Rev. John Edgar to conference leaders: Focus on assets to create positive change

October 08, 2015

By: Christa Meland

View photos from gathering / Watch video of Rev. John Edgar talking about asset-based community development

“If you look at any ministry, ultimately it’s working because of its assets and its resources,” Rev. John Edgar told about 50 Minnesota Conference elected leaders gathered at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis on Saturday, a day of learning and discussion.

But too often, when thinking about what churches can do in their communities, we start by looking at needs and deficiencies.

“We get so preoccupied with ‘there’s a need’ or ‘there is something broken’ that we don’t realize that…achieves absolutely nothing because you can’t build anything with nothing,” Edgar said. “You get from dreaming and talking and yearning to actually doing something when you assemble the assets.”

Asset-based community development

That’s the principle behind asset-based community development, which Edgar introduced and urged attendees to apply in their own settings. Edgar leads Church for All People and Community Development for All People, both in Columbus, Ohio.

Community Development for All People began 16 years ago as a free store. Seventy-eight churches in Edgar’s district were asked to donate household items to give out in a rented store front. The idea took off and has continued ever since, and the free store gave out $2 million worth of merchandise in 2014. Leaders also built upon the free store with the help of community partners.

“We began listening to people’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations and tried to develop ministries to respond to what people were yearning to see in their lives,” Edgar said.

In addition to its flagship free store, Community Development for All People now also includes affordable housing, an after-school program, a clinic, a charitable pharmacy, a bike shop, community gardens, and a healthy eating and living program.

Each component was made possible by bringing together the strengths, assets, and resources in the community, Edgar said.

“If we focus on the needs, on the fact the glass is half empty…we talk about services to meet needs, we reduce the people in our community to being consumers or recipients or clients, then we’ll somehow find the next magic program and that’ll make it okay,” Edgar said. “If you look at what’s there, you look at connections and who can make contributions from stuff we’ve already got. Then the people are valued for their sacred worth as beloved children of God.”

Every neighborhood has assets and resources—and there are two assets that never go away: people in our churches and communities, and the presence of God’s spirit. Need-based development focuses on crime, broken families, unemployment, child abuse, drop-outs, and other problems. By contrast, asset-based development instead starts by looking at what’s working—like libraries, parks, public entities, churches, block clubs, schools, and colleges—and builds from there.

“I am personally convinced that one of the chronic ailments of United Methodist folks is this sort of paralysis of analysis,” Edgar said. “We’re sitting around thinking about stuff and not realizing…getting it done is about assembling assets and resources.”

Divine economy of abundance

Edgar also introduced the principle of the “divine economy of abundance,” which he explains like this: “God organized creation so there’s enough of every good gift that if we use those gifts for God’s purposes, we will always have available the assets and the resources that are needed.”

Scarcity, he said, is a myth. It is a consequence of human confusion and human sin. “God made it, God made it good, it’s abundant, and if we take what we have, no matter how meager it seems to us, God will multiply it and there’ll be enough,” he said, noting that there was never a time in the free store’s 16-year history when its 7,000 square feet wasn’t filled from floor to ceiling.

Identifying assets and championing a common vision

 We are all vision-casters, Edgar told attendees. But creating positive change requires everyone rallying around and championing a common vision. And if your current efforts aren’t producing results, asking the same people who came up with the unsuccessful idea to provide another one doesn’t make sense. You must seek information from the edges and reach out to those who have been marginalized, he said.

That advice came from Edgar’s firsthand experience. The infant mortality rate in Columbus, Ohio, was very high, so Community Development for All People came up with a goal of giving every child a first birthday. They organized a birthday party that included a resource fair with all kinds of partners that could help babies thrive and make it through their first year. For example, new and expectant moms received onesies that said “This side up” on the front to remind them that babies should sleep alone on their backs in a crib. Every 90 days, there was another birthday party with additional information and resources to help babies make it to year one. But attendance at the second party dwindled substantially, and organizers didn’t know why. So they sent someone out in the community to ask those who attended the first party why they didn’t come back. What they learned: It’s time-consuming to be poor, and families didn’t have time to go to a party focused on the future when they were worried about the day-to-day—like obtaining disposable diapers, which many couldn’t afford. At the next party, organizers gave out disposable diapers—and attendance went through the roof. Reaching out to those on the margins resulted in an idea that worked.

Edgar asked attendees: What are the three primary assets the Minnesota Annual Conference has to offer to a partner when you are developing new ministries that expand your missional impact? Among the answers that leaders offered: communities that are multi-generational, 360 churches in 360 communities throughout the state, a delivery system (pastors) to churches, and connections to children in each community.

Imagine what you could do, Edgar said, if you take these assets and rally around a common goal. “Start small, tell the story, and welcome in partners”—and you can transform lives and communities in huge ways.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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