Asking the Right Questions about Serving

Unfinished service project: helpful to the neighborhood?

June 2012 By Bob Lupton – FCS Urban Ministries

Planning a mission trip or service project?  Want to make sure you are helping rather than hurting?  The following questions will help you determine whether your service will be transformative or toxic.

Whose needs are you serving?   You want this to be a meaningful experience for your group.  But if most of your planning energy is being invested in ensuring that the event will be “a life-changing experience” for your members, this may be a clue that it is more about serving your group than serving the poor.  This is a particularly difficult question for mission pastors and youth leaders since they are hired to minister primarily to church members.  A well organized, spiritually-motivated, hands-on mission trip can be very satisfying to volunteers and yield moving accounts for back-home reporting.   It is doubtful, however, that a “what-works best-for-us” approach will have transformative impact among those on the receiving end who are expected to accommodate to the schedules and preferences of their resourced visitors.

Is the proposed activity meeting a real need?   An African woman recently told us that as a child she never understood why Americans loved to paint so much.  In preparation for the Americans’ arrival in her rural village her classmates were instructed to deface the school building with mud and stones so their guests would have something to paint.  Her entire school building was repainted five times in the four years she was a student there.  Extreme example?  Perhaps.  But unfortunately it is representative of the make-work projects often created to make compassionate volunteers feel good about serving.  If a project is truly important to those being served, they will be first investors in that effort with their own leadership, labor and resources.

Is the proposed mission a top priority?   A group recently returning from Haiti recounted their experience of seeing mothers carrying infants wrapped in dirty rags and newspapers. Moved with compassion, the mission group purchased blankets and distributed them to the mothers.  The following day the blankets appeared in the shops along the street, sold by the mothers to local merchants.  Discovering the babies still swaddled in filth, the missioners were highly incensed – until it was explained to them that the mothers sold the blankets to buy food for their babies.  Food, not blankets, was the higher priority.  To determine the true hierarchy of need, enough time must be spent among the needy to understand the daily survival pressures they face.  Repairing an inner-city widow’s rotting porch may not be as important as getting her water turned back on.  Adapting our mission to the priorities of the poor is key to redemptive service.

Are the poor capable of doing this for themselves?   The poor are weakened when well-meaning people deprive them of the incentives and rewards of their own hard-won achievements by doing for them what they have the capacity to do for themselves.  As one leader of a micro-lending ministry in Nicaragua lamented when describing the effects of US church partnerships, “They are turning my people into beggars.”  Why get a loan to build their own church, the peasants reason, when the Americans will do it for them?  Predictable by-products of such service include increased dependency, erosion of work ethic, and loss of dignity.  Conversely, indigenous capacity-building is encouraged by joint efforts like co-investing, micro-lending and  reciprocal partnerships.

How will you measure success?   Typically churches evaluate their service projects and mission trips by the number of volunteers involved, the activities performed, and the impact on participating members.  Less attention is paid to the results on the receiving end of charity.  If, however, preserving the dignity and self-esteem of recipients is important to you, then you will want to assess the amount of mutual collaboration, leadership sharing and reciprocity structured into your event.  If your goal is to actually empower those you serve, you will focus less on volunteer activities and more on measurable longer-term outcomes such as leadership development, increased self-sufficiency, and educational and economic advancement.

Is it cost-effective?   The money one campus ministry spent on a spring break mission trip painting an orphanage in Honduras was enough to hire two unemployed local painters, two full-time teachers, and supply new uniforms for every child in the school.  The cost of most mission trips is out of all proportion to the return on investment (ROI) when comparing it against the actual value of the service being performed.  The billions spent annually on such junkets might be justified as a legitimate cost of spiritual development for church members but it lacks integrity if billed as effective mission strategy.  Wise stewardship requires thoughtful assessment of the cost-effectiveness of mission investments.

A few suggestions to avoid mission toxicity.  Mission projects can be genuinely redemptive.  The best ones are joint ventures with mature, indigenous ministries that understand both the culture and healthy cross-cultural partnering.  A few reality-tested principles provide a “code of conduct” to guide invited volunteer guests toward sensitive, mutually transforming relationships:

•  Never do for others what they can do for themselves (teach a man to fish).

•  Limit one-way giving to emergencies (most needs are chronic, not crisis).

