Archives for category: theology

ImageThere has been recent interest in revitalization efforts in the Washburn, Powell, Poage (formerly Hood), and Hamilton (PPH, formerly 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 PPH (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, 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.  This approach 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 essay, “The Inner City Church as Servant to Its Community”, he points to a key role of religious congregations as identifying strengths and development for the neighborhood (Greenleaf, 1996).  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 strategy recognizes the gifts of even the most alienated communities.  It avoids belittling an already struggling neighborhood in the effort to make it better, as can happen in traditional community development scenarios.  When ABCD utilizes community members, in much the same way Greenleaf envisioned neighborhood churches identifying potential trustees, the community as a whole is empowered in their abundance seeking.

Sampson and Graif (2009) note the more disadvantaged a neighborhood community is, the less involved its residents become and the more invested community leadership.  They identify religious institutions as key community leaders in neighborhoods (Sampson & Graif, 2009).  Given this, one might expect religious congregations to already be deeply involved in supporting the Washburn-PPH 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-PPH 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).

This viewpoint has been adopted with increasing vigor by the United States government since the mid-twentieth century (Marsden, 2012).  In the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives brought government into partnership with existing church-sponsored welfare programs (Marsden, 2012).  The administration under George Bush Sr. introduced “charitable choice” provisions into the welfare reform bill of the mid-1990s (Marsden, 2012).  The Clinton administration took these provisions a step further in 1996, enabling religious charitable organizations to receive public funding and exempting them from the mandate to hire employees who do not hold their faith beliefs (Marsden, 2012).  One of George W. Bush’s first acts as president in 2001 was to establish the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), which brought government funding to faith-based organizations (FBOs) engaged in foreign aid work through USAID (Marsden, 2012).  Current president, Barak Obama, expanded the FBO programs by replacing the OFBCI with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and establishing a 25-member presidential advisory council, which has created a level of conversation between FBOs and government that has never been seen before (Marsden, 2012).  However, while FBO initiatives have increased interest and conversations with congregations in regards to their further involvement in social services, churches have not actually become more active in this area between 1998 and 2007 (Chaves & Wineburg, 2010).

Despite the fact there has been significantly more interest over the last two decades in the role of FBOs as social service providers in civil society (Wuthnow, 2004; Wuthnow, Hackett, & Hsu, 2004), the integral role of religious associations in these areas is often absent from crucial conversations at the local level, especially when it comes to community development and revitalization efforts.  According to Chaves (2004) congregational social services are characterized as: 1) peripheral; 2) involving a small group of well-organized volunteers; 3) crisis management that involves minimal interaction with those being served; 4) dependent upon secular social services to exist; 5) never having had more prominence than secular social services in society; and 6) prophetic despite governmental collaboration. 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).  They utilize traditional neighborhood planning methods that tend 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).  Assets-mapping is included in both neighborhood development plans; however it is presented as a peripheral section of the plans instead of the central focus of the method (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2013; Kirch, Anderson, & Cantellano, 2002).  Churches are lumped together as a whole with no explanation of the specific assets each congregation offers in the PPH (PHH)/Gundersen plan (GLHS & City of La Crosse, 2012), while they are simply recognized as various places of worship in the Washburn Neighborhood Plan (Kirch, Anderson, & Cantellano, 2002).  The full range of tangible and intangible assets religious associations offer to these neighborhoods is 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 a constant in community life.  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.  Finally, 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.

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 (2010, 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 the assets associated with these characteristics can be further built upon (McKnight & Block, 2010, 2012).

According to McKnight and Block (2010, 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.  The next section includes a review of concerns with the most common approach to community development and describes 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 a portion of the truth about the 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 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.  The next section identifies 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 the surface 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 Congregations 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, Greenleaf (1996) proposes in his 1984 essay, “The Inner City Church as Servant to Its Community”, that churches best contribute to their neighborhoods by: 1) developing leaders, 2) forming partnerships with other institutions, and 3) acting as a mediating institution.  Greenleaf (1996) further breaks down the development of leaders into the strategies of recognizing gifts, mentoring, supporting the overall well-being of the individual, and connecting people to leadership opportunities.  Likewise, Ebener (2010) identifies the behaviors of recognizing gifts; serving side-by-side, to and with others; and empowering others to leadership as essential to successful leadership development.  The key difference between Ebener’s model of parish servant leadership and Greenleaf’s vision of church as servant is in where the benefits of the leadership development are directed.  The primary purpose of Ebener’s model is to be of benefit to the congregation and its mission, while Greenleaf envisions leadership development for the benefit of the surrounding community (Ebener, 2010; Greenleaf, 1996).

At the heart of Greenleaf’s (1996) proposed congregational servant leadership strategies is the work of connecting individual community member strengths with neighborhood needs by developing trustees for community 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 congregations 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 congregation’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).


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, partnerships, and acting as a mediating institution as key strategies in sharing assets with the neighborhood.  Developing neighborhood servant leadership is essential to developing competent communities and one important pathway for this development is religious associations because of their access to tangible and, more importantly, 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 (McKnight & Block, 2010).  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.

A distinctive feature of this study is that it connects the ABCD literature directly to the strategies envisioned by Greenleaf (1996) for church servanthood to the neighborhood community.  Greenleaf identified the need for recognizing assets and building upon them so they can be directed to neighborhood needs outside of the ABCD conversation.  This connection opens the door for future servant leadership research incorporating ABCD methodologies and theories.

More research is also 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.  This study attempts to identify the intangible, as well as tangible, assets held by the religious associations in the Washburn, Powell, Poage, and Hamilton neighborhoods of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  In so doing, the study adds to the body of ABCD research with the hopes it can be applied for future community development.   Therefore, the research questions that provide the framework for this study are:

  1. What tangible religious community assets do congregations located within the Washburn-PPH neighborhoods of La Crosse provide to those communities?
  2. What intangible religious community assets are offered to these neighborhoods through the activities of these congregations?
  3. In what ways is Greenleaf’s vision for congregational servant leadership to neighborhoods being lived out in these communities?


A qualitative research design incorporating ABCD and participatory research methods was used to identify the tangible and intangible assets offered by the churches to the neighborhood community, as well as reveal the ways church congregations achieve servanthood in their neighborhoods.  A qualitative design was chosen over a quantitative design because of the ephemeral nature of intangible assets.  These assets are difficult to capture using quantitative methods, yet can be revealed through text interpretation and analysis.  An ABCD asset-mapping approach utilizing qualitative interviews for gathering the data was chosen because of the strong correlation between this approach and the servant leadership tendency to focus on assets in developing interpersonal relationships (Greenleaf, 1996). Participatory research methods were included in an effort to incorporate the commitment to community involvement characteristic of the ABCD approach.  A participatory practice also promotes cooperation between the perspectives of the research subject, the researcher, and the research process (Swinton & Mowat, 2006).  The qualitative research design employed was an adaptation of a framework proposed by Swinton and Mowat (2006) that was based on the work of Smith(1996), Diekelmann et al. (1989), and Van Manen (1990).

Twenty-five religious associations from the study neighborhood and surrounding area were mailed letters inviting them to participate in the research.  These religious associations had been identified in a neighborhood walk asset-mapping process conducted in an undergraduate research project completed in the spring of 2013.  Additional religious associations were added to this list in order to incorporate religious associations that had moved in the neighborhood after the initial list was generated or that had failed to be included on the initial list.  These additional associations were identified through a neighborhood walk and online search.  The scope of the research study area was broadened to include religious associations immediately surrounding the Washburn-PPH neighborhood for the initial study request in order to assure for adequate response.  Six congregations responded to the request and were interviewed.  Four of the respondents were churches from Washburn-PPH, one was a church located outside the neighborhood, and one was a religious community located in the neighborhood. In order to stay true to the study parameters only the interviews from the four churches located within the Washburn-PPH neighborhood were included in the study.  The remaining two religious associations were excluded.  Given there are eight church congregations total within the neighborhood area studied this sample represented half of the possible study participants.

The four church congregations included in the study were Neighborhood City Church (NCC), St. John’s United Church of Christ, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and First Evangelical Lutheran Church.  All four congregations are located in the Washburn neighborhood.  Denominationally, NCC belongs to the Evangelical Free Church and First Evangelical belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  Both are considered evangelical denominations which are considered to be more theologically and politically conservative in nature.  St. John’s belongs to the United Church of Christ while Our Savior’s belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  These are both considered mainline Protestant denominations and on the progressive end of the spectrum.  The oldest church congregation is First Evangelical founded in 1839, followed by Our Savior’s in1861, St. John’s in 1866, with NCC being the newest congregation founded in 2001.

Demographically, NCC is the most akin to a neighborhood church with the majority of its regular attenders residing in the Powell-PPH neighborhood.  It is the most ethnically diverse of the church congregations consisting of African American and Caucasian members.  While St. John’s consists of mostly members who do not live in the neighborhood, most of them did live there at one time and this dynamic creates for a tight-knit community feel to the congregation.  Our Saviors’ identifies a third of the congregation as heritage families who have ancestral roots in the neighborhood but who do not live there and come together as a family to worship on Sunday; a third as members of the LGBT community who travel great distances to worship in a safe environment; and a third as neighborhood residents.  First Evangelical consists of mostly Caucasian members who are scattered throughout the La Crosse community.

Semi-structured interviews of approximately two hours in length were conducted with a religious leader from each congregation at their church location.  The religious leaders interviewed were Pastor Chris Crye of Neighborhood City Church, Pastor John Parkyn of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Pastor Mark Jolivette of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and Pastor Roger Saks from First Evangelical Lutheran Church.  These interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed into a text format.  The interview schedule consisted of open-ended questions regarding church ministry and activities, spiritual and theological motivations, and leadership practices.

Informal observations were made during the interview process.  For instance, several pastors offered tours of their facilities and interactions with the church staff and others were observed and noted.  The interviews were the primary source of data.  The interview transcriptions were thematically coded using a priori code sets.  The tangible asset codes were adapted from the congregational social service activities identified in research conducted by Chaves and Tsitsos (2001).  The abundant community capacities identified by McKnight and Block (2012) were used for the intangible asset code set.  The congregation servant leadership strategy code set consisted of the strategies and sub-strategies identified by Greenleaf (1996).  These were evolving code sets in that the coder added to the a priori code sets as further themes arose during the analysis.  The coded transcripts were shared with a second coder to provide for intercoder reliability, as well as with the research participant for validation.  The researcher compared the thematically analyzed texts in search of unifying patterns.


All six abundant community capacities as identified by McKnight and Block (2012) are present in the religious congregations studied.  In addition, a seventh capacity of presence was identified.  Tangible assets served as the vehicle for transmitting intangible assets to the community.  The religious congregations studied offered an abundance of gifted individuals, advocacy, prayer and worship, employment, facility, food, and financial resources to the neighborhood.  Instances of the strategies developed in the Greenleaf (1996) essay, and hereby referred to as congregational servant leadership strategies (CSLS), were identified in many of the congregations as a way of sharing these assets with the neighborhood.  The most common CSLS identified were partnerships and recognition of individual gifts.


