Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.
I wonder how do you see the people whom you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the busyness of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street, has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in God’s image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps 8:4–9). However, for some people and for some communities, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.
If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that emotional and existential pain present. Relational Thinking (RT) together with Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) helps us establish such a framework and provides us with a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.
Through exploration of the relationships that make up community, I will unpack their importance in how they serve to unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. I will introduce you to “Peter,” who began a journey of transformation through forming new relationships. Whilst his journey was an individual one, it readied him for involvement in a process like ABCD that points us to whole communities, and the power of shared vision forged in relationships. The story of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis is a great example of this in action. Understanding the power of relationships in the context of community will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.
Understanding the Relational Web in Our Communities
Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.
If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.
Figure 1: Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.
Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types, and the list goes on. The results are equally devastating both for individual psyches and for communities more generally.
Figure 2: Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.
During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham is a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These factors had a number of immediate implications. First, it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120 km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community, this often led to the focus of the parents’ lives being elsewhere. Even recreation could be removed from the place where their house was situated. On the other side of the equation were the children in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it and learnt about its history. In a sense made their “home” in the community. The children were experiencing a relational disconnect between their family and the local community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children “acting out.” They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused were palpable.
Even within a household the relational web can be broken, leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and from broader society. Some would question that if the basic building block of a community were to be broken, i.e. the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities? Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start with this utopian view, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from merely reacting to focus on medium to long-term goals. This thinking is echoed by the prophet Isaiah as he outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isa 65:17–25). The building blocks for this type of world are relational local communities.
The Rise of Local Relational Communities
Whilst not subscribing to every aspect of “localism,” as a political philosophy and an economic strategy it has something of merit to offer to the conversation around relational communities. As its name suggests, localism prioritises the local. It supports the local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, production of local history, culture and the forming of a local identity. If the connection between these elements were strengthened in any local community, the broken relational web would begin to heal.
Proponents of localism tend to favour the local over the regional, national or global interests. A better way may be to follow the old adage of “think global and act local.” In this sense, we can promote the local with an eye to broader concerns. Local government is beginning to pick up on these notions, not only looking to strengthen the identity and economy of a municipality, but also to foster a place-based approach, which recognises smaller hubs of community by seeking to empower them.
Media expression is also picking up the concept of the local with the rise of what is known as hyper-local journalism. Yarraranges.tv is a burgeoning website focused on the telling of local stories for the purpose of building familiarity and relationships between members of the community. In and of itself the telling of story is important to cement identity and create commonality, however with the further aim of building local connections, storytelling takes on a deeper and increasingly significant role in the community.
Localism is one way to help us understand the importance and to motivate us to be part of the rebuilding of the relational fabric of our communities. I can’t help wondering how different life might have been for my mate Peter, if that fabric had been stronger.
I first met Peter at our Op Shop in Pakenham. Big House Communities, the missional endeavour that Amy (my wife) and I were leading, had finally managed to secure a double shop front. We used the space to sell clothes, furniture, books, bric-a-brac and a host of other items. Then in the spacious back room we were able to create a lounge area and a kitchen space. Each week day a small team of volunteers would make sandwiches or soup, sometimes a cake, which would all be available for those that needed a feed, community or just a place to come, sit and be.
One day, a particularly rough-looking man came for a sandwich. His grey hair was dirty and messy, his skin was a funny yellow colour, with tattoos covering his arms. He arrived with his two best mates Collie and Taebo, who waited patiently outside with a bowl of water. Peter had lived a tough life, someone I suspect who just couldn’t find their fit in the world. Over time, a relationship began to form between Peter and a few of us in Big House. He eventually accepted an offer to stay with one of our families. It wasn’t long till he had bonded with the kids and began to feel somewhat at home. The journey wasn’t always simple and there were a few hiccups along the way, however, in all of this process, through a few key relationships, a new Peter began to emerge. We saw a kind, articulate man who loved to help others. There were constant stories of him working in people’s gardens, building planter boxes and generally being around if people needed a helping hand. The first day he helped at the Op Shop saw him showered, hair tied back and a huge smile on his face as he set off to vacuum the whole shop. Life was never simple for Peter, despite seeing the colour of his skin change and him coming to faith, he eventually died of alcohol-related causes and experienced many ups and downs along the way.