•  Employment, lending, investing are best (use grants sparingly as incentives).

•  Subordinate self-interests to the interests of the poor (is this for our good or theirs?).

•  Listen to what is not being said (many needs are not immediately voiced).

•  Above all, do no harm.

This article was republished from and written by founder and CEO Bob Lupton of Atlanta, Georgia. Bob is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through FCS Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community. He is the author of the books Theirs in the Kingdom, Return Flight, Renewing the City, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life and the widely circulated “Urban Perspectives”, monthly reflections on the Gospel and the poor. Bob has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia. He serves as speaker, strategist, and inspirer with those throughout the nation who seek to establish God’s Shalom in the city.

Jobs Equal Justice

This post was written by Wendy McCaig, the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond (a CFA partnering organization).  You can find the original post here.

Robert Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity”, issues us all with a strong challenge – to move away from “an entrenched giveaway mentality” that destroys human dignity and damages communities in the long run. For this mentality to shift we have to “restructure our established one-way charity systems” and create opportunities for people to work.

There are three basic approaches to poverty; relief, individual betterment and community development.

Relief programs are focused on “giving a fish.”  Lupton warns us of the down side saying,

“Loading an area down with poverty programs and human services can virtually ruin its chances of economic rebirth.”

Individual betterment programs (tutoring, mentoring, training) are focused on “teaching people to fish.” Lupton writes,

“Betterment programs do make a difference. Yet, as important as these services may be (essential, some would say), serving people is distinctly different from developing people.”

Community development is focused on improving the “condition of the pond.”  Many of our urban communities have become so toxic that no amount of relief or betterment programming is effective because everyone is swimming in polluted waters, often made worse by undisciplined giving.

A healthy pond requires “ownership by the community of their community.”  For a community to assume ownership of its own future, residents have to care enough to get involved.   The goal of the  community developer is discovering the unrealized hopes and dreams of the neighbors.  For the past three years, that is what we have been listening for in the Hillside Community where Embrace Richmond has been engaged.  We have found these words from Lupton to be true,

“The dreamers are seldom connected to the resources that provide nutrients to give those dreams life—that is, until by chance or by providence, someone in the village meets a connected person with a heart, a person who has time to listen, a person with both imagination and resources.


Hope, smothered dim under years of survival pressures, begins to flicker once again. In time, after the trustworthiness of the connecting person can be tested, after the opportunity is subjected to ample reality testing, hope can have free rein. It is a dangerous, fragile, exhilarating moment when the poor cast off their restraints and begin to believe. And this transformative moment, more than any other moment, is what the community developer lives for and what the community thirsts for.”


I have been blessed to have witnessed this beautiful reclaiming of hope and faith many times, but in each case it took years of listening, dreaming, encouraging, and investing.  We now have a handful of individuals that we call our “street saints.” These individuals have come from difficult circumstances and they want to help others in their neighborhood thrive.

  1. Charles’s dream is to expand access to affordable housing and employment for those with barriers
  2. Patrice’s dream is to strengthen families by strengthening the sense of community
  3. Rudy’s dream is to reach older youth and help them avoid the dangers of the streets
  4. Denise has a gift for hospitality and cooking and dreams of breaking down the walls of isolation
  5. John’s passion is making sure no one goes hungry in his neighborhood especially the elderly
  6. Joseph’s hope is to help residents increase their economic opportunities
  7. Johnny would like to see people living healthier lifestyles through gardening and exercise

All of these individuals have dreams that they cared enough about to invest in.  They are committed to doing what they can with what they have and are inviting others from their neighborhood to join them in making these dreams for their community a reality.

However, simply engaging people in shaping the future of their community is not enough.  Lupton asks this question,

“Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?”

This is the question that I have been asking myself a lot lately.  In six months, Embrace Richmond will let go of our AmeriCorps funding which currently provides 75% of the funds that support our community development efforts.  The majority of these funds have been used to provide stipends for the dreamers named above.  I have watched each one of these individuals find new hope, meaning and purpose through the work they have done in the Hillside Community.  Our goal now is to figure out how to help them turn these hopes and dreams into “wealth-generating” or at-least “self-sustaining” initiatives.  As difficult as it was to build this amazing team, I suspect this next step is going to be even more challenging.

