I read the Christian Century article, “The dangers of providing pastoral care,” a conversation between Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, when it came out in the summer of 2021. Home with my one-month-old baby, kept in a single air-conditioned room thanks to the pandemic and the haze of wildfire smoke that had somehow made it to our home in St. Paul, MN, I read with a heady combination of recognition and frustration.
Hauerwas says, “The only good to come from this pandemic is to rescue some pastors by giving their congregations loss and pain worthy of the ministrations of the church, rather than the bourgeois concerns that have come to preoccupy the white mainline church in recent years.”
No, I thought. It would be easy to think that if you weren’t serving a church. But no, white mainline congregations have not been escaping the pain of the world in favor of bourgeois concerns. The pain has been there all along. It’s just been shut behind closed doors, hidden behind a veil of shame.
In the fall of 2017, ISAIAH, a statewide faith-based community organizing and power-building organization in Minnesota, embarked on a series of house meetings. These meetings had a clear purpose: to get in touch with the deep self-interest of our communities and build a faith agenda that we could bring to our candidates and elected officials, providing a mandate created at scale. This was my first experience with agitation, in the organizing sense of the word. I came into this process with vague commitments around racial and economic justice but was mostly holding the needs of the world at arm’s length, keenly aware of my privilege as a cisgender, straight, white woman.
I came into a meeting with this perspective, and an organizer zeroed in on my distance from my own pain. She said to me, “When you are in a multiracial space and you, as a white person, distance yourself from the pain and the work, you’re not going to be able to connect authentically, or build power, or make change.” It was hard to hear, but the honesty of the agitation got me to a place where I could see the truth of my own life, both the gifts and the pain.
It brought me into the work of organizing for paid family and medical leave after the birth of my daughter. I could get angry about the lack of society-wide care for new parents as I struggled to make the adjustment myself. It led me to the caucus process to form our elected officials with the faith agenda created by those aforementioned house meetings; I could get angry about the beautiful future our elected leaders denied us when they refused to hear bills or govern courageously. It led me to my current role organizing clergy. I am presently incredibly angry about the situation facing clergy in this pandemic.
Agitation is a process by which an organizer challenges a person to acknowledge their pain, get clear on their self-interest, and act in ways that are aligned with their self-interest. It comes out of Saul Alinsky’s organizing theory laid out in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals, where he describes agitation as “rubbing raw the sores of discontent.” It is a counterintuitive process for those of us schooled in the active listening version of pastoral care. It is an uncomfortable process for those of us socialized in the ecosystem of pervasive, even toxic, positivity. It is a challenging process for those of us who, for whatever reason, want to keep the peace, be liked, and not ruffle feathers. It is also the way we harness our anger for constructive instead of destructive purposes. It is a skill all clergy can use to unite their congregations around a common purpose – the “how” of our faith.
There is no shortage of anger in our culture right now, and it’s coming out sideways in our congregations. Agitation is a way of harnessing and redirecting that anger toward the purpose of building power and making change. So often and for so long, we have been in the business of hiding our pain. While that may protect our egos, it also causes anger and resentment to build. Agitation allows that pain to surface and be a catalyst for authentic connection, power building, and social transformation.
At the risk of making the same mistake as Hauerwas and Willimon, I will offer an invitation to clergy as an ordained person not currently serving a church. Dig into what community organizing concepts could look like in your context. Agitate your congregation. Get clear on your own self-interest, the self-interest of your people, and the self-interest of those in your wider community. Then act together. Your ministry provides the theological underpinnings for the hope we are all seeking in this moment. Agitation can provide the practical underpinnings: a hope that creates change.