One very cold evening in early February I was in the basement of St. James Church with Pastor Paul and a few of his congregants to discuss its future in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The church is cavernous, but lists only a handful of remaining members and operates on a shoestring budget. On this evening, the heat was set at 55 degrees, as we sat there in our jackets and scarves.
On the agenda was how to stay true to the church’s purpose, as well as its mission of service and hope, and a greater role in supporting child welfare-involved families was up for discussion. Family support and preservation initiatives spring from multiple motivations. This one felt inspired by the calling to serve and an instinct for survival.
The pastor began the meeting by reading from Corinthians, chapter nine, verse 24.
“…Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one wins the prize…they do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever…”
His recitation of this passage is what I refer to in my consultation work as “clarifying the why.” He was laying out the greater good, their reason for being — the most important first step for any community collaboration. It’s related, but different, than a mission statement or a set of goals and outcomes. It’s the task almost everyone misses, including consultants like myself.
Without an agreement on values and purpose, the partners begin going in different directions, acting as if everyone else agrees with their thinking. People start answering questions no one has asked. Without any community engagement, they rush to pitch solutions for undefined problems. They immediately begin to occupy themselves with compliance tasks or whatever else is on the implementation checklist. It’s like a stage full of all-star musicians with no playlist.
I watched as the pastor got everyone in the room centered. This man is a combination of patience and commitment, with street-seasoned instincts, who is highly regarded by his flock. He followed his reading of the Bible passage by telling people that they were there for a greater good and for a singular purpose. Each of them knew that, but he understood the need to remind them and put a floor under the conversation.
As the evening went on, there was a consensus that they would first engage the full congregation, and then the neighborhood in conversations about how they could, as one member said, “become a beacon of hope for the community.” They can find their “what” now that they clarified their “why.”
Some groups come to the values statement more quickly than others, but it can also be a tedious exercise. I’ve worked with groups that have circled around this question for a few months before they find their way. Being transparent about purpose and values is a part of the systems change process that is new to many child welfare agencies. This exercise involves honesty about the flaws and shortcomings of the past, as well as a brave commitment to an uncertain future. In addition, we are trying to satisfy a wide range of stakeholders and then embed those values into everything we do — every day.
Values-clarifying activities aren’t superfluous and should be taken seriously. They have a practical element. A clear values statement helps us to attract and retain passionate, talented professionals, engage like-minded residents from the community and sets us apart from other organizations that are mostly transactional, not relational or purpose-driven. All this benefits the families seeking help or support.
As a consultant, I’ve never felt it was my role to articulate the values for a community-connected effort. I wouldn’t presume to understand the core belief system of people whose life experience is different than mine and who have been generous enough to invite me in for this conversation.
If, like this pastor and his congregants, a group articulates a set of values driven by a belief in their higher power, so be it. Or if another community sets forth a statement based on the values of equity and inclusion or violence reduction or the sanctity of family life, it’s all good. Mostly, I want to be certain of two things — first, that they address this step of clarifying their values and second, that they trust that I will respect and honor what they have identified.
If external actors impose their own personal agendas onto a community conversation, no matter how noble they might seem, how can they distinguish themselves from the child welfare practices and policies that have been so much a part of our history? As helpers, we need our own belief system, as well as a moral compass that will influence the quality of our work with families. But I also know that top-down, vertical conversations have been part of our DNA for decades.
We should correct our legacy in the work of child welfare of telling people what we think they need to know. As helpers in a community, we should unabashedly embrace the value of self-determination. Regardless of our cause, our own experiences, or our social justice beliefs, when we come alongside others as helpers, it’s their path to choose.