However, I strongly agree with Robert Lupton that creating sustainable employment opportunities is one of the most important elements in caring for the spirit and soul of people.  Lupton writes,

“One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth. And anything that erodes a rightful sense of pride and self-respect diminishes that image.  Life offers no fulfillment without work. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaningful employment fulfills one of the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal to our service. LITTLE AFFIRMS HUMAN DIGNITY more than honest work.”

Lupton tells a story in an earlier book titled, “Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life”, about a church that started a clothing closet where everything was free and over time that clothing closet became a thrift store that ultimately created jobs.  He also tells the story of a church that took its benevolence fund to start a jobs bank and how a food pantry became a food coop. It is this kind of “social enterprise” thinking that we all need to engage in more.  Making money is not an evil thing.  Creating jobs for our friends is far more compassionate than expecting them to stand in lines with their hands out for the rest of their lives.

To go beyond charity and really get to the core issue underlying poverty, we have to create economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.  There is no other way to create a sustainable healthy neighborhood.  How many jobs could be created by churches if they used the funds that are supporting “relief” ministries to create social enterprise opportunities?

I know first-hand that it is far harder to develop neighborhood leaders, create sustainable employment and change a community than it is to simply give handouts.  I pray more Christians will awaken to the fact that one-way giving approaches are harmful but also recognize that they can be restructured in a way that could be life giving to the community if they were turned into community owned social enterprise opportunities.

What relief programs is your church involved in?

How open is your church to restructuring its one-way giving activities?

How could your current relief program become a social enterprise in a struggling neighborhood?

ABCD Resources: Jay’s Picks

Someone recently asked me, “If you were going to recommend three books on Community Development in the US context what would you recommend?”

Here is my preferred beginner’s list:

1.  The team that I work with wrote a book called Communities First - it needs a re-write, but it still introduces the themes I work with today. You can order it here.   I recommend the main text without the workbooks as a starter. The workbooks go a little further into application.

2.  Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton is a book along the lines of When Helping Hurts.   It is a good read and goes beyond naming the problems to proposing solution directions.

3.  Peter Block and John McKnight have an excellent book titled The Abundant Community.

A few more resources (because I can’t resist):

  • A website I recommend for Asset Based Community Development and training is  Mike has been a mentor for us.  Another is  Both sites list excellent resources.
  • Peter Block also wrote a great book called Community: The Structure of Belonging.
  • CCDA’s  beginner’s primer by Mary Nelson called Empowerment. You can find it here.

Ask, Listen…ACT!

Jay Van Groningen

Talk is action…it’s not cheap. How do you see your role in the story of your neighborhood? What would you improve about your street? If resources were unlimited, what is the first area you would address?  What about your neighborhood keeps you up at night? How would you describe a good neighbor?  A great neighbor?

Start with questions not answers, one of the many principles of Asset Based Community Development discussed on February 24th and 25th at a recent CFA training in Minneapolis, MN.  Facilitators Jay Van Groningen and George Montoya spent two days with 18 participants presenting practical and powerful methods of ABCD as an approach to effective community development work. Participants included neighbors, nonprofit workers, church leaders, professors, agency leaders, and others seeking to develop more connected and engaged local communities. Topics covered included:

Twin Cities Training at Calvary Church in inner city Minneapolis.

  • Methods to discover individuals’ gifts and their voluntary associations, including churches.
  • How to build more community engagement and involvement.
  • Approaches to sustain community organizations and leaders.
  • Ideas for building successful agency-resident partnerships.
  • Finding and mobilizing organizational and community assets.
  • Practical ways to expand social networks and local connections.

In addition to covering the fundamental principles of taking ABCD and community building and organizing into action, the trainers and participants spent time dreaming and believing together. See CFA events page for upcoming training opportunities.

ABCD training activity

Asset Based Community Development: Vision Begins With Listening

ABCD asks “What can this community do itself to achieve its own goals and dreams?”

ABCD is a practice of engaging citizens in the things that can affect them!  It involves finding out, through listening and asking, “What do you really care about?  ABCD engages “learning conversations” to discover what neighbors care enough to act upon.

ABCD adds community development to individual development in order to effect sustainable, long-lasting change.  Community mobilization uses learning conversations, the discovery of “motivation to act” and a connector/leader to bring all of the resources together.


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