To Strengthen Your Work, Enlist Specialists

Specialists can help to navigate a complicated world filled with systems and technologies requiring professional knowledge. Yet enlisting specialists can be fraught. Experts can provide judgments which turn out to be drastically wrong. Other times ordinary people become so skeptical of expert knowledge that they insist on flying by their own misguided lights to the harm of the community they are trying to help. Frank Fischer, a political scientist, points out that conflict between citizens and experts seems to be the order the day. In many issues of public concern, decision making “more and more becomes a struggle between those who have expertise and those who do not.” He argues that we need “to put the relationship of citizens and experts together in a new way.”[1]

The case of Adopt-A-Family shows what can go wrong when we fail to enlist specialists. Paul Lichterman, a sociologist, studied this faith-based program, whose purpose was to pull African American families out of poverty. Sponsored by a cluster of evangelical churches, the program intended to improve the lives of low-income families by building strong ties to middle class volunteers from churches in the area. Adopt-A-Family centered its model on the concept of “Christ-like Care.” In this model, specialists would not be required, and would only hamper the operation of Christian love. At their orientation, Teri, an African American educator and the keynote speaker, explained this approach. Lichterman summarizes her remarks. “Each individual was a gift to behold. To remark on adopted families’ social backgrounds, to note that the families were mostly black, that they lived in poor neighborhoods, would only bring up ‘cultural barriers.’ That would be negative. Teri knew about cultural differences, she assured us, and had spoken about them to other audiences, but that was not why she was here tonight. ‘I’m not going to do a cultural thing. I’m going to speak from what I know from God.’ What she knew with quiet certainty was that each individual was special, and deserved to be treated as one would serve God.” For Teri, dwelling on social or cultural differences detracted from the idea that we are all made in the image of God. Volunteers would not need the cultural, social, or economic knowledge that experts provide. Instead, they would focus on what everyone—whites and blacks, rich and poor—held in common.

The decision not to use specialists hampered the effectiveness of the Adopt-A-Famly program. One group’s experience illustrates the point. Community in Christ Church adopted a family headed by Quenora, a young single mother, but within six months they terminated their relationship. Quenora’s behavior frustrated and puzzled them. In their first activity, two volunteers, Pat and Kara, took Quenora to a doctor’s appointment. Afterward, they offered to take her out for a Sno-cone. But here was the surprise: instead of taking them to an ice cream shop, they stopped at a street vendor’s cart instead. Kara told her pastor, “This is where she lives!  This is what she’s about. . .My immediate reaction was ‘I want to move her out of here!’  That’s my long-term prayer.” Pastor Nick remarked, “It sounds like you had some culture shock.” A social worker with expertise and deep knowledge of the neighborhood might have helped Kara gain a better appreciation for Quenora’s neighborhood.

Yet the group never sought a social worker’s help. Instead, they talked with themselves endlessly about what made Quenora tick. Why did she need rides from us to everywhere? Why did she not ride the buses? Why was she not always home after she had promised to be there.? Why was she so often hard to contact? Without a specialist, the group was left to puzzle it out on their own. After six months, the group decided to terminate the relationship, citing Quenora’s apparent unwillingness to partner with them. The social worker’s expertise might have helped them understand a young mother’s situation.[2]

Church leaders can greatly benefit from the use of social workers and other specialists, such as economists, city planners, and rural sociologists. Paul Lichterman studied another group of church leaders which shows how it can be done. The Park Cluster, a group of a dozen white volunteers from affluent neighborhoods, ventured three miles away to the Park community, a low-income neighborhood of mostly African-American, Hmong, Vietnamese and Spanish speaking Central Americans.[3] Each month the group drove over each month to “help out” and “build community.” When they approached the director of the local neighborhood center to ask what they could do, she recruited Kendra, a social worker who knew the neighborhood well. For Kendra, the Cluster represented a pool of volunteers who could be plugged into short term assignments—setting up party tables, picking up food donations from grocery stories, collecting donated goods from churches, repairing shelves in the food pantry. For the volunteers, however, Kendra could provide them much-needed knowledge of the community until they could navigate the culture of the neighborhood on their own.

Initially, Kendra ran everything. Volunteers did not often think for themselves. They did not investigate their own experience. Their monthly meetings were business-like, with members reporting on the tasks accomplished. Members spoke “mainly to report on tasks accomplished or to ask simple questions.” Yet over time the group’s operating style began to change. They began spending less time talking about the tasks they accomplished and more about the neighborhoods they were getting to know. Instead of just receiving assignments, they peppered Kendra with questions about why the community was so poor and services so few. They became curious about the institutions that held the community together—the neighborhood center and other helping agencies, the stores, the schools, the banks, the churches. They spoke less about a community in need and more about the neighborhood’s remarkable diversity of black, Vietnamese, Hmong, Latino and white residents.

Instead of relying solely on Kendra’s expertise, they developed the own “social map” of the community.  Ned talked about all the different thrift shops and Mary knew all about the local elementary schools and could tell the group which ones had congregations and synagogues nearby, which might be approached in the future to sponsor tutoring programs.  They used Kendra as their resource instead letting her do all the thinking.

Church leaders have more power than we realize to use specialists to serve our agendas, rather than relinquishing our authority to make decisions. More experts are practicing “advocacy research” that puts their expertise at the service of ordinary citizens. In this model, the expert does not provide technical answers, but acts as more as a “facilitator of public learning and empowerment.” Here the expert assumes the role of “specialized citizen.”[4] The Park Cluster provides a case in point.

Expert knowledge can be invaluable. In many cases, these individuals have spent years researching the social, cultural and economic systems that influence the communities we serve.

If used rightly, their knowledge can deepen our understanding of patterns that shape our lives. We should enlist specialists whenever possible.


[1] Frank Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge ( Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 23, 8.

[2] Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions, Princeton Univ. Press, 2005, 133-170, 141.

[3] Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness, 171-215.

[4] Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment, 37,40.

Photo: Ben Terrett, 11.8.13. Flickr Creative Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *