Photo Credit: Neighborhood City Church, La Crosse, WI

There has been recent interest in revitalization efforts in the Washburn, Powell, Hood, and Hamilton (PHH) neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  The need for intervention in these neighborhoods was a major platform point during local elections in early 2013 (Sullivan & Londre, 2013) along with a desire by neighboring institutions to spearhead development efforts (Gundersen Lutheran Health System & City of La Crosse, 2013).  After a review of the local literature, neighborhood planning efforts are focused on four areas:  safety/security, property improvement, public infrastructure improvement, and economic development (Burian, 2013; GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013; Kirch, Anderson & Cantellano, 2002; Sullivan & Londre, 2013).  Primary stakeholders and critical supporters identified include businesses, social service agencies, and private individuals, with an overwhelming emphasis on government sponsored agencies (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013).   While there is a general reference to churches as a critical supporter in the PHH/Gundersen plan (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013), and the Washburn Neighborhood Plan (Kirch, Anderson & Cantellano, 2002) categorizes churches as “Places of Worship” in its neighborhood assets map, it is noted a detailed examination of the current place and future roles of these religious associations is missing from the neighborhood development conversation as a whole.

Addressing the omission of religious congregations in the visioning process for these communities is the focus of this proposed research.  Greenleaf (1996) identifies religious associations and their leaders as having a distinct role in the social change process from impoverishment to abundance.  They are the vehicle that seeds abundance throughout communities by acknowledging the leadership of all, including the stranger, and developing that leadership.  This is done by helping the individual identify their personal assets, and connecting that individual with a community institution whose needs will be served by the emerging servant leader (Greenleaf, 1996).  It is also done with the hope the new leader will further seed abundance in the institution by helping others, and the institution itself, identify assets to be put into service (Greenleaf, 1996).  As the cycle of asset-naming and needs-connection replicates, a community grows in abundance.

This is where Greenleaf’s vision of religious congregations and leaders as servant leaders in neighborhood social change intersects with asset-based community development.  ABCD focuses on identifying assets to build upon as opposed to the traditional community development model where problems in need of fixing are identified (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).  In Greenleaf’s (1996) essay, “The Inner City Church as Servant to Its Community”, he points to a key role of religious congregations as coordinating asset-mapping and development for the neighborhood.  Churches and religious leaders as servant leaders do not look for problems to solve, but instead look for goodness to lift up so all may access it.  The ABCD approach recognizes the gifts of even the most alienated communities.  It avoids belittling what may be an already struggling neighborhood in the effort to make it better, as can happen in traditional community development scenarios.  When ABCD research utilizes community members, in much the same way Greenleaf envisioned via neighborhood churches, the community as a whole is empowered in their abundance seeking. 

Sampson and Graif (2009) note the more disadvantaged a neighborhood community, the less involved residents become, with community leader involvement increasing.  They identify religious institutions as key community leaders in neighborhoods (Sampson & Graif, 2009), therefore religious congregations should already be deeply involved in supporting the Washburn-PHH neighborhoods being studied, and will be instrumental in future redevelopment efforts. According to Greenleaf (1996), these religious associations should be accustomed to identifying and developing assets.  These assets include tangible events such as community picnics and resources such as food shelves, but they also include certain properties (i.e., recognizing member gifts, nurturing communal life, hospitality to the stranger) and capacities (i. e., kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of fallibility, mystery) that provide for satisfying communal relationships (McKnight & Block, 2012).  These properties and capacities are the intangible assets offered by churches to their membership and to those they serve in their neighborhoods.  Identifying the current tangible and intangible assets of religious congregations within the Washburn-PHH neighborhood will clarify areas for partnership, foundational assets to be built upon, and untapped assets that will help the neighborhoods grow in abundance.

Conceptual Definitions

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). 

Despite the fact there has been increasing interest over the last two decades in the role of faith-based organizations as social service providers in civil society (Wuthnow, 2004), the integral role of religious associations in these areas is often absent from crucial conversations outside of the religious realm, especially when it comes to community development and revitalization efforts.  This may be due to the low-key approach religious associations have in providing these services.  Chaves (2004) makes six claims about congregational social services from his work with the National Congregations Study: 1) congregations are involved in a peripheral way; 2) congregational involvement is through a small group of well-organized volunteers.; 3) congregations are involved in crisis management that involves minimal interaction with those being served; 4) congregational social services depend upon secular social services to exist; 5) congregational social service has never had more prominence than secular social services in society; and 6) congregational collaboration with government does not discourage the prophetic voice of these associations. Congregations do not garner the same amount of attention as other providers of social assets.  This fact is evidenced in the revitalization plans created for the neighborhoods included in this study (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 other social services.  According to Chaves (2004), food programs, housing programs, and programs aimed at children and students are the most common social services offered.  Few churches are intensely involved in offering these services on their own and either rely on, or partner with, secular associations (Chaves, 2004).

However there are many assets congregations provide in the dispensing of services that are not available when offered through secular agencies (Olivier, Cochrane & Schmid, 2006; Chaves, 2004).  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).  They are provided through a holistic approach that is “relational, morally compelling, and personable; provides love, guidance, and friendship; and helps people transform their lives” (Chaves, 2004, p. 58).  Religious congregations play an essential role in neighborhood revitalization because of this layering of assets that can be further enhanced in the development of an abundant community through the empowerment of community servant leaders.  The following section looks at what others have learned about religious congregations and community assets.

