Conceptual Definition

While the notion of servant leadership has been practiced since biblical times, the concept as applied to institutions, organizations, and as an individual leadership style has only been of interest in recent history.  Greenleaf (1970, 1977) generalized this set of behaviors as a leader’s desire to be “servant first” rather than “leader first”, putting others’ needs before their own.  He expanded this leadership concept to organizations of all types including businesses, academic institutions, board of trustees, and religious associations (Greenleaf, 1970, 1977, 1996).

Greenleaf (1996) took special interest in reflecting upon the role of religious leaders and congregations as servant leaders, observing how the spiritual life intersects with business and society in meaningful and necessary ways.  He defined a church as any organization that effectively “nurture[s] the spirituality of individuals and model[s] for others as a serving institution” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 55).  Likewise, Greenleaf identified religious leaders as anyone who has hope that: 1) all who suffer alienation can be helped to accept and nurture their inner servant; 2) all who lead can be helped to maintain a level of spirituality that buffers them from the stresses of leadership; and 3) are open to receive the gift of spiritual leadership in themselves and acknowledge it in others (Greenleaf, 1996).  From a servant leadership perspective, religious associations and their leaders have a distinct role in shaping culture and society (Greenleaf, 1996).

Yet the integral role of religious leadership in these areas is often absent from crucial conversations outside of the religious realm, especially when it comes to community development and revitalization efforts (Gundersen Lutheran Health System & City of La Crosse, 2013; Kirch, Anderson, & Cantellano, 2002).  Traditional neighborhood planning tends to be needs-driven as opposed to asset-based, creating the perception only resources from outside the community will solve community problems (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  If assets mapping is included in the neighborhood development process, churches are often lumped together as a whole with no explanation of the specific assets each congregation offers (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2012), or they are simply recognized as various places of worship (Kirch, Anderson, & Cantellano, 2002).  The full range of tangible and intangible assets religious associations offer to neighborhoods is typically not identified in revitalization efforts.

Historically, churches have provided many tangible assets to the community in the areas of education, health care, and social services (Chaves, 2004).  However there are many assets congregations provide in the dispensing of these services that are not available when offered through secular agencies (Olivier, Cochrane & Schmid, 2006).  These intangible assets are “the volitional, motivational and mobilizing capacities that are rooted in vital affective and symbolic dimensions of religious faith, belief and behavior” (Olivier, Cochrane & Schmid, 2006, p. 11).  Religious congregations play a vital role in neighborhood revitalization because of this layering of assets that can be further enhanced in the development of an abundant community.

Review of the Literature

            Change is inevitable.  It affects every aspect of our lives including the neighborhood communities of which we are a part.  According to Somerville, Van Beckhoven, & Van Kempen (2009) the primary source of neighborhood change is socio-economic factors mediated by the housing market and neighborhood relationships.  As a neighborhood community moves through its cycles of change it is important to have a holistic view of the neighborhood revitalization process in order to effectively move in positive directions.   First we will look at what makes a community abundant, and then consider the best method of community development that supports the building of abundant communities.  Next we will discuss the various types of assets an abundant community possesses.  We will then focus in on religious congregations and the unique assets they provide a community, especially that of leadership development.  Finally, we will look at the motivations behind neighborhood leadership and discuss how they align with the assets of religious organizations.

Abundant Communities

According to McKnight and Block (2012) an abundant community is a unique living organism.  There is no definitive blueprint for what constitutes an abundant community because it is not organized in a systematic way (McKnight & Block, 2012).  “A competent community, one that takes advantage of its abundance, admits the realities of the human condition and the truth of the decay, restoration, and growth processes that are a part of every living system.  Variety, uniqueness, and appreciation for the one-of-a-kind are its essence” (McKnight & Block, 2012, p. 65).