According to McKnight and Block (2012), “Kindness is what you do if you want to have a group of people in community.”  It is a way of relating that is full of love, care, and respect while being aware of another’s vulnerability and softness.  Kindness has the ability to heal emotional wounds.  It is fostered by creativity and nurtured through the sharing of stories (McKnight & Block, 2012).  The intangible asset of kindness is abundantly available in the Washburn, Powell, Poage, and Hamilton neighborhoods through the religious congregation subjects of the study.  Kindness is shared through the tangible assets of people, social justice advocacy, and communal prayer and worship.  It is also offered through the CSLS of partnership.

Two of the congregations interviewed embrace their neighbors in need as part of their church family instead of viewing them as outsiders to whom they minister.  Pastor Chris Crye at the Neighborhood City Church explained:

Most of the churches that I deal with are talking about people like that – this is a people that we are ministering to.  They come to us and what do we do with them?  We fold them into our congregation.  You know, we get people around them.  We are those people … We are the people that have needed.  Those are our ushers and our worship leaders.  They are the ones working within the context of the church.  They are key people.

Respectively, this kindness of inclusion is offered regardless of whether a person actively participates in parish life at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.  Pastor Mark Jolivette considers everyone who walks through the doors whether they are homeless or suffering mental illness as his parishioners.  By including the marginalized in their vision of church community these congregations offer the type of kindness that can heal the wounds of isolation.

Our Savior’s extends this kindness of inclusion from inside the neighborhood to the LGBT community throughout the area.  The church joined Reconciling in Christ (RIC), a program for Lutheran congregations seeking to become welcoming places of worship to people with alternative sexual orientations, when they were struggling to understand how to best respond to this need.  At the core of being an RIC church community is the commitment to advocating for gay rights and equality.  Since coming out to the La Crosse community as a LBGT friendly church, their membership has increased as individuals and families from near and far have flocked to Our Savior’s in order to be a part of a religious congregation where they can openly be who they are without fear of discrimination or hatred.  Our Savior’s continues to grow as more people hear their message of hospitality and safety in being who God created them to be.

Hospitality is offered to all through the prayer and worship practices of the congregations.  Both Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s United Church of Christ offer open communion to whoever comes up to receive; no questions asked.  “They will sit in the back seats, and they may sleep the whole church service and then they walk up the aisle for communion.  What do I do?  Well, there is only one answer”, explained Pastor Jolivette of Our Savior’s. “Somehow we have to live out this welcome and this acceptance and this embrace.”  This sentiment is echoed by Pastor John Parkyn at St. John’s, “We do that pretty much because we have walk-ins all the time and we don’t know who they all are.”  Pastor Parkyn also chooses to use the Revised Common Lectionary for their worship services to provide familiarity for guests and other infrequent attendees.  The lectionary provides a three year cycle of readings for each Sunday of the year so the same bible passages are being read in a large number of churches on any given Sunday.  This provides for a unity in liturgical storytelling regardless of what church location an individual may be worshipping.  First Evangelical Lutheran Church offers “The Path”, a contemporary café-style worship service in their fellowship hall every Sunday.  Pastor Roger Saks explained they recently started it “ to reach out to people who may not be so attracted to the traditional form of worship in the church, and it is a more casual form of worship” featuring coffee and praise music complete with drums and guitar.  The Sunday worship practices of these congregations demonstrate their commitment to hospitality to the stranger.

The intangible asset of kindness is also prevalent in the CSLS of partnership.  Our Savior’s partnership with the RIC program offers kindness and acceptance to the LGBT community and their families.  St. John’s has developed a sort of partnership with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, both in which Pastor Parkyn holds leadership positions.  They have been troubled with various national-level controversies over the years.  Many churches that had hosted troops and packs distanced themselves from scouting in the wake of the controversies.  Instead of distancing, St. John’s has chosen to embrace and support the programs.  They have recently started hosting a Girl Scout troop that is lead by a congregation member and includes several girls from the neighborhood who do not attend St. John’s.  The church also allows both scouting programs to use its facilities free of charge for local meetings and region-wide trainings.  St. John’s chooses to recognize the softness and vulnerability of the scouting programs with the decline in numbers and troop closings, yet focuses on the good offered youth in an effort to sustain what the programs have to offer through their partnership.

The church congregations studied all offered love, care, and respect to their neighbors.  They do this by offering unconditional welcome into their church families.  They open their doors and welcome people in for who they are.  In many instances, a special welcome is offered to the “leper”, to those who have no home because of some vulnerability. This welcome extends beyond the church doors in word and deed to the surrounding community, oftentimes through partnerships with other programs.  Kindness is abundant in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.


True generosity can only be experienced in the context of abundance.  It is to make an offer for its own sake, not in exchange for some value.  It is given with no expectations in return.  True generosity is not charity.  Charity is given within the context of scarcity.  Pastor Crye of Neighborhood City Church notes that charity is not generosity because it involves a false relationship.  Those with the resources “come with a God-complex” and those who do not have access to the resources play the victim.  “So in this place we do a little dance together and we’re diminished in it because that’s not our identity.  That’s not human dignity.”  Generosity is giving for the goodness in giving.  The church congregations studied offered true generosity to the neighborhood through the tangible assets of people, financial support, and the sharing of food.  Generosity was also expressed in the CSLS of partnership.

Generosity, in the purest form of the word, is best expressed by the individual members of congregations, often in unorganized capacities.  Neighborhood City Church has several members who work as accountants and CPAs.  Pastor Crye is aware that several of them help other attendees with tax preparation and personal finances.  Pastor Saks talked about a small group of men from First Evangelical Lutheran who make the rounds to neighborhood homes of the elderly, helping with raking leaves and shoveling snow.  This group is now becoming elderly themselves and Pastor Saks hopes younger parishioners will step forward in their place soon.  There is a small contingent of Our Savior’s parishioners who joined specifically because they wanted to belong to a church active in social justice issues.  These members are key volunteers in the church’s Come for Supper and Women’s Clothes Closet ministries. Pastor Parkyn shared a story about the generosity of some of St. John’s members and how it was the seed for further generosity.  Each year the church selects four needy children to give Christmas gifts.  One year they selected the family of a woman who had recently returned to the church after a bitter divorce with another church member.  This act of kindness and generosity drew the woman deeply into the church community and she began to ask how she could get more involved.  In the end, she drew St. John’s into collecting school supplies for a county program that is now administered by Catholic Charities.  In all instances these things were done with no strings attached.  They were simply done because these people wanted to do good for another.

Many of the churches are also very generous with financial contributions.  Pastor Parkyn explained that because St. John’s membership is small they do not have the numbers to contribute much volunteer time to projects.  Instead they have formed a congregational mission committee that puts together an annual budget to be given to different charitable organizations, one each month.  St John’s also takes up a special food and cash collection once a month for WAFER to distribute.  The Come for Supper and Women’s Clothes Closet programs at Our Savior’s are funded almost entirely through memorials, individual gifts, and fundraisers with “anything beyond that we’ll absorb into our church budget if we fall short.”

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church offers one of the largest feeding programs in the area.  Come for Supper is every Tuesday throughout the year, including holidays, “because we don’t want anyone to not have a family.” They typically feed 320 people at each meal.  Our Savior’s partners with the Hunger Task Force in order to purchase food at discounted prices, keeping the annual budget around $11,000.  It is staffed by volunteers from Our Savior’s as well as a rotation of volunteer crews from other area churches.    Our Savior’s also offers two hospitality events specifically for the neighborhood community.  This past year they hosted two block parties for the residents of the neighboring HUD apartment towers.  The purpose of the events was to allow neighbors to get to know each other, not to try to increase church membership.  They simply wanted to extend welcome by saying “here’s a free meal, just come and we’ll play bingo together and we’ll talk and get better acquainted … No strings attached.”  Both hospitality events were hosted in an effort to generously give food and companionship to whoever arrived with no expectations of behavior in return.

Once again, forming partnerships is the best CSLS for these congregations to optimize the amount of generosity offered the neighborhood community.  The majority of the churches studied said they were listed on a resource list distributed by the Salvation Army to homeless people who come to them for assistance.  These people spend their day visiting area churches in the hopes of getting help with their immediate needs.  St. John’s, First Evangelical, and Our Savior’s all offer Kwik Trip gas cards to those who are living out of their vehicles.  Our Savior’s also has developed a partnership with Catholic Charities to help connect people with financial and other crisis assistance.  The congregation makes a monthly financial contribution to Catholic Charities who then administers it to people in need.  Pastor Jolivette also holds a position on the Catholic Charities advisory board.  Neighborhood City Church has recently formed a partnership with Gundersen Health System and other area civic organizations in providing computer and internet access to people without these services.  The organizations have donated their old computers to the church in order to build a small computer lab for church members and their friends to use in order to apply for jobs and access the new government healthcare marketplace.  In each instance, working together on a specific asset enabled the congregation and the organization to maximize the impact of the asset shared with the community.

The church congregations studied offer various tangible assets to their neighbors with no expectation of reciprocity.  These offers are made purely with the intention of sharing abundance with someone who could benefit.  Sometimes the generosity is offered in an unstructured or random manner, while other times it is offered through a structured church program or formal partnership.


Cooperation is the opposite of competition.  Competition is how relationship is expressed in a culture of scarcity.  Individuals and organizations strive to be better than others to demonstrate power and control of resources.  Cooperation is how individuals and organizations relate in an abundant community.  There is no need for power or control when everyone has access to the available resources.  There may still be disagreement over how to use the resources, however all parties involved enter the conversation in the spirit of sustaining the relationship because everyone comes to the table as equals.  There is no need for power-brokering, only consensus.  The intangible asset of cooperation deeply saturates the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  It is most evident in the CSLS of partnership and recognizing gifts employed by the religious congregations studied.  The tangible assets of advocacy, prayer and worship, and people were also excellent cooperation transmitters.

Several of the religious congregations interviewed partner with other La Crosse area churches in facilitating the La Crosse Warming Center.  Pastor Parkyn from St. John’s United Church of Christ told the story of how the Warming Center came into existence through the cooperative efforts of many congregations committed to providing a safe place for homeless people to stay during the winter months:

Originally there was some sort of an evening only shelter down by Gundersen.  I can’t remember where it was located.  That’s how this whole thing got started.  It wasn’t big enough, and whoever was sponsoring it, the hospital wanted to get it out of it.  So all of the churches’ first thought was that they were going to move it from church to church to church, well…  With what it takes in the city for permits, plus in a practical sense…  How would you tell people who don’t have a home what the schedule is going to be?  So the decision was that people would volunteer, but we’d in effect have a single church do it.  And so the Baptists took it, and we all send volunteers over to that church.

