The English language makes me chuckle sometimes (okay, most times). Because this sentence can mean more than one thing, without changing any of the words:
To fundraise and build capacity, transactions are not what are going to get you to your goal.
Let’s focus on the word “transaction” for a moment (as defined by Miriam-Webster):
- Transaction: an exchange or transfer of goods, services, or funds.
- Transaction: a communicative action or activity involving two parties or things that reciprocally affect or influence each other.
So transactions are about BOTH money and a type of relationship? Exactly.
But a transactional relationship lacks substance. It isn’t developed over time, but rather is a single action or event where two groups work together and then never talk to each other again. The transactional relationship is when a church donates a bunch of clothing to another organization but never actually talks with them. The transactional relationship is when people only come to Sunday worship with a “clock-in, clock-out” mentality and never engage critically with their faith any other time.
When talking about the perils of the transactional relationship, I draw mainly from a scholar named Paulo Friere, who was influential in the area of education. Friere is well known for his concepts that contrast “banking” education where facts are “deposited into the minds of passive students” with education that sparks curiosity, critical thinking and hope.
Freire warns of the dangers of passivity in education and relationships.
The biggest way to tell if a relationship is transactional: is it active or passive?
Passive: bringing clothing to the Rescue Mission drop box.
Active: reaching out to the Rescue Mission area director and having coffee with them to get a better idea of their area’s needs. Continue to have conversations and build a relationship that goes beyond donations.
In other words, transactional relationships, the “surface-level” relationship of “information or supplies in, outcomes out,” will not help your ministry transform lives. Transactional relationships will actually harm your organization in the long-term, because they are the same as shallow roots: the tree will eventually be pulled from the ground when the winds get heavy.
Think about how we talk about relationships outside the church. Normally churches use the word “outreach” for this kind of work. But “outreach” is only in one direction, and is not generally transformative. Rather than transactional outreach, consider transformative relationships instead. It’s better to have a few deep relationships with community partners than an expansive network of groups that you “spoke to once” and haven’t built relationships with.
Rev. Rachel Gilmore, a church planter, author, podcaster, consultant and co-founder of Intersect: a Co-Planting Network, (phew, that’s a lot of qualifiers! Way to go, Rachel!) recently released a book that I’ve been drawing from called Expanding the Expedition Reach with Missional Communities:
First of all, buy this book. It’s a quick read at only 85 pages, and totally worth the time it took me to read it.
Second of all, I’ve pulled three lessons from this book and from my experience that can help you turn your relationships from transactional to transformative: listen, show up, and shift your goals.
Here’s what Rachel notes about moving away from transactional outreach:
Lesson 1: Listen
Churches and ministries are really good at deciding what groups of people need (especially white churches, let’s be honest) and then creating programming around those needs. But what if you’re wrong? What if the thing that your community needs isn’t more programming, but rather more listening and collaboration?
Building transformative relationships starts with listening, not with speaking. Peoples’ stories are powerful, and are your doorway into a world you might not know. Be ready and open to new ideas, and you never know what ministry possibilities and transformative relationships will arise.
Consider doing a listening tour around your neighborhood or immediate vicinity, where you talk to community members and community leaders about what’s going on in the neighborhood. It’s not a surprise if I tell you that many (especially urban) churches are isolated from their communities, with many worshippers coming in from out of the area. Sometimes, the congregation inside the building doesn’t match (racially, socioeconomically, etc) the community outside of the building, and listening is the best way to understand, and perhaps address, the divide.
Through listening, you can better understand the needs of the community. Through listening, you’ll be better equipped to work collaboratively with the community to find solutions.
Lesson 2: Show Up
One thing I know I’m guilty of in my church context is using our social media as an invitation engine. The thing I do the most with our weekly emails is let people know when meetings and events are – and all of them are internal. Inward-facing announcements are helpful, but how are you connecting to the greater community?
If you’re going to listen, where do you find the opportunities to do so?
“Let the people come to us” is never a solution that works long-term, no matter how fancy your bounce house is in the parking lot or how yummy the food is that you’re serving. Instead, it’s time to spend some energy going out to meet people.
Rachel Gilmore has some great insight about how to be present in the community and begin to build transformative (rather than transactional) relationships:
This is not what we’re used to doing. We’re used to showing up and staffing a table (that no one comes to except existing members) and then grumbling afterwards about how much of a waste of time community events can be. We’re so used to having certain expectations in mind about what we can do at events, that we forget to go deeper and strive to build relationships.
Rev. Ross Stackhouse of HeavenEarth Church in Indiana is masterful at this; others are constantly tagging photos of him on social media, talking about how he reaches out to the community. This particular photo made me laugh:
Ross is even participating in a “Dancing With the Stars”-type event for ASSIST Indiana, and part of the requirement of participation is raising several thousand dollars for the charity. Not for the church, but for the charity. That’s a big risk, but it has helped him connect deeply with the community, and has gained him local recognition for his work.
Ross offered two practical ideas for how he encourages his lead team to engage:
I might actually be asking you to create relationships with people where you live, work, and play and let the Holy Spirit work through that space to change lives.
Take out “this leads to a result” and instead focus on the relationships and you’ll be surprised of the wild journey the Spirit takes you.Rev. Ross Stackhouse, HeavenEarth Church
What can you bring? Are you feeling stuck at this part of the process?
Like I normally say, you have more than you think you do. I promise. And there’s always resources to help you process this
Think creatively, contact event coordinators for more information, and bravely try different ideas.
I remember going to the Latino American Festival in Syracuse (more than) a few years ago with a new faith community. We decided to just bring an ice cream cart (that we rented from a vendor) and we gave out ice cream all day. It was one of my favorite events because we really got to know community members, and it was a pretty easy setup that didn’t cost a lot. Plus, it was a super hot day, so we definitely shared something of value with the community.
Rachel Gilmore even goes a step further in prescribing that you spend 60% of your time at other organizations’ events – and I’m really excited about that notion. I like having stiff guidelines, and this is a good one to ascribe to. Rather than spending 100% of your time creating internal events, consider looking at community calendars and deciding where you’re going to go (you and your leadership) and how you’re going to connect.
So be present – not to promote yourself, but to build transformational relationships. You’ll be surprised at how those relationships develop, and how your presence will change community dynamics.
Lesson 3: Shift Your Goals
I know, I know: you’re being held accountable for “ministry growth” and for certain numerical growth in your yearly paperwork. Super frustrating because those reports focus on the wrong kinds of relationships (transactional – who sits in a seat on Sundays and then leaves).
You’re playing the long game by deepening relationships and transforming the community. You can’t take shortcuts when it comes to building this kind of network. Consider shifting your goals towards how many relationships you’ve built or how many lives have been transformed through those relationships. Rachel Gilmore suggests focusing on “spiritual” rather than “numerical” growth, which will ultimately bear more fruit anyway as people deepen their relationship with God and with each other.
Work with your leadership team to find different ways of holding each other accountable for ministry development. Notice I use the word “development” and not growth – because ministry never goes in a straight line or straight up. Ministry develops with the people who are connected to it, and has a path all its own.
This long game of relationship development will also lend itself to deeper generosity. People will feel more invested in your ministry because they’ve spent time around it, with no expectation of immediate return (that’s transactional). You can spend time building generosity into the ethos of relationships, and can openly practice generosity that is multi-directional. After listening and being present, you can discern creative ways that giving might speak to your community. After listening and being present, you can embark on creative ventures that will engage generosity in new ways, too.
In growing and creating new ministries, you are playing the long game. Stop focusing on transactional relationships, and start steering into transformative relationships. Your ministry (God’s ministry) will become stronger and more sustainable as a result.