How to Create a Successful Community-based Project

by Matthew Lawrence

Does this sound familiar? Your congregation has a committee with a name like "Outreach" or "Mission" or "Social Concerns" whose job is to dole out small amounts to an increasingly large number of good causes while periodically begging the congregation to write Congress or donate more money. In all too many congregations, the mission work of the parish is relegated to a few, who keep the conscience of the church clear by shouldering the burden of its good works. While these individuals dutifully labor to make the world a better place, the congregation takes credit when their work goes well and distances itself when controversy arises.

These committees often suffer from low morale, feeling unappreciated and ineffective. They labor over the business of giving away money but are acutely aware of the smallness of their sums, the vastness of society’s problems, and the inadequacy of a check-writing response. They usually know little about the organizations they support, lack the energy or time to evaluate them fully, and privately worry that their money is being wasted by sophisticated nonprofit agencies that know how to exploit their good intentions. They might organize a hands-on activity at a local charity and be disappointed by a low turnout from the church and a lack of gratitude from the charity. They might create a letter-writing campaign and get discouraged when it fails to make a difference.

The low morale of these communities is not confined to the few people who serve on them; the whole congregation is usually aware of, and uncomfortable with, the status of its mission work. Most mainline Christians feel helpless in the face of great social problems and uneasy with their own relative prosperity. Most feel genuine sympathy for the less fortunate. Most, too, feel the inadequacy of "check-book solutions," and yet are unable or unwilling to make additional commitments of time.

Several years ago, I was invited to help five Boston-area Episcopal congregations overcome this debilitating situation by implementing a nine-session parish training program that had as its primary goal the development of a hands-on social justice project within the community. Three of the parishes were located in affluent, predominantly white suburbs that nonetheless had a significant share of poverty and social distress; one parish was located in a somewhat more urban setting, comprised of a mostly white professional class. The fifth parish was in a very mixed-income and racially diverse urban neighborhood.

I found that parishes responded enthusiastically to the prospect of overcoming their deeply felt sense of impotence in the face of social issues and that, given proper leadership, they were capable of creating exciting projects that served both the interests of the church and the least fortunate members of the community.

Structure of the Training Program

The training program had four phases:

I would be finished with my work when the congregation had chosen a community partner to work with and had successfully negotiated the project goals and working elements of that relationship. Getting to that point would take from nine months to a year; implementation time would depend on the particular project.

Phase One: Start-up

When initially invited to speak with a pastor and senior staff about this program, I would frequently surprise my clients by insisting that I did not intend to work directly with the social concerns or outreach committee. Instead, I would start with the senior pastor, the governing board, and key lay leaders. After receiving their commitment to develop a project that the entire parish could participate in and take responsibility for, I would ask for the formation of a steering committee composed of the rector and four or five influential and committed members of the parish. Working with this committee, I would develop a training program uniquely suited to each parish’s situation. Prior outreach committee membership would not necessarily commend a person for leadership on this project.

The steering committee would recruit around 25-40 people to attend a kick-off meeting, where I would present the goals of the program and build up enthusiasm. I found it helpful to explicitly address some of the typical frustrations that people encountered with respect to church mission or outreach efforts, and then present the program as a partial answer to these concerns. At the conclusion of the kick-off meeting, 15-20 people would sign up for the training program.

While open to the entire congregation, the most successful groups were virtually handpicked by the rector and the steering committee. They took care to include a broad range of the church’s leadership: members of vestry, the finance committee, the treasurer, the youth group leader, the Sunday School coordinator, the property manager, and no more than a few of the more effective mission committee members. Once or twice, particularly problematic people were gently "counseled out" of the program.

At a congregation-wide kickoff meeting, I presented the goals of the program and marshaled enthusiasm. I found it helpful to explicitly address some of the typical frustrations that had been encountered with respect to church mission or outreach efforts and then present the program as a partial answer to these concerns.

Phase Two: Group Formation, Analysis, and Research

To prevent the kind of marginalization that characterizes so many outreach committees, the training group was charged from the beginning with communicating its progress, soliciting parish feedback, securing the prayers of the congregation, and generally maintaining high visibility throughout the course of the training program. It was always a challenge to keep lines of communication open and visibility high.

