhoods.”
Svennungsen hopes this experience can be shared with other synods: “I would like to find ways for us to be teachers … and to say that ‘this is one model that has worked for us, maybe it could work for you too.’ ”
Synod organizers believe the work has allowed them to live into their mission and help congregations become catalysts for just and healthy neighborhoods. “At its best, the church is a place not only to hear a prophetic word of transformation but a place to act together to build more just communities and systems, living out God’s justice and grace,” Bouvier said.