"The Memphis Model" ("use what you got, baby")


Rev. Bobby Baker works for me. But I am just smart enough follow him. He has evoked the Congregational Health Network, now 314 strong, that is the most unusual part of what is coming to be known nationally as “the Memphis Model.” This week we inaugurated the “innovation studio” in The Center of Excellence in Faith and Health by hosting a working delegation of leaders from federal health and human service agencies, including Mara Vanderslice, the acting director of the office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Initiatives. They wanted to understand how this very novel model of collaboration emerged where you would least expect it. So we played Memphis Minnie as the sound track: “use what you got, baby,” she counseled.

It is, as Mara noted, a victory all by itself to see a covenantal relationship among hundreds of congregations working to advance the health of the community. But the Memphis model includes many other partners, especially Church Health Center, Christ Community Health Services, the county health system and other collaboratives (notably Healthy Memphis Common Table). We all have different (sometimes opposite!) ways of doing business and staying alive. We work in an environment of conflicting, even perverse, disincentives and weirdness. But in Memphis we do find a way to help each other express our best selves on most days.

We are known for mapping our assets as taught by the South Africans. They also taught us to focus on what we’ve got. As Steve DeGruchy said, “you can’t build a community out of what it doesn’t have.” Still a work in progress held together by leaders trying to do the right thing, this work of aligning our assets is bending the curve. Or, maybe even more; perhaps the arc of history is bending toward justice, as Dr. King prophesied.


This is a time when the country needs models built for the real world of mud and muddle like Memphis. All of gathered this week with a deep sense of urgency as we work in a mean spirited political atmosphere where health reform is frayed and undermined even before it is barely under way. We need to move fast and bold.

Just days before I was in Miami at the annual governance meeting of Premier network of non-profit hospitals. The theme was all about “leading transformation through the power of collaboration.” Premier is essentially a buying club for hospitals so that they can achieve bulk savings. But it has grown into a learning network of real significance. I attended an early morning briefing by Kirk Hanson about the ethics challenges of reform. Notably, it took Kirk nearly all his time to list the many wild drivers of change in hospital-land these days that are spinning off ethical issues like feathers flying from a truck load of chickens. But he barely got to the big ones, such as what hospitals really should be accountable in terms of creating healthy communities. And he didn’t quite get to the fundamental uncertainties such as global economics. Oh, and climate change.

The name of this blog is “leading causes of life.” It is about a simple ethic: if it looks like life, go that way; and if it looks like death, go the other way. And make sure you grab the hands of whoever is heading toward life, too.

I thought of Bill McKibben, in his stark book “Eaarth,” about catastrophic climate change, but counseling us to not despair in the face of destabilizing realities. How to live? Come together acting in hope, intelligence and sacrifice beginning in your own neighborhood, city and region. Act like grown-ups, in other words, working with other grown-ups to create social levees adequate to the floods we face. The waters rise, drive and fly in the winds of change. So we turn to each other and do the right thing, whatever that means with whatever you have influence over or leadership for a huge hospital, a health clinic, a congregation or just your own home.

That’s the Memphis Model. You can see it happening….live.

– Posted on the journey

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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