For me, Peter’s story raises a few questions: what are the expectations that we have of a transformed life? As Bart Campolo (now a Humanist Chaplain) said a few years ago at a Conference in Melbourne, “his ticket has already been punched.” Campolo was referring to people like Peter who have lived a very different life to most of us and are fairly entrenched in that life, to the point that they may not be able to make a complete break from it, or at the very least will continue to wear the physical and emotional consequences of chronic alcohol and drug abuse, and possibly criminal activity. Taking into account the complexities of working with people like Peter, what are some guiding principles and the methodology that will help us form meaningful and potentially life changing relationships?
Rebuilding the Relational Web: Creating Relational Proximity
Many of us tend to give airplay to the fact that relationships are important, yet so often we behave in a way that betrays this understanding. I suspect part of the reason for this is the intangible nature of relating to others. As we think about relationships in the context of community, there is the internal relationship that we have with ourselves, the inter-personal relationships and then our interaction with the broader social fabric. The Relational Proximity Framework gives us the tools to understand the complexities of these relationships and what is going wrong when they feel like they are falling apart.
Put simply, the Relational Proximity Framework consists of the five dimensions or levers of a relationship: directness, continuity, multiplexity, commonality and parity. They relate to the domains of a relationship and they have a felt outcome (see Figure 3 below). The following is a little subjective as we explore the experience of the relationship in terms of the type of relationship. The levels of each dimension vary and would be different in a spouse relationship compared to a business relationship. As we go through the five dimensions think about them in terms of one of your significant relationships.
Figure 3: Relational Proximity Framework
This refers to the amount and types of contact. It asks questions like: is the time we spend connecting enough? Directness also explores the mode of communication, whether face to face, phone or email. Today email is fast becoming core to the way we relate, however, what is left out when face to face contact goes missing?
In my relationship with Peter, face to face contact was vital, it was important for me to be able to eyeball him and remind him of the person I saw.
This is about a shared story or history over time. A few years ago I saw my cousin for the first time in ten years. During our later teen years we had a close relationship, often spending the weekends at each other’s place. We then both got married and our paths separated. When we reconnected, after some momentary awkwardness, we picked up right where we left off. Other relationships aren’t like this, as I heard rumour that my High School graduating year is organising a 25th Year Reunion. I haven’t seen or had contact with most of the people in my year over those 25 years, which is rather awkward.
Continuity looks at the foundation or history: have there been time gaps in the relationship’s development? It also looks to the future: do you anticipate a positive future or are the difficulties going to swamp the connection? A sense of belonging is also important for continuity. Belonging is often fostered through genuine welcome and shared tasks, where the other knows that their contribution is seen and valued. Other questions that bring continuity to light include: do both parties show loyalty to the relationship? Do they hold the relationship at the same level of importance?
There were a number of people from Big House who built continuity with Peter. This sense of connection led to Peter affirming one day that the Big House was his home.
This refers to the breadth and depth of knowledge that you possess about the other person. Do you know how they will respond in different circumstances and why? What do you know about their background and their culture? What do you know about their skills, interests and talents? Gaining this sort of knowledge about the other person presumes a level of trust and openness to each other, and so multiplexity is also concerned with appreciation. Does each party feel known and appreciated by the other?
Once every couple of months I catch up with a group of guys to talk about life’s journey and how we are responding to that journey. Although we don’t see each other all that often, we each know a lot about the other men’s lives and can input into the situations they face with a high degree of accuracy. We have spent the time and made the choice to develop the trust that allows us the freedom to be open and honest with each other.
As I think about my relationship with Peter, over time I did begin to recognise patterns of behaviour, but I don’t think I really understood what caused them. I don’t think we had a great degree of multiplexity.