The La Crosse Warming Center partnership is an excellent example of how religious congregations from an assortment of denominations came together despite theological difference to problem-solve how to continue to provide access to warm shelter for area homeless, many of whom have strong ties to the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  There was disagreement as to the best solution for relocation, but the congregations stayed with the process until a consensus was formed on how to proceed into the future.  They pooled their tangible assets of people, finances, and facility together to provide a valuable service that none of them could provide alone.

Cooperative partnerships tend to be the vehicle for advocacy and prayer and worship assets in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood as well.  Our Savior’s Lutheran Church belongs to AMOS, a partnership of area churches committed to “building a more just and compassionate community” (AMOS, 2012) through relationship building, education, and cooperative problem-solving.  Through this partnership, Our Savior’s helps to advocate for restorative justice, food security, affordable healthcare, and immigration; all issues of importance to Washburn-PPH neighborhood residents.  The interfaith partnership creates an advocacy space and presence that is richer than what Our Savior’s could create on their own in the community.  Likewise, St. John’s United Church of Christ convenes a partnership of area churches and other organizations in providing Lenten prayer services to the community.  The partnership formed in response to the issue of declining membership that First Presbyterian, First Baptist, Christ Episcopal, Wesley United Methodist, and First Congregational Churches were all experiencing.  Low attendance at the Lenten services each was offering on their own was no longer making them feasible to offer.  By joining together they are able to continue to offer this important asset to not only their congregations, but the wider community.  Both the Franciscan Spirituality Center and Mayo Health System include the services in their community calendars as a way to invite all people into reflection and fellowship.  Each church takes a turn hosting a prayer service and luncheon during the Lenten season.  Each pastor also takes a turn offering the sermon, however they never offer the sermon at their own parish.  This practice promotes a sense of fellowship across the denominational lines and makes it truly a community event.  Both the AMOS and Lenten prayer service partnerships provide a deeper experience of the tangible assets these congregations offer than they could provide on their own.

This cooperative spirit is also evidenced in congregational culture and the practice of recognizing the human assets within congregational membership.  Pastor Crye sees NCC as being a model of diversity to the wider La Crosse community.  Their congregation is a mixture of middle and lower class, African Americans and Caucasians, highly educated professionals and high school drop-outs.  Despite these wide differences they come together as friends each Sunday to worship and in so doing, “we all come with our assets.  Rather than thinking those are just people who don’t know anything about me and I don’t know what they are going to provide, we start to see those things (assets)”.   Pastor Jolivette speaks of the Norwegian ethos of the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church community:  “If we have to debate something, we’re not going to do anything until we’re in consensus.  It has to pretty much be unanimous.”  Part of this ethos is that the congregation does not call forward people into leadership, however “if you have a dream and you’re willing to do it – good.  Go for it!”  The congregation will see your gifts and your willingness to share them, and support you in your pursuits.  The congregational practice of recognizing human assets within the membership is a cooperative effort.  In a diverse congregation the cooperative tension is between individual members navigating their differences and celebrating the gifts that make them unique.  In a homogenous congregation this tension tends to be between the collective and the individual as they step out to offer their uniqueness to the community consciousness.

Religious congregations in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood offer the intangible asset of cooperation most effectively through partnerships focusing on advocacy and prayer and worship.  Cooperation is also effectively offered through the CSLS of recognizing the gifts of individual congregation members.  The creative tension that exists in these situations is what binds the relationships together as all parties strive to share their assets jointly for the common good.


McKnight and Block (2012) define forgiveness as “the willingness to come to terms with having been wounded”.  It is the uneasy process of accepting these past wounds, both self-inflected and inflected upon us, and finding a wholeness that includes the painful scar.  If we are able to accept the fallibility in this world we will find right action and freedom, the fruits of forgiveness.  The religious congregations studied successfully provide the intangible asset of forgiveness most pointedly through their partnerships and in acting as mediating institutions within the neighborhood.  Forgiveness is also offered through the people, employment programs, and advocacy work with which the church congregations most closely identify.

The most obvious example of a religious congregation sharing forgiveness with the community is the partnership between Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Reconciling in Christ (RIC), an LGBT advocacy program offered by ReconcilingWorks in the Twin Cities.  Lutheran church congregations with the RIC designation are known to be safe havens of worship and community to everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. As an RIC congregation, Our Savior’s commits to being a public advocate for the LGBT community by modeling unconditional welcome and challenging others in the community to do the same.  They welcome back people to the clergy who left because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and promote the ordination of anyone regardless of these factors.  RIC congregations ritually bless long-term, same sex, monogamous relationships.  Encompassing all of these commitments is the commitment to “love one another, meaning we don’t have to agree on this.  What we are going to be united on is love, whichever side of the issue we take.”  Since becoming an RIC church, Our Savior’s membership has grown to include many individuals and families with connections to the LGBT community.  It is a place where they are free to worship no matter who they are or whom they love.  Currently one third of the congregation’s elected lay leadership is in long-term, monogamous, same sex unions.  Since beginning the partnership in 2002, Our Savior’s has come to fully identify with the RIC mission.  Pastor Jolivette describes his future vision for his parish and the wider community:

My goal is to no longer use words like gay or lesbian.  I want a world that has no descriptors, and we’re getting close.  In this community we’re getting close to those words not being used at all because we don’t need to [use them].

RIC helped Our Savior’s to heal past wounds as they first struggled to respond to those who did not feel welcomed.  Years later, they celebrate who they are as an RIC congregation and are encouraged by other area churches like First Congregational Church of Christ who also welcome the LGBT community.  The RIC partnership demonstrates how a religious congregation can offer forgiveness and it leads to action and freedom for not only the church, but the community as well.

While Our Savior’s Lutheran Church tells a forgiveness story about welcoming people into the fold, the Neighborhood City Church offers a story of forgiveness that is about saying goodbye.  NCC is a church plant of Bethany Evangelical Free Church, where Pastor Crye had served on staff for over 14 years.  He and a core group of supporters started the church because they saw a need for “an empowered, multi-cultural Christian community” in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  This founding group was comprised mainly of white, middle class people.  As the church began to welcome the neighborhood into the fold, the congregational dynamics began to change.  Some of the original members were pushed beyond their comfort zones and moved on to other congregations.  While Pastor Crye spoke of this part of the church’s history as a natural transitional period for the congregation, it was obvious that recalling it was difficult and still somewhat painful.  However he expressed deep gratitude for all of the contributions of those first supporters, especially the connections they helped the church to form with area social service agencies and neighborhood community networks.  These contributions have enabled NCC to act as a mediating institution between neighborhood residents and other community resources.  This CSLS is the fruit of forgiveness:  “Our goal of social justice, that’s a product of God reconciling all things to Himself.”

The forgiveness stories of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Neighborhood City Church are both rooted in gratitude and love for the people who have identified with their congregations.  Our Savior’s welcomes those who had once been the outsider into church leadership.  They publicly bless and honor those who are seen as an abomination by others, celebrating who they are and the gifts they bring to the church.  NCC recognizes the important contributions made by those who have chosen to no longer journey with them in their mission.  Regardless of the circumstances under which these people left, they shared their gifts with the church at a crucial time in its history and their impact lasts beyond their physical presence in the congregation.  The Christmas present story from St. John’s also witnesses to how forgiveness is shared in gratitude and love for others.  Considering that the woman’s former husband held a leadership position in the church, despite that she returned to worship with the congregation. This speaks to her capacity for forgiveness.  Likewise, the congregation could have easily shunned her and the daughter for having left town in the wake of the divorce.  Instead they chose to welcome and care for them in a way that drew out the gifts of this woman to share with others. Forgiveness resides in these church congregations because of their ability to see the unique contributions of each person who walks through their doors.

For Neighborhood City Church the intangible asset of forgiveness has blossomed into their Jobs for Life program, a partnership with a national, biblically-based job training program.  Pastor Crye shared the teaching from the Epistles about masters and servants.  It is a teaching on right relationships.  Masters are to take good care of their servants.  They should not treat them cruelly or unjustly.  If you treat your servant well, they will provide you with good service.  Likewise, servants are to work diligently in their duties.  They should not be lazy or ignore their master’s commands.  Giving their best work shows gratitude to the master for the support he offers them.  This is an example of right relationship. It is possible to live out, even if both parties have been hurt by past negative work experiences, when both the master (employer) and the servant (worker) accept who their true Master is – God.  As a Jobs for Life site, NCC focuses on training people in the skills they need to get hired and hold down a job as a hard worker.  Pastor Crye acknowledged that the program doesn’t touch much upon the responsibilities of the employer in this right relationship and hopes to develop a parallel employer program that would then facilitate connecting employers with potential employees.

Several of the religious congregations in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood share deep stories of forgiveness.  The stories contain aspects of CSLS, both partnerships and as a mediating institution, and centered on the tangible asset of people.  Employment and advocacy assets were also important specific themes within each story.


Fallibility is the “willingness to live with people’s imperfections” by accepting instead of changing them (McKnight & Block, 2012).  While accepting fallibility is a part of forgiveness, it falls short of the latter.  Forgiveness is about learning to live with transgressions, while fallibility is about accepting short-comings.  Abundant communities recognize fallibility because it is a reality of the human condition and they can see the gift in it.  Acceptance of fallibility provides wholeness because we are embraced for who we fully are instead of only the nice half (McKnight & Block, 2012).  The church congregations studied offer the intangible asset of fallibility through the tangible assets of people and advocacy, especially when the CSLS of developing leaders through recognizing gifts is applied to those fallibilities.

Neighborhood City Church advocates for the just treatment and understanding of neighborhood residents in the greater La Crosse community.  They have discovered this is necessary because of the culture gap that exists.  NCC identifies most residents in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood as urban transplants and the surrounding community views the neighborhood through their Midwestern, middle class lens.  “We want diversity if everybody becomes like me and kind of looks a little different.   You know, that’s our idea of diversity.”  Pastor Crye sees this evidenced in the neighborhood plan that was put together by Gundersen Health System, the City of La Crosse, and the PPH (formerly PHH) Neighborhood Association:  “The new plan they had … you know it’s not really…  This is one of the most diverse places in La Crosse, but nobody talks about that … taking advantage of the diversity.”  Instead it focuses on homogenizing the neighborhood.

Pastor Crye attended a presentation hosted by the neighborhood planning committee where a city council member spoke about new housing that was being completed in the hopes of attracting doctors to the neighborhood so they could walk to work.  This part of the neighborhood plan, new housing to increase homeownership, does not respect the reality of 80% of the existing residents in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood:  “Where do people go that … don’t have resources or are under-resourced?  No one really ever asks the question about where they go.”  Instead the wider community expects them to change to fit our system, when La Crosse should be learning from them how we can improve our systems to meet changing community needs.  One of the assets Pastor Crye identifies with neighborhood residents is their ability to survive, and in many ways thrive, with limited resources:

I tell people all the time that if the electricity went out and all of a sudden we couldn’t go to the store, I would want our folks to teach me how to live because I don’t … I wouldn’t know how to do it when I’ve got nothing coming in.