However certain generalizations can be made about communities where abundance is a focus, creating a stabilizing effect as the neighborhood moves through its cycles of change.  These neighborhoods provide a physical and social environment supportive of individual health outside of medical systems (McKnight & Block, 2012).  Abundant communities are stewards of the land they occupy and of the food they eat in ways that further support the health of its citizens (McKnight & Block, 2012).  They are safe and secure communities because neighbors know each other by name and spend time outside their homes (McKnight & Block, 2012).   Some of this time is spent in developing the local economy either by providing goods and services in the community or by shopping at neighborhood businesses (McKnight & Block, 2012).  Abundant communities care for each other.  They care for their children and their elders as their own and there is no need to outsource care to agencies or systems (McKnight & Block, 2012).  The residents of neighborhoods where these elements exist are generally satisfied with their community life in such a way that these assets can be further built upon.

The satisfaction with these tangible assets comes from a set of organizing principles for achieving community competence: focus on member gifts, nurture of associational life, and hospitality to strangers (McKnight & Block, 2012).  These properties create a community environment where certain capacities are created within families and neighborhoods:  kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of fallibility, and mystery (McKnight & Block, 2012).  These properties and capacities are a way of being in community that facilitates participation in tangible asset development, and measures to support this way of being augment communal satisfaction (McKnight & Block, 2012).

Unfortunately few neighborhoods recognize the communal assets in their midst because of the traditional way of addressing development as a neighborhood changes and grows.  In the next section we discuss concerns with the most common approach to community development and propose an alternative that promotes community healing from within.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

Traditional methods of community revitalization focus on neighborhood deficiencies.  Needs-driven community development ignores communal assets and capacities, and focuses instead on problems to be solved (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  This approach to neighborhood regeneration disassociates residents from the development process and relies on outside experts to fix problems while forcing local community leadership to denigrate the community in order to attract resources (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  This dissociative effect was corroborated in a study by Sampson & Graif (2009) showing residents of disadvantaged communities as less involved in community life than those confident in their assets.  Because of the negative effects needs-mapping generates, an alternative method to neighborhood revitalization is recommended.

One such alternative is asset or capacity-based community development.  This focuses on identifying the gifts and positive relationships existing on the individual, associational, and institutional levels of a local community (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  In their research on social capital, Sampson & Graif (2009) further differentiate these levels into the domains of education, religion, business, politics, law enforcement, and community organizations along with individuals such as long-time residents, youth club/gang leaders, and youth mentors.  According to Kretzmann and McKnight (1996), “historic evidence indicates that significant community development takes place only when local community people are committed to investing themselves and their resources in the effort” (p. 25). Necessary outside resources are successful when assisting communities in developing their own assets.

The ABCD approach can be characterized in three ways.  First, it takes into account community strengths as opposed to weaknesses.  Policies and decisions are based on the good the community has to offer instead of what is wrong with the neighborhood (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  Secondly, it is internally focused so that agenda building and problem solving are done on a local level instead of by outside experts.  If outside resources are needed they work in a way that supports local definition, investment, creativity, hope, and control (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  Finally, it is a relationship-driven process.  Building partnerships, networks, and other connections between all levels of community life and their assets is at the heart of the asset-based approach (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).

This process is more than just an inventory of services offered within the community however.  While tangible assets are the easiest to identify, and therefore the typical focus of assets-mapping, there are many other capacities of a more intangible nature that are often overlooked in the process.  In the next section we discuss tangible and intangible assets, and how they are both an important part of the asset-mapping process.

Tangible and Intangible Assets

The unique assets a community has to offer its residents are as varied as the communities themselves.  On a surface level it would appear the identification of these assets can be accomplished by a simple walking tour of the neighborhood or surveying the phone book.  These strategies are part of the typical asset analysis and result in detailed lists of businesses, institutions, and the services they offer within the neighborhood.  However communities offer other, less tangible assets that are equally important in supporting an abundant community.

There is a growing body of research in the field of global health that is evaluating the impact tangible and intangible assets of religious associations have on the communities of which they are a part (Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006).  While the African Religious Health Assets Programme (ARHAP) research is based in sub-Saharan Africa, the conceptualization is rooted in the asset-based community development of the United States, particularly in the work of Kretzmann and McKnight (Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006).  Tangible religious assets include facilities such as schools, clinics, and places of worship, and services such as food pantries, clothes closets, and childcare (McKnight & Block, 2012; Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006).  Intangible assets are the unseen “volitional, motivational and mobilizing capacities” that come from performing service, receiving an education, changing behavior for the positive, and engaging in religious belief and practice, that when understood and utilized can have tremendous effect on the development of abundant community (Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006, p. 11).

