Notes on Nehemiah as Community Organizer
Presented by Robert Linthicum, 11/03 in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Adapted by Fletcher L. Tink, 10/06

Who was Nehemiah? Cupbearer to the King. Year after year Nehemiah put his life on the line for the King. He never knew if the next drink would be his last. This would be THE person in the Kingdom that the King could trust because he was willing to trust his life over and over again – because he proved his trust day after day.
The King of Persia always ate alone…Now, they are alone together in the same room. It would be inevitable that the King and cupbearer would talk together and begin to build a relationship together. This was the most trusted advisor of the King. There is nothing in today’s society to compare the cupbearer to. Yet Nehemiah was a person of great and exceeding influence in the Empire.
Nehemiah’s brother and some other Jewish folks arrived from Jerusalem to do business and he hears how bad things are in Jerusalem.
What is the sequence of things that Nehemiah does?

1. He asked questions & listened in order to build relationships
This deals with the question…where does ministry begin? It begins with listening to the people, to whom you are going to minister. You must ask questions and listen. Why is this, an important first step? You must know what the problem is; so you must ask. There is something more important. It brings people together. If you spend enough time with people asking questions and listening, it will bring you together and you will be able to forge a relationship. You will start to build a relationship.
In other words, empowerment precedes program and people precede power. Why?
Because to do so, builds mutual trust. Begin to share together in solving the problem. Not, what can I do for you, but what is the problem that we’re going to work on together. It includes the people as a part of the solution. You are doing ministry not TO people, but WITH people.
2. Nehemiah sat down and wept, letting his heart be broken by their pain.
Pain is a shared agitation that one takes upon oneself. You are joining them where they are, in their need, with their struggles, and you are becoming one with them. If it’s good enough for Jesus it ought to be good enough for us
3. He mourns, prays and fasts.
Why pray about it? The act of prayer helps us to become increasingly convinced of our mission. Take a look at the prayer…

a. It begins with commands, decrees and laws. These are code words for the Deuteronomic law, building a life together on a personal relationship with God, and acting justly.
b. What’s the problem that Israel’s facing…or they think they are facing? Broken-down walls. But they really have a broken-down corporate life. They are NO LONGER living life as pious Jews. They define themselves by nationality, but not by religious persuasion. They are not following the code. Most people think the book is about rebuilding the wall. But it is not. The story goes on beyond the walls and goes to the spiritual rebuilding of Israel. That’s the real solution to the real problem and Chapters 7-13 deal with how that’s done. The people think the problem is the walls. They don’t know that they have a spiritual problem. Yet Nehemiah starts where the people are, even though he knows that they’re wrong. We don’t often do this. We come and announce that the problem is Healthcare, rather than going in, building relationships of trust with people, hearing the pain of their hearts and then starting where they are, no matter how much we are convinced they are wrong. Why? Because one’s primary purpose among the people is NOT to provide healthcare or housing or jobs. The primary purpose is to help people take control of their own situation. Yet, in reality, when you come in and tell them what they need and you lay a program down on them, you may provide that for them. However, they will be permanently dependent upon you.

4. Determine to start where the people are.
You have to determine what resources you have at hand that can change the situation. For instance, in a community that is “Redlined”, the people can mobilize and take their money out of the bank. The problem is that people look upon themselves as being powerless. Yet there are pooled resources that required that one use power wisely. That’s why an integral part is to determine which resources you have at your disposal.
5. Nehemiah takes his first action
He wins concessions from the King through the strategy of negotiation. He agitates the King by looking sad and moping around. This bothers the King because there is a relationship between the two men. When confronted, Nehemiah wants four things from the King:

a. A leave of absence for 4 months…to go and scope things out and see if things are as bad as they’ve said.
b. Permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, if it’s as bad as people say it is.
c. He wants the State to supply all the material for the rebuilding of the walls. The people will rebuild it themselves but need the supplies.

He demands safe passage through the travel areas, and the right to negotiate with others for other needed things.


