Thursday, June 12, 2008

Asset Based Community Development

Asset Based Community Development is a concept that was developed as a way of challenging the traditional approach to solving urban problems, where the focus of service providers and funding agencies is usually on the needs and deficiencies of neighborhoods.

Asset Based Community Development works on the following seven foundation beliefs, namely:
  • Meaningful and lasting community change always originates from within, and local residents in that community are the best experts on how to activate that change.
  • Building and nourishing relationships is at the core of building healthy and inclusive communities.
  • Communities have never been built by dwelling on their deficiencies. The focus needs to be on the resources, capacities, strengths and aspirations of a community and its residents, instead of dwelling on the needs, deficiencies and problems.
  • Every single person has capacities, abilities, gifts and ideas, and living a good life depends on whether those capacities can be used, abilities expressed, gifts given and ideas shared.
  • The strength of a community is directly proportional to the level that the diversity of its residents desire, and are able to contribute their abilities and assets to the well being of their community.
  • In every community something works. Change can be achieved best by identifying what works and focusing on doing more of what works.
  • Creating positive change begins simply with conversation.
When a community group undertakes a review or implements changes using the process of ABCD some considerable time is spent in identifying the assets that exist within the organisation, rather than concentrating on problems, weaknesses or risks.

For instance, a church that has a top-down hierarchical style of management and leadership may set goals and directions for the organisation taking into the account the financial and organisational risks. It will most likely plan its outreach activities on the basis of felt and expressed needs within the community, or needs within the local church. The people who have decided on the goals will then undertake a process of convincing the rest of the group of the benefits of moving in that direction.

A church that uses ABCD will start by identifying and acknowledging the people who make up the church and through a collaborative process identify their assets including their spiritual gifts, their natural talents and expertise, and the wealth of experience and wisdom that they bring to the group. This process is called asset mapping.

When the assets of the group have been mapped it is then possible to begin to address ways of developing the combined assets and harnessing them for use in the Kingdom of God. This is a slower process than giving the job of planning to a strategic planning group, but it has the effect of stimulating excitement and vision from within the group and they do not feel that a goal has been imposed upon them. It also removes the sense of frustration that goes with setting goals that are outside the capabilities or interests of the group, or that are not practical at that particular time.

When a Christian organisation, specifically a church, undertakes this process it recognises the additional asset of the Holy Spirit so the process is not just driven around identifying the human assets, but is focussed very much on helping the group discover what God has done and is continuing do amongst them. This can then lead to a shared sense of agreement about the future direction of the church.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Being Person-Centred

Working in the disability and mental health sectors I have been a part of research and implementation for some time that focusses on person-centred thinking and how that impacts the way in which non-government organisations provide services. Over time the trend has been for organisations to move towards a consumer-based approach to service provision. This has involved setting up programmes so that when a person approaches the organisation seeking support they would be directed to the range of services or programmes that were provided by that organisation. However, over time, there has been a realisation that this is not appropriate, and it is more appropriate to treat the individual as a unique human being and to attempt to offer services in a more person-centred and individualistic way. The problem is that with low funding levels, increased compliance issues and tighter risk management practices, it is often unrealistic to offer a truly person-centred service. As a result many organisations would find it unrealistic to be person-centred even though their mission statement may indicate that preference. The move towards person-centred thinking is now seen as trendy in some government circles, but the ability of organisations to be truly person-centred is a challenge that is in most cases not fully achievable.

It is fascinating to me that at the same time that I am reflecting on this process in my work with the disability and mental health sectors, I am also going through a process of reflecting on changes within churches and am finding that there is a strong correlation. Over time churches have moved towards a consumer approach in order to become more efficient in what they do, and as part of the global trend towards a market-driven economy. Churches in general have moved towards an approach where there is a set of programmes which would include a packaged Sunday morning services, a series of programmes for children and youth, and some small groups. This is efficient because it allows for a small professional team to manage a programme that tends to meet the needs of the majority of people with whom they have contact. This is effectively market-driven because it is aimed at finding the most efficient way of providing a service to meet the needs of the majority of immediate consumers. Sometimes a church will identify another market and introduce some additional programmes with a view to attracting people from that particular market.

The problem faced by both non-government organisations and churches is that we have too often lost sight of the individual needs of our consumers in the interests of maintaining a product, constantly upgrading that product, and identifying ways to promote the product. Many churches have learnt from the commercial world clever ways of making it look like they are person-centred, however, the product, which includes the church as an organisation is still the primary focus of the church’s service provision.