One important first step was to survey the congregation as a whole with respect to the community issues of greatest concern. Through surveys and large-group brainstorming sessions, church members were asked to identify the "hot issues" in their community, such as the quality of the schools, race relations, taxes, housing, or business development. Respondents were asked to rate these issues on how potentially divisive they were for the congregation, and which issues they felt God might be calling them to address.

The surveys offered a safe way for members of the congregation to express opinions often left at the sanctuary door. Youth, crime, and schools were always high on the list of concerns, and were also seen as the least potentially divisive. Poverty and race relations rose to the top of the lists of issues God might desire the congregation to address, but not without risk of alienating some members. Any disparity between what the congregation wanted to address and what they though God might want them to address became rich material for future discussions. Ice-breaker exercises helped members of the group increase their trust in one another. We also avoided the trap of lengthy theoretical debates.

Respecting the ideological diversity in the group, and recognizing the powerful attraction of procrastination, we agreed to disagree on economic, political, and theological analyses so that we could move on to consider practical solutions to commonly recognized problems.

I viewed a brief orientation to the difference between justice and charity, however, to be essential, with the explicit expectation that the project would attempt to address one of the systemic causes of hunger homelessness, unemployment, or other maladies typically found among the recipients of Christian charity. More conservative participants chafed at the word justice, but we simply noted that Christians of good conscience might differ over vocabulary, and moved on.

We learned to take very seriously the roles of personal passion and corporate self-interest in choosing a project, and the importance of building partnerships with outside agencies. We spent a good deal of time learning about the ingredients of successful community projects, and developed a checklist of qualities we would like to find in our own project.

Two sessions were spent learning about two different models of church-based organizing, examining their relative strengths and limitations, and developing a "third way" that maximized the strengths and minimized the weaknesses of both. The first is the classic community-organizing model developed by Saul Alinsky (and later adapted for congregations by Gregory Pierce in his book Activism That Makes Sense [New York: Paulist Press, 1984]). This approach is driven by the powerful engine of self-interest, and effectively moves communities from talk to action. But questions arise when this model is applied to affluent communities: How does the self-interest of the affluent coincide with God’s passion for justice?

The second model is what we came to call "Empowerment Charity." Congregations develop local institutions that grant poor people access to the necessary ingredients for economic empowerment: credit, land, housing, tutoring, or entrepreneurial training and support. But it is possible to develop these projects without genuinely collaborating with the people they are intended to serve. Highly technical in nature, they offer little opportunity for the average parishioner to participate; and when the charitable impulse begins to wane in the face of inevitable difficulties, there is little self-interest motivating the congregation to see the project through.

I proposed a third model, which maintained that the key to developing any successful project lies in the redemptive quality of genuine relationships between privileged and underprivileged persons. As my text, I used The Company of Strangers by Parker Palmer and Martin Marty (New York: Crossroad, 1983). My theory was that as these relationships developed—relationships free from condescension and fear on the one hand, blaming or begging on the other—we would discover where our interests overlapped. In Christian love, the interests of the "other" become our own, making it possible for affluent people to become genuine allies with poor people in the creation of a project from which both parties would benefit. Relationship-building, collaboration, and clarity with respect to self-interest thus became critical ingredients of each project’s success.

Some of these lessons were learned the hard way. For example, my first congregation had decided, prior to my arrival, to develop an affordable housing project on land owned by the church. I made the error of agreeing to help with this, rather than helping them examine more closely the reasons why they wanted to take on such a difficult project. They also insisted on developing their housing without any help from local agencies, and without any consultation with the potential tenants of their property. Lacking any genuine interest in the project’s success, and soon overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task, the members of the congregation became disenchanted and the project failed.

Phase Three: Community Research and Interviews

Some approaches to community research recommend the compilation of extensive statistics about the community, such as poverty rates, minority demographics, unemployment, housing indicators, community resources and the like. While this information is always interesting, I found it a waste of time and energy to answer these questions through the paper-chase method. A faceless, dry presentation of numbers fails to communicate that aspect of poverty that people really care about: the human reality of suffering.

