Discovering Care for Community Partnership

Adapted When Helping Hurts, 251-53.

In a previous post, we talked about the importance of listening and learning to community members as a key step toward any developmental work to address poverty that lasts over the long haul.

Of course, this is not quick work—you can’t rush through this step just to check a box so you can get on with the “real” ministry. Your church or ministry team will always need to keep listening further, researching more, meeting new people. 

Nor is it a linear process—you’re broken and sinful, the people you’re walking with are broken and sinful, and all of us are navigating a broken world in which things happen that are outside of our control. Be prepared for a lot of zigzags and detours along the path!

In the language of community development experts,1 this repeated listening process is called “discovering care”—uncovering the issue(s) that people in the community are motivated to act to address. These issues are reflective of the concerns, dreams, and gifts of the community members themselves, not the outsiders trying to help them. 

In the process, you’ll likely also meet the people who care most about their own community. Every community has people who care, people who want to part of solving the issues. If you’re going to walk with people, they have to want to walk, so finding the people who love their community and want to see change happen is key.

Here are three broad steps you can take to begin discover care in the community where you’re working.

Step One: Learning Conversations
A handful of people from your church or ministry—staff members or longtime committed volunteers—should act as community liaisons or organizers.2 These people should start to put intentional listening into practice through learning conversations— highly relational, face-to-face, 45–60 minute interviews of the individuals, associations, and institutions in the community, focused on discovering what people care enough about to act on.

These conversations enable the ministry team to develop stronger relationships with the community, to explore mutual interests, to find more people to interview, and to identify “connector-leaders,” who are discussed further below.3

It is unwise for untrained volunteers or members of local churches who may or may not be serving with the ministry long-term to help conduct these initial learning conversations. This is especially true if your church or organization is not already present in the community. In such cases, it’s essential to work with a church or organization with a long-term presence in the community (and many of whose members or staff actually live in the community). In every case, it’s important for local faces to be clearly front and center in the early stages of relationship building and throughout the process. You’re trying to show the tangible love of Christ—NOT build a brand for your church or organization. 

Step Two: Form a “Connector-Leaders” Group
By reflecting on the learning conversations and faithfully praying over every aspect of their work, ministry staff or volunteers should be able to identify “connector-leaders” within the community—individuals who are the key to mobilizing the community’s assets in order to bring about wider change. This is very similar to the concept of a “person of peace” (cf. Matt. 10:11, Luke 10:6) in missiology.

Good connector-leaders have the following qualities:

  • They are deeply invested in the community and well-respected by other members of their community.
  • They have the ability to influence the community’s individuals, associations, or institutions.
  • They care enough to act about one or more of the top issues that are important to the community as whole.
  • They are open to sharing their knowledge, connections, or power for the larger good rather than seeking to limit access in order to preserve their own status.

Community liaisons or organizers from the ministry should ask the connector-leaders if they are willing to work together to form a community partnership that will take on one or more issues to address in their community. Together, they can share the results from the learning conversations concerning the top issues that community members seemed to be most interested in solving.

Step Three: More Learning Conversations
Connector-leaders should be very much in touch with the individuals, associations, and institutions that are willing to act and deeply understand the issues they are willing to address.

It may be that the original learning conversations and the knowledge of these connector-leaders is sufficient for them to mobilize the critical mass of people needed to get moving on addressing an issue. If not, then the connector-leaders, with assistance from the ministry, should conduct more learning conversations in order to: 1) further identify individuals, associations, and institutions from the connector-leaders’ networks and from the community in general to join the community partnership; and 2) gather further information to help identify the first issue—the priority issue—that the community partnership will seek to address.

As this project progresses, it’s important to move at a sustainable pace. Take some baby steps—don’t try huge projects right off the bat—and often what you’ll find is that there is a lot going on in the community already. You’ll likely discover the ways that God is already at work, and that people in the community already have good ideas of what they want for their families and their future. 

Then, after you’ve built trust and ensured community buy-in, your church or ministry can be a part of helping these hopes and dreams succeed. Often, doing the work of discovering care is success, in and of itself, because it demonstrates commitment to people and places and focuses on mobilizing existing resources rather than bringing in just one more outside program.

  1. See for instance, Mike Green with Henry Moore and John O’Brien, When People Care Enough to Act: ABCD in Action (Toronto, Ontario: Inclusion Press, 2006).
  2. Ibid. 96-100, discusses the qualities of a good community organizer.
  3. Ibid. 102-04, describes the key elements of a learning conversation and provides examples.
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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