One to ones: A spiritual practice for the Season of Advent

Anticipating the joy of the coming Christ in the season of Advent is one of those liturgical, communal, and contemplative opportunities that I relish every year. The way that the light of winter days give way to early winter evenings, the lighting of the candles in the Advent wreath, the many repetitions of Holden Evening Prayer. I love it.

In Advent we gather together (digitally in 2020) whispering to one another in the waning light that Christ is coming, truly and powerfully coming to be among us amid our suffering, our injustice, and our grief. The joy of new life and a new world in God’s Son is immanent, and we excitedly and patiently await his arrival.

There is maybe no other time in my life where this waiting and this anticipation has felt so concrete and so essential. We all know what the pain and suffering of this year looks like, and many of us have been touched by it quite profoundly. A pandemic, a rapidly expanding pool of people in poverty, an endless stream of racist rhetoric and violence, and so much more has left many of us feeling more disconnected and more hopeless than ever.

It’s painfully difficult right now to feel like we have any hope, anything worth anticipating. But it is up to us as the church to identify ways for our communities to sense the hopefulness and the resolve of this season. It is up to us to offer those practices and prayers that call our people into a space where they might experience the hint of joy that comes from the vision of Christ’s coming in glory, the joy that comes from the vision of the world as it should be.

One practice that I think could be profoundly useful this Advent, especially within congregations and their neighborhoods, is the organizer’s favorite tool: the one to one.

One to ones are intentional conversations between two people where one person seeks to learn more about their conversation partner’s self-interest, their motivations, the challenges they face, and the gifts they possess. Organizers spend much of their time in these one to ones, inviting leaders to name their gifts and talents and getting a sense of what is happening in the community.

In my opinion, the confluence of the season of Advent and a long year of deep turmoil offer churches and faith communities the perfect opportunity to engage in an intentional season of one to ones.

First, this pandemic and the accompanying reactions have us desperate for connection and community. If I have heard anything from folks in my own community, it’s that they are hungry to see others and be seen by others, to connect meaningfully, and to deepen their sense of community. What better way to connect beyond our own household than to set aside time for intentional connection with members and neighbors who we may not have seen for months?

Secondly, this pandemic has revealed and amplified many of the problems that impact our neighbors daily. In my own community I have had conversations about job loss, access to healthcare, loss of shelter, addiction, police violence, small business collapse, immigration and asylum, and much more.

It seems to me that in a season when we find ourselves waiting on the Hope of the world as it should be, the world that God has promised, we might make space to connect with one another to learn about the world as it is in the lives of our neighbors, and the world as it should be in their imaginations and dreams.

Furthermore, faith communities who are practiced in the art of the one to one are better prepared to enter the public square as agents of social change. Powerful movements and effective issue campaigns are built on the foundation of human connection and a clear understanding of the people’s lived experiences.

In Minnesota, our legislative session begins on January 7 th, and there will most certainly be a robust debate about how and where we spend our tax dollars, what aid and assistance is available to individuals and businesses in light of the pandemic, and how best to transform our policing across the state. Faith communities who have spent time practicing one to ones will have a leg up on being able to articulate how particular problems are falling on their community. They will have leaders who have begun to acknowledge their own power and their own role in solving the biggest problems we face. And they will be grounded, not in the hypothetical of a particular issue, but in the collective experience and the collective power of their communities.

It seems to me that the one to one is a wonderful spiritual practice for Christians in Advent. Waiting for the Hope of all hopes is not a passive activity, rather it is preparation, anticipation, and visioning. It is encouraging one another to trust in the promises of God, to walk as though the power of that Hope is already at work, and to build the foundation of a hopeful church. I believe that the simple practice of the one to one can help us inch just a little bit closer to this kind of waiting.

And you know what? All of this can be easily done from the comfort and safety of your own home, on your favorite video conference app. Maybe your community could organize a church-wide campaign of one to ones, connecting members to one another. Maybe you could invite your social justice team, or your Sunday School teachers, or your quilters to engage in this practice as a team? There are myriad ways to engage with this practice in Advent, and all of them have the potential to be impactful.

So how do we do a one to one? I’m glad you asked.

There are a few guidelines for how to do a one to one which I’ll mention here. There are plenty of great resources out there for faith communities looking to take on this practice including:

  1. The Franciscan Action Network — This is one my favorite resources for general one to one introduction. Good questions, useful reflection tools, and an overall great guide.
  2. Books
  3. Doing Justice — Dennis Jacobsen
  4. Organizing for Social Change — Kimberly A Bobo

Here are some one to one basics:

  1. Remember a one to one is a conversation between two people, not a group chat. Your goals are to build relationships, learn about the person you are speaking to, and to get some information about the community.
  2. Give the person you want to speak with a call (yes, a telephone call) and ask them to set aside about 45 minutes for a conversation.
  3. At the one to one, say a little bit about why you are there. “I’m connecting with folks in the community to hear a bit about how the pandemic has impacted them” or “I’m trying to learn more about the housing shortage in our community”. Be specific. People will appreciate you being upfront, rather than feeling like your digging for something you haven’t mentioned.
  4. Ask questions that get the other person telling a story, and then listen for those hints and stories about their experiences, their gifts and talents, and their concerns. Ask follow-up questions that keep them talking and building on the stories they’ve told you.
  5. A good one to one is not a 50/50 conversation. If you’ve scheduled the one to one, you want to be listening about 70% of the time. Resist the urge to dominate the conversation. Use your speaking to draw more out of your conversation partner. Prepare some questions ahead of time that will keep you on the right track.
  6. One to ones are not sales-pitches, evangelization, therapy sessions, or dates. If you sense the one to one moving in any of these directions, pump the brakes.
  7. Never leave a one to one without a next step. Let them know that you’ll be following up with them or invite them to a meeting of the congregation. One to ones are only as useful as our follow-ups.
  8. Close your one to one on time, say thank you, and remind them that you will be in touch.
  9. Once you’ve ended your meeting, it’s often a good idea to take a few notes so you don’t forget the highlights of your conversation. If you can, avoid taking notes during the meeting. Give them your full attention during your conversation.
  10. Have fun!

I hope that this Advent your community will find meaningful and impactful ways to anticipate the coming of God’s Kingdom, and I am certain you will. I have been so impressed with the faithfulness and creativity of faith communities during this pandemic. If this Advent you are looking for some additional ways for your community members to connect, to realize a sense of their own power, and to prepare for the holy work of social transformation, consider a season of one to ones.

I am reminded often that Jesus, when traveling from village to village, teaching, preaching, and healing often prefaced his holy work by asking, “What do you want me to do for you”. The one to one is a way for us to model Jesus’ simultaneous ministry to the community and the individual. Powerful movements, including the movement of Jesus, are built from the ground up, rooted in the people.

May our Advent Hope be one animated by the people of God connected and connecting with one another, building Hope for the world as it should be. Amen.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Originally published at on November 30, 2020.




Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation.

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Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation.

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