Thursday, February 28, 2013

God At Work

Every once in a while it's good for me to reflect on where I am and what's going on around me. In the Old Testament there were regular occasions when the people of Israel would rehearse all that God had done for them. This would sometimes happen when they were going through a rough patch and needed to be reminded that God was still at work in their lives just and had been all along.

It's actually very awe inspiring when you stop long enough to see what's happening around you and realize that there is no way you or any human being could've orchestrated what is going on. There are certainly times in my life when this is less obvious, but right now I'm going through a season where it's blatantly obvious that God is at work. Without going into any specific detail suffice it to say that there are things happening in the lives of people and within businesses and organizations on two continents right now that seem to be spontaneous and unplanned. But these events are working in perfect harmony to accomplish a whole new level of ministry that has the potential to affect millions of people.

When it becomes so very clear that God is at work now, has been long before I came along and will be long after I'm gone, I can relax and enjoy playing whatever small part in the plan He has in mind. Open your eyes and see how God has brought you to where you are right now. Who has He gathered around you? What 'coincidences' have happened to put you on the path you're on? Take time to rehearse all that God has done in your life and before your life that is impacting you right now. Then relax and enjoy the part He's given you to play.

Note: I am still working on the launch of The Shepherd Fund and some exciting things are happening. We still need funding to cover the costs of start-up and I hope you'll consider making a gift of any size to help move this ministry forward. You can find our campaign here and making a donation is simple. Donations to this campaign are not tax deductible.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pray for Kenya

On Monday, March 4, 2013 the country of Kenya faces an historic election. This is the first election since the formation of their new constitution and it will radically change the style of government. There is a lot of hope and a lot of concern riding on this election. This could have impact on all the missions and ministries operating in Kenya.

This election is one more example of the challenges we all face as nonprofit ministries hoping to effect positive change in developing nations. Forms of government change, leaders change, rules change and along the way we must learn to navigate in ways that allow ministry to move forward.

As I go forward with the launch of The Shepherd Fund which will partner with Carlile College in Kenya, it comes with awareness that there will be new rules after March 4. For those interested in the radical changes coming to Kenya Dr. Peter Nyende, Principal of Carlile, put together a very concise explanation of the new government along with the promises and pitfalls. Please keep Kenya in your prayers and spread the word to other prayer partners between now and Monday.

Click here to see the full report on the Kenya election from Dr. Nyende

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Play With Your Toes

Nothing surprises God. As a child I had the misbegotten notion that when I confessed my sin it was the first time God was hearing of it! It took some time for me to internalize the fact that I was the one who was uninformed and my confession was actually an acknowledgement that I was now in agreement with something God already knew. In some ways it seems people have a similar opinion of God when it comes to our modern technology. You hear people talk about how God and religion is such an antiquated notion. So it might come as a shock to some that God knew about computers, cell phones, nanotechnology...all the things we marvel at and things we haven't yet the creation of the world.

In fact I am fully confident in saying He wanted us to discover these things and delights in it when we do. Much like parents are overjoyed when their child first discovers his toes or pees in the toilet for the first time. And if God had all this laid out ahead of time then He must also have a plan and a purpose that goes beyond streaming the latest video of a laughing baby. My son told me about a remark he heard recently from someone who said, 'I have more computing power in my pocket than they had to get men to the moon and I use it to look at cute pictures of cats!'

I believe God has greater things in mind for the wonders we have finally discovered. He's waited a long time for us to figure this stuff out. It's time we thought long and hard about the best ways to use the resources at our disposal to connect with partners around the world. Many are doing wonderful things already, but there is so much more we can do. I believe it's important to stay up to date on the latest tech developments and ask, "How will this improve our ability to do ministry?" What's most amazing to me is how much of this is free or nearly free.

We are living in a time of signs and wonders. We can connect to nearly anywhere in the world anytime we want. Every week we see our daughter in Egypt face to face by Skype. I regularly touch base with friends in Kenya by text and Facebook messaging. Nearly every day I share my thoughts, encouragement, challenges and devotions on blog posts and websites. Within easy reach of where I'm sitting right now are a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet, a cell phone and a VOiP phone.

