From the dance floor to the coop

I plan to schedule relational meetings with three leaders from local churches, one from the church I attend, and two from other churches. I’m going to map out my plan for meeting with the woman in my church who handles all financial decisions–let’s call her Sister Smith.

In my relational meeting with Sister Smith, I’d like to share with her a high-level description of CPA, a network of institutions facing similar opportunities to save money through group purchasing, and ‘a vehicle to act together on common problems that are bigger than any one institution can tackle on their own.’ Each year in DC, 20 schools and 20 faith institutions find the insight, pricing, and convience so helpful they choose to work with the co-op for more than 100 contracts in the areas that make sense for their institution. The co-op gets a rebate from the vendor that pays for their time, but because of the group negotiating and the better service, the individual member experiences either a lower cost or better value and chooses the co-op. The co-op is owned by the members and works for the members.

Before we go into the details, I’d like to share why I feel called to do this work. (This is my story of self.) That story starts for me in middle school, when I felt so excited to go to my first middle school dance. I put on my shiniest shirt and walked into the dark gym at Mayfield Middle School. There was a smoke machine and a DJ playing Limp Bizkit. Perfect. I found some friends and started dancing. Almost right away a guy I was on the football team with yelled out, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Hey Welle! Dancing is for girls and for gays!” I froze. I felt a hundred eyes on me. I had no idea dances came with all these rules. I stopped dancing right then, and I stopped dancing for years.

It wasn’t until years later, after I’d seen my mother stand up for her own career after years of feeling like her role in the family, and the expectations of my father, did not give her the space to pursue her professional passions, that I found courage to stand up for myself. I stopped hanging out with the football guys and instead find true friends in honors calls who accepted me as I am. I have a picture from junior prom of me with those friends, with my face red and shirt disheveled from dancing so much.

That experience inspired me to stand with people fighting against the rules that hold them back.

Small churches in Cleveland like the one I’m a member of have for years had to break the rules to keep their congregations intact. The city has lost population every year since 1950. The population is getting older as young people move out of the region. Finances are tight as building age and the economy stagnates–or even declines. For churches that have survived these headwinds–mostly Black churches–staying open means fighting for their faith, for their community, for the relationships and history they believe. As they fight to stay open, they’ve shown a lot of the courage I found in modest ways back in high school. (This is the story of us, and the beginning of a story of now.)

I’d love to know why Sister Smith believes the longevity of her church matters to her. What motivates her to put in long hours to keep paying the church bills, to keep cooking dinner for the Pastor’s appreciation lunch? When was the first time she know our church would be her church home? What’s a moment from church she’ll always remember?

What’s her hope for where the church should go? What priorities does she hold for how the church evolves in its ministry?

I will ask Sister Smith two or three of these questions in a way that invites her to reveal her values, the things she cares about as it relates to her work sustaining our church’s finances.

I’ll bring the conversation back to that work, and ask what substantial expenses and contracts she sees on the horizon for our church, and what routine expenses are the most taxing.

I’ll invite her to share some specifics about how much our church spends on specific types of contracts–electricity, trash pick up, copier services, etc. I’ll ask what services she’s happy with, which leave something to be desired, and which vendors stand out and which aren’t meeting standards.

I’ll let her know we plan to convene a meeting of 10 or so faith institutions this winter to see what opportunity there is to work together to save our church some money by working together. I’ll also ask to follow up later one regarding some of the details about spend data.

4 thoughts on “From the dance floor to the coop”

  1. Thanks for your post, Jonathan. I like your focus not just on the mission of the church but also the longer-term vision of the congregation.


  2. Jonathan,
    I love your personal reflection and how your story comes from your childhood in a very real, deeply thoughtful way. Is there a story from your adult life that you might be able to share? And a story that relates to and helps give more texture to your motivation for this work?

    What in this writing is new for you as you wrote and responded to this prompt? What did you learn? Where did you / are you pushing yourself? Is there room to take more risks here and push yourself further? Is there something holding you back?

    Where are you taking risks to share what you are really, honestly wrestling with?

    If Sister Smith is an older black lady how does she begin to trust you to share the churches financial information?

    This post feels intellectually good (it has all the pieces— you did a great job following the steps) but I don’t feel as much of your heart come through in this piece.

    How do you think you’ll draw on your strengths and use relational meetings to invite the leadership and co-create with EBC leaders AND CleOwns colleagues to make this something they own with you?


  3. Hey Jonathan!

    I love how this post makes me feel like I can practically smell the church and see the grin on Sister Smith’s face. And your laser focus is quite admirable.

    I do feel like I have to echo Felipe’s thoughts on this one and invite you to bring a version of the story of self that adds more nuance and depth to why this work matters to you beyond the existential “help others break rules and norms that hold them back”.

    Also, I’m curious to know how you’ve explored a topic you mentioned in one of your other posts, about how the minority communities in Cleveland have been burned before and, because of it, there’s an additional layer of trust that needs to be built because you do not share that same experience.

    Thanks so much for pouring so much into this! I may steal a line or two from your pitch! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Jonathan! I like how you frame the conversation so that it starts off with you and Sister Smith making a personal connection and close out by inviting her to share information and part of a broader convening of church leaders. My personal reaction is that it would probably be helpful to be flexible with your model, though. So much will depend on who/how Sister Smith is! If she’s a busy, “I don’t really have time but I’m sparing a few minutes for you so please cut to the chase” kind of person, the best way to make the connection may be to start with the vision/the mission and then move into what you think the value proposition is for her (this might include asking her questions about her/the church’s goals, the questions you list about church expenses and talking about how what you’re doing could align with and help facilitate her goals).
    Once you’ve built a little rapport by showing interest in her and outlining a vision that she may/may not find compelling and in alignment with her goals, that might be the point at which you establish your credibility/trustworthiness by talking about your interest in the matter. A personal connection and an authentic opportunity to share your “why” (the pieces that might resonate most with her), your story.
    Also, you may need to be prepared to encounter some skepticism about your intentions if you’re talking about entering communities of color as an educated white male outsider (your knowledge of the climate in Cleveland, how you read people, etc. can help you here). In the highly racialized society that we live in, how does your story of why articulate why you-especially given your otherness- have an interest in this work? How does it speak to your commitment to addressing it from a common agenda perspective rather than a “I’m here to help those people and that makes me feel good about myself” perspective?


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