January 2012
Real Basics for Vestries

Lessons from Babylon

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. - Jeremiah 29:7

These words can easily serve as a congregation’s biblical understanding for its motivation to develop tools focused on Asset-Based Community Development. The prophet Jeremiah wrote these words to the people of Israel during their time of exile in Babylon. They were longing for the good old days in Jerusalem when community life seemed secure and their access to God clear and predictable. But those days were in the past and the landscape had changed dramatically – they were in an unknown land surrounded by strangers they were not interested in associating with. And Jeremiah tells them that they need to pray for this city they have found themselves in. Jeremiah tells them that in fact their very welfare is tied to the welfare of that city – and that alone should be cause for prayer.

For many of our Episcopal congregations today the language of Asset Based Community Development is as foreign as was the language of Babylon for the Israelites. If we are to hear Jeremiah’s words for us today we will hear that the very welfare of our congregations is dependent upon our willingness to actively pray for our neighborhood communities, upon our willingness to actively seek to nurture the welfare of our neighborhood communities. We need not fear the new language, but rather embrace the new language as an opportunity to enter into the very relationships that will secure our welfare.

What is Asset Based Community Development?
Trainer Mike Green teaches that Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is “a powerful approach focused on discovering and mobilizing the resources that are already present in a community.” [1] So what is this powerful approach and how does it work? In its most basic context ABCD is both an attitude and a process. ABCD is an attitude that supports our Baptismal Covenant claim to seek to serve Christ in all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. It is an attitude that believes that everyone has gifts to offer and is committed to discovering those gifts and putting them to work for the common good. Believing that every community is filled with treasures, ABCD is an attitude that reinforces every community’s capacity to act on its own behalf even if it lacks all the capacity necessary to accomplish that which it is seeking. This attitude is not focused on reinforcing the dependency of people who are needy as an acceptable basis for measuring human dignity, but rather it is inclusive and reinforces the interdependency of the community as essential for a healthy functioning humanity. This is a very similar approach as taken when the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the body and its many parts all working for the common good as the basis of how we are to live together as Christian communities of faith (1 Corinthians 12).

ABCD is a process that brings the varied members of a community together for the purpose of identifying gifts (capacity to act) and mutual interests of concern (motivation to act), and then sets out to link those gifts together in service to interests of mutual concern. Collaboration is a critical key to negotiating this process successfully. Failure to collaborate often results in an imbalance of power that inadequately represents the gifts and interests of a few while denying the gifts and interests of many. The result of such an imbalanced process is an unhealthy and unsustainable relationship. Looking again to Paul, he addresses this need for balance in these words; “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

The simplest approach to ABCD that I can suggest is to invite interested members of the congregation to pair up and join in an informal conversation that begins with the question, “Tell me a little about your gifts.” And then just listen. At first blush this is an intimidating question, but once the ice of humility is broken the conversation becomes a hum as people exchange their gifts with one another. Then invite the participants to report back about their experience and listen to their enthusiasm. And the process grows from there.

The relational tools of ABCD are a natural partner in support of our Christian covenant to love our neighbor as ourselves. Practiced together our congregations can bring the language of faith to bear as we pray for the welfare of our neighbors and as we labor along side of each other in common mission. And as we labor together, just maybe our hearts will burn within us as we encounter Jesus laboring in our midst.

The Rev. Christopher Johnson is the Social and Economic Justice Officer for The Episcopal Church Center. (cjohnson@episcopalchurch.org)

Resources – Videos

Resources - Books

VP Talks:

[1] Mike Green, When People Care Enough to Act, 12.

This article is part of the January 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Real Basics for Vestries