Have you ever taken the time to catalog all the resources at your fingertips? If you're in your twenties none of this might seem all that remarkable to you...which is even more remarkable to me! Take some time today and list all that's available to you at your desk, on the web, in the cloud, wherever it might be found. Then note next to each thing how you're using it for ministry. Consider making a plan for those things you're not currently using or are underusing. Here's a list to get you started...

  • Computing (desk top, laptop, tablet, netbook)
  • Cell phone
  • Website
  • Blogs
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • YouTube
  • Linked In
  • Google+
  • Skype
  • VOiP
  • Transportation (car, bus, train, airplane, boat, bike)
  • Crowdfunding (Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Indiegogo)
Your list will be longer but this gets you started. Keep discovering and remember that just like any good parent God delights when we play with our toes.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Plays Well With Others

We all learn at an early age what evaluation looks like. At first there are behavioral observations in preschool and kindergarten like, knows how to tie his shoes or plays well with others.  As we get older our efforts, academically anyway, are assigned a letter designation. This has inadvertently caused a generations old aversion to the letter 'F' in our culture. We've tried through the years to come up with other measures to communicate our evaluations but, inevitably, someone asks, 'Is that like a 'B' or a 'C'?'

When we get to adulthood and no one is making us evaluate our work our natural inclination is to shy away from it. That's why there are so many businesses, nonprofits, and ministries that struggle to operate day to day. In my experience those that fail to evaluate the work they are doing as measured against best practices in their industry, their own stated goals, Biblical principles and measurable outcomes usually end up just treading water, being marginally effective or failing all together.

And evaluation isn't just about looking at the work you're doing to see if it's effective, it's about looking at what others are doing to determine if what you're doing is even necessary. Within the Christian world the duplication of effort is staggering. Far too often one group of Christians will see what another group of Christians is doing and instead of joining them in the effort will start the exact same thing on their own. Then they make it worse by refusing to learn from those who've done it before and recreate everything from scratch! I can't even begin to fathom the amount of resources wasted in this process.

Sometimes there is good reason for more than one group, business or ministry to be involved in doing the exact same thing. There is also good reason to cooperate together whenever possible. Knowing when to do which of these is a challenge that can only be sorted out through intensive evaluation. In every case it's crucial that all of us in ministry be asking a few simple questions.
  • Should we do this?
  • Why should we do this?
  • Is there someone already doing this?
  • Should we join them in doing this?
  • If not, what should we learn from them as we do this?
If we ever hope to undo any of the damage done by our benevolent oppression and misbegotten charity; if we hope to marshal the precious resources God has given us and deploy them for the greatest possible good, then there is one evaluation from childhood we must all strive to achieve...plays well with others.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How It All Starts

Have you ever wondered how all this charity we're involved in starts? It's not hard to find out and when you go looking you find the stories are all very, very similar. It starts when God connects one person to another person.

In the year before her accidental death my mother had the chance to travel to Thailand. Mom had never had any overseas international travel experience so this trip was a big deal to her. But something happened on that trip I didn't hear about until her funeral when her husband shared this story...

Mom and her husband, Johnny, were shopping in the streets of Bangkok where street children pursue tourists relentlessly asking for money. At some point my Mom stopped, knelt down and connected with one of the children. As she took time with him Johnny said, 'Judy, you can't help all these children.' She turned to him and said, 'No, but I can help this one.'

Dig far enough back into the history of any charity and you will find someone like my Mom kneeling down on the street of some far away place looking into the eyes of a child and saying, 'I can help this one.'

Compassion International, now a global ministry with donations in excess of half a billion dollars started when Rev. Everett Swanson felt compelled to help 35 children orphaned by the Korean conflict.

World Vision, which sees donations in excess of a billion dollars a year and works in nearly 100 countries started when Dr. Bob Pierce, who was an American evangelist and war correspondent traveled to China with Youth for Christ in 1947. On that trip, Bob’s heart was broken when he was confronted with the need of one little girl. 

Kids Alive International cares for orphans in a dozen countries and began in 1916 in Shantung Province, China, when missionaries Leslie and Ava Anglin began taking in homeless Chinese children.

ABAN started in 2008 when Callie Brauel and Becca Brandt took a college trip to Ghana and saw the plight of street children there first hand.

FIKISHA started in 2009 when Sam Bretzmann took a trip to Kenya to climb Kilimanjaro and instead ended up meeting young Isaac on the streets of Nairobi. 