The King agrees. He has used his relationship with the King in order to work for the transformation of Jerusalem. He’s a tough negotiator. He doesn’t go immediately. He goes and visits the queen and tells her what he and the King had agreed to. And then he visits with various governors on the way enlisting their support and their agreement and encouragement. In so doing, he is assessing his collaborators and his detractors for this rebuilding effort. He also learns that, upon hearing of the King’s support, others fall in line. However, there is Sanballat, the governor in Jerusalem and Tobiah who are imminent trouble. He talks to Asaph who in charge of the forest and orders supplies.
What is Nehemiah doing here? He is engaging in “Action Research.” Here he is learning by doing something, and then he sees how the opposition responds, which includes a power analysis. He’s seeking to discover who’s going to cooperate and who’s going to be trouble. Then he arrives there and he takes a walk around the perimeter of the wall doing active research himself. He gathers together the Jews (the men), the Priests (religious system), the Nobles (the political system), the Officials (the economic system) and the marginals (the women, children & slaves) and gathers them together in a big cluster (2:17).

a.  First, he confronts them with the realities. “You see what trouble we are in.” Here he is, the cupbearer to the King, and he’s talking to these poor people living in the province of Palestine. How might they feel? He identifies himself with them. Maybe this gave them some hope. If Nehemiah is in solidarity with us to solve this problem, we may be able to solve it. He has identified himself with the people. Hudson Taylor is a wonderful case study in that he identified with the people, to the point that he became Chinese, spoke the language, dressed their way, lived in their homes, etc.
b. He publicly articulates the problem. He reminds them of the problem, and what they see is the problem. It is how he states the problem that is crucial. He says this in a way that he doesn’t expect anyone to disagree with him. How does he know that no one will disagree? Because he’s spent time talking with people one on one to hear them articulate this problem. This is their problem, their perception of what the problem is. He knows he’s not going to be disagreed with. Why? Because when people have a problem, their automatic way of coping with it, is to perceive themselves as the problem makers. “I have this problem because there’s something the matter with me,” i.e. if your child is having troubles in school with learning – what is the teacher likely to say? “Your child has a problem, learning.” Whose problem? The child’s. You end up blaming yourself for the problem. As long as the problem remains private, it will be a problem that makes you powerless to do something about it. Now, the parents get together and they come to understand that three-fourths of the students in the room are having a problem, learning from this teacher. Therefore, where’s the problem? It may be with the teacher, not with the kids. So, what needs to be done to solve the problem? Confront the teacher – get the problem rectified. This is the purpose of a public confession of the problem But no one had ever said anything before about the vulnerability they felt. It’s because there had been no public validation of the problem. Get people together in small groups, based upon the individual meetings to talk about the problems that people have shared in the individual meetings. Because, when they hear the individual stories, they begin to sense that the individual problems are bigger than their problem, and something needs to be done regarding the system. That is empowering to people.
c. Nehemiah turns problem into an issue. Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem? Will you, or won’t you do it? What’s the task in front of us? It is to rebuild EVERYTHING!!! But, how is Nehemiah reducing this enormous problem? What is he suggesting that they do? Rebuild the walls and for the time being, forget about the other problems. The only issue before you is, will you, or won’t you, rebuild the walls.