Instead of viewing neighborhood residents as outsiders with limited resources, as a fallibility that needs to be hidden or pushed away, NCC chooses to recognize the giftedness of these people, warmly welcomes them into their church community and the neighborhood as they are, and speaks out on their behalf in the public arena.

The willingness to accept others as they are is also a core value of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.  They speak it in the mission statement the congregation wrote upon entering the Reconciling in Christ program:

All are welcome in this church.  The Good News of God’s grace is for all regardless of age, abilities, physical and mental health, race, sexual orientation, education, income, or strength of faith.  There is nothing we do, have done, or will do that can separate us from the love of God.  God makes no exceptions nor do we.  Come join us in praise, prayer, and the work of our Lord.

Pastor Jolivette puts the congregation’s call to acceptance of fallibility within a scriptural context:

Jesus was not picky about who came to the table.  Nowhere in Jesus’ definitions is the word ‘good’.  You don’t have to be good anything.  So Roman soldiers, the enemy, the tax collector who’s working for the enemy, the prostitute … and the poor.  What we have is this table fellowship that Jesus lives out and is constantly trying to get his disciples to understand.

This is the table fellowship centered on the acceptance of fallibility that Our Savior’s Lutheran Church tries to share with the neighborhood community every day.

Half of the religious congregations considered in the study share the intangible asset of fallibility with the neighborhood.  This is accomplished by recognizing the rich human assets within the fallibility surrounding them and boldly lifting them up to the wider La Crosse community.


Presence is the only intangible asset identified in the study that is not a capacity of abundant community as defined by McKnight and Block (2012).  Presence goes beyond the physical location of a church building or visibility of congregation members in the neighborhood.  Presence is the quality of the congregational spirit being felt by residents in their personal lives and throughout the neighborhood community.  It was a subtheme that came up several times through the interviews and fit best within the intangible asset theme.  Presence was most often associated with the tangible assets of facility, food, and people, and the CSLS of mediating institution.

The most common vehicle for presence is the most obvious: facility.  Each of the church congregations studied utilized their facility asset in different ways in order to create a broader sense of presence within the community.  Neighborhood City Church started out as a home fellowship.  They grew to move their offices to a neighborhood storefront and offered Sunday worship services at Lincoln Middle School.  While this arrangement answered their growing need for space it did not provide them with the sense of stable presence they desired in the neighborhood.  They began to look for a suitable facility that would answer all of their needs, but knew it needed to stay in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  Location was very important to this congregation because they needed to remain accessible to those who did not have transportation, as well as to avoid the perception of a church that was coming to minister to the neighborhood as opposed to coming to be a part of the neighborhood.  This limited their options.  However God provided, and they were able to work out an arrangement with a church congregation that had recently closed their doors, but still owned the historic church building.  Since making the church building at Seventh and Ferry their home, Neighborhood City Church has lived into its name.  Of all the religious congregations studied, NCC is a neighborhood church in the truest sense of the word.

St. John’s United Church of Christ utilizes their facility in a very different way that helps sustain their presence in the neighborhood.  They act as a neighborhood community center.  Over the years, the church has transitioned from what was once a large, blue-collar neighborhood church to a small, scattered congregation that comes together to worship on Sundays.  Because of this, the rather large church facility goes unused by the congregation six out of seven days of the week.  Instead of letting the building go unused, they offer its use free-of-charge to the community for meetings, classes, and other group events:  “We pretty much have never said no to a use of something.”  The facility has much traffic coming in and out, especially by people coming for the Jazzercize classes held eight times a week in the basement.  The Jazzercise classes are so well attended the church needed to install better security systems for the building.  All of this has provided St. John’s with visibility in the neighborhood as a destination.  The congregation has also begun to deeply identify with the groups and programs that use their facility, even though St. John’s does not officially host or offer any of these programs themselves.  By offering their facility as a community center during the week, St. John’s has been able to maintain a relationship with the neighborhood even though the number of neighborhood residents who belong to the church is declining.

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church also maintains a relationship with the neighborhood through its facility despite decreasing neighborhood membership.  While St. John’s has had to install a “buzz-in” security system at their facility due to the amount people coming through the doors, Our Savior’s has chosen to keep their doors unlocked during the day despite increasing violence in the neighborhood.  This decision was made so that anyone who needs to access the building or the staff can do so with a sense of welcome.  “I have a parish, if you want to call it that, of people who … if their escalating in a mental health crisis might walk in the door five or six times a day.”  Others come inside to get out of the cold as they are waiting for the bus to arrive at one of the two bus routes that stop right in front of the church.  Our Savior’s leaves their doors open so people in the neighborhood have somewhere to be if they have nowhere else to be.

First Evangelical Lutheran Church maintains its sense of presence in the neighborhood through its facility in the most traditional of ways.  It is a historic church building in La Crosse with the congregation operating out of that location since 1905.  The congregation has been a good steward to the building, making necessary accessibility improvements while maintaining the historic integrity of the original German Lutheran character.  It sits proudly on the edge of the Washburn neighborhood and is a well known La Crosse landmark.  It is difficult to live in the neighborhood and not know where First Evangelical is located.  Through its formidable towers and grand staircase leading up to the front doors, First Evangelical is a constant and noticeable presence in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood landscape.

Another way that many of these religious congregations establish their presence in the neighborhood is by offering food.  Neighborhood City Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church both host neighborhood block parties in the summertime.  These are festive events where the churches offer hospitality to the neighborhood regardless of whether the individuals choose to worship with them.  The focus is building relationships with the people of the neighborhood and being present to them.  Our Savior’s also offers the weekly feeding program, Come for Supper.  People from all over the La Crosse community come to share a free meal, no questions asked.  Come for Supper, as well as their clothing ministry, the Women’s Clothes Closet, have a long-standing, positive reputation in the community, and for many, it is what they identify with when they think of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.  Both programs make them a destination church to access tangible assets in the community.

All of the churches included in this study are present to the neighborhood through the charisma of their pastoral leadership.  Pastors Chris Crye, John Parkyn, Mark Jolivette, and Roger Saks are all involved in the community by serving on various boards as trustees.  Pastors Crye and Jolivette are especially involved with social service agency boards with Crye focusing on government run agencies and Jolivette focused on faith-based organizations.  Pastor Parkyn directs his service towards civic boards and organizations, and Pastor Saks serves in many leadership capacities within the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, most notably as a trustee of the Good Steward Thrift Shop.  Because of their personal community involvement, the congregations they lead are also associated with being present to community needs as well.

As mentioned earlier, both Neighborhood City Church and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church act as mediating institutions between neighborhood residents in need and a collection of institutions offering various resources.  As an institution that helps navigate an individual through the complexities of the social service system they create a sense of home, security, and presence through the interpersonal relationship with the individual that they do not receive from the institutions filling their needs.  The service provided by the congregation in walking with the individual through the process and remaining present to them after the needs are met is what solidifies the church’s presence in the neighborhood.

All of the congregations studied shared the spirit of their presence to the Washburn-PPH neighborhood through the use and physical presence of their facilities and the personal charisma of their leaders.  Several of the churches also shared presence through the gift of food and hospitality and by acting as a mediating institution.


Mystery is the response to the unknown.  It is the sense of being grounded in not knowing the answers and accepting the uncertainness of the future.  Mystery goes beyond acceptance in that it contains a creativity and aliveness that is fostered by letting go of control.  The community’s capacity for mystery is essential for sustaining abundance (McKnight & Block, 2012).  Of all the capacities studied, mystery was the most difficult for the congregational leaders to articulate.  However when it was discussed, mystery was associated with the neighborhood residents, recognized as a gift in their lives, and accessed through a prayer strategy for the common good.

Pastor Crye of Neighborhood City Church recognizes that “the people we’re working with, there is a fluidity to their lives.  They in a sense come and go.”  This fluidity to life is their way of living mystery.  Mystery is a natural part of their lives because they are under-resourced and unable to participate in the consumer culture that so many others in our society submit to in the attempt of creating a sense of security against the unknown (McKnight & Block, 2012).  They are in many ways forced to live in mystery.

Pastor Crye recognizes this gift they hold.  NCC has responded by hosting prayer meetings centering on the polarized state of our country and increasing economic upheaval affecting more and more people each day.  The goal of these prayer meetings is to harvest the wisdom of neighborhood residents living in this fluid state of mystery.  “No one is asking them anything about how to do stuff.  What do we do to contribute to our community …how do we do creative things that we need to do to help people? … Nobody asks them.”  NCC understands we need, as a consumer based society, to include those living on the margins in the conversation because they hold answers we cannot fathom due to of our loss of mystery.  Mystery is recognized as a gift of the marginalized neighborhood demographic that has the potential to be shared with the rest of the community.


The purpose of this study was to identify the tangible and intangible assets being offered to the Washburn, Powell, Poage, and Hamilton neighborhoods by religious congregations, as well as the congregational servant leadership strategies they employ in offering these assets.  From interviews with religious leaders from four church congregations in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood it was discovered that the most accessible tangible assets were the people of the congregations and the people of the neighborhood, as well as the advocacy work being done by the churches.  The interviews also revealed McKnight and Block’s (2012) abundant community capacities were all present in the neighborhoods to varying degrees, with the intangible assets of cooperation and forgiveness being a central focus for several of the religious leaders in terms of church programming and activities rooted in congregational identity.  In addition, the intangible asset of presence was identified by the researcher as a recurring subtheme in the conversations.  Of the seven intangible assets identified, mystery was the most difficult asset for the churches.  While all three of the CSLS suggested by Greenleaf (1996) existed to some extent in the congregations studied, the strategy of partnership was the most effective and commonly utilized in transmitting assets to the neighborhood community.  These findings are discussed in terms of the public role of faith congregations, asset-based community development, and Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership in congregational settings in the hopes of providing insights for future planning in these neighborhoods.

Why Human and Advocacy Assets Figured Prominently

A widely diverse array of tangible assets was identified through the interviews.  Many of these assets came up repeatedly across the interviews, while several were a primary focus for a particular church congregation.  The tangible assets of prayer and worship, food and hospitality, employment training, LGBT ministry, facilities, and financial resources all dominated the conversations.  The human assets and advocacy work of each congregation was a common focus that stood out alone, as well as in conjunction with, other assets during the interviews.

People, both congregation members and neighborhood residents, were the most identified tangible asset in the study.  Half of the church congregations studied are considered mainline Protestant denominations.  According to Ammerman (2002), these churches produce more volunteers than other denominations, especially when involved in the work of community organizations.  In general, people are attracted to congregations for two reasons.  First, they see themselves as contributors connected to a complex richness of individuals.  Second, they measure their contribution in terms of how well they nurture and defend those connections (Gunderson, 1997).  People who belong to churches tend to want to share their gifts with others, whether it is the church congregation itself or the outside people or institutions to which the church is connected.  Because of this, church congregations tend to be a natural source of human talent and skill with the potential to address any neighborhood need (Gunderson, 1997).