It starts when one person's heart is touched by the need of another person. Often the person in need is a child. Where God takes it once that connection is made is totally up to Him. We simply put ourselves in places where the connections can be made.

God touched my heart when I first visited Kenya in 1999 and saw the needs of so many people. Now I am moved to do more than take the occasional team there to work with the orphans of Jehovah Jireh and the blind children at St. Luke's in Kitui. I am launching The Shepherd Fund to change lives for the better and I have no idea what God will do with it. But that's how it all starts.

Click here and donate to help launch The Shepherd Fund.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What if...

Recently I've been blessed with getting to know some cool folks who are doing amazing things in missions and charity. I've mentioned some of them here. It's incredibly encouraging to see the tide turning in the way charity is getting done. There are many who are waking up to the need to bring entrepreneurship and sustainable development into our ministries. This theme is all over the latest issue of Fast Company, a magazine I highly recommend, by the way.

I was reading this article in the magazine and was struck by a question. What if all these new innovative, creative, young, entrepreneurial mission start-ups were intentionally talking with each other? Better yet, what if there was a way to follow the model in the article and set up co-working spaces for charities? These charities wouldn't even have to be working on the same kinds of projects or even focused in the same countries. I think there could be some fabulous and unexpected interactions if charities were sharing the same space.

If companies as diverse as AT&T and Zappos are comfortable intermingling their employees with other companies and see a value in the exchange, couldn't there be even greater value if all of us who are trying to more effectively impact the world with the Gospel shared some space...and ideas? I think it would help develop a greater awareness of best practices, exponentially multiply good ideas, accelerate the pace of change and more that we can't even imagine. The inspiration that struck me as I read the article was so strong I literally jumped up out of my chair.

My friend Trent Davis sort of stumbled into this concept a year ago as Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin was forming Transform Joplin, the nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding that city after the May 22, 2011 tornado. The warehouse space acquired for Transform Joplin was more space than they needed so Trent and his team recruited other ministries and invited them to share the space. I think he would tell you it has led to some interesting partnerships and connections that might not have happened if they each had their own buildings. And Joplin is better off for it.

I encourage you to read the article and consider the possibilities. I'd love to hear comments and stories of others who might already be doing this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

For the past few weeks I have been waxing eloquent here on this blog about the need to reverse benevolent oppression. I have been very harsh about how we in the West have done charity for many decades. Over the course of the past month the Lord has convicted me that if I am going to level these charges then I must also be willing to do something about it...and more than just talk!

Years ago I felt God's call to start a ministry to Africa...Kenya, in particular. I got out of the gate by quitting my job but I never made it much further than that. Then five years ago I incorporated a non-profit in Colorado to begin making a difference in developing countries but didn't move it beyond that. Each step along the way I've learned much and doors have been opened for me to meet many people. At some point the classroom learning ends and the real life learning happens. Having been set free from my day job over a month ago I am in the enviable position of having the freedom to put my money where my mouth is.

Starting today I have launched a campaign to raise the money that will fund the start-up of that non-profit specifically targeted to partner with Carlile College in Nairobi, Kenya. It is called The Shepherd Fund and you can go here to donate to the start-up fund. It's being hosted by the crowdfunding website Go Fund Me. I'm asking all my loyal blog readers to spread the word about this fund and encourage your churches to also consider a gift. There is much work to be done and God has prepared me for just such a time as this.

Watch here as I plan to update you on the progress, the learning, the challenges and the triumphs as The Shepherd Fund takes wing. Thank you in advance for your prayers and support.

Again click here to read more and donate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Now the Complexities

No one has said that charitable work is easy. In fact, my blog posts here over the past few weeks have argued just the opposite. Taking the easy (or easier) path is what gets us into trouble. Giving away money is easy. Building relationships is hard. Partnering with people who are culturally different is challenging. Learning to listen and being willing to lay aside any notion that we're in charge is daunting. But there is another elephant in the room that hasn't yet been discussed.

