Habits of Engagement: Faith Based Organizations and the Life of Cities

We can talk to almost anyone in the world, but have trouble growing relational significance in our lives. This is precisely the challenge of meaning and purpose that should draw both municipal leaders and faith based organizations to collaborate more effectively.

June 21st, 2013

Urban planning isn't something that most people spend time thinking about. The arrangement of our streets, roadways, parking lots, and water and sewer services only gain notice when some part of our daily routine is disrupted by their failure. But planning is a practice that has a long cycle of impact, a cycle that lasts for decades or even centuries. With a delay time that can challenge even the most committed, it's easy to see why the structural design of cities isn't on the agenda of most faith based organizations.

This oversight, however, is decreasing the effectiveness and vitality of our respective communities at all scales. Planning interacts with and influences these communities and can't be fully separated from the bricks and mortar of cities. The social and cultural intelligence of religious organizations is a profoundly important ingredient of human experience, urgent in an era where the quality of our relationships appears to be diminishing in alarming ways.

A significant social isolation survey revealed that the number of adults in the United States who said they have no significant confidant increased threefold between 1999 and 2009, the very same span of time that has witnessed an explosion of social media tools and digital communications platforms. And a Canadian study, looking at social ramifications rather than medical outcomes, suggests these trends are not limited to the United States. We must be careful not to assume a cause and effect relationship between the two; it simply seems to be the case that despite new forms of communication, more and more of us are lonely and socially isolated.

We can talk to almost anyone in the world and travel there almost as quickly but we are having trouble growing relational significance in our lives. The cost is high: if you are a socially isolated adult, your risk of early death is as significant as if you smoked or had heart disease. We likely all know this anecdotally and perhaps by experience, needing neither statistics nor analytic rigour to convince us.

It is precisely the challenge of meaning, purpose, and social and cultural connection that could draw both municipal leaders and faith based organizations to collaborate more effectively. Typically, this relationship exists at the level of service delivery—many charities are faith based and they look after a wide range of frontline needs in society from running soup kitchens to organizing addictions programs. This service is a great benefit to both city and country and forms the critical social fabric of our natural communities. This pattern has a long history, albeit one in which government agencies increasingly took over charitable functions.

One function that government policy, however profound, cannot replicate is the full range of human experience, individual or collective. Faith based organizations and the religious traditions that give rise to them have long been the repositories of our deepest existential and spiritual quests. Despite recent experiments aimed at abolishing or marginalizing antiquated notions of morality, belonging, and spiritual experience, they persist. It may well be that their value will be seen most clearly by what happens in their absence as key threads in the warp and woof of our social fabric strain and eventually part, leaving gaping holes that municipal governance is ill equipped to re-weave.

In 2009, Cardus happened across the downtown plan for the City of Calgary where careful attention had been paid to what was needed to make room for an additional 40,000 to 70,000 people. The objective was to have a full service downtown where you could live, work, play, raise a family, or myriad other things that individuals and groups might want to pursue. The complication was that in the plan no provision was made for the religious practices of the prospective new inhabitants, particularly if their practices included a need for sacred or social service delivery space.

When Cardus engaged with the City of Calgary, the City was, to their credit open to the possibility that there could be another dimension that could enrich their already well-developed plan. An audit of downtown institutional capacity was commissioned and depth was added with a further review of how faith based organizations support social service and other quality-of-life needs in neighbourhoods.

One outcome of that process was an eventual change to the Centre City Plan in Calgary that included formal room for faith based organizational engagement in developing the plan. The gain means that there is the possibility that faith based organizations will be able to contribute the full measure of their social and cultural capabilities to the challenges faced in contemporary urban development: Calgary can be a better city than it would have been without that contribution.

This isn't about big cities or amping up promotional campaigns that try and convince people that urban planning is cool (it is, of course). It is also not about trying to wrestle control from some imagined malignant city bureaucrat and letting faith based organizations run the excavators or draw up the land use maps. The argument is not that faith based organizations should be privileged but that their role as important caretakers of service, meaning, purpose, and cultural transmission are given full scope as institutional citizens of the city, town, or country.

There are a number of key challenges faced in moving faith based organizations toward greater structural engagement, challenges that were encountered in Calgary and which others will likely encounter amid the great diversity of our respective urban landscapes.

First, the pace of change at the structural level of engagement can be glacial, with plans taking years and even decades to develop, modify, and implement. Typically, it has been more common to find faith based organizations engaging in snowball fights (parking, zoning variance, bylaw changes) on top of the glacier rather than attending to the glacier itself (the long term plan for the area). Many very good reasons may be offered for this situation, including that the particular mission or focus of a given faith based organization does not include such long, slow, plodding outcomes. If a charity provides food, shelter, health care, spiritual support, or other vital services, thinking about the context of a neighbourhood thirty years from now will be rare as the demand for triage is immediate.

Second, there is a high degree of variation in the faith based sector that ranges across religious traditions. Some traditions are separatist as a result of what they believe and practice, preferring to stand outside of the system as much as possible in the service of their mission to be an alternative community. Others have a long habit of providing certain types of frontline care where effectiveness needs to be immediate or are geared to serve the needs of their own members but with less extension into the wider community. They also vary significantly in size and range from hospitals and universities to small organizations where the goal is to be able to someday hire a fulltime staff member. This can be very complicated for city planning departments where formalization, process, professional capabilities, and continuity characterize the work culture.