Another plausible explanation for why people were the most frequently mentioned tangible asset is because it is in the nature of religious congregations to see people in light of their gifts and how they connect with others.  According to Gunderson (1997) “Spirituality is not primarily about longevity but about perspective – understanding where we fit, who we are in relation to everyone and everything else” (p. 9).  This perspective rooted the theology of the Body of Christ is part of the worldview of the religious leaders interviewed, and therefore the conversations were framed within the context of human talents and how they fit within the congregation and connect beyond the church doors.

After human assets, advocacy work was the next most frequently mentioned tangible asset being offered the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  Historically, mainline Protestant churches have been forums for public dialogue and debate (Cadge, 2002).  According to Wuthnow (2002), six in ten congregation members reported hearing at least one sermon or group discussion on a significant social issue in the past year.   These discussions were most common in congregations with active social ministries (Wuthnow, 2002).  Typically the discussion of social issues in evangelical churches tends to promote public advocacy work by individual members and religious leaders (Wuthnow, 2002), while mainline Protestant churches tend to advocate corporately on behalf of the disadvantaged more than any other churches (Chaves, Giesel & Tsitsos, 2002).  Given the denominational demographics of the church congregations studied, it is expected that advocacy work would be a prominent theme in the interviews.

Advocacy work comes naturally to religious congregations because “the healing ministry of the church to the needs of the poor is one of the most noticeable expressions of the compassion of Christ” (Dimmock & Cassidy, 2011, p. 186).  This intimate relationship enables churches to shed light on the needs of these communities that are otherwise invisible to the wider community.  By their very nature and mission, churches are positioned to reveal injustices and take on the task of raising consciousness (Dimmock & Cassidy, 2011).  Besides being well positioned for advocacy, congregations have earned the authority to advocate on certain issues because they can tell the story in the context of faith, compassion, and community (Gunderson, 1997).  It is the intangible assets offered through the advocacy work of congregations that makes them effective advocates for their neighborhood communities.

Why Cooperation and Forgiveness were Potent

The most frequently referred to intangible asset was kindness.  It was mentioned in association with tangible assets and CSLS in all four of the interviews.  The theme of kindness was lightly sprinkled throughout the study.  However, the themes of cooperation and forgiveness were much more potently present in the conversations.  These intangible assets oftentimes dominated the discussion to the point they were almost tangible in and of themselves.  Because of the startling contrast in how these assets were expressed, cooperation and forgiveness was identified as having a more profound impact on the communities involved than the asset of kindness.

Cooperation and forgiveness were identified as essential to the healthy functioning of most of the religious congregations studied.  Because of this they are highly valued in the churches and shared with the community.  Two significant stories arising from the interviews were saturated with these themes and shed light into why these assets are so potently offered to the neighborhood community.

The first significant story comes from Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in the form of their LGBT ministry, Reconciling in Christ. Pastor Jolivette spoke extensively about their commitment in hospitality to, and advocacy on behalf of, the LGBT community as an RIC church, and how that role fully permeates their identity as a congregation.  As part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, their denomination has been committed to dialogue and debate on the issue of homosexuality for well over 20 years (Cadge, 2002).  The RIC program is the fruit of these cooperative discussions.  In becoming an RIC congregation, Our Savior’s has embraced the cooperative spirit and need for forgiveness valued by the program as part of its identity.  According to Ammerman (2002), it is common for such partnerships to cause congregations to redefine who they are in the midst of the new relationship.  This was evidenced by Pastor Joliette’s concern that all feel welcome at their church, not just the LGBT community.  He talked about their troubles finding a solution to the facility’s handicap accessibility issues.  He mentioned several mindful ways the church reaches out in welcome to those living in poverty.  He even went as far as to call into question the congregation’s facility use policy that prohibits groups who do not agree with the church’s welcoming statement from using the facility because “that is somewhat exclusionary, I mean that’s not 100% welcome, you know, here we are trying to be a welcoming church”.  Statements like that exemplify Our Savior’s deep commitment to forgiveness of past wrongs and willingness to cooperate in even the most difficult of situations.  Because cooperation and forgiveness are so highly valued, when the church veers even one iota away from these values they are startlingly aware of it.  They identify so completely with these values that they would not know how to interact with the neighborhood in any other way.

The second significant story of cooperation and forgiveness comes from Neighborhood City Church in the form of their commitment to being a model for diversity.  Pastor Crye talked about how NCC is rooted in reconciliation in principle, practice, culture, and mission, as well as how cooperation is a necessity in a congregation with such wide variations in income, education, and social status due to racial identity.  NCC seeks to go beyond mere tolerance of each other’s differences to a celebration of the uniqueness of each individual and their cultural identity.  This commitment to racial justice contributes to the continuing development of cooperation within the congregation (Wuthnow & Evans, 2002), however that cooperative spirit may be difficult to maintain.  According to Verter (2002), interracial churches do not hold a distinctive cultural identity therefore the social ties tend to be weak.  Greater cooperation is necessary among members because of this, resulting in a higher membership turnover rate than in culturally homogenous congregations.  Membership turnover is a part of NCC’s story.  The work of cooperation is hard and leaving the dynamics of an interracial church was an easy solution for some participants.  However this part of the story was also steeped in the theme of forgiveness.  In seeking to live out authentic relationship as experienced in the Divine, religious congregations like NCC are called to offer this same forgiveness in the name of God to each other and to the community (Rohr, 2011). This makes church congregations a deep reservoir for forgiveness because “every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us”(Rohr, 2011, p. 56-57).

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Neighborhood City Church are literally across the street from one another.  Seventh Street, between Division and Ferry Streets, is an epicenter of cooperation and forgiveness in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  While denominationally these two church congregations would make an unlikely pair, their shared commitment to cooperation and forgiveness, along with their geographic proximity, make them logical partners.  Allowing the spirit of cooperation to lead the way, Our Savior’s and NCC could work together in bringing healing forgiveness to the Washburn-PPH neighborhood in unprecedented ways.

A neighborhood reconciliation process is needed in order for future neighborhood revitalization efforts in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood to experience sustainable success. Revitalization is more than just painting home exteriors or improving streets.  A revitalization of neighborhood spirit is necessary to engage residents who tend to be disassociated from the development process in distressed neighborhoods (Sampson & Graif, 2009).  Given the diverse nature of the Washburn-PPH neighborhood, the fact that many residents are urban transplants who feel misunderstood by the greater La Crosse community, and that many lifelong residents feel wronged by the city for various things over the years, a reconciliation process would be ideal for healing old wounds so that more residents are willing to share their assets and gifts with the community.  Churches like Our Savior’s and NCC are best suited to lead this aspect of the revitalization process.

Why so Little Mystery?

A surprising discovery was how little mention there was of the intangible asset of mystery during the interviews.  Mystery is the most innately spiritual of the abundant community capacities.  It is the “co-breathing” of God; the true spirituality of “co-operating … a kind of synergy in which both parties give and both parties receive to create one shared truth and joy” (Rohr, 2011, p. 92).  Given that mystery is the spirituality of cooperation, it could be surmised that mystery would be offered along with the intangible asset of cooperation.  This was not the case for the most part.   The interview with Neighborhood City Church, one of the congregations with a deep commitment to cooperation, was the only instance where the theme of mystery arose, however it did not come into play in any of the other interviews.

One explanation could be that mystery does not fit within the Western philosophy of progress and upward mobility, nor in the religious ideals of perfection and holiness (Rohr, 2011). The pastors may have been more focused on providing information within this Western philosophical context.  Those belonging to the evangelical tradition may have shied from the messiness of mystery to engage in conversations centered on ideals instead.  Being that the study was framed within the context of community and leadership development, the pastors may have entered into the conversations from the traditional use of these terms.

Another explanation could be the researcher was at fault.  The interview questions may not have been the best for shedding light on mystery.  Perhaps this theme was hidden within the language of the interview, but the researcher could not access it.  According to Rohr (2011) mystery is participating in life, not merely observing or codifying it.  Mystery may only be accessible in the experiencing of it:

We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace.  When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues (Rohr, 2011, p. 51).

This is where mystery comes into play within the CSLS framework.  The single instance mystery was discussed in the interviews was within the context of recognizing gifts.  If churches are charged with recognizing individual gifts as part of the leadership development strategy for community servanthood, if a church helping individuals to grow moves the neighborhood forward in ways we do not understand, then churches possess an intangible asset that can be further leveraged for neighborhood revitalization by linking resident’s gifts with these efforts.

This idea is counter-intuitive to those working within the traditional community development model.  If the goal is to revitalize the neighborhood as a whole, why should resources be focused on developing individual people?  Resources should be directed to projects and agencies of a wider neighborhood scope.  If the goal is to improve the community, why are we focusing on things that are doing well?  Resources should be directed at fixing areas of weakness.  An answer to this is that church congregations are uniquely positioned to see the hidden gifts of individuals and communities that systems are too encumbered to see.  Because of this churches are able to align assets with neighborhood needs in creatively mysterious ways that provide for community abundance despite the messiness of life.  Churches accomplish this by instilling a vocational call to community involvement in individual leaders and aligning organizational assets through the development of partnerships in a framework similar to the theological concept of the Body of Christ.  As more churches begin to speak mystery into community development it will be difficult for systems to ignore their prophetic voices emerging from the mystery.

Partnership: A Well Developed Congregational Servant Leadership Strategy

This study also investigated the congregational servant leadership strategies that are employed by churches in disseminating various assets to the neighborhood community.  Partnerships and recognition of an individual’s gifts, a subtheme within the theme of leadership development, were identified as the most common strategies used by religious congregations within the Washburn-PPH neighborhood.  Of these, partnerships were utilized by all of the congregations studied.

Mainline Protestant churches are twice as more likely to form partnerships as other Christian churches (Ammerman, 2002).  These churches, together with African American and Catholic churches, are more likely than conservative denominations to form partnerships for policy advocacy in benefit of the community (Ammerman, 2002).  Advocacy, partnerships, and strategic planning are necessary in strengthening and maintaining community assets (Dimmock & Cassidy, 2011).  The tangible asset of advocacy goes hand in hand with the CSLS of partnership.  This was evidenced in several partnerships described in the interviews.  For instance, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church partners with several area churches through the organization AMOS to advocate for various social concerns.  They also partner with the national organization, ReconcilingWorks, in advocating for LBGT rights.