Developing nations are often difficult places to work because they are unstable. I have argued here that some of that instability has been fostered by our charity which has created an unhealthy dependency and destroyed any internal motivation on the part of those being helped. But that's only part of the story. In most cases there are other factors that contribute to the instability. In my humble opinion the biggest culprit is usually the government...or lack thereof. Every country is different so I want to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush, but in most cases the lack of stable, coherent, and fair governance creates an environment of insecurity and fear. In many developing nations rulers take power, some with seemingly good intentions, only to end up lining their own pockets and using their people, or worse, ignoring the needs of the people. In these setting corruption is rife throughout all levels of government from police to courts to elected officials. Even those who have the support of a ministry or charitable partner in the U.S. can lose it all on the whim of a government agent.

Coming from a 'melting pot' like the United States it can be hard for us to imagine how neighbors could kill neighbors in Rwanda as Hutu's turned on Tutsi's and for 100 days in 1994 slaughtered nearly 20% of that country's population. Along the way all the charitable work that was going on there came to a halt. Jacqueline Novogratz, who founded the Acumen Fund, tells of the devastating loss to women she worked with in Rwanda and the project she helped them start in her book 'The Blue Sweater'.

I wept when in early 2008 the slums of Nairobi and rural communities alike in my beloved Kenya exploded in violence after the hotly contested December presidential election leaving hundreds dead. I can still recall emails and texts with my friends in Kenya as they, too, mourned what was happening in their country. Though brief, this violence also interrupted or derailed good work that was being done there for those in need.

When we commit to help lift people out of poverty, partner with others for the sake of the Gospel and give our lives to building relationships with people of other cultures there are risks we take; emotional, spiritual, relational and, yes, physical risks. Unstable governments and the leaders that run them stop aid from getting to those in need, demand bribes from those who would be charitable, oppress their people and take advantage for personal gain. If you can't deal with this reality, don't get involved in doing charitable work in the developing world.

In situations like the ones I described and countless others like them, our role as partners is to come alongside our hurting brothers and sisters, mourn with them, pick up the pieces and start all over again. We must be willing to start and re-start and know that everything we are building today could be swept away tomorrow for reasons we may never, ever understand. What we must understand is that the work we do is for a season but the relationships we build are for a lifetime. If we get that we can do this.

Monday, February 18, 2013

An Opportunity

Of all the many things I've been blessed to experience posting thoughts on this blog is about the easiest. It doesn't take much effort to sit in my home office and share thoughts about how those of us involved in churches and the charitable world could do things better. More difficult is going out and participating with those who are doing the work. Building partnerships, maintaining relationships and helping people envision a better way by doing things differently takes a significant effort.

Perhaps the most daunting task would be to take on the challenge of starting a charity from scratch that, each step along the way, implements these new ideas of how to do charity. Starting something that has a for profit piece built in so that it is sustainable. Building partnerships and connections from the beginning that have a rigorous set of expectations, accountability and management tools built in. Incorporating the best ideas of existing charities old and new into the fabric of the start-up.

That's the path I'm currently considering. Last Friday I received a phone call from my friend and mission partner in Kenya. He explained that the Principal of the college where he works is looking for a U.S. based partner. Carlile College in Nairobi trains missionary evangelists equipping them to return to their home countries, tribes and villages and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Students from eleven African nations attend the college. These students are accepted based on their enthusiasm for sharing Jesus, the recommendation of their home church and the affirmation of their diocese. Their ability to pay tuition is not a factor in acceptance to the program. Consequently the Principal, Dr. Peter Nyende, is seeking partner churches and/or individuals that will commit to cover the tuition costs of one student for the three years of training at a cost of about $3000 per year. He has exhausted his church contacts in Kenya and the U.K. and has reached out to me to help find U.S. churches that might take on this opportunity.

Given my current situation which would allow me to invest time, effort and energy into launching an organization, I am prayerfully considering this opportunity. This could be a chance to fully engage in a project that embraces all the things charities must do to reverse benevolent oppression. It could offer a testing ground where grand theories could be put to a practical test. It could connect U.S. churches with individual indigenous missionaries from eleven countries all in one location.

As I said, I'm currently praying about this and open to any insight, encouragement, caution or questions. Comment here with such and I will keep you posted.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Who Get It Right

For awhile now I've been hammering away at what we as charitable people have done wrong and how we have destroyed so many cultures with our benevolence. It would appear that there are no bright spots, that there is no hope. But nothing could be further from the truth. There are wonderful things happening in the charitable world. There are older established charities that are getting it right and there are brand new charities that are creating great models worth emulating.