6. Nehemiah mobilizes the people
They determine a solution. Let’s rebuild it. In chapter 3 is the plan of action.. Each family (whole extended family) will build a portion of the wall. The entire wall is going up at the same rate of speed at the same time, the strongest possible way to build a wall. Now, an intriguing element is that they assign families to rebuild the wall in front of their own house. Here is evidence of personal investment. What is in the self-interest of them building in front of their own homes? They will build it extra-strong. There wouldn’t have been the same commitment if they had rebuilt somewhere else. It must be built on the self-interest of people, because then they will work harder.
7. The people act out the plan
They carry out the plan that they themselves have designed. Why is it important that they create it and do it from the base of self-interest and responsible for carrying it out? They will have personal ownership in it. It’s something they have decided to do for themselves. They have created the plan and they see the personal benefits and they carry out the plan. Not only are their houses and walls rebuilt, but you have people taking charge of the situation themselves and they are becoming empowered. They are learning to get along without you.
Yet, Governor Sanballat and Tobiah, the local authorities, become furious. They are the Palestinian systems which are in opposition to what they are doing. Despite the hostility, the people win. In chapter 6:15, the people achieve their victory, evaluate it, celebrate it, and identify and initiate the next action.
8. Nehemiah’s Leadership Principles.
When one compares what Nehemiah did, contrasted with what the people did, there is a notable difference. It took some time for the organizing process to result in the people’s action. In the meantime, Nehemiah spent nine months engaged in preparatory efforts. One might ask what Nehemiah was doing to earn his pay.
He was laying the groundwork, networking, building the power base and facilitating the organizing process. The people, on the other hand were doing the work, organizing themselves. But with Nehemiah’s initiative, they would never have organized.
He asks: “Do you REALLY want to do something about this or do you want to sit around and complain?” Then there is the division of labor. The organizer is there to help the people think through the process to help build the relational base of power and then help them think through the process of what they themselves want to do about it.
How can a person empower another person? If you ask the question, you are indicating that you don’t understand empowerment. Only a human being can empower him or herself. The people have to take charge of the situation.
If you want to build power, here’s the way to do it:
9. Application for the Church’s ministry.
The Church learns from the constituency it is seeking to reach
· The people’s hopes and strengths
· The people’s issues and problems
· The natural leaders of the people
· Those who care enough to take action
The people are brought together where:
· They analyze the issues
· They determine the solutions
· They implement the action
· They evaluate the results
· They move on to the next action
You can either go in and DO ministry TO people, or you can go and do it WITH people.
Most Christian organizations work or operate out of a sense that we know what’s best for people. That’s pretty arrogant. Would you want to be treated this way?
When we come in with pre-packaged programs, we create a dependency. If we bring a project, we are continuing the essential problem.
People don’t like to feel like they are an object of your compassion. That’s demeaning. It’s important for people to have a sense that they are capable of determining their own future. They must be subjects of their own destiny, not objects of your largesse.
By providing services to any group of people – without challenging the systemic sources the services are to alleviate, the Church is actually supporting the systems that they are called by God to challenge. The ways the systems work are, exploitation and control to maintain the domination of their people. This is where you are doing bad things by doing good. The question you must ask whenever you are providing a ministry, Who are you letting off the hook by providing this ministry? Who are you no longer holding accountable by providing this ministry?
A Roman Catholic bishop once said, “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint; when I asked why people were hungry, they called me a Communist.”
When you are meeting human need but not addressing the causes or the systemic sources of that problem, you are actually contributing to the governmental system that is exploiting people. You become a part of the problem when you do this.
The approach of Nehemiah provides a different way of doing ministry because it is not ministry TO people, but WITH people, so that they assume responsibility for their own destiny. Nehemiah did NOT rebuild the walls; the people did. They could NOT deal with the issue of rebuilding their corporate life, until they rebuilt the walls. They needed victory in small things, to do big things. Once they rebuilt their walls, they had an attitude that helped them to believe they could do something. They didn’t have to be victims.
10. Church-Based Community Organizing.
The Iron Rule: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Whenever you do for others, you have deprived them of the experience of doing for themselves and they feel weakened themselves.
Besides the core message of personal redemption expressed through the work of God in personal salvation which, if extensive enough, will change society, there are four basic dimensions or levels of Church-based community organizing which the Church goes about, working for the transformation of society:

A. Social Services – directly meeting the need
B. Advocacy – standing up for people – agitating the government
C. Community Development – mobilizing people in order that they take their own necessary initiatives, i.e. growing their own crops

Community Organizing – organizing people to develop their own plans as to what they’re going to do, and if necessary, CONFRONT the people or organizations who are not supporting the rights of people.