Partnerships that focus on connecting the local level advocacy work of church congregations with larger public organizations in order to mobilize local assets for the greater good is a relatively new idea (Benn, 2011).  In the past, mainline Protestant partnerships focused on charity.  While their scope was more local in nature, their reach extended beyond those within immediate walking distance of the church (Ammerman, 2002).  Partnerships tended to be grassroots oriented with a one-way trajectory of outward influence branching out like a tree.  However the new idea of partnership focuses on a continuous link of relationship between the micro- and the macro-level of community that has the ability to spread as a web of influence.  Churches tend to have good relationships on the micro-level with their congregational members and their immediate neighborhood communities.  When a church congregation partners with a macro-level institution, that partnership facilitates the larger institution in meeting the needs of the micro-level community in two ways.    First, the church uses its creditability to educate and advocate within the community in order to generate support for the cause.  Secondly, it acts on behalf of the larger institution in providing services.  The church acts as intermediary between the larger institution and the community being benefitted.   They are often more successful in administering services because they are “working for God” (Dimmock & Cassidy, 2011, p. 187).

Framing services in this way provides intangible assets, such as forgiveness and fallibility, along with the tangible services being offered to the community that the larger institution is unable to provide on its own.  Likewise, the partnership enables the religious congregation to provide more consistent services than they can alone due to lack of resources (Dimmock & Cassidy, 2011).  This new model of partnership focusing on advocacy and service has the ability to share assets for the common good while spreading the reach of those assets at the same time.  The partnerships between Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and ReconcilingWorks, and Neighborhood City Church with Jobs for Life are good examples of this advocacy/service and micro/macro partnership model.

This new partnership model demonstrates how forming partnerships with existing programs is an effective bridge between success in one community and the needs in another where they can be easily applied and adapted (Gunderson, 1997).  However a significant portion of mainline partnerships are informal cooperative efforts involving diverse groups of recipients and organizations (Ammerman, 2002).  Regardless of whether the partnership is formal or informal in nature, Dimmock and Cassidy (2011) identify several strengths in partnerships between religious congregations and public institutions that make them highly efficient and effective:  1) They provide access to the human assets within a church congregation that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public institution.  For instance, the informal partnership between NCC and La Crosse County Health & Human Services led to an elder and entrepreneur from the Washburn-PPH neighborhood being appointed to an advisory committee; 2) They facilitate quality leadership development.  For example, the partnership between St. John’s and the Girl Scouts resulted in sixteen young women from the church and neighborhood community being given the Girl Scout Gold Award in recognition for their service and leadership to the community; 3) They provide flexibility to test new methods, strategies, and research that the bureaucracy of public sector institutions often prevents them from doing on their own.   For instance, Pastor Crye talked about how social service agencies are often confronted with spiritual crisis in their clients that they are unable to address due to government restrictions and lack of proper training; 4) Partnerships offer co-credibility; and 5) Partnerships facilitate the coordination of services.  This was exemplified in the partnership between Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and the Hunger Task Force in providing free meals on a weekly basis throughout the year.

However, partnerships between religious congregations and public institutions in and of themselves are not enough.  Ongoing leadership development that empowers community members and serves the common good is necessary for efficient and effective community impacts.  According to Dimmock and Cassidy (2011), “Successful partnerships require the promotion of servant-leadership models, which assume that goals can be met through careful alignment and implementation by all who share a common vision” (p. 188).  In order to continue to improve and grow the strong foundation of partnership in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood the intentional application of servant leadership principles, beginning with leadership development, is necessary.

The Need for Intentional Leadership Development

The study attempted to identify the tangible assets, intangible assets, and congregational servant leadership strategies being shared and utilized within the Washburn-PPH neighborhood through religious congregations.  The interviews verified a variety of tangible assets are available to neighborhood residents.  Likewise, all abundant community capacities were identified as being present to some extent, as well as an additional intangible asset of presence.  The Washburn-PPH neighborhood congregations have a solid foundation of partnerships at their disposal in service to the community.  The reflections of these pastors and the programs offered at their churches suggest that the gifts of members and the neighborhood are recognized.  However this is just the first step in Greenleaf’s (1996) vision of developing servant leaders in church congregations for the benefit of the neighborhood community.

Instances of mentoring; supporting the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of leaders; and connecting leaders with leadership opportunities were infrequent throughout the interviews.  This is most likely because of the time intensive nature these commitments are in developing authentic relationships.  All of the pastors ministering on their own talked about how overly busy they are with their basic pastoral duties, leaving very little time for formal leadership development within their churches outside of the church council.  They need help with their leadership duties; however they do not have enough time to develop lay leaders to assist them, much less to serve the neighborhood community.  At the same time, it is imperative for leadership development practices focusing on disciple formation of lay leaders to be developed further to ensure the viability of the church and neighborhood communities (Cutts, et al., 2012).

The Most Rev. Martin Amos, Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, IA understands the growing need for organized church leadership development programs.  He identifies the continuing shortage of clergy, the opportunities presented by the rich assets of the laity, and increasing demands on those already in leadership as key reasons why churches need to initiate leadership development in order to remain viable.  It is the calling of the church as we move into the mystery of an uncertain future (Ebener, 2010).

In the book Servant Leader Models for Your Parish Ebener (2010) recognizes churches of all denominations and faith groups, not just Roman Catholic, are currently being challenged to meet needs, especially those located in poor neighborhoods, rural communities, and remote locations, and that leadership development is the only long-term answer.  While the leadership development program he formulates to meet this growing need is based on sound servant leadership principles, experiential learning theory, and the pastoral planning cycle developed by Holland and Henroit (1983), it is does not directly engage Greenleaf’s (1996) vision of congregational leadership development.  Ebener (2010) focuses on leadership development for the church itself, but does not attend to the role of churches in developing leaders for neighborhoods.  A hybrid of Ebener (2010) and Greenleaf’s (1996) servant leadership development models could be developed and implemented in churches as a way of addressing both church and neighborhood leadership development needs concurrently.

In fact, church leadership development should not be separated from servant leadership in the neighborhoods in which they are located because of the religious underpinnings of servant leadership theory.  Leaders are prepared for service to the world through religious formation as a “priesthood of all believers” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 261).  This formation process benefits the church as well because in “undertaking to make them a priesthood of all believers, it will be making itself a different and more vital institution” (Greenleaf, 1996, pg. 262).  Pastor Jolivette from Our Savior’s talked about the priesthood of all believers as a calling to “begin a new relationship and not carry grudges and not drag the past along, which is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer – forgive us our sins, our trespasses, as we forgive.”  The church is called to develop a religious/neighborhood leadership development model centered in servant leadership and the intangible assets of reconciliation – cooperation and forgiveness – in response to an uncertain future.

Greenleaf’s (1996) congregational leadership development philosophy is also the first step in seeking a new theology of institutions.  Society expects the government to address suffering and injustice in our midst through the use of compulsion and financial incentive directed towards institutions.  Instead leadership development should be the first step toward creating institutions committed to caring and serving the marginalized.  This will shift focus from merely understanding the science of institutions to a theology of institution as servant of society (Greenleaf, 1996).  This new perspective will empower the Washburn-PPH religious congregations in becoming servant to their neighborhoods by creating common ground on which to build effective relationships and develop compassionate servant leaders for these institutions.

This raises some interesting questions in regards to McKnight & Block’s (2012) critique of institutions.  In general, abundant community theory tends toward anti-system, noting the limitations of institutions in providing for abundance.  However they are quick to clarify their argument is not against systems, but an observation that they have limits (McKnight & Block, 2012).  The servant leader theology of institutions may be the bridge necessary to close the gap between institutions and abundant community.  The role of church congregations as neighborhood leadership developer is vital in seeding servant leadership theology into institutions.

Given the need for churches to become more intentional in neighborhood leadership development so that assets, especially those that are intangible, can be more effectively shared with the neighborhood in creating abundance, future updates to the Washburn and Powell/Poage/Hamilton neighborhood plans need to recognize the vital role of churches in the community development process.  It is recommended that the City of La Crosse seek federal funding for a church-led leadership development process centered in reconciliation for the next phase of neighborhood revitalization.  Such a community development initiative will heal past wounds so that long-lasting future benefits can be achieved.  Reconciliation-based leadership development is the next step in creating a neighborhood abundant in servant leaders.


The Washburn-PPH neighborhood is one of the most economically impoverished and socially troubled neighborhoods in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  This fact has brought institutions, associations, and local government together in problem-solving ways to address the needs of this community.  However, this neighborhood is also abundant in a number of assets that have the potential to not only address its own needs, but also spill over and bless the surrounding La Crosse community.  Recognizing these assets is the first step towards aligning and leveraging them in creating abundant community.  Several of the church congregations in the Washburn-PPH neighborhood organically engage in congregational servant leadership strategies in sharing these assets with the neighborhood.  An intentional application of these strategies incorporating church and neighborhood leadership development will provide for a deliberate capitalization of these assets resulting in the continued growth of abundant community.  These efforts can be supported by local community development plans by linking federal funding with reconciliation-based leadership development programs in churches.


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We are the sum of all our parts.  No single aspect of ourselves totally defines us; we are a product of our education, our culture, our family life, and our religious upbringing, or lack thereof.  In his book, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, Ninian Smart (2000) identifies six dimensions of belief that shape how an individual perceives and interacts with the world.

This paper is an exploration into what constitutes the worldview of Krista Clements Orlan.  I have used Smart’s worldview dimensions – experiential, mythic, doctrinal, ethical, ritual, and social – to begin to uncover what fuels the emerging servant leader within me.  For each dimension I offer a story or two from my life, and how that story was the seed for a core commitment for me as a servant leader.  This paper is not intended to be an exhaustive study into my worldview – that would require a book-length work – but an initial scratching of the surface to demonstrate my understanding of what makes each worldview dimension unique.  I also hope it helps me identify my immediate strengths as a servant leader so I can grow in my giftedness in service to others.

The Experiential Dimension

Sharp defines the experiential dimension as those individual experiences “of a majestic, terrifying, overwhelming, loving Being, a divine Reality” (2000, p. 55).  These personal religious experiences can be further identified as numinous or mystical.  Numinous experiences encapsulate feelings of the mysterious and fearful while simultaneously being awe-inspiring and fascinating, drawing one further into the experience (Smart, 2000, p. 56).  These intense feelings are in stark contrast to the stillness of feeling typical of the mystical experience.  The individual experiences a release of self and thought that leads to a blissful quietness.

I have experienced the divine in a very tangible way throughout my life.  There have been moments in prayer and contemplation when I have been completely embraced within the presence of God.  I can feel God’s presence with me in the room; filling me with peace and the knowledge I am not alone.  As I grew older the experience transformed into a merging into the Other, not in a way where my Self was lost, but where I became a lilting melody line within a robust symphony.

I have also experienced this merging with Creation when walking in the woods barefoot, the dew dripping between my toes, the trees whispering my name, and the dragonfly escorting me on my journey.  This is where I have experienced the deep knowing I belong because I am part of the whole.  All anxiety melts away because I know I am safe and protected by this Other of which I AM.

A handful of times I have experienced this merging of spirit with another human, my husband Steve.  The best description I can give is “falling into one another”.  It is a very rare occasion indeed, and a moment we have not experienced for many, many years.  It requires a softening of spirit, vulnerability, and willingness from both to neither dominate nor acquiesce in being.  It is as if you both occupy the same space in time, yet beyond the confines of space and time entirely.  It was through these experiences I came to know the very essence of Steve.  We could meld into One, but not lose our sense of identity.  Like a peanut butter cup, when combined we were something wonderfully new that was greater than our essences separate and alone.