I have been reflecting in recent times on person-centred planning techniques in working with people in the disability and mental health fields. This may involve helping a person to establish a network of friends and neighbours who will help them to identify and achieve their life goals. It is about recognising that a person’s disability or symptoms do not have to come in the way of a person still having aspirations and achieving those aspirations to a degree that ensures they can have a good life. There are many examples of people with severe disabilities who have dreamt of skydiving, for instance, and through the efforts of friends and others who have believed in them, have made that dream possible.

When a person starts attending a church, how often is that person given the opportunity to work towards their dream? How often do we provide the opportunity for a person to meet with a small group and allow that person to express their dream about their spiritual aspirations, their missional goals, their ideas about what God may be saying to them concerning their lives and relationships. Often when we start to talk about spiritual gifts our organisational thinking limits us to trying to find a job for that person to do, and when the jobs run out we simply accept that the person either does not fit in the church, or that they need to be more committed and get involved in other ways. When we do put people in a small group the goal is to fill their mind with information about the Bible or about the church organisation and their personal vision is made to fit into a corporate vision.

I wonder if we have stifled people’s individuality to the point that they think they have nothing to offer Christ except what the organisation of the church says they can contribute, but we have done it in the name of being Christ-centred. I am also concerned that in a risk-averse society we have turned away from faith because of the risks associated with that and have instead put our trust in that which is safe and secure. But that's a subject for another day...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More thoughts on recovery

Recovery stands against maintenance as a way of supporting people with mental health issues. Traditionally services have been provided from a maintenance framework which believes that a person has a mental illness, they are always going to have it and you have to provide services to help them in their situation. A recovery approach says you can recover from this. There may still be symptoms and you may still have times when things aren't they way they were before, but you can recover. We are going to be there for you to help you in that journey.

Service providers that work from a maintenance framework generally focus on the organisation and ensure that its procedures are followed, a range of programmes are established and are offered to the client, and risks are kept to a minimum. A recovery focussed organisation will put the individual first, will try to find opportunities to develop as a person, rather than having to fit into specific programmes and will be prepared to take risks for the good of recovery.

How often I see the church falling into the same maintenance approach. We establish programmes and structures and people to have to fit into them. Our purpose is to reach the goals and strategies of the church and individuals have to fit into that. If people's gifts, abilities and experiences don't fit with the model, it's just too bad.

Wouldn't it be great to see church become focussed on individuals, helping people to see their God given abilities, to help them find God's dream for them, and helping them to discover opportunities to use their gifts, abilities and experiences to serve Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I'm into the second day of a workshop on the process of recovery as it relates to mental illness. There are a lot of challenges to current thinking. I'm already seeing how the principles relate to so many areas of life. Just as people with mental illness don't want to be stuck with a service provider that is simply trying to force them into some service delivery mould, but to treat them as real people who have a right to move forward into a new life, so people going to a church have the right to deserve something more than a service delivery approach to church life. I'll develop that thought sometime in the future.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Church Marketing

I've been thinking a bit about church marketing. There is quite often criticism of this, but the problem as I see it is not with the existence of church marketing but more to do with its mis-use or even the lack of good marketing.

As I see it, a church that conducts good marketing will have a very clear picture of the neighbourhood in which it is situated, understanding the type of people that live nearby, their interests, their employment types, family types and social status. A church that knows who it is trying to reach will then look at the way it operates and will plan its activities appropriately. I have lived around Western Australia and am aware that it is not a case of simply recognising differences between rural and metropolitan, or between low or medium socio-economic areas. A rural farming town where the population has been relatively stable for decades can be very different from a similar sized town that has been established around mining and the population changes on an annual for even six-monthly basis. A suburban church in a university suburb can be vastly different from a suburban church in an industrial area.

Where the problem with church marketing occurs is when a church has done it's marketing well, and developed a successful approach to ministry, then has effectively packaged its model and sold it on to churches all over the world who think they can implement it wherever they are. So churches take hold of models like Hillsong and Willow Creek and attempt to cut and paste them into their own situation without having first identified if that model actually fits their local needs and demographics. I don't want to criticise Hillsong and Willow Creek, but want to warn churches that try to clone them. They did their marketing and what they did worked for them, but it should not necessarily be assumed that what they did will work anywhere else.

Churches need to do good marketing, not simply purchasing off-the-shelf models that they hope will fit their situation.