This has to do with the distribution of power in a relationship. As we think about working with marginalised communities, parity is very important to consider. When a trained social or community worker, or even someone volunteering with a church welfare program, is connecting with a client or participant, the power tends to be all in the worker’s favour. These encounters tend to be very disempowering for those for whom we are seeking to make a difference. Thinking about your significant relationship, can each person take action without fear of being told off? Are you consulted, heard? Can you influence the relationship? Can the other person?
The perception of fairness is also very important. Is it fair that a job network provider can decide whether someone is entitled to their Centrelink benefits or not? Is there excessive power on one side? Are the risks and rewards shared fairly in the relationship? Respect is key: is each party valued by the other, for who they are and for what they have to offer?
The relationship between CEO and board is always interesting. As a CEO I was working on a project with a board member and I found my frustration levels increasing. We stopped and took the time to talk it through. I felt that the parity was out because I perceived I was taking the time and financial risk, and if things went south the fallout would affect me more. On talking it through, I realised the board member was making considerable sacrifice to be a part of the project, and in fact we were both equally committed to its outcome.
Was there a level of parity in the relationship between Peter and I that both of us considered fair? For those entrenched in some kind of poverty this question is key. There are a couple of dynamics at work. First, some people on welfare have an entitlement mentality, that they have a right to a certain type of help. This attitude can ultimately disempower the carer and the one being helped. The other dynamic can be one of victim, which can lead to all the power being in the hands of the receiver. I believe for the most part we would both have said the parity was fair, however there were times when Peter chose to play the victim, which caused me to come running. At those moments the level of parity in the relationship was not fair.
This looks to the future: are there shared goals? What will get in the way of achieving them? Is there enough common purpose to overcome the difficulties? Does each party have similar commitment to the goals? Does your connection go beyond achieving the goals? Is the energy created greater than the sum of the parts? Do you have a convergence of values and spirit that almost doesn’t need a goal?
Essentially, commonality asks: what does the future look like? Is there a shared path towards it? Many married couples can struggle once the kids leave home, and commonality can be a part of that struggle. When the kids are at home the common goals are often around raising the family and making sure they are safe and well cared for. As this role changes, couples can find it difficult to re-orientate to a shared future outside the kids.
In the helping relationship, commonality can also be an issue. What is the appropriate level of investment for me as a worker in the goals of a friend from the street? There was a time in our relationship that Peter and I had shared goals for his future. One thing he wanted to do was save money, so each week he would come to me and “deposit” some money that I would hold for him. Then when he wanted to “withdraw,” we would talk through what it was going towards.
The Relational Proximity Framework is a helpful way to think about our relationships, including our “helping” relationships, and check in to make sure our connection with others is empowering them to move forward, not leaving them frustrated and feeling unheard. For Peter being heard and feeling valued were keys to unlocking the gold that was buried under layers of hurt and feelings of being misunderstood. Using this framework to evaluate our helping relationships is key if we are going to empower people to be ready to make the contribution to the broader community that Asset Based Community Development says is so crucial.
Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)
Put simply ABCD is a process for the empowerment of whole communities through the utilisation of strengths within that community. Though not a response peculiar to Christian thinking, in our language ABCD recognises the inherent worth and value present in individuals, each person being a loved creation. It also affirms that within each community there are Kingdom possibilities yet to be unearthed.
ABCD builds on and values the contribution of three levels within the community: individuals, organisations and institutions. Kretzman and McKnight emphasise that everyone within a community has something to offer to build it up. This could be in the form of a gift, skill, perspective or some other talent. They especially include the mentally and physically handicapped, and those who sit on the margins within a community. Kretzman and McKnight advocate for an intensive mapping of these assets alongside what organisations and institutions have to offer. In the pure form of this methodology individuals are interviewed to determine their skills, what they might be prepared to offer the community and even what they might be willing to teach others.
The next level of contribution are organisations, or what is called in the United States “citizen associations.” These include churches, sporting clubs, hobby groups, not-for-profits and so on. Kretzman and McKnight believe that the possible contribution of these groups is greatly underestimated, and that they can often be stretched passed their original purpose to become full contributors in the development process.
