community development



I have written other blogs and even spoken on community development in a variety of settings over the years. One of the common themes that I have both experienced in my own life, and witnessed in other’s within community development, is this pervasive feeling of failure. It comes in different forms, from different angles, and at different times in the conversations, but it always seems to be there. Almost without doubt there will be a moment where a look, or a phrase, breaks the ice and those in the conversation are able to open up about what they are really experiencing. I have noticed this pattern for years and I want to spend just a few minutes here processing out loud (and publicly) why I believe we often feel like we are failing in community development.

Why we often fail in community development: (a few thoughts)

  • Long winded without a long view: there is so much talk among those in community leadership with a shortsighted view of the commitment and time transformation takes. Leaders may pontificate in a moment, but if they don’t perform consistently for many moments then community development fails. I once had a national community development leader (Coach Gordon) tell me that if I wasn’t able to commit to the work for 15-years I wasn’t worth their time. He was right. Leaders must work with a long view and a willingness to play their respective part in the process.
  • Peace promising, but tension avoiding: Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). We often promote and promise peace in community development while avoiding the tensions that lead to the peace. We need more peacemakers who are willing to walk into the tension and promote, foster, and bring true peace. There will be tension in community development among partners, collaborators, and community members and we must not avoid these if we want to seek true peace. Peace emerges within the tension and we need more peacemakers in community development.
  • Program focused rather than people focused: Often community development leaders are busy starting, funding, leading, and promoting programs. This approach is natural and to some degree necessary, but it too often loses sight of the very people they are there to serve. Community development that only sees numbers and doesn’t learn names will always fail.
  • Unity celebrating, but systemically separating: Community development is extremely complex and so are the structures and systems that coincide with it. Whether private, government, or social sector there are structures and systems that inherently keep us divided. It is one thing to celebrate unity and another to begin developing the actual structures and systems to support it. In the community I live in we have 40 units of government for approximately 155,000 people. This is not a unique phenomenon to my area or just to government.
  • Justice proclaiming, but love lacking: Justice without love is often just an attempt at revenge and love without justice ignores what is wrong in our world. Love and justice flow from God Himself and should be central to community development in our world. When one of the two is missing then people will continue to experience a cold, heartless world, vs. the warm, loving world community development is ultimately seeking to help create.
  • Measurements that miss celebrating life transformation: Ultimately community development is meant to be about people development, both individually and collectively. It is very difficult to measure and the tendency in the realm of being good stewards of our resources is to create goals and metrics that allow us to track and celebrate progress. Too often, though, these metrics miss some of the less tangible work that is happening. We can build homes, buildings, and budgets, but if we are not building people (and ourselves being built in the process) then we are just playing monopoly. I would add to this that one of the things that keep hope alive is celebrating the life transformation that is happening the midst of the larger community struggles.

So do I believe community development is often failing? Sometimes, but in reality I think it is our expectations and practices that are failing our communities and leaving us feeling like we are failing. I am praying for new approaches and leaders to arise from the Christian community in this generation that will truly “seek the shalom of the city” (Jer. 29:7).

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