Thursday, December 3, 2009

When helping hurts

American Christians are generous, no doubt about it. And not only in terms of money. According to recent research (Priest, 2008), over 1.6 million Americans participate yearly in some form of short-term mission, whether as young people from a local church, university/seminary students in a studies abroad program, or professionals wanting to serve overseas for a summer. This is in addition to the many cross-cultural mission ventures that take place within the US. My own faith community, the people called Quakers, is especially generous in this sense.

This practice has a biblical base, given the justice thread that runs throughout Scripture, that emphasizes caring for the poor and marginalized. And no doubt short-term mission has benefited both those on the going/giving end and those who receive. But this generosity has a shadow side.

Last month Hal and I, along with our friend, Fred Gregory, were privileged to lead in the annual Seminar by the Sea, sponsored by Twin Rocks Friends Camp. Our topic seemed a bit daunting, impossible to cover in a weekend: “American Christians—Understanding and Engaging with the World’s New Realities.” We certainly don’t consider ourselves experts, but we do represent three life-times of walking this path. Coming from different perspectives—Hal and I with experience in traditional mission work, Fred with extensive experience in relief and development work through NGOs—we have all come to similar conclusions and grown into similar values.

So we decided to take a narrative approach. We told our stories (or selected pieces), invited the participants to do the same, then facilitated conversation around the issues that surfaced. A good bibliography was part of the process, and many came having read one of the suggested books. Effective—and ineffective—short-term mission experience was one of the themes addressed, since most of those present had participated in an over-seas adventure.

Two books proved especially helpful to this discussion: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody, 2009) and Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! edited by Robert J. Priest (William Carey Library, 2008). Both books face the shadow side of Americans serving abroad (“when helping hurts”), but also offer guidance for effective service among the poor, recognizing that the short-term missions movement is probably here to stay.

The potential, and certainly unintentional, damage done through short-term mission has to do with creating dependency and reinforcing the sense of deficiency that most of the world’s poor experience. In part this comes from what Corbett and Fikkert identify as a mistaken view of poverty that limits it to material lack. This in turn encourages ministry in the form of unexamined generosity that does not address root causes and unwittingly reinforces the sense of inadequacy on the part of the receptors.

The authors give their own definition of poverty as “the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” They see poverty alleviation in terms of a ministry of reconciliation, which I find refreshingly holistic and biblical. They describe this ministry of reconciliation as “moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.”

Another part of the equation comes from what Corbett and Fikkert term the “God-complexes of the materially non-poor.” That would be us: generous North-American (or European) Christians who, with good intentions, go as experts, ready to share what we have (money, knowledge, skill, materials, etc.) with those who lack these very things. The “God-complex” is largely unconscious. Corbett and Fikkert give the equation for harm as follows: “material definition of poverty + God/complexes of the materially non/poor + feelings of inferiority of materially poor = harm to both materially poor and non-poor.” This may take a bit of pondering, but it merits our serious consideration.

So, how can North American Christians help and not hurt as they travel abroad in mission? Is there some kind of Hippocratic Oath (where new doctors pledge, in part, to do no harm to their patients) we can adapt for short—or long-term mission activists? Following is a partial list, gleaned from experience, reading, and reflection in community. I invite comment and additions to the list.

--Go in humility. We who go out must recognize that we ourselves are broken people with much to learn. And recognizing that there’s not a whole lot we can accomplish in one or two weeks is only common sense.

--Go as learners. While we may have things to share, we are essentially learners, with much to gain from people in the places we travel to.

--Go appreciatively. Regardless of economic or technological challenges, every culture has its richness. Expect to be surprised and delighted. If possible, prepare by acquiring tools of observation.

--Focus on the assets of the poor, not on their lacks. Or at least begin by considering assets. There’s even a term for this in the literature: “asset-based community development” (ABCD, conveniently).

--Let any ministry be participatory, with the receptors calling the shots. That means the people name their needs and assets, help make any plan of action, and work alongside expatriate Christians. These last two points actually refer to projects that are longer in range.

--Focus more on relationships than on products or efficiency (how much can we accomplish in how short a time). These North American values inevitably clash with local culture.

--Recognize that the greatest beneficiaries of short-term mission adventures are those who go. If we can also bless and encourage the local Christians, that’s good. It’s also possible. But we need to first re-align our attitudes.

This list is partial. I hope it encourages more conversation.


  1. Thank you! I can only imagine how complicated this issue could get overseas; I'm part of a Catholic Worker community in New York that used to host many short-term mission groups, and then realized that this sometimes hurt our neighbors in many of the ways described above. We changed how we handled groups. Far fewer groups come now, but I think their experience is more whole, more helpful and less harmful.

    I would add one thing to your list above: the recognition that materially non-poor people are dependent on materially poor people who do the physical work that feeds, clothes and houses us all. This tends to deflate the God complex fairly quickly.

  2. Thank you, Joanna, for the reminder that we "non-poor" really do depend on others around the world.


  3. Mary Thiessen NationJanuary 3, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    I will use this immediately with our son who is taking a group of high school students to Africa in Spring and I plan to share it in my Urban Ministry course this coming semester. What my friend in LA taught me about long-term missionaries may fit somewhere in the list--if you have something valuable to share, don't hide it or be selfish/greedy. She was referring to the full story of Jesus embodied and told. How can that be stated in a way that doesn't sound paternalistic? Mary

  4. Your addition to the list is important, Mary. I think I tend to lean so far in the direction of being a humble learner, I sometimes overlook the reality of having somethink valuable and concrete to offer. So the question becomes, how do we offer our gifts in a way that isn't paternalistic, whether those gifts be the gospel message, a particular skill, or even money, especially in emergency situations. And here the same attitudes of appreciation, humility, and focus on relationship still count. I would add that we work as much as possible in team relationship with local believers, passing on whatever it is we have to give to a limited number of people who can be trained to carry on or administer the gift (2 Tim. 2:2). Learning and using local communication and learning styles is also important. This probably applies more to long term workers in other cultures. Your observation also has to go with having a generous spirit, but I think it's the combination of generosity and wisdom that enables us to help without hurting. Let's keep talking. Nancy

  5. I work at the Chalmers Center with the authors of the book “When Helping Hurts” mentioned on this page. They will host a free, three-part webinar lecture series on the appropriate relief and development response to the Haiti earthquake disaster. There is no charge for the webinars. However, to join a live webinar session, you must register at A downloadable version will be available for those who can’t join the live webinar.