Thursday, July 02, 2009

When Charity Destroys Dignity -- A Book Review

For the past 9 years I have spent a significant amount of time participating in partnerships between churches/ministries in the Global North and the Global South. Most of my time has been spent in Guatemala, Indonesia, Turkey and most recently Malawi and Zambia. As a result the issue of dependency is of great interest to me. In my desire to walk alongside churches in Africa I do not want to create unhealthy dependency on outside resources for the work of the ministry.

I recently picked up the book When Charity Destroys Dignity (Overcoming Unhealthy Dependency in the Christian Movement) hoping that it would be of help in thinking about the issues surrounding this topic. The book is written by Glenn Schwartz who was a missionary to Zambia in the 1960's and is now the executive director of World Mission Associates.

While I found some of the stories of dependency Schwartz sprinkles throughout the book helpful, my sense is that he is often addressing the issues he faced in the 60's in Africa more than the issues faced by churches and ministries working in the Global South in the 21st century. As a result, I was somewhat disappointed in this book.

Perhaps the most helpful chapter began on page 307 (Chapter 23) where Schwartz outlines some of the lessons missionaries have learned in regard to unhealthy dependency in the Christian Movement. These lessons are worth repeating.

The problem of dependency among mission-established institutions has its roots in spiritual issues. Without genuine spiritual transformation it is unlikely that people will move from being dependent on foreign sources for finances to providing the monies needed to support their own ministries.

The road to dependency is often paved with good intentions. Well meaning outsiders with hearts of compassion do for others what they might otherwise be able to do for themselves.

Self-reliance has little to do with wealth or poverty. Every community has assets, and every community can become more reliant on those assets and resources to support themselves.

Many transitions toward local sustainability include a direct revelation from the Lord to the church leaders involved. It seems that often those local leaders who want to break free of the shackles of unhealthy dependency do so after hearing "a word of the Lord' to do so.

Westerners often assume that their wealth is the missing ingredient in the spread of the Gospel or in doing health care or other community development projects. Ironically it is sometimes outside funding that prevents leaders or church and local institutions to look for resources in their own community. When money is easily available from the outside the motivation to develop a local funding base declines.

The transfer of psychological ownership of churches, ministries and projects is absolutely essential for breaking away from unhealthy dependence. This is perhaps Schwartz's best point in the entire book. The real test of ownership is to discover whether anyone locally will step in if outside resources are cut off. If the answer is yes -- you have psychological ownership from local people. If the answer is no -- outsiders really own the projects/ministries/churches.

Would I recommend this book? I would not discourage you from reading it, but I wouldn't put it on my "must read" list.


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