I attended two fascinating events this week: an "action" with 650 people organized by PATH (People Acting Together for Howard) and a conversation with 20 people organized by Leadership Howard County. The PATH event featured all the candidates for the up-coming election for County Executive and School Board and the Leadership event featured Todd Olson, the new Director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.
This morning, I started musing about how these two gatherings spoke to a question that is often discussed among pastors: What is the function of big events? Do they help build community? Do they strengthen the organization that puts on the event? Or do they actually weaken the organization by using up resources (time, energy, money) without acheiving any particular outcome?
Churches have a tendency to become event factories. We are always looking to attract new people to our communities and one of our go-to methods for doing this is to produce an event that will gather a crowd. Fall festivals, Christmas concerts, paint ball parties for kids, lectures by authors, you name it, we've done it, all for the purpose of gathering a crowd. Worship services for Christmas and Easter are often essentially the same thing--an event that is staged for the purpose of attracting a bunch of people. We constantly measure the success of these events by counting how many people came.
The Columbia Festival for the Arts seems to use the same metric. The stated mission of the Festival is to "to present a world class celebration of the arts and entertainment that attracts, engages and inspires the broad and diverse community it serves." Their purpose, in short, is to put on an event that gathers a crowd who wants to come back next year. The Festival has been running since 1989 and, according to the conversation at the Leadership event, it has lost some steam in recent years. What are the signs of that? The events haven't been as well attended. So, they created a strategic plan, hired a new director and have lots of new ideas for how to re-energize the festival.
It seems to me that the Festival, along with most churches I know, should take a lesson from PATH, and not just because that organization was able to pack full the sanctuary of one of the largest churches in the county. PATH, like churches and arts festivals, knows that big gatherings are energizing. It is exciting to be in a standing-room only crowd that is cheering and applauding. But for PATH, big events are never an end to themselves. The events are the result of a series of conversations and they lead to another series of conversations, and these conversations are what build the organization--and the community--long-term.
PATH is "a multi-racial, multi-faith, strictly non-partisan, County-wide citizens’ organization, rooted in local congregations and associations" that has been active in Howard County since 2004. They are affiliated with the IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation which is the largest community organizing network in the country. The Kittamaqundi Community has never joined PATH (unfortunately, in my opinion) but I have participated in a number of PATH events through my affiliation with Columbia United Christian Church which is a member. My involved with IAF organizations began when I was in graduate school in Boston and their model of community organizing shaped my understanding of ministry from the beginning.
In a nutshell, PATH is built on one-on-one relationships. Participants are trained from the very beginning to have short, focused conversations with people they may not know about the community issues which are most important to them. In advance of this week's action, PATH members held over 1,000 of these conversations throughout the county. The one-on-one conversations guide leaders as they select the issues they will work on. Those issues, and specific steps that will address those issues, then become the focus of the large event. Candidates were asked how they might support PATH in achieving these goals. In other words, the event focused on the organization and its goals, not the candidates and their goals.
The one-on-one conversations are also the key to the large crowds. Leaders are held accountable for "turn out"--they pledge in advance to bring a certain number of people to the event and they report at the event as to whether or not they achieved their goal. This motivates leaders to personally contact everyone they know and ask them to come to the event with them. It is an incredibly effective way to gather a crowd.
PATH is advocating for change to address issues of concern to its members. It knows that candidates and elected officials will take them much more seriously if they can gather an enormous crowd for an event like the once which took place this week. But PATH's work doesn't end with the large event. The big crowd is a means to an end--not an end to itself.
So PATH hands out cards to every person in attendance inviting them to participate in two trainings held within a couple of weeks of the large event. These trainings will teach people how PATH works and, most importantly, how each person can initiate the one-on-one conversations that are the basis for the organization. PATH is built on relationships, not on events. The relationships enable them to hold massive events and the events help to make change, but everything begins and ends in relationship.
Churches could learn a lot from the IAF model and over the years I've thought a lot about how they could and why they often don't. There's much to say about this, but one of the most basic problems is that churches start to think that well-attended events are the goal. They don't connect these events to the on-going life of the congregation in large part because there isn't much else going on. They don't value relationships and so they cannot enable real growth or change in themselves or anyone else.
What about the Columbia Festival of the Arts? What if that organization took a lesson from PATH? This question may sound strange since the stated aim of the Festival is to put on a great Festival, not to make social change. But the Festival used to have higher aims. According to its website, back when it was founded in 1987, its mission was to produce an “annual arts event that builds the spirit of community.” Perhaps that language was too vague to make it through the strategic planning process? The idea is worth preserving, however. The events of the Festival should not be seen as ends to themselves. They should be designed to build our community, which is to say, to build relationships.
At the Leadership conversation this past week, I could see the beginnings of movement in this direction. Todd Olson has been in his position only since August 1st but the main thing he has been doing since arriving is building relationships with the leadership of other arts organizations in the county. He is working on building his Board of Directors and adding additional advisory boards to the organization. He had in mind a young adult advisory board but seemed open to building other groups which might connect the Festival with, for example, the Korean or Hispanic communities in the county. These relationships could help a wider range of people feel like they had a stake in the Festival--and that leads people to bring their network to events.
But what about follow-up? Olson and his board members have been thinking about this too. They want to increase the amount of "engagement" at Festival events--not just watching the show, but staying for a discussion with the filmmaker or the actors after the event. That's a step in the right direction, but what if everyone who attended an event was invited to participate in planning the following year's Festival?
This may all sound preposterous. Arts administrators are not community organizers after all and neither are pastors. But I have a feeling that if we really took seriously the transforming power of art--or of faith--we would stop focusing on holding well-attended events and spend a lot more time building relationships.