Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

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