Hoping to conduct research that spoke to the heart and built relationships, we asked representatives of various community agencies if we could visit them on their own turf. Using questions developed in Phase Two, we learned as much as we could about the agency’s leadership, constituency, funding sources, organizational strengths and weaknesses, short and long-term goals, and interest in working with a church group on a particular project. Whenever possible, we would speak to clients of the agency as well as the staff. The most successful training programs investigated around a half-dozen agencies, reduced from about 15-20 that were initially proposed in a brainstorming session. We found that nearly all the agencies welcomed a visit from a church group looking to get more involved in the community; invariably we would hear comments on both sides to the effect that visits like these were all too rare.

One group from an affluent suburb visited a tenant’s association in a low-income housing project on the edge of town. They discovered there a small but well-organized group of single mothers. As they talked together they hit upon an idea that had all the qualities of a successful project. The mothers pointed out that their children possessed their own home computers and encyclopedias. Why not develop together a community center at the housing project, with computers and resource books and tutoring help donated by the congregation?

After finishing our round of site visits, we would put aside the specific project ideas that had cropped up so far and review what we knew about ourselves: What were the criteria for a successful project that we had developed? What kinds of issues were identified in the congregational surveys? What elements of self-interest were operating in the parish, in the group members, and in the community agencies? Then we would assess our prospective community partners: Which seemed to be working on the most compelling issues? Which had the best leadership? Which agencies were most open to a creative and mutual partnership? Which agencies suggested projects that involved a meaningful role for the parish?

What resources did we have to offer? What resources did the agencies offer? Most importantly, which agencies or potential projects sparked our enthusiasm? Rather than feeling compelled to develop a project that met the greatest need, we would concentrate on potential projects that generated the most excitement, seemed most likely to succeed, and met other criteria developed in Phase Two. Members of the training program were invited to make "pitches" for the prospective projects they considered most exciting.

Phase Four: Decision and Commitment

Finally, the day would come to choose a prospective partner and outline the parameters of a project-based relationship. The interests of the respective parties would be explicitly identified. From the parish’s side, these would often include greater visibility in the community, new memberships inspired by the parish’s more active role, and the rewards inherent in following Christ’s call in the community. For the community agency, those interests would include access to a larger funding and volunteer base, better community relations, and the chance to develop an important new program. But it was the interests of the clients themselves—for example, the interest of the single mothers to help their children compete in school—that had to be placed at the heart of the project. Their passion proved infectious, and guaranteed the success of the project.

By this point, my work was done. With attention paid to leadership development throughout the training program, the details of implementing the project could be handed over to the congregation. This transition period was never smooth, however, and in retrospect a good deal more attention could have been paid to its difficulties: moving from planning to action; and moving from leadership by a consultant to leadership from within the group.

Four of the five congregations succeeded in launching viable projects: a tutoring and business-training program for women on welfare; a community education center for children in public housing; a tutoring program for children at risk; and an ecumenical community organization working to meet the needs of local teens. While the attempt to develop affordable housing on church property failed, the lessons it taught contributed to the success of subsequent projects.

Over the next few years, with volunteers coming and going, the projects went through their own transitions. In every case, unexpected difficulties arose; volunteer enthusiasm waxed and waned; and community partners experienced their own transitions that affected the project. The community center for kids in public housing was operational for about a year and a half when the leader of the tenant’s organization resigned to take over greater responsibilities. Tutoring at the site eventually dwindled through lack of leadership, but by that time the center was successfully established and remains a resource for children in the project.

Another project floundered after about two years when the church group split between those inclined toward practical tasks and those more interested in "processing," in the words of the pastor, "the exquisite issues of liberalism: class, race, and gender." The "doers" simply shifted gears to offer a Saturday morning tutoring program that was even more successful than the original project. In every congregation, the original project evolved into other forms of public ministry, and the lessons of the training project were re-learned in new ways.

Matthew Lawrence is Episcopal chaplain at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and director of the Institute for Public Theology.

January/February 2000
Copyright © 2000 by The Alban Institute