McKnight and Block (2012) group intangible assets together in what they term the capacities of an abundant – or competent – community, and are individually identified as kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, fallibility, and mystery.  According to McKnight & Block (2012), “capacities reside in individuals and can be nurtured to exist in the collective.  They are the core elements that need to be visible and manifest to create an abundant community, and a family and neighborhood to function” (p. 83-84).  While this analysis is of a more secular vane as compared to that of ARHAP, the transferability of these six capacities to religious associations is quite apparent.

Religious congregations are natural community hubs for assets of all types.  Because of this they play an essential role in neighborhood revitalization and development.  In the following section we will look at the role of religious associations in neighborhood communities through the lens of servant leadership.

Religious Associations in Neighborhoods

Asset-based community development research has identified religious associations as serving an important role in neighborhood revitalization efforts due to the tangible and intangible assets they offer the community (Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006).   Greenleaf (1996) proposes that churches act as mediating institutions, connecting individual community member assets with neighborhood needs.  He suggests congregations become actively involved in the asset mapping process in order to know neighborhood institutions and their trustees on a personal level so they can more easily make these connections (Greenleaf, 1996).  At the same time Greenleaf (1996) warns “it is important for a pastor to strive to make his or her contribution in a way that strengthens, rather than diminishes, the ability of neighborhood people to help themselves and to evolve strong leaders for their institutions” (p. 265).

One way this is accomplished is by religious associations taking on the mission of developing community leaders.  Greenleaf (1996) explains, “one measure of the center city church as servant to its community is how well it nurtures men and women who will lead, or otherwise influence, the center city neighborhood institutions they are involved in, to the end that those institutions are effective as servants to every person they touch” (p. 260).  Churches nurture community leaders by empowering them to create, inspire, persuade, and persevere as servants (Greenleaf, 1996).  This is primarily done by mentoring residents as trustees in the hope they will lead institutions to respond to community needs with vision (intangible assets) as opposed to simply listing services (tangible assets) (Greenleaf, 1996).

In the end a religious association’s ultimate goal is to develop a sense of vocational calling in an expanded “priesthood” of community leaders (Greenleaf, 1996).  In doing so, the “church achieves servanthood to its neighborhood by being servant to those who are servants to the neighborhood’s institutions, their trustees” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 272-273).  In the final section we consider how this sense of vocation is expressed in leadership motivations.

Leadership Motivations

Traditional leadership theories hypothesize people become neighborhood leaders because the benefits outweigh the costs of leadership.  Benefits include “welfare goods”, material goods or compensation that come with leadership; “deference goods”, psychological gratification such as increase self-esteem and respect; and “collective goods”, benefits shared by the community such as garbage removal.  Leaders are motivated by access to a surplus in welfare goods, receiving notoriety in the community for their leadership, and access to the collective goods for which the association advocates – all self-serving motivations for leadership.

However Rich’s (1980) case study analysis revealed a very different set of motivations for those accepting neighborhood leadership.  Most leaders are motivated by deference benefits and do not self-report welfare goods as primary benefits to leadership (Rich, 1980).  Satisfaction with the results of their leadership, as opposed to material compensation, is what motivates them to continue on (Rich, 1980).  This satisfaction does not come from others affirming their role as leader, but from their personal values and their calling to community service (Rich, 1980).

People become neighborhood leaders not for self-serving reasons, but because they want to serve their communities (Greenleaf, 1996; Rich, 1980).  They access intangible assets, such as psychic gratification and pleasure in a job done well; as they help others access tangible assets or collective goods (Rich, 1980).  According to Rich (1980), “these benefits are available to them only because they feel an ethical commitment to serve the community and find fulfilling that commitment rewarding” (p. 579).