Third, the complications surrounding the diversity of the faith based sector is compounded by a lack of organizational coherence such that the city process can actually speak to or solicit input from that community. Exceptions of course can be found, but in general, rarity of long-term structural engagement coupled with the highly distributed nature of faith based organizations makes it difficult for that diversity to engage with the consistency and coherence needed to intelligently and meaningfully engage with detailed long term strategic developments.

Developers have significant financial interests in being at the city design table along with planners, administrators, and sometimes politicians, but which of the hundreds of small administrations represented by faith based organizations could or should be there? From a planning perspective, it can look like a bowl of dancing marbles with hundreds of different shapes, colours, and sizes that must be considered. Who should speak on behalf of faith based organizations? How would we decide such a matter? To whom would such a person or organization be accountable?

Despite the challenges, it seems to be increasingly clear that faith based organizations contribute something vital to thriving communities at all scales. If social isolation continues to increase, if we falter in the face of meaning, purpose, responsibility, and the sacrifices required of contributing citizens, it is difficult to imagine that municipal governance alone (or any other order of government) can furnish us with what we need. There are other reasons to be given and arguments to be made for the role of faith based organizations, but even at a very pragmatic, functional level, these organizations are very important contributors in the social ecosystem of our communities and cities.

What shouldn't happen

It is perhaps important to offer a clear sense of what I am not arguing for. As noted earlier, some faith traditions do not engage in the type of strategic engagement that I have been explaining. That choice must be respected both by the civic powers and by those who are part of the particular tradition.

The decision to not participate can be a powerful testament to other ways of seeing the world, even if those reasons are not accepted by others. It is important that provision is made for participation but where it is not taken up, the vital role of civic checks and balances that protect minority conviction from majority intimidation must be relied upon to provide room for them.

The service missions of faith based organizations must not be abandoned in pursuit of structural engagement. We can ill afford to lose the social service, care, support, rescue, feeding, sheltering, spiritual formation, and myriad other functions that have been typical of FBOs for centuries.

It isn't necessary that faith based organizations become planning specialists or developers or civil engineers. Their contributions need to be oriented in the direction of their most significant depth. We don't consider that citizens have to be experts to participate in democratic processes, and the same is true of organizations. The process of consultation, collaboration, and development are the means, ideally, by which the best of who and what we are is brought to bear on the significant challenges that city-building entails.

What could happen

In time, it might become more common to see faith based organizations participating meaningfully and consistently in the structural, long-term process of designing, adjusting, adapting, and building our cities and communities. Their habit of engagement extended over time can bring deeper cultural, social, and human factors into the dialogues that happen at moments of key decision making.

Such engagement presumes that faith based organizations find a way to be more coordinated in how they participate in the bureaucratic processes of the city. The imbalance of power in municipal settings between highly organized administrations and less organized and distributed administrations would begin to be addressed through the cultivation of this habit.

Mutual learning would be enriched as planners and city administrators learn more about the rich diversity and nuance of faith based organizations, their commitments, habits, patterns, and convictions that inform and shape the deep contributions they make to the city's social and structural ecosystem. Faith based leaders would grow in their understanding of the long delays, profound complexities and significant capabilities of city staff who negotiate the process of moving from ideas to completed projects. We would be able to transcend the stereotypes in which faith based organizations are seen to show up only as popcorn participants when exemptions are needed and city administrators are cast as impossibly inflexible.

For members of faith communities, it is hoped that a deeper appreciation of one's own tradition would be cultivated in the course of cooperating with and learning about other traditions. Our ability to understand others results from a confidence and clarity about who are. The move toward engagement isn't ecumenical, and it isn't an attempt to provide confessional commonalities. It is, instead, a posture suitable for the public square, where differences of all kinds must be considered and partial solutions enacted.

Cities are very personal, very human. We are close to others physically as individuals and as organizations. The relational depth of faith traditions coupled with their fostering of public virtue makes them a potent re-weaver of the social fabric that has been so strained in contemporary society. These traditions can also support the process of keeping responsibility connected to aspirations of freedom, speak to the gaps left by have versus have-not dynamics, and teach ways of listening with respect and attention.

Citizenship isn't about every individual getting exactly what he or she wants. This is also true of organizations. The differences among and between organizations is the prelude to needing a common space where you get some of what you want some of the time in the balance of civic exchange. Postures of love, care, self-sacrifice, and commitment are vital qualities much needed today. Faith based organizations can give expression to these profound human qualities.

As L. J. Hanifan noted in the context of his 1916 community-building work that "the community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of its parts." To that I would add that the cooperation of all of its parts, individual and organizational, is a vital need today. Our city and community building plans will need every resource, social, material, and conceptual, to bridge the significant gaps that have opened up in the landscape of our contemporary society.


Core ideas that orient a significant amount of my work include the exploration of complexity science by means of various network approaches. Network dynamics are a persistent feature of our human interactions including the organizations, institutions and societies that Cardus is working to support and make sense of. Planners are also in constant interaction with these social structures at a wide variety of levels.


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