This potential was demonstrated by recent work I was involved in with the City of Wyndham. They wanted to do a strength-based community planning process, and so we designed a set of questions that helped the community members identify the community groups around them, what they saw as their current strengths and how these strengths could be utilised to realise a vision for the community.
In this kind of mapping, the third level in the community are formal institutions, including businesses, schools, libraries and hospitals. These are some of the most visible aspects in a community and it is relatively easy to list their contributions. It can be difficult to help them gain a holistic view of the community and so motivate them to be involved in the development of the whole community. However, in a local context I believe this conversation is becoming easier as place-based approaches to development are gaining momentum.
Five Steps to Whole Community Mobilisation
By employing an ABCD based methodology, someone in Peter’s position has the potential to be caught up in a process that perhaps for the first time encourages them to see themselves as a valued and needed member of a local community. For those of us who are reasonably functional we can take that perspective for granted, but for someone on the margins such as Peter, that realisation is profound and potentially life-changing.
Kretzman and McKnight outline a five step approach to classic ABCD. Many communities are picking up on the principle of working from a strengths approach, but are not necessarily employing all five steps. However, for our purposes, understanding the original methodology will help in its application.
Step 1: Asset Mapping
As described above, the process of creating a register of skills and perspectives is instrumental in helping each person feel that they have a worthwhile contribution to make. A church with a robust Kingdom theology and appropriate orientation towards the world would be in a good position to facilitate such a process, in fact to be key in all five steps. As completion of the register nears, the community can then ask the question: what resources do we have to tackle the concerns in front of us? The asset map is a living document and one that continually needs to be updated, as new people and organisations become connected into the process.
The Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has been re-orientating itself over the last decade to truly embrace a strength approach to its community. According to a church member, “the church decided its call was to be good neighbours. And that we should listen and see people as children of God.” This is demonstrated through the work of a roving listener whose job is simply to connect with people and uncover their hopes, dreams and abilities.
Step 2: Building Relationships
Healthy connections are key to the success of this process. Traditionally, churches have done well at fostering internal relationships. This skill can now be turned outward to help the community construct meaningful connections. These networks could be between individuals, or between any of the three layers of the community. Meals and other informal gatherings allow the opportunity for trust to grow and for people to find common ground. Celebration is also another key way to foster the building of relationships.
In the neighbourhood where young people were being killed through involvement in gangs, Broadway’s roving listener discovered forty-five gardeners. He brought them together around a meal with no agenda. Individually none of them had seen their green thumbs as a gift, but together something special emerged. In a community that was dying from obesity and considered a food desert, they began planning a farmers market.
Step 3: Economic Development and Information Sharing
Many parts of local communities are depressed economically, with people suffering from unemployment or under-employment. As people become aware of the skills they have, their ability to start micro-enterprises increases, which in turn increases confidence, and the negative cycle of poverty can begin to be turned around. Businesses, associations and institutions are also encouraged as much as possible to source what they need locally, helping to stimulate the local economy. This has many positive effects, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, since goods are not being transported large distances into the community.
Communication is also key to successful community building. Today, communication can be complicated, however, as the information flow needs to be tracked through local papers, community radio, social media and the “grapevine.” These are also avenues to actively promote new messages.
In Pakenham there were a couple of key communication nodes, the publican at the bottom pub and the barber. I found the barbershop a fascinating phenomenon: the barber was fourth generation and the old men of the town would gather at the shop, sure for haircuts, but I suspect more to have a chat and a catch up on what was happening in the town. So if we wanted to promote a project, I would often talk with him, and if he came on board you knew the informal chain of communication would get worked. We were also regularly in the local papers, with the journalists beginning to chase us for stories at certain times of the year.
Step 4: Community Visioning
If we are working to see community regeneration, this step is vital. The community begins to come together around the creating of a shared identity, vision and values. Without this common thread, the process of regeneration can stall, people can turn inwards and the possibility of a fuller community experience so necessary for human flourishing is diminished. It is important that everyone is invited to the planning table, especially the marginalised. Typically in these sorts of meetings common themes are discovered which begin to set a course of action for the community. It is important to invite buy-in to this process and its outcomes, so people are invested and willing to work together toward change. It is important that the change envisioned is grounded and not excessively future-orientated, as this allows people to enjoy early success and provides motivation for future endeavours.
Broadway Church is now seen as a place you go to for connections. Every spare inch of the church is used for enterprises and initiatives started by locals. The vision for the regeneration of the community comes from people with shared interests and skills. From here various enterprises and groups are formed. As they work towards their shared dreams, one of the outcomes is the creation of a new community, where instead of fear and paralysis, there is ability and hope.
Step 5: Leveraging Outside Resources
As a community develops there may be the need to enlist specialist services, which the community doesn’t have. It is essential that this is the last step in the process. Many communities look at what they are lacking and lament that “they should fix it.” This attitude locks these communities in poverty as they wait for a magic handout. The community working through the ABCD process has become an empowered community, and instead of expecting a handout to fix the community’s issues, they look to partner with the provider of the services they need. The nature of relationship with outside help is vastly different to that of a needy community putting out their hand.
Very early on in the regeneration process, Mike Mather, the pastor at Broadway, called for his congregation to stop helping people. What he meant was for them to stop doing things that continued to entrench poverty and disadvantage. The ceasing of these “helping” activities began a spark that led to the slow process of regeneration.
Another way of expressing ABCD is Asset Based Community Driven. It is essential that the work of regeneration is done by the community, not for it. This approach challenges the welfare models predominant in the social services. Many of these models have a biblical root, where we are told to feed the hungry, look after the poor and so on. Simply handing out goods and services is a misunderstanding of this biblical mandate. For the most part, when the Bible talks about the alleviation of poverty, it is so individuals and the community can participate socially and economically in the broader society. This is what the Broadway church has done so well. A key to ABCD and preparing people for involvement in this kind of enterprise is relationships. In poorer communities, hope has quite often gone missing. There is very little belief that things can ever be any different, personally or for the community. As relationships are developed and trust grows there is the opportunity to feed in an alternate message.
A local community can be described as a place where there is an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. As we know the relational web in our communities is broken, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction affecting individuals, families and the very fabric of society. However, as people of faith we recognise that God is present in each individual and there are Kingdom possibilities in every community. Each person and every community has gold to be discovered, for many this gold is hidden under layers of poverty, unemployment and a raft of social issues, leaving the individual lost, alone and in pain. To unearth the gold we need to listen and build relationships that focus on the strengths of individuals and communities. In addition, we need to help these strengths come together around a common or multiple planning tables that will help inspire a community to move towards God’s picture of it. The most effective way to build and work towards this common picture is to foster healthy connections that reflect the importance God puts on relationships.
My mate Peter struggled to find a place in life, but slowly over time as our relationship deepened, a beautiful man emerged, who despite many ups and downs was able to make a positive difference in the lives of many. Might we hold the same high view of people that God does, and seek to unearth the gold that is there in individuals and in our communities.
 Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (http://www.jubilee-centre.org, http://relationalthinking.net).
 Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed by John Kretzman and John McKnight. They established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (http://www.abcdinstitute.org).
 Name changed to protect anonymity.
 Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.
 Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives—Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.
 Various in-house training modules, the concept first appeared in Michael Schluter and David Lee, The R Factor (London: Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1993).
 John Kretzman and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilising a Community’s Assets (Chicago, IL: ACTA, 1993), 1.
 Andre M. Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom: An Argument for Asset Based Community Development in Local Communities as a Practical Expression of the Kingdom’s Advance” (MA Minor Thesis, University of Divinity, 2012), 66.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6–7.
 Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 66.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 6.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 8.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 346.
 “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” Faith and Leadership, 3 https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church (accessed September 22, 2015).
 “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” 10.
 Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 68.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 352.
 Van Eymeren, “Building Communities of the Kingdom,” 69.
 Kretzman and McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out, 354.
 “Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church,” 2.
Image: oatsy40, Flickr (Creative Commons)