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.   This literature review will first look at what makes a community abundant, and then considers a method of community development oriented toward the features of abundant communities, namely, asset-based community development.  Next it will discuss the various types of assets an abundant community possesses, and then focus on religious congregations and the unique assets they provide a community, especially that of leadership development.  Finally, the review 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).  They are distinctive from other communities because “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.  McKnight and Block (2012) describe abundant communities as places where physical and social environments are supportive of individual health outside of medical systems; they are stewards of the land they occupy and of the food they eat in ways that further support the health of citizens; they are safe and secure communities because neighbors know each other by name and spend time outside their homes, with some of this time spent in developing the local economy either by providing goods and services in the community or by shopping at neighborhood businesses;  they 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.  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 (McKnight & Block, 2012).

According to McKnight and Block (2012) 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, with these properties creating a community environment where certain capacities are created within families and neighborhoods:  kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of fallibility, and mystery.  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 describe an alternative that promotes community healing from within.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

Traditional methods of community revitalization focus on neighborhood deficiencies.  According to Kretzmann and McKnight (1993), these deficiencies represent only part of the truth about neighborhood, “but they are not regarded as part of the truth; they are regarded as the whole truth” (p. 2) when doing community development. This tendency creates a downward spiral of negative consequences for the community.  It disassociates residents from the development process, making them believe they are fundamentally deficient and incapable of providing for their own future change.  They become victimized, relying on outside experts to fix problems instead of working together to problem solve (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).  This dissociative effect is corroborated in a study by Sampson & Graif (2009) showing residents of disadvantaged communities as less involved in community life than those confident in their resources. 

Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) identify further consequences from outsourcing services due to needs-based development strategies.  Outside experts tend to view the neighborhood as a list of problems instead of a cohesive whole, causing a fragmentation of efforts that further complicate the community’s ability to problem-solve together.  Available funding is routed to these outside service providers instead of to the community directly.  In order to procure this funding, community leaders are forced to denigrate the neighborhood by highlighting problems instead of strengths, and problems must continue to worsen in order to obtain repeat funding.  Bonds within the community are further weakened with the persistent focus on deficits and dependency on service relationships from outside.   Needs-mapping tends to focus services towards individual clients instead of community development as a whole which creates a cycle of never-ending need throughout the community.  The traditional needs-based approach to community development provides a maintenance strategy at best (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).

An alternative approach 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).  Other scholars have attempted to further refine this analytical framework by further differentiating 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 (Sampson and Graif, 2009).  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).  ABCD researchers acknowledge outside resources may be needed at times, but they are only truly successful when assisting communities in developing their own assets (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996).

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 tangible and intangible assets and how they are both an important part of the asset-mapping process will be discussed.

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 present 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, especially those of an intangible nature, of which churches may be a particularly powerful source.  Because of this they play an essential role in neighborhood revitalization and development.  The following section 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).   From the servant leadership perspective, in Greenleaf’s (1996) essay, “The Inner City Church as Servant to Its Community”, it is proposed that churches act as mediating institutions, connecting individual community member strengths with neighborhood needs by developing trustees for their non-profit institutions.  He suggests congregations become actively involved in the community building process in order to know neighborhood institutions and their trustees on a personal level so they can more easily anticipate needs and make 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).  The final section considers how this sense of vocation is expressed in leadership motivations.

Leadership Motivations

According to Rich (1980), 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 (Rich, 1980).

 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 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.  Available research in this area is slim, and there is 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.


The methodology of this hermeneutic phenomenological study is to harvest and digest the stories of 6-10 leaders of religious congregations in the Washburn-PHH neighborhoods, and identify the tangible assets offered by the churches to the neighborhood community.  A deeper exploration of these service stories will begin to reveal the intangible assets associated with these religious congregations as well.  The research questions that provide the framework for this study are:

  1.  What tangible assets do religious associations located within the Washburn, Powell, Hood, and Hamilton neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin provide to those communities?
  2. What intangible assets are offered to these neighborhood communities through the services provided by these congregations?
  3. How can this religious asset-mapping be of service in community development and revitalization efforts?

A hermeneutic phenomenological qualitative study will identify the tangible and intangible assets offered by religious congregations through the perspective of the community’s religious leader.  Phenomenology is “a philosophy of experience that attempts to understand the ways in which meaning is constructed in and through human experience” (Swinton & Mowat, 2006, p. 106).  Hermeneutics “has to do with the ways in which human beings interpret and make sense of the world” (Swinton & Mowat, 2006, p. 107).  Intangible assets are the meaning constructed in and through the human experience of tangible assets, which the researcher will interpret in an effort to make sense of constructive ways they can be utilized in revitalization efforts.

The research design approach used in this study is an adaptation of a framework proposed by Swinton and Mowat (2006) that is based on the work of Smith(1996), Diekelmann et al. (1989), and Van Manen (1990).  First, interviews will be conducted using phenomenological principles.  They will be digitally recorded and transcribed into a text format.  Then the researcher will thoroughly familiarize with the texts, and use lectio divina to distill the texts into themes and concepts.  The researcher then uses dialogical reflection to authenticate the themes to the texts in order to develop a deepening meaning from the qualitative interviews. Next, a thematic analysis is conducted connecting various themes with illustrative text extracts in narrative form.  These thematized narratives are then shared with research participants, as well as expert qualitative researchers, for validation.  These validated texts will then have further interpretation done by the researcher through comparison and contrast in search of unifying patterns.  These individual thematic texts are then merged together into a final account.  This final account is presented to the research participant group so their reactions to the document can be incorporated into the final draft.



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