Newsletter – March, 2002

**Companion Resources Newsletter**

edited by Paul D. Leichty

Volume 4, No. 3 March 2002

What’s in a name? In particular, how do we name the organizations created to help persons with special needs? I have been thinking about that since I was asked to help evaluate the name of the organization I currently work for. In the process of listening to some suggestions, I was reminded again of the link between a name and the mission of an organization. Perhaps my thoughts will be useful to others as well.

One of the traditional ways of naming institutions that help persons with disabilities and/or mental illness is the language of *refuge*. Words associated with refuge include “haven”, “shelter”, “rest”, “peace”, and even “home.” However, there are also many other words taken from nature which are intended to convey a sense of calm and peace. Names that end in “lawn” or “creek” or “view” are among some of the popular options.

The helping institution whose mission addresses primarily the needs for safety and physical well-being will be drawn to names associated with refuge. There are strong images of refuge in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament where Israel was commanded to set up cities of refuge for those who had killed another person. The intention was to stop the cycle of violence often perpetuated as relatives of the slain victim sought their own bloody revenge.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the concept of refuge seems to have been expanded to other kinds of outcasts of society. Here are two examples:

16:3 “Give counsel,

grant justice;

make your shade like night

at the height of noon;

hide the outcasts,

do not betray the fugitive;

4 let the outcasts of Moab

settle among you;

be a refuge to them

from the destroyer.”

25:1 O LORD, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;

for you have done wonderful things,

plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

4 For you have been a refuge to the poor,

a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

The problem with refuge imagery is that in time, places of refuge can become isolated, ingrown, and institutional. When there are concentrations of people with the same kind of needs, the caregiving issues are more intense. The larger community comes to expect that they have no need to take responsibility for the issues or the people involved because that little refuge “over there” is taking care of that. As time goes on, attitudes of compassion by caregivers turn to a routine of simply doing what is necessary, meeting the basic physical and safety needs and forgetting the larger emotional and spiritual needs.

The next thing that happens is that institutions start turning toward the language of “services.” “Fairlawn Home” branches out and becomes “Fairlawn Services.” This trend recognizes that persons with special needs have more than just physical safety issues to be addressed. Neither do they need to be cooped up and isolated in institutions away from society to be safe. Indeed, many of their needs can be met in the settings where they naturally live. So “services” are developed to meet the special needs of persons in a variety of settings.

Once again, the language of service has a rich and fruitful legacy in the Biblical tradition. Servanthood takes its imagery from ancient institution of slavery in the sense of dedication to a job assigned by the master. But it goes beyond slavery by “serving” out of a willing desire to contribute to the welfare of others rather than a compulsion because of ownership by the master. Jesus saw himself as a servant and encouraged his disciples to be servants, even to the point of laying down their lives for others.

The difficulty has come about in the development of a service industry in the Western world. Service has increasingly become a commodity rather than an attitude of caring. Institutions come to see their identity in terms of dispensing services. Professional servants no longer have “masters” that they serve, but rather, “clients.” Professional servants thus reverse roles and become the new masters, who, by virtue of their special professional training, take charge of the lives of their clients. Clients become the new slaves to a social service system that takes away their power to make choices as individuals and as a community.


This critique of the social service industry comes largely from the work of John L. McKnight whose work now spans a generation in what has come to be called “Asset-Based Community Development” (ABCD). The clearest statement of McKnight’s thesis that professionalized social services are inherently destructive of community can be found in the book The Careless Society published in 1995 . . Please see Companion Resources’ Community Development page [unfortunately not yet re-published as of 14 January 2007 for more information about McKnight, ABCD, and a direct link to order the book.


A variation on the “services” language that is found in religious (particularly Christian) circles is the language of *ministry* or *ministries*. So, for instance, if our hypothetical “Fairlawn Home” wants to emphasize its Christian roots, it might rename itself “Fairlawn Ministries” instead of “Fairlawn Services.”

It is interesting to note that “ministry” is simply a another English word for “servant” to translate the same underlying words in the original Biblical languages. In some ways, we can see the same development of professionalization in our common use of the word “ministry” and “minister” in Western culture. “The Minister” is often seen as the professional church person who directs the spiritual lives of the “laity.” However, in rediscovering the true meaning of service/ministry, it is encouraging to see many Christian congregations acknowledging that all members of the church are ministers, while not negating the fact that some are still called to a leadership ministry often conceived of in the imagery of a “shepherd” or “pastor.”

Because of its religious connotations, the language of “ministries” has taken on other implications which are bothersome to some folks. They fear that “Fairlawn Ministries” will convey a kind of hidden religious agenda that promotes a narrowly defined religious experience or a pressure to join a particular religious group. On the other hand, other persons see “ministries” as an emphasis on the same kind of self-giving love that Jesus showed without any particular expectations of response. Indeed, sometimes these latter folks may even see “ministries” as some internal function of the church in the sense of “taking care of our own” rather than dealing with the underlying societal issues.

A more holistic vision can be shared by the use of the language of *friendship* and *community*. Friendship or companionship denotes healthy relationships of mutual respect and giving on a person-to-person level. When such relationships are woven together, community is formed.

The language of “community” reminds us that at the heart of our relationships, what we desire is not simply one group of people exercising control over another group or even doing “for” others. Rather, the desire for community is the desire to care in such a deep way that as we meet the needs of others, we open ourselves to also receive from them, learn from them, and value them as our friends and companions, no matter what their abilities or disabilities may be.

Certainly, the language of community can be abused as well. To some, it may conjure up images of tight-knit, ingrown little groups doing their own thing. We all know of the horrible results of communities that have become cults, controlled by a powerful charismatic leader.

Nevertheless, most people, regardless of their religious or political persuasion, acknowledge that building community at various levels is a desirable goal. None of us can live as isolated individuals. We all have both abilities and disabilities and we need each other to become whole human beings.

My personal vision is that helping institutions organize themselves to nurture community at various levels. Certainly, that will involve creating safe refuges where persons can receive the best care in an environment that has some controls on it. At the same time, there must be ways created for these smaller refuge communities to interact with the larger communities around them.

Certainly, “services” and “ministries” will also be structured to improve the quality of life for individuals with special needs. However, it is not enough to simply dispense services. Rather, the goal is to build community that includes all persons in a meaningful life.

The way that we name our institutions will reflect and, at the same time, influence the vision and the goals toward which we are working. Let us make every effort to nurture respect and care for all individuals and an integration into true community.

As I finish this on Good Friday, violence escalates in the Middle East, even as Christians recall the one on whom all human violence came to rest at the cross. Let us pray for peace and genuine community for all people as we continue in the hope of the resurrection!

Paul D. Leichty

The Goldenrod Community

Middlebury, Indiana

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Companion Resources

“People using Technology building Community”


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