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Fall 1990    Vol. 19 No. 2    pp. 87–93 

Community Organization and Christian Leadership

Pakisa K. Tshimika

Flying from Amsterdam to Boston, I sat next to Mike, a young fellow returning home from a three-year term of Christian work in Central Africa. I asked him what his assignment had been. He told me that his job was to help people start fish farming in remote villages. As we continued our conversation despite several interruptions from the flight attendants, I discovered several things about Mike.

Scratching where it itches.

After finishing college, Mike wanted to serve God in a Third World country. He had skills in agriculture and fish farming, so Mike thought to himself, “Many children in developing countries die from malnutrition. I could offer them food by teaching the parents how to fish farm.” Fish farming could provide food and also be a source of income for the family.

“What a bright idea,” the people from his foreign mission office said. Mike was given an opportunity to test his ideas on fish farming projects in central Africa. After a year on the project, Mike became frustrated. People would promise to dig fish ponds. They would even start as long {88} as Mike was in the village, but once he left, nothing continued. He also complained about not having much support from local pastors and other community leaders. He wondered if being in central Africa was really where God wanted him to be. If it was, then why weren’t things working out for him? As a matter of fact, when we met in the airplane, he had terminated his service, and that six months earlier than planned. He could not take the frustration anymore. I asked if he had ever thought about the concept of “scratching where it itches.” This article is a result of that conversation. I thank Mike for sparking it.

Scratching where it itches is a major issue in helping relationships, community health, and development professions. Knowing where to scratch depends on our knowledge of the community and the people we work with, our understanding of community organization, and the kind of persons we are in leading community work.

What is a community? A community is any group of people organized in a formal fashion for a common purpose. It can be a village, a clan, a congregation, an office or project personnel. What is important is that it is called to be and to work together for a common purpose.

WORKING WITHIN A COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION

Community organization means “a process by which a community identifies its needs or objectives, orders (ranks) these needs or objectives, develops the confidence and will to work at these needs or objectives, finds the resources (internal and/or external) to deal with these needs or objectives, takes action in respect to them and in so doing extends and develops cooperative and collaborative attitudes and practices in the community.” 1 The key in this definition is involvement of all parties, participation from everyone in the community. But why is participation such a big issue?

In community organization, we generally assume that the community is itself a better judge of its own needs. People know what they want and perhaps they also know how to solve their own problems. But if the community can take care of itself, one can ask, does it really need an outsider to come in and start community projects?

There are two realities that most communities face. Some communities lack people with a long-term vision for the {89} community. Other communities have many visionaries who want to have things done their way or else they will not participate in the common projects. Consequently, the need is for someone who works with the people, not for them, one who cares for the hurts and the joys of the people. His/her joy is experienced in seeing people take pride accomplishing something they really wanted or needed. His/her interest is not necessarily in gaining popularity and credit for what was accomplished, but from seeing people take pride in how they accomplished the job by themselves. The kind of person working with the community will make a difference in the way the community organizes itself, how it pulls its resources together, and how it accomplishes its goals and objectives. According to Mildred Barry, to be an effective community worker, one must have the ability to:

  • Relate to people, facilitating positive relationships
  • Analyze the problem
  • Locate and utilize resources effectively
  • Organize structure and help it function
  • Understand and accept realities while seeing potentials for change
  • Handle oneself professionally in different roles, different situations, with various types of persons and groups, and to handle criticism and praise
  • Organize and administer one’s job, to work under pressure, to establish priorities, etc.
  • Relate and differentiate the various situations within one’s own job, and within the agency and the community
  • Fulfil and facilitate the agency’s purpose and function
  • Perform the various skills essential to the task (using methods and tools as needed)
  • Utilize knowledge, to apply theory to practice in an integrated way. 2

Does the list seem overwhelming? Perhaps. But one cannot expect to accomplish much in a community without examining one’s own abilities in organizing a community. Lack of self-assessment is probably the cause of many frustrations among community workers, even among those who really mean well in helping others. What Mildred Barry is suggesting is that a community worker is nothing more than a facilitator and an enabler. His/her role is in mobilizing resources, being responsible for the group process. He or she {90} might be expected to play the role of expert only in his or her field when working as part of the group. The key is the ability to function as a member and a participant in a multi-disciplinary team.

The community worker has a job of supporting strengths in others rather than developing dependency relationships. He or she has the responsibility to move others toward strengthening self-reliance and independence within the context of their limited resources.

FOUR BASIC STEPS

A major question that is usually asked is: How can I go about helping the community accomplish its goals and objectives? Here are four basic steps:

Step 1. Start where people are. Many times experts assume that the community is an empty vessel. When they arrive in the community, they feel it is their job to fill it with the knowledge the community should have. In the health field, for example, we work sometimes as though the problems we are dealing with are unrecognized by the community. We forget that the community has a diagnosis for the problem, and they probably have had it for centuries. Starting where people are makes it possible to detect the gap in knowledge and practices.

Step 2. Clarify the problem. Help the community see how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together. In a community where diarrhea is a prominent problem, people might not recognize the relationship between the disease and the fact that rain water from the village runs into the place where people get their drinking water. The community worker could help by pointing out the relationship. The solution then could be found easily by the community itself.

Step 3. Determine goals, objectives or direction. The community worker helps the community decide what to do about the problem, what steps to take, has to identity resources from within and from the outside, and how to allocate the resources.

Step 4. Help the community work towards its goals, objectives, or the solution to the problems.

The four steps described above depend heavily on the abilities and the characteristics of the community worker. It is {91} obvious, therefore, that the satisfaction level of community members and community workers depend on a number of factors related to the worker’s abilities. The major one is the ability of the worker to be helpful in the situation, understanding the time, place, and manner in which lie/she is the initiator, resource person, leader, enabler, or participant.

Some people are called to work at the grass-roots level in developing countries. While working in these settings, they may ask, “How can we help the community take an active part in what we are doing?” When I started to work in the area of public health in rural Zaire, I was faced with the question of motivating village people to adopt some basic principles of hygiene. It was to their advantage to dig latrines in order to avoid intestinal parasites. I asked myself, “Why do people need to be told about building latrines?” I forgot the fact that for years building latrines was something that was imposed on the local population. Many people had been fined and others jailed for not building latrines as required by the government. As a result, latrines were built to avoid fines, not for sanitary reasons. To change things, I needed to promote local and individual ownership of health practices.

When an epidemic of diarrhea hit the community, the community leaders first requested medicines to treat the diarrhea. The village health worker and the nurse used all the treatments that were available, but the diarrhea persisted. At that point the community members and the public health team got together and studied the environment. We looked at their source of drinking water. One of the things we discovered about the drinking water was that when it rained, rainwater was carried from the village downhill to the source of drinking water. On its way downhill the water was contaminated by human and animal feces. The community’s solution was to find another, non-contaminated source of water, as well as to build and use latrines. By understanding community organization I was able to incorporate its different parts in the planning and decision making process. I did not need to bear all the load myself because the community had most of the answers; they only needed a guide.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION: HOW USEFUL FOR CHRISTIAN LEADERS

How does Christian leadership fit into all this? For one {92} thing, a Christian leader’s first call is to work with people. Thus the primary responsibility is to empower and to enable others to become what God wills them to be. The community could be the congregation or any other group of people that the Christian leader works with. The task of working for the Kingdom requires participation. Leaders overseas work with programs like Theological Education by Extension (T.E.E.), evangelism, community development, and other community-centered programs. In North America they might work with youth outreach, inner-city ministries, or refugee work. In either case leaders regularly face the issues of community participation.

The danger for most Christian leaders is the belief that they must do all the work by themselves. As a result, they end up calling the rules of the game and they become the team as well. They will usually pick up the ball and run, but when they leave the project or the program, that also marks the end of the game. How many development, health, or evangelism projects have failed because of the problem of lack of participation by people!

One does well to remember Moses and Jethro (Exod. 18:17-23). Moses was a hard worker with a strong work ethic. His practice was to do everything by himself until his father-in-law brought this to his attention. Jethro reminded Moses that the people’s burden was not for him to carry alone. It was meant to be shared with others. Often Christian leaders believe that people’s burdens in health, development, and evangelism must be carried alone. After all, they ask, “Isn’t it true that there may not be enough qualified people in the communities to do the job?” Jethro still reminds Christian leaders today that when people participate, the latter will go in peace and the leader will be able to endure.

Jesus himself was a good prototype for His followers in community participation. He asked the woman at the well to participate in bringing salvation to Samaria (John 4:1-25). He started where the woman was, then he went to meet the spiritual needs she had. Her participation brought healing to her whole village. When he fed the five thousand, his disciples had an active role to play (John 6:1-14). Jesus could have done it by himself, but he wanted his disciples to participate in the ministry of physical as well as spiritual healing, so he included them in everything he did. The Bible is full of such accounts, {93} giving the Christian leader a good basis from which to start.

In Zaire, Theological Education by Extension (T.E.E.) has been a popular program. It has provided a means of training village men and women as leaders in their congregations. The implementation of this program, however, had negative effects on its sustainability. Centralized direction of T.E.E. has resulted in a program that is dependent on its leaders. Transportation problems, changes in leadership, lack of supervision, financial difficulties in the central office, inadequate follow-through have all hindered development of on-going T.E.E. programs at the village level. Strong involvement and input at the village level in the planning and implementation of t he program might go a long way in sustaining it. The T.E.E. leaders needed are those who approach the program with a goal of empowering the local congregation, who see themselves not as “The Leaders” but as facilitators, who listen to the people, who recognize the limitations but still see the potential in the community.

Community organization is a valuable tool that Christian leaders could use in their ministry of helping others. Like any other tool, it must be used with much wisdom. One can easily abuse any tool that was meant to help facilitate the job to be done. Christian leaders with a sense of integrity will find this tool easy to adopt, adapt, and to use in any setting that they find themselves.

ENDNOTES

  1. R. G. Murray. Community Organization—Theory and Principles. New York: Harper and Bros., 1955.
  2. M. C. Barry. Theoretical Framework for Community Organization. The SOPHE Heritage Collection of Health Education Monographs, 2, (1982): 375-385.
Pakisa K. Tshimika, a 1978 graduate of Fresno Pacific College, has worked in Public Health in Zaire, his homeland. He holds a Master of Public Health degree (Loma Linda University) and is currently at work on a doctorate in the same field.

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