Just yesterday I spoke to a bright, energetic young leader of a new charity who is dedicated to seeing her organization learn, follow and develop best practices for the sake of the street children they serve. Rebecca Brandt of ABAN is part of a new generation of leaders that strives for transparency, is vigilant against perpetuating benevolent oppression, and is committed to partnerships not patronage. I urge you to check out their work.

Another awesome charity that is very new and already making a difference in Ethiopia with plans to expand much further is Water to Thrive. Started after a short term mission team saw the desperate need for clean water and began raising money to drill wells, this charity is not only an example of something good coming out of short term missions, it is a wonderful model of transparency. Water to Thrive posts every IRS 990 form from the beginning of the ministry right on their website. You can see exactly how much money they collect and how it is used.

One of the most heralded new charities when it comes to transparency and best practices is Charity Water. This organization engages the for profit world by seeking corporate partners that pay for all their operational expenses. This allows every dollar donated by individuals to go directly to the cause of bringing clean water to the world. As for transparency, you can actually watch the well you've donated for being drilled and used. Using the latest technology they show you exactly where your well is being drilled and email you updates on progress.

As for older established models two of the very best when it comes to best practices, transparency and accountability are Compassion International and World Vision. Each of these organizations provide opportunities for child sponsorship. Compassion rescues children and provides them with education, health care and more with a focus on developing future leaders within developing countries. World Vision uses child sponsorship as a vehicle for community development lifting up whole communities and preparing them to care for themselves. Both of these organizations have robust partnerships with indigenous ministries in every country. They have very well developed reporting mechanisms that include facilitating regular contact between donors and their sponsored children. I have done some work with both of these organizations and can attest to their integrity at every level.

There are wonderful models out there that are worth following, supporting and duplicating. These are the ones who are setting the course for the rest of us. We as donors must be willing to ask the hard questions and put our dollars where they are accomplishing the most good.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ask the Right Questions

In my previous post I promised to give donors a few questions they should ask of any charity if they want to play a role in reversing the effects of benevolent oppression. You could think of these on your own if you simply consider the ways in which you'd like a charity to be accountable. So, here are some questions you can ask and the answers you should be looking for...

  • Do you ever give money to people in need without asking for an account of how it is spent? (Answer: No or rarely. If it's rarely the follow-up question is,'Under what circumstances?' and 'Please define rarely. Clue: 20% of the time is not rarely.)
  • When giving money to overseas missions what are your standard reporting requirements? (This depends on the frequency of the money being sent. If monthly there should be monthly written reports with every expenditure reported and every dollar accounted for. If less often, then a written report accounting for each time a sum of money is sent. In any case, the charity should be able to tell you what happened to every dollar they sent overseas.)
  • How do you hold partner ministries accountable? (The aforementioned reporting is tool that must be used. Accountability measures explain what action is taken if the reporting does not happen or if the recipients fail to hold to established rules. Withholding funds is one method, requiring amended reports, all the way to direct personal visits or replacing the people who fail to follow the guidelines.) 
  • Do the overseas ministries you support all have a detailed sustainability plan? (If they don't know what that means, that's an answer! You're looking for an explanation of their process for moving people to self-sufficiency.)
  • Does your ministry provide donors a general breakdown of how all dollars are spent? (This can be found after the fact in an IRS 990, but the best charities can tell you in general terms their standard percentages for administration, marketing, and the actual work they claim to do. In most cases it's not fair to expect a detailed budget spreadsheet nor is it appropriate to ask for such.)
 There are many other questions you could ask. But these, especially the first four, will give you an idea as to whether or not this charity is contributing to benevolent oppression or holding people accountable and helping them move forward with your dollars. If there are charities doing this very well, please comment and give them some visibility. If there are some doing it really poorly, let us know about those, too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Role of Donors

No one argues that change is not difficult. Significant change is so difficult that it often must be prodded by painful triggering events. It's rare to see a smoker quit spontaneously. More often there is a physical illness or relational conflict or other trigger that forces the change.

