5 Things to Consider Before Engaging a Public Issue


When so many causes, crises, and critical needs demand our attention, how can a congregation decide where to engage? Pastor and author Ginger Gaines-Cirelli outlines key questions and concerns in discerning a faithful and sustainable response to public issues.

Choosing when and how to engage actively in the public square requires intentional discernment. If your congregation is discerning whether to take action, for example, to attend a rally or march or to sign a petition or open letter, it is very important and helpful to self-monitor your motives, your integrity, your tolerance for risk, your level of commitment, and your hope. Choosing where to show up, how to lend your name, and what to support is risky. It is important to consider some of the following questions and concerns.

1. Where do the resources and passion of your congregation connect with the concrete needs in the larger community?

When there are so many causes, crises, and critical needs that press for a response, a clarifying piece of discernment is to identify which needs connect most with your congregation’s passion and resources. No congregation can attend to everything. Some churches may grow large enough that small groups and home groups begin to mobilize around particular areas of shared passion and/or expertise. But even in large faith communities, there needs to be focus and strategic prioritization for efforts to have the greatest effect. Here again it is helpful to remember that we participate in God’s work of mending together with many others in the body of Christ and in the broader beloved community of God’s family. Gifts and strengths abound.

Different congregations will have different strengths and passions. I have served congregations with human resources for brick-and-mortar building, repair, and contracting. I have served congregations with passion and skill for policy critique, development, and legislative strategy. I have served congregations with human resources for direct service with the poor and vulnerable through feeding, training, teaching, and so on. Some congregations will have resources across these and many other broad categories of ministry. What is important is to identify the gifts that your community of faith offers to the cause at hand. What can you offer that others need?

2. What is already happening in the community that your congregation can support?

It is sometimes tempting to think we need to create something new to meet a discerned need or to participate in sacred resistance. Most likely there are nonprofits, other faith communities, and grassroots movements already engaged in the work to which we are called. Even for the largest, most wealthy congregations, it makes sense and is deeply faithful to develop partnerships with other groups. Not only does this provide opportunity for listening and learning from other populations, but also it exponentially grows the network of engagement, expands the pool of resources and creativity, and offers the bonus of new relationships and companions for the journey.

3. What are the risks involved in your action, and how will you prepare for potential consequences?

Some actions and commitments will carry with them inherent risks. Congregations need to be honest and strategic in thinking this through. Increasingly, I hear about steps to take if arrested at a peaceful protest, and I regularly see images of people of faith and conscience being taken into custody for “disturbing the peace” or trespassing. We know there is an inherent risk of violence if we put our bodies in a place where grief, hatred, and rage are bubbling over. In addition to the kinds of risk connected to public protests or actions, there are others to consider when looking at congregational stances or ongoing practices.

There will be some risk any time we choose to step out and speak up to name oppression — of ourselves or of others. There will always be some risk when we choose to stand in solidarity with those whose lives and experience call out for justice and care. Congregations need to be honest and strategic in thinking through the risks so that their action and witness will have integrity, serve the common good, and provide the greatest possible support for those most in need.

4. Does the proposed action commit the congregation to ongoing engagement? If so, how will follow-through be assured?

Although people mobilize and respond to a call to action in a moment of outrage or grief, their initial burst of energy often dissolves, leaving a few people holding the proverbial bag of responsibility to carry the mission or movement forward. This cycle can cause disillusionment and be profoundly enervating for a community of faith. This isn’t an issue with “one-off” actions taken in response to a discrete tragedy or injustice. But if the action entails a longer-term commitment (public affiliation as part of an ongoing coalition or movement, for example), thoughtful leaders will want to think through how to mobilize lay leadership to maintain meaningful engagement and accountability so that ongoing progress, needs, narratives, and challenges of the movement will continue to fuel the congregation. Otherwise, the failure to follow through will be felt as just that — a failure; and no one will be strengthened or energized by that.

5. What training or other resources are needed to equip leaders and members of the congregation to participate in the action?

This may seem obvious but think about how to prepare for actions. When it is possible, seek the insights of others who have experience or expertise to share. You don’t have to spend a year reading about an issue before acting, but it is important to think about resources and guidelines that will provide safety, grounding, and guidance for your folks.

It is not easy to discern what to do. But we are called by God to do what we can.

This article is adapted from Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent (Abingdon, 2018) by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is senior pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, and author of Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent (Abingdon, 2018), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She participated in the Lewis Fellows program for outstanding young clergy in 2007-2008.

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