Community Engagement Pedagogy
by Dr. Sam Marullo and Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.
At Wesley’s Institute for Community Engagement, we have developed a pedagogy of community engagement that is contextually sensitive, inspired by scripture, and seeks collaboration with the Reign of God. It is contextually sensitive because it is grounded in the location in which exists—culturally, sociologically, politically, economically, and religiously—and the various intersections among these dimensions. It is inspired by scripture because we are continually drawing upon the sacred stories of our faith, as contained in scripture, yet continuously renewed and applied by the communities of faith that revere and challenge those stories. And at the core of this model is our understanding of the Reign of God—a vision of a world of justice and righteousness, peace and reconciliation, human flourishing and the sustained wholeness of creation—that is both present among us and is yet to come in its fullness.
We have named this pedagogy the 4-I model of community engagement for ministry, based on the four reflective practices on which it is based: inquiry, imagination, incarnation, and immanence. Our 4-I model is inspired by the appreciative inquiry model, first defined by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, (see note below) but is adapted for ministry entrepreneurship in the context of community. Our teaching in the urban and missional fellows’ programs is based on this 4-I model of community engagement. It draws on the perspectives and tools of appreciative inquiry and asset mapping and applies them to ministry entrepreneurship. Appreciative inquiry directs us to look to see what already exists and what is good about it with respect to the flourishing of the community. Asset mapping helps to direct us toward the tools and resources that exist in a community in a comprehensive way, including the entire range of assets from individual to groups to institutions to physical and financial resources.
The first reflective practice integrated into our model is Inquiry—the systematic examination of the world as it is. We look at both the challenges of the world around us—the places where we see God’s heart breaking—and the gifts and blessings that are already present in the community. We “look”—using observational and research tools—to understand the community context and the ministries already in place. We enter into the community with an understanding and appreciation of the cultural complexity it contains and a sensitivity to its diversity. We enter with humility understanding our role as outsiders and with gratitude for the hospitality offered. We enter with our questions to learn from the community the strengths and values that bring it life. We enter with eyes and hearts that are open and keenly seeking the presence of the Holy Spirit in order to appreciate the reconciling and redeeming work that is already underway.
The second reflective practice is Imagination—asking ourselves what could be, if God’s will were done on earth as it is in heaven. We seek wisdom from those that have come before us, learning about “promising practices” of other ministries engaged in similar ministries in other locations. We look to our tradition and our sacred stories for inspiration as to how we are to respond. We enter into relationships to understand better the wisdom and inspiration of the community with which we are engaged. And we pray for the guidance and wisdom of the Spirit to inspire us with glimpses of the Reign of God that will draw us in closer.
The third practice that we promote in the fellows seminar is Incarnation. Christians typically speak of Jesus becoming incarnate in human form and being with us. God literally becomes human and experiences all the particularities of life. For students seeking to be entrepreneurial in ministry this means learning and practicing in a contextual manner. The expectation is that fellows will be in a ministry setting outside of the seminary where they can explore the ideas they are learning in class and bring back ideas they are learning from their site.
This type of experiential learning is not new. What makes our approach different is students are expected to be in a setting for at least two years where they are collaborating not just with the site placement, but also the surrounding community. Being incarnational requires connecting with individuals who have a stake in a particular community. This means connecting with religious leaders, parishioners, residents, business owners, unhoused individuals and all others. This approach broadens students learning experience so that it is not simply church or agency focused. As the student’s understanding of ministry takes shape, the student is invited to live into that ministry in the context of their ministry setting.
The fourth practice we promote in the fellows seminar is Imminence. For Christians this term focuses on our hope for the transformation that is occurring and is yet to come. As Christians we are participating in God’s work of transformation while encouraging those in the community to live into what God is doing. For fellows this means working with the partners in the community to make a concrete difference. The word concrete signals doing something that is measurable to the extent we can learn from it. It is at the same time understanding that the work we do is never the final word and that God’s work of transformation is on-going. The seminar helps students to think about and address the on-going challenge that even when we are doing well in a community the work of transformation continues.
We have briefly highlighted what we endeavor to share with the fellows in the seminar class. We want them to be inquisitive and learn about the community. We want them to have great imaginations so that they do not close down any possibilities. We want them to incarnate themselves in the context to learn from and share with others. We want them to know transformation is always imminent. We see these as the four key practices of community engagement.
Note: Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, The Power of Appreciative Inquiry (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003).