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.

A Fishing Analogy

What are the ministries or activities that you and/or your church have done in response to poverty in your community? 

Take time to list the activities and/or ministries that come to mind, and then consider the analogy below.  The purpose of this analogy is to answer the question:  What is Community Development?

We suggest it is a rich mix of activities and programs in EACH/ALL of the six categories.  The right mix is the mix that a community decides is best for them. 

inCOMMON Community Development

inCOMMONOmaha, NE     “What if poverty could be stopped before it started?” One of the thought provoking questions addressed in this short clip from inCOMMON. “The solution to poverty won’t be found in programs, but in people.” [email protected]

Friday Food for Thought: An Oath

From Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity:

The Oath for Compassionate Service

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

p. 8-9

CFA encourages the consideration of these questions as you look to serve with the community:

  • Who has the power?
  • Is there a level playing field?
  • Is the relationship equitable?
  • Who is the beneficiary?
  • Is it empowering?  For whom?
  • Which is most likely to produce sustainable change?

The Lesser Defines What Community Is

Reblogged from Brown Consultancy, LLC:

“Body” was a term which the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians used to describe the Body of Christ. This term, Body, was used by the Roman Empire to explain how diverse its empire was.  It showed how each member of the Roman Empire had their proper place.  So, if you are a hand of the “Body,” do not seek to serve other capacities within the empire. 

Read more… 606 more words

"In organizing asset mapping projects, the process seeks to give place to all members of a community or possibly, members within a group or mini-community. The asset process seeks to bring forward the gifts and talents and access people have to others, which heretofore have not been utilized by the community to strengthen its capacities."

The Empowering Effect of With

by Kirk Reber - Director of Development & Communications – CFA

(Originally Published in the CFA Summer 2011 Newsletter)

Communities First Association desires to transform communities by providing training and support to their members (intermediaries) who in turn coach local churches and organizations. In order to see true change in a neighborhood, CFA understand that the ministry of the church must progress from being IN, TO, and FOR a community to being WITH a community.

To illustrate, imagine a church where all activities are by the members, for the members. The church is IN a neighborhood, but the neighbors see no tangible benefit of having the church there.

With no involvement, this church will never see sustainable change in their community.

Imagine now that the membership of this church begins to desire to connect with their neighbors. They dream, design, and implement activities TO and FOR their community. Interaction begins, but questions stir. Is this relationship equitable? Is it empowering? For whom? While the church may see benefits, are they seeing sustainable change?

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down Starting with Being Repainted

On any given day you can see a group of young men driving through Winton looking for graffiti  defacing the walls and fences of their town. What makes young men get up and be at ‘work’ at 8am to clean up graffiti?

Instrumental in this was a young man who wanted to give back to the community.  He connected with Winton LifeLine Community Center and his enthusiasm, leadership ability and passion soon led him to be surrounded by young men who were on the verge of being gang members, young men who were taggers themselves, young man who were looking for a role model they could follow.

At 28 A. had done his share of damage in the community. When he missed yet another birth of one of his children, because he was incarcerated, he decided that it was time to change. And a huge change it was!

Now he helps young men to make better choices, helps them to see some of the consequences of his past actions. Now he spends his mornings driving around with a bucket of paint and 4 or 5 people in tow.

In the conversations about the graffiti he found out that these young people do not have a place to display their art work… so we asked for a ‘legal’ graffiti wall. They met with the Historical Society to learn about the community and they are partnering with some artists to create a mural that will be based on certain themes.

Through A’s involvements walls are broken down. Seniors who are heading up a group are now interacting with young people and they learn from each other. Neighbors are asking how they can help. The owner of one of the walls took a bucket of paint and his helping with it.

When young and old care for something, when rich and poor have the same interest at heart and when together they act to make things better we get to see a glimpse of God’s SHALOM present in a community.

Monika Grasley
LifeLine CDC

1st CRC of Seattle

1st CRC of Seattle from CFA Videos on Vimeo.

Instead of trying to get people into their church members of 1st CRC of Seattle go out and meet people where they are. They have started doing this through Asset Based Community Development, community block parties, and something called Service Sundays. On Service Sundays the worship service consists of church members going out into the community and helping others.
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Biblical Reflections by Landa Cope

Landa Cope’s essay, Biblical Reflections, examines how Christianity should affect the local community. Christians often assume that Christianity brings blessings to the community, looking into this can be eye opening.

Read the essay here: Biblical Reflections by Landa Cope

Orientacion Para Nuevos Estudiantes

This Spanish PowerPoint Tool is used to awaken the community to realize that they can establish their goals and reach them.

Download PowerPoint

Services Offered by the Church

This is a ministries focus in community tool. It is used to find out what other churches are doing in the community.

View PDF

An Introduction to Asset-Based Community Development for Church Leaders

How do you look at a community? Is it really community? Do people work together? Is it deficient, disabled, filled with problems? OR, is it full of gifts, abilities, and capacities for achieving a better tomorrow?

ABCD helps leaders and communities see themselves as gifted and capable of change. Rather than starting with needs and problems, ABCD starts by harvesting what is already there. ABCD establishes the possibility for Christians and churches today to unleash the capacities of their members and their neighbors in ways that help neighbors succeed and the community improve.

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