My experience of God is somewhere between numinous and mystical.  While I have experienced being one with the Other, be it God or Creation or the Universe, to the point where I no longer feel separate, I never completely lose my sense of Self as described in the traditional sense of the mystical experience.  I liken it to a tree.  I am a leaf, a distinct element of the tree, but a vital part of the tree as a whole.  When someone looks at the tree and is asked, “What do you see?” the observer will identify the tree and then may go on to the specific details of the trunk covered by bark, and the roots that are seen and those far beneath the ground away from view, and the leaves, some of which have begun to turn with the brisk autumn air.  The leaf shares identity with “tree” but never loses its identity as “leaf”.

These spiritual experiences have tempered my sense of individualism in favor of a focus on interpersonal relationship.  Growing up in the United States I was instilled with the power and importance of the individual spirit.  It was important to take care of Self by putting Self first because you could not depend on anyone but yourself to take care of you.  This led to very self-centered thinking in my teens and early 20s.  However after these first experiences of “Self as one with Other” I began to find it increasingly difficult to only focus on my own well-being without also considering impacts on others as well.  These were my personal experiences of Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing – “I am, therefore you are.  You are, therefore I am” (Marshall, 2008, p. 12) – and Desmond Tutu’s definition of ubuntu – “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours” (Marshall, 2008, p. 12) – from which the unconditional love of a servant leader emerged within me.

My experience of unconditional love and connectedness is lived out in my work as a servant leader.  I acknowledge the importance of building interpersonal relationships for healthy team dynamics.  I see the importance of every person’s contribution within an organization, with the leader’s primary role to support individuals in achieving personal excellence for the good of the entire organization.  Most importantly, I attempt to respond to everyone with unconditional love knowing we are equals in imperfection.

The Mythic Dimension

Smart defines the mythic dimension as stories of divine or sacred significance that present an example of how humans should act (2000, p. 71-72).  They can either be false myths or purportedly “true” accounts that offer patterns for right behavior.

My favorite time of the liturgical year is Holy Week, when we tell the last stories from the life of the great servant leader, Jesus Christ.  Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum, is the big servant leader story, the Last Supper.  The evening starts off with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later … If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (Jn 13:6-7,14-15 NABRE)

Jesus understood the best leaders are seen as “one of us”.  The most effective leaders develop authentic relationships with those who they serve through their leadership.  The love from these authentic relationships is what generates their positive power and authority to lead.  The leader who serves first acts as a model of service to his followers.  They will do likewise and the Kingdom of God will be built.  As a servant leader I contribute to the building of the Kingdom through my service that leads to the development of servant led cultures in the organizations of which I am a part.

This story offers more than just an example of a leader in service.  It is also a story of unconditional love.  This past spring I had the opportunity to learn and experience washing of feet through the practice of reflexology.  Touching another’s feet is healing, relaxing, and promotes positive relationship.  It is a very vulnerable and intimate feeling when baring your feet to another and allowing them to be touched.  I experienced nervousness at first, but that was soon replaced by a total feeling of calm, love, and acceptance, both in the receiving and the giving.  Placing ones hands on the feet of another is a harmonious action; it is very difficult to be angry with someone when they are touching your feet.

Service as an act of unconditional love is what separates the servant leader from others who serve.  It is what transforms the servant into leader.  Service can be performed without love, as a transactional response, however this service will wither and fail to pass on to others. Service with love grows within the person who receives it and emerges as servant leadership.  My goal is to serve with love.  This evening my husband validated my commitment to this goal by recognizing all that I do is motivated by love for others.  His comment was a welcome affirmation that I continue to grow as a servant leader.

The Doctrinal Dimension

Doctrine is any particular principle, position, or policy that is taught and advocated by a religious or governmental institution (, 2012).  Smart identifies five functions of the doctrinal dimension.  First, it gives order to teachings contained within religious narrative.  Perhaps a religious practice appears contradictory to what is contained in scripture, so a doctrine is articulated that justifies the practice within the broader teaching.  Another function of doctrine is “to safeguard the reference myths have to that which lies Beyond, to that which transcends the cosmos” (Smart, 2000, p. 88).  The narratives express these teachings through image and symbol while the doctrine provides a systematic framework for the teaching.  Doctrines also provide the function of relating religious claims to the current knowledge of the day (Smart, 2000, p. 88).  They synthesize the current understanding of life and the world around us with the teachings illustrated by sacred narrative so as to keep religious claims relevant.  Likewise, another function of doctrine is to keep an individual’s outlook on the world fresh.  A person can apply doctrine to their current understanding of the world and come to a deeper, sometimes revolutionary, way of seeing life and its complexities.  Finally, the doctrinal dimension helps define community.  Everyone who buys into a certain set of teachings is part of the group.  Not accepting certain teachings distances the individual from the group, perhaps to the point where they are expelled from the community.  I will attempt to address all of the functions identified by Smart in my journey with Trinitarian doctrine.

When I was in seventh grade I remember a special religion class at school.  Normally religion was taught by our homeroom teacher, but on this day one of our parish priests came to our room to teach.  It is one of only two times I can recall a priest coming over to the grade school to teach religion.  This instance was to provide the first two functions of doctrine in regards to the Trinity.

To begin Father created a large Venn diagram on the chalkboard to represent the intertwined relationship of the three aspects of the Trinity.  I recall him talking about the council where the doctrine was validated and using words like “nature” and “persons”.  His lecture topic was not new to me – I had heard it all before in previous classes – I understood there was only one God  and three “persons” or aspects that came together to make one God.  I cannot remember what the priest said that I questioned, or what my question was exactly, but I was persistently asking for clarification on the concept and Father was having a very difficult time explaining to us.  Finally in frustration he shouted that some things were simply a matter of faith.  I needed to trust he knew what he was talking about and just believe.

That answer did not sit well with me.  It was the first time I was told not to bother to intellectually understand, but just accept.  It was best that way.  This sounded like the easy way out, for both the priest and me, and I am not one to take the easy path or to just accept what I am told.  Thus my preoccupation with Triune relationships began.

For a while I was preoccupied with applying my experiences of interbeing to the Trinitarian model.  Mary represents humanity and she can be seen as a connecting force between the Triune persons.  Therefore humanity is a conduit for the Divine or, at the risk of sounding heretical (the fifth function of doctrine) humanity is part of the Divine. I drew out Venn diagrams and strained my brain to make connections within the doctrinal dimension where I had so effortlessly made the connections experientially   Now I just need to wait for the next bit of current knowledge to occupy my brain so I can apply it to Trinitarian doctrine and break open the egg.  This is one way I currently wrestle with the third function of doctrine.

I see Trinitarian relationships everywhere.  Utilizing the fourth function of doctrine – applying doctrine to the world around – is second nature to me.  Body/mind/spirit, good skincare regimes, BLT sandwiches, even a rationale for having only one child – the most effective relationships come in threes.  It is this first triplet – body, mind, spirit – that has really held my attention for the last six years.  It is the definition of wholeness, necessary for proper life balance, and a core commitment within the servant leader ideology.

The ongoing process of developing and nurturing authentic relationships as we work our Purpose together is the end goal in becoming a servant leader.  It is the journey into the center of the whole, the center of the Trinitarian Venn diagram the priest drew on my seventh grade chalkboard.  According to business poet David Whyte (1996):

…the gravitational weight of God’s presence, pull[s] us to a center of absolute silence and pure simple beingness.  At that center we work because we love our work, and we love our work because we have chosen the right work, the work to which we belong (p. 241).

We find ourselves at that center when there is a balance in body, mind, and spirit. True Self is revealed as one discovers this balance in being and a desire for just living results.  Purpose is identified when it resonates fully with all three aspects of the True Self, and the work of justice is accomplished.  Finally, right relationship is developed when the body, mind, and spirit of all participants are honored and a just society flourishes.  The transformation into servant leader is an inside-out process of defining a Self reflective of Trinitarian relationship.  It is the lens through which I view my development as a servant leader, and how I want to help other servant leaders emerge so that we are doing the work that is ours to do.

The Ethical Dimension

According to Smart, “the ethical dimension of a religion or worldview is shaped by the other dimensions, but it also helps to shape them” (2000, p. 104).  While the moral environment of our upbringing may have been influenced by religious experiences, favorite scripture stories, church teachings, and the like, our unique moral fiber is likely to have made certain experiences, stories, and teachings resonate for us in poignant ways.

I attended Catholic schools for over sixteen years of my life, from first grade until I obtained my undergraduate degree, and now into graduate school.  All of these schools were staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  The woman who I am is a product of their commitment to quality academics and their Franciscan values of contemplation, hospitality, integrity, stewardship, and service.  I was not aware of my Franciscan indoctrination at the time.  The sisters were very low key with their evangelization.  Just like Francis, they spoke with their actions more than their words.

Through the discernment process in becoming an FSPA Affiliate I have had the opportunity to reflect upon the impact these women, and their values, have had on who I am and my way of being in the world.  I need a contemplative life in order to feel sane and whole.  I am not one to make a hasty decision.  I consider the facts and contemplate the impacts my ethical decisions have on others.  I am a “people person” who loves to celebrate others with ritual and cheer.  I seek to be Eucharist to others by welcoming them without judgment or condition, the hallmark of Christian hospitality.  I strive to be a person of integrity who can be trusted with responsibility, confidentiality, and forthright effort.  I have a great respect and love for all Creation, and am humbled to be a part of its grandeur.  And all of this leads me to be of service to others, especially the downtrodden and the underdog, anyone who is the modern-day leper.

Three years of intense contemplation on the Franciscan values with which I have been imprinted helped me to begin to recognize my True Self.  The Franciscan values of contemplation, hospitality, integrity, stewardship, and service, along with my core commitments to prayer, ministry, and community as a covenant affiliate are emerging and merging within me as I grow as a servant leader.

The Ritual Dimension

The ritual dimension consists of those things having to do with worship that are part of a person’s religious experience.  It is the practice of movement and action that one uses when worshipping.  It is the prescribed words spoken and sung in praise.  It is the sacred objects used in ceremony.  All of these things come together to form the rituals we use to articulate our relationship with the Divine and demonstrate our understanding of the Sacred.

