Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!
Most churches develop an outreach strategy to help people engage in the community. However, not all churches consider helping their congregation (and specifically women) engage in civic leadership opportunities at a local level. Developing a strategy for promoting civic leadership can help your church members show up where decisions are made with the kindness and humble wisdom of Jesus.
The APA defines civic leadership, or civic engagement, as:
Individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation.
Civic engagement in a community is contributing your skills to the public good. Many churches engage in their community by volunteering to pick up trash, sort clothing, job coach, or cook food. These can be valuable methods to contribute to the mission of an organization. However, serving in more official civic leadership roles can create concrete change on a larger scale. These roles often include local boards, commissions, and committees, which sometimes influence budgets and community-wide decisions. Examples include the local Human Rights Commission, Zoning and Planning Board, Parks and Recreation Committee, etc. These boards and commissions help to inform decisions by providing recommendations to locally elected officials. For this reason, members of these commissions greatly impact the day-to-day workings and development of communities. Often, women are underrepresented in these spaces.
First, let me be clear: A local civic leadership or engagement strategy is not a strategy to endorse a particular party or candidate. It is not using the church platform to advocate for any particular political agenda. Cities vary on the level at which candidates for a public office may or must declare a political party. Local city or municipal boards often do not require members to declare a party, making it easier for churches to navigate the state-church divide.A civic leadership strategy is equipping church members (with an emphasis on women and other underrepresented voices) to apply their own God-given, diverse experiences, perspectives, professional gifts, and strengths for the good of their communities.
1. Educate your congregation on the governance structure of your church and board.
If this subject is completely new to your church, it’s okay to start with the basics. A board of directors governs most churches, but not every board is equally effective, and not every board represents an equal partnership between women and men within the church.
The first step to civic leadership is assessing your current board practices and policies. How much of the day-to-day operation is spelled out within policy, and how much is unspoken culture? Nonprofit development centers at universities are a great place to start for further education on making your board operations more equitable. Many offer free online assessments, training, or questionnaires you can use as a starting point. If your board is operating effectively, consider what you could do to ensure key people—and even the wider congregation—understand how decisions are made. Depending on your church, this step may take time.
Takeaway: Collect all of your church’s governance and board policy documents and ensure key leaders have copies and opportunities to review them.
2. Initiate community relationships (if they don’t already exist).
Of course, civic engagement can only become civic leadership with increased influence, and influence requires relationships. The first part of a civic engagement strategy is understanding who already exercises leadership in the community and developing relationships with those people.
The size of your church and your community will determine the scope of these relationships. Perhaps you start with a neighborhood. Every community has “connectors” who can let you know not only the official leaders but also those who exert influence, even without a title. If you let them know you are a faith leader wanting to help your individual members engage more in the community, they may be open to facilitating introductions.
You might find these connectors at the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, neighborhood associations, or down at the local cafe during early breakfast hours. Chances are, people in your church already engage with them—whether at work, volunteering, or cheering at their kids’ soccer practice. Some may even be on boards or commissions themselves. Chambers of commerce, city governments, and even state governments host leadership development programs that can give you or church members a never-before-seen glimpse into how the community works.
As you introduce yourself or your church’s representative, place the emphasis on wanting to be a resource for them as partners, rather than on receiving something from them. Not all cities and civic leaders will be friendly toward faith-based entities, but over time it is hard to resist truly authentic, professional individuals wanting to humbly use their skills for the sake of their neighbors and not for their own agenda.
Takeaway: Brainstorm a list of potential civic leadership connections using local websites and working with others on your team.
3. Connect with non-partisan nonprofits who could offer local board and commission training or information.
There are non-partisan nonprofits that work to help individuals and organizations equip their people for civic leadership, and some specifically focus on equipping women for these positions. If civic leadership is new to your church or you are new to the local processes, consider how to partner with a nonprofit to provide training to members of your congregation (whether virtually or in person).
Depending on your city, you may even be able to work directly with a non-partisan representative of the offices that process board and commission applications locally. They could provide a training session to go over what they look for in appointees, what opportunities are available, and what the process entails. In the second half of the session, you could then discuss with attendees how civic engagement fits into a Jesus-centered life and how to approach the roles with kindness, curiosity, and humble wisdom.
Perhaps you doubt that your church would generate enough interest for the first training to warrant a person’s time. However, this could be a great opportunity to connect with churches down the street. As long as they are aligned with your non-partisan and gender-equitable vision of impacting the community, it could be a great opportunity to invest in people together.
Takeaway: Check out your city and state’s online list of civic boards and commissions to see what civic boards and commissions currently operate in your area.
4. Create support networks for women to collaborate as they pursue opportunities.
According to research conducted by the University of Kansas, women who have not yet served on a board or commission feel they do not have the knowledge or expertise needed and it is uncommon for them to be asked to serve in this capacity, even though they would like to do so. Many citizens do not consider applying to a board or commission for these reasons, and this is especially true among women.
Civic leadership through boards can create lasting change but this also requires persistence. Localities may not always be efficient in moving through candidates, and often applications can be filed away for months without a response. This is why ongoing support for women is crucial.
As you develop your strategy, consider how your church can offer ongoing support and guidance for interested women. Perhaps it is as simple as forming and alerting the congregation to a quarterly small group to share ideas, get insight from local leaders, and collaborate on next steps. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be consistent.
Takeaway: Build consistent opportunities for ongoing practical support and connection for women interested in civic leadership throughout the year.
5. Celebrate progress for women and for the community.
A one-time training won’t inspire your entire church to engage in their community, although it will likely inspire a few. As you share about other volunteer and outreach efforts happening locally and across the globe, remember to share about civic leadership opportunities as well. You don’t have to be specific; in fact, it’s important to avoid controversy regarding local hot-button topics. But allowing people to share their experiences with how they are able to work on issues such as poverty rates, housing, or other challenges in their own backyard can be illuminating for all.
Takeaway: Make a conscious effort to share stories of both women and men through these celebrations. This will demonstrate equity and show women they are supported not just in word, but also in deed.
Overall, some church traditions incorporate civic engagement more than others. Your road to helping members grow in their unique civic leadership will look different depending on your context. Some may have an uphill battle. But if your church allocates the time and resources to community-impact efforts, why not focus on ways to create concrete, community-wide change? Start by empowering women from your church to use their gifts beyond the church’s four walls.
Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald on Shutterstock.
 Carpini, Michael Delli, “Civic Engagement,” American Psychological Association, Pew Public Trust, accessed April 5, 2023: https://www.apa.org/education-career/undergrad/civic-engagement.
 “Key findings from the KU study commissioned by United WE,” United WE, The University of Kansas, accessed April 5, 2023: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/545815dce4b0d75692c341a8/t/5fd8e0fbacce81371b0463ab/1608048891465/United+WE+Fact+Sheet-Landmark+Study.pdf.