Abundant communities contain all of the resources necessary to meet the ongoing and changing needs of the community.  These resources include the visible, tangible assets that meet neighborhood needs in practical ways, as well as intangible assets that are not so easy to identify, but absolutely necessary in developing holistic communities.  Neighborhood religious associations are an untapped resource for all types of community assets.  They have a long history of providing tangible assets to their communities; however explorations into the intangible assets congregations hold is an emerging field in community development.  Greenleaf (1996) theorized about the role of churches in neighborhood communities, and identified leadership development, which infuses emerging leaders with the intangible assets offered by the congregation, as being their primary function.  The Rich (1980) study supports Greenleaf’s (1996) contention by demonstrating neighborhood leaders are motivated to lead by a calling to serve, as opposed to desiring compensation or notoriety.  Developing neighborhood servant leadership is essential to developing competent communities and this is best accomplished by religious associations because of their access to tangible and intangible assets.

The power of community assets is at the core of the literature reviewed.  An abundant community is characterized by its focus on and development of these assets.  Minimal time is spent looking at community deficiencies because the community trusts these weaknesses will be addressed by bolstering asset networks.  Asset-based community development takes its cues from what abundant communities already know.  Instead of accessing community problems as is done in traditional community development processes, ABCD maps the assets in order to better connect them with community needs.  Communities find their power not only in the practical assets they offer to help their residents from within, but also most especially from the good that comes from being a part of a caring community, an asset unto itself.  Religious associations understand well how this interplay between tangible and intangible assets builds the power of their community life.  They can be of best service to their communities by developing leaders to go into the neighborhood with this asset-based way of thinking.  Finally, the Rich (1980) study shows that assets motivate people into leadership, but not the sort of assets expected.  Leaders are motivated in their work not by their personal access to tangible assets, but to all the intangible assets received in being of service to others.

More research is needed into intangible assets.  These assets seem to provide the connective power that ties neighborhoods to their tangible assets in a way that the community grows in abundance.  There is not much research in this area, and disagreement in the research that does exist (Olivier, Cochrane, & Schmid, 2006) because of the fact these assets are intangible, invisible, hard to identify, and difficult to name.  They are not concrete, but more akin to the spiritual and therefore difficult to empirically analyze.  The proposed research will attempt to identify the intangible assets held by the religious associations in the Washburn, Powell, Hood, and Hamilton neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  This will add to the body of community asset research with the hopes it can be applied for future community development.


Chaves, M. (2004). Congregations in america. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Newton Centre, MA: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977/2002). Servant-leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1996). A. T. Fraker & L. C. Spears (Eds.), Seeker and servant: Reflections on religious leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Gundersen Lutheran Health System, & City of La Crosse, (2013). Powell-Hood-Hamilton/Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center: Joint neighborhood and campus plan. La Crosse, WI: Gundersen Lutheran Health System.

Kirch, L. J., Anderson, M. L., & Cantellano, A. City of La Crosse Planning Department & Washburn Neighborhood Association, (2002). Washburn neighborhood plan (File No. 2002-06-029). Retrieved from City of La Crosse, WI website:

Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. P. (1996). Assets-based community development. National Civic Review, 85(4), 23. Retrieved from

McKnight, J., & Block, P. (2012). The abundant community: Awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. San Francisco, C.A.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Olivier, J., Cochrane, J. R., & Schmid, B. (2006). ARHAP literature review: Working in abounded field of unknowing. Cape Town, South Africa: African Religious Health Assets Programme. Retrieved from

Purdue, D. (2005). Community leadership cycles and the consolidation of neighbourhood coalitions in the new local governance. Public Management Review, 7(2), 247-266. doi:10.1080/14719030500091418

Rich, R. C. (1980). The dynamics of leadership in neighborhood organizations. Social Science Quarterly (University of Texas Press), 60(4), 570-587. Retrieved from

Sampson, R. J., & Graif, C. (2009). Neighborhood social capital as differential social

organization: Resident and leadership dimensions. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(11), 1579-1605. Retrieved from

Somerville, P., Van Beckhoven, E., & Van Kempen, R. (2009). The decline and rise of neighbourhoods: The importance of neighbourhood governance. European Journal of Housing Policy, 9(1), 25-44. doi:10.1080/14616710802693557