I grew up attending Roman Catholic Mass on a weekly basis, oftentimes more with school Mass during the week.  My experience of the Mass was always in a post-Vatican II context.  Catholic ritual is very physical, involving a routine of standing, sitting, kneeling, and bowing.  Despite the fact the language of the Mass has always been in the vernacular for me, the sisters at my school made sure we could all speak Latin for special chants and songs.  Recently, the language of the Mass dramatically changed.  The English translation of the Roman Missal was revised in an attempt to make the wording more consistent with scripture.  This has meant 40 years of verbal programming has been upended for me recently.  Catholic ritual also involves lots of “stuff” – candles, statues, tableware, food, books, furniture, clothing, oils, incense, different spaces within the church building – the list is never ending.  All of these items have a very specific use and there tends to be lots of rules that go along with them.  Traditional Roman Catholic ritual, whether it is in the context of the Mass or simply in personal prayer, tends to be codified, ordered, and specific.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist is considered the “summit” of the Roman Catholic Mass.  It is the remembrance and celebration of the Last Supper story where Jesus gave of himself to his disciples in the form of bread and wine.  There is much ritual surrounding all matters related to the Eucharistic, and this ritual has been a formative influence on me.  My family belonged to Blessed Sacrament Church in La Crosse for most of my youth, and I attended their school for eight years.  The school was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  As you can imagine, Eucharistic ritual and theology was emphasized in my schooling and parish community life.  I became well versed in Eucharistic theology and how our ritual illustrates our beliefs. We believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the consecrated host, and that it is a permanent state once achieved.  This is why we treat what appears to be a wafer of wheat as God in our midst, because it is Him. This is also why the leftover hosts are reserved in the tabernacle after Mass, because Jesus needs a holy place to wait until he is consumed by a believer.  The ritual of communion also demonstrates communal aspects of Eucharistic theology.   All are equal in God’s eyes, and the procession to receive communion signifies the solidarity of the Catholic union.  How one receives the host is also important.  We receive the Lord – we don’t take him – and so one outstretches their hands or tongue in order to receive the host.  It is not correct to take or grab the host from the minister. And in receiving the Lord through communion we become One with Him, and with each other, as the Body of Christ.

Of all the worldview dimensions the ritual dimension, in terms of the Eucharist, has shaped who I am as a servant leader the most.  The ritual around Eucharist is a beautiful expression of interbeing.  As I write this I hear the songs we sing during communion in my head:

“We are many parts, we are all one body and the gifts we have, we are given to share” (We Are Many Parts, Haugen, 1986).

“One bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessing which we bless.  And we, though many, throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord” (One Bread, One Body, Foley, 1978).

“Let us be bread, blessed by the Lord, broken and shared, life for the world.  Let us be wine, love freely poured.  Let us be one in the Lord” (Lets Us Be Bread, Porter, 1990).

We are all joined together in this sacred meal.  Not only do we share of it equally, but we become what we eat, and we are called to share what we have become with each other.  As a servant leader I am called to share my gifts of service and enable others to do likewise. As part of “one body” I must respect and honor all the other parts, lest I dishonor myself.  I cannot lead alone in the tower.  I must be surrounded by my community, my team, in order for us all to succeed together.

The Social Dimension

The cultural norms of the community of which we are a part shape our worldview through the social dimension.  These norms can be generalized to most members of a particular society.  This is changing with the advent of more sophisticated communication technology, namely the Internet.  In both small-scale societies and large, the trend towards pluralism and secularization is blurring the definition of what it means to be a member of a given cultural community.  I have experienced this blurring of culture and belief as a Gen Xer living in America, both culturally and religiously.

I am a cultural mutt.  I am 100% American.  I always chuckle to myself when people start talking about their heritage because most people list off three to four nationalities while I am aware of at least seven countries from which my ancestors came.  It is apparent my ancestors did not have the hang ups with mixing outside of their cultural group that were common in early America.

With the dilution of my blood came a dilution of culture as well.  I did not grow up surrounded by the cultural traditions of one specific nationality.  My enculturation was piecemeal.  Grandpa Fredrickson insisted on having lutefisk and lefse at our family Easter meal every year; that is what I know about being Norwegian.  My German heritage was expressed in lots of food and beer surrounding all celebrations, and dancing the polka at any gathering that was so large as to require renting a hall to hold everyone.  My Polish roots can be seen in my love for big patterned clothing, and the Bohemian in me is expressed through my free spirit, my love for travel, and my ability to adapt to whatever new community I find myself a part.

All other influences have been lost in the mix of American culture.  We celebrated the secularized holidays of Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter in the typical way of most Americans (scary costumes, Santa Claus, turkey, and big bunny).  As a Catholic, the religious aspects of these holidays were emphasized in our home and at school, but this focus often took a backseat to the secular traditions of the day.

My family has a history of religious mixing as well; also uncommon in early American society.  I have a set of great-grandparents who were Protestant/Catholic and one who was different flavors of Lutheran (German/English).  One set of grandparents were Lutheran/Catholic until Grandma finally convinced Grandpa to convert to Catholicism after the children had all grown up.  The openness to differing religious perspectives has been carried on by my sister who married a Shiite Muslim and has converted to Islam herself.  The idea that love knows no barriers is evident in my family history.

How has this melding of culture and religion in my life shaped me as a servant leader?  I am very welcoming of the “other”.  I don’t judge someone based upon their label; I look to their character and spirit to define who they are.  I am comfortable around lots of different types of people, and can easily assimilate into their customs and traditions since I was not raised within a closed box of custom.  I do not seek to pigeon-hole people because I have a hard time pigeon-holing myself.  And I have learned that love is a very powerful force.  It can overcome all obstacles if the love is strong.  Love can build bridges and close gaps.  Every good relationship has its basis in love.


Through the course of this paper I identified a number of core commitments in servant leadership that emerged from certain dimensions of my worldview:  adaptability, balance and wholeness, and justice to name a few.  However three core commitments came up repeatedly in several worldview dimensions:  service, connectedness or interbeing, and love.  These three commitments define who I AM.  They are the essence of Krista Clements Orlan.  They are the seeds of the emerging servant leader that I am.  It is now my work to tend to these seeds as I continue to grow and blossom as a servant leader.


References (2012). Retrieved from

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Smart, N. (2000). Worldviews: Crosscultural explorations of human beliefs. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2012).Evening mass of the lord’s supper. Retrieved from

Whyte, D. (1996). The heart aroused: Poetry and the preservation of the soul in corporate america. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.




by: Thomas Porter

© 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights administered by GIA Publications, 7404 South Mason Avenue, Chicago, IL 60638.

All Rights Reserved


by: John Foley, SJ

© 1978 John B. Foley, SJ and New Dawn Music. All rights administered by GIA Publications, 7404 South Mason Avenue, Chicago, IL 60683

All Rights Reserved.


by: Marty Haugen

© 1986 GIA Publications, Inc. (Renewed) All rights administered by GIA Publications, 7404 South Mason Avenue, Chicago, IL 60638.

All Rights Reserved.

ImageIn 2008 the United States experienced a contentious presidential election that resulted in the first African American being elected as President.  It was within the milieu of divided political discourse leading up to this election that Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of ethics at Claremont School of Theology, penned her contribution to the topic of religion and politics, Christians in the Public Square.

The overarching purpose for Marshall’s book is to encourage engagement in democratic discourse by people of faith.  There has been an increasingly vocal segment of the US population who believe there is no place for faith or religion in politics.  Their position is that our country supports a separation of church and state, and therefore political candidates and activists should refrain from making statements of faith in their rhetoric.  However there are others, namely those from fundamentalist perspectives, who speak openly about the tenets of their faith and how they apply to politics.  Their rhetoric tends toward absolutism, authoritarianism, and divine endorsement, which is cause for the great divide currently being experienced in the square of public debate.  These are problematic features within the general state of our current politics.  There has been a continuing stalemate between the left and the right where no middle ground can be found, and it is paralyzing multiple levels of government.  Discerning individuals, me included, are exasperated by the lack of movement towards solutions this divide has created.  In response to our feelings of frustration, many of us have chosen to quiet our political opinions, or have disengaged from the political process entirely.  Marshall calls us back to the table and offers us insight into how to engage in crucial political conversations in constructive ways.

When we do come to the table Marshall invites us to place our faith squarely on top; there is no need to hide it beneath our napkins.  “We must do so because our faith is a deeply held part of who we are and therefore cannot be excised”, states Marshall (p. xiii).  Our faith informs our conscience and shapes our commitments to various social issues.  It is an essential component of political discourse and should be honestly shared as an informing resource.  Drawing upon liberal theology’s traditions of critical inquiry, freedom from religious certitude, and historical understanding, Marshall proposes three commitments when sharing faith in the public square:  unconditional love, moral ambiguity, and theological humility.  By practicing these commitments, people of faith can share their convictions in a constructive way that leaves the door open for transformation – a transformation of self, the other, the issue, and democratic discourse itself.

Marshall’s thesis holds that as more people begin constructively sharing their faith in the public square, the overall tone of political rhetoric will change from divisive to inclusive.  She admits practicing love, ambiguity, and humility in the current political landscape is difficult.  She understands such methods are seen as politically ineffective compared to statements of certitude.  However the only way to change the course of current political discourse is to begin making changes on an individual level.  As more individuals advocate for social change utilizing the above mentioned principles, a climate of compromise will be established and movement towards justice and truth will ensue.  Marshall echoes the political tension between absolutism and compromise as detailed by Hellwig (Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life), but takes the argument a step further by offering a practical solution and challenge to the reader.  If agape, moral ambiguity, and theological humility are practiced in the public square we will all move closer to the truth.

Marshall proposes an interesting challenge that is still pertinent as we enter into the next presidential election.  Throughout the book she illustrates her argument using stories from life as a university professor and presenter.  These narratives are compelling and the language of storytelling flows easily.  However this flow is not matched in the majority of the book as Marshall fleshes out her argument.  The phrasing is stilted, and oftentimes redundant, making for a book that could easily have been distilled into a well-thought article.  In what seems to be another lengthening effort, an additional argument in defense of liberal theology is offered in the conclusion of the chapter on theological humility that I find an unnecessary appendix diverting focus away from Marshall’s central argument (p. 103-105).  While she does make a tie between liberal theology and theological humility, the connection is not strong enough to warrant the distraction.

Despite being unnecessarily verbose, I find Marshall’s thesis to be well thought out and of sound persuasion.  In the conclusion she sums up the arguments for how a commitment to constructive political activism is a positive transformational force in the public square by articulating how each practice works within the processes of deconstruction and creation.   Even though Marshall never uses the phrase “servant leader” in her work, the conversation guidelines she proposes and the challenge she submits would be well heard by servant leaders everywhere.  She calls for leaders to speak from a place of authenticity, vulnerability, and humility with the purpose of building relationship in the hopes of strengthening community.  This is difficult work, and service to the common good for whoever is willing to take it up.

As someone who is tired of the vitriol that is common place in public and private debate, I welcome anything that will disrupt the status quo and create new possibilities for consensus and compromise.  Marshall offers the most compelling and practical case for doing so that I have encountered thus far.  It is now up to her readers to put her thesis into action and institute the change.


Hellwig, M. K. (2005). Public dimensions of a believer’s life: Rediscovering the cardinal virtues.  (p. 45-54). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Marshall, E. O. (2008). Christians in the public square: Faith that transforms politics. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from

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