But then I recall all you have done, O LORD; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. Psalm 77:11 (NLT)
When I returned to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia two years ago, I could barely recognize my hometown. Between my doctoral studies and work in Nairobi, Kenya, I had been away for almost ten years. So much had changed. The whole city seemed to be under construction. Infrastructural improvements, economic expansion, new universities, and Church growth were all very encouraging. However, other aspects were less so: systemic societal problems, shifting moral values, and an immense gap between those with money and those in abject poverty.
As I struggled to adjust to life back home, I realized that ruminating on overwhelming situations was not helping. I reminded myself of a change facilitation approach known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which had served me well when I was working as a Partnership Facilitator overseeing multiple projects for Compassion International in Nairobi after the post-election violence in December 2007. Two colleagues and I later published a research article on the theory during my doctoral studies at Trinity International University.*
In a nutshell, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on positive accomplishment and potential. This does not mean that we ignore troubling realities. However, as Paul instructs the Philippians to dwell on what is good, noble, and pure, Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes strengths, not problems. Whether in times of personal crisis or amidst societal chaos, we can counter hopelessness not only by focusing attention on what is working, but also by discerning how God might be at work.
From Despair to Hope: The Child Development Project in Kibera
At this moment in our church situation, we do not know where to start with our problem, so we have decided to terminate our partnership agreement with you. We are sorry, but there is nothing that we can do.
Those were the words of the Senior Pastor of Kibera Presbyterian Church in a partnership termination letter submitted to Compassion International after the post-election violence. Located in the heart of Nairobi, Kibera is one of the world’s largest slums, with estimates of up to one million people living in an area roughly the size of Central Park. During the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections, the church and its elementary school, as well as the pastor’s house, had all been looted and set on fire. In the face of these losses, the church felt that it could no longer work with Compassion to care for children in the community.
I had two options: accept the termination letter or help the leaders and project workers see hope for transformation. Fortunately, after four months of continuous follow-up and dialogue, the leaders chose to bring the project back to life. The pastor revoked the termination letter and submitted another proposal. The process was not easy, but it was well worth the effort.
Attitudes shifted when we approached the project using insights from Appreciative Inquiry. Previously, most of the discussions among leaders, stakeholders, and local government officials had focused on their immense problems and inadequacies. Everyone knew that the church was in a critical state, but rehearsing the obstacles only made the situation seem overwhelming and hopeless.
Appreciative Inquiry, however, helped us to shift our focus from the problems at hand to the aspects that were already working. During the first phase, I encouraged the project leaders and workers to share past experiences of the project, so that we could listen and learn from their stories. They recalled that the project had been taken up by Kibera Presbyterian Church from another church that had been facing leadership crises. They spoke of how, by God’s grace, they had been able to step up and serve these children. Generous sponsorships made it possible for the children to attend school, receive food and care, and hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. Like psalms of praise recounting God’s mighty acts, these stories reminded the leaders of God’s faithfulness and of his loving purpose for each child in the program.
We then focused on identifying present strengths. Through this process, the leaders regained their interest in their partnership with Compassion. They found hope. They realized that they were quite good at networking and collaborating with different development organizations. They recognized successful aspects of their work with the children and gave thanks for the gifted teacher at the elementary school. They greatly appreciated the teamwork between project workers and committee members.
Through the first phase of recounting past successes and identifying current strengths, Kibera Presbyterian Church renewed their vision for helping needy children in the community to flourish in their cognitive, social, spiritual, and physical development. With restored hope, the leaders could dream once again. They began to search for each child who had been displaced during the post-election violence. They reengaged workers. They initiated programs to provide counseling and healing for the traumatized community. They sought donors to help rebuild the school. They mobilized volunteers to recreate lost records. In the process, the project leaders began seeing other church leaders in the surrounding community as partners and discovered ways to work together.
Recognizing a great need for healing and reconciliation, the leaders developed seminars for churches. During the seminars, the children presented moving dramas and songs, and encouraged all to work for peace so that they could go to school and grow up in safe communities. As a result of these seminars, the church launched a new movement: United Kibera Pastors for Transformation.
Within ten months, the rebuilding work reached completion. With renewed enthusiasm and hope, project workers became more creative, even developing an idea for new software for backing up records and information to preserve them against future disasters. Their idea even became a countrywide initiative. Immense change came from reframing despair through Appreciative Inquiry.
Every organization, church, and individual will face obstacles, trials, and failures. Appreciative Inquiry helps by redirecting our focus to life-giving experiences so we can find joy, hope, peace, and progress. It was from a lonely prison cell that Paul wrote the encouraging words of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Similarly, Appreciative Inquiry redirects focus to existing strengths so that problems can be solved, one small step forward at a time. In any situation needing positive change, I have found this approach to be very useful for moving from despair to hope as we recognize the presence, grace, and work of God in all circumstances.