It would be naive to think that charities are going to change their ways without some level of pain. That pain can't be the pain of those suffering under our benevolent oppression. If that were the case we would've changed decades ago because those receiving our charity have been suffering for a very long time. No, it has to be painful for the charity itself. And the only way to cause pain for a charity is to cut off the dollars donated to them. Having spent most of my career in non-profits wholly dependent on donor dollars I can tell you that when those dollars drop off there is a mad dash to figure out how to change and get those dollars back.

This post is not about telling donors to stop giving to charity. Far from it. Donors have the greatest leverage to change how charity works. If you take your dollars away completely all you accomplish is shutting down charities. Instead donors need to be very particular about where they put their dollars. There are awesome tools on the internet now that provide you with tons of information about charities here in the U.S. You can find out how much money charities bring in, how much the staff is paid, what percentage of your donated money goes to marketing and administration and how much gets to the field. That kind of research takes almost no effort at all and is a good place to start. I highly recommend Charity Navigator and Guidestar as two online services that will provide excellent information.

These two watchdog agencies are limited in that a charity must submit their information in order to be listed. So if you're planning to give to a charity and they aren't listed on Charity Navigator or Guidestar that should be your first red flag. Reputable charities that are doing what they say they do aren't shy about being listed. If you don't find them listed but still want to donate, you can check out their financials by requesting directly from the charity a copy of their most recent IRS Form 990. This is the form every non-profit is required to file with the government on an annual basis and they are obligated by law to produce it for you if you request it. Form 990 contains all the information you'll get from Charity Navigator or Guidestar but in a government form that is harder to decipher.

Getting the financial records of a charity is a good first step to seeing if you want to support what they do...and you should let the charity know you are checking them out in this way. But that, alone, doesn't do anything to end benevolent oppression. In order to do that you need to work a bit harder. There are a few key questions that you should ask any charity that will help you determine whether they are properly shepherding your donation in ways that truly help people or just giving money away without regard for the damage it could be doing. In my post tomorrow I'll list the questions you should ask and the answers you should look for before donating to any charity.

Donors can change the way we do charity if enough of them start scrutinizing the charities to which they donate.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Self Importance - The Deadliest Disease

When I was a senior in high school I suffered an emotional episode that caught me by surprise. I had been cast in the ensemble of the spring musical, Irene, and we were rehearsing one of the dance numbers (yes, I had a brief dalliance as a dancer). It was a simple number but I just couldn't get the step. It was so frustrating. At one point I lost it and ran offstage sobbing and literally hanging on the curtain. My dance partner, Ginger Rogers (I am seriously not making this up), came over to console me but I think she was a little surprised that I was having such a strong reaction. In that moment I believed the success of the whole production hinged on whether or not I could learn that dance step!

It wasn't the dance move that had gotten to me. It was my own sense of importance. Somehow I had convinced myself that I was indispensable. Without me doing everything exactly right the show couldn't go on. I collapsed under the weight of my own self importance.

Far too often our charitable work suffers from this same affliction. We take ourselves so seriously and over time come to believe that without us people will die. In so many ways this conviction becomes reality because our behavior makes this true. By not allowing people to find their own way and encouraging them to fully realize their potential we keep them in a state of infancy. And we all know that without the constant care of a parent an infant would die. The harsh reality is this; what is killing more people around the world today is the arrogant self importance of those running charities purporting to be helping.

Scripture cautions us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3) but with sober judgement think of ourselves in accordance with the faith God has given us. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I think it is for most people. I worked with a pastor for a time who gave me a simple phrase that really helped. He said, 'Take God very seriously and have fun with the ministry.'

God has blessed every human being on the planet with gifts and talents. He has built us to be in communities that care for each other. He has a plan and a purpose the He is working out and He's the only one with the resources to make His plan a reality. Yes, we have a role to play, but many are guilty of over-inflating the importance of their particular role. We cannot simultaneously take ourselves so seriously that we think it's up to us to save the world (or whatever part of it we're working in) and take God seriously. Part of the process of undoing the effects of benevolent oppression is to stop thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. We must get over ourselves, take God very seriously and have fun with (enjoy) the ministry.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Accepting Different

Early in my marriage my wife and I were returning home from church. She happened to be driving and when she took a route different from the one I usually took I told her she was going the wrong way. She pointed out she was going a different way but that didn't make it wrong. Being young, stupid and strong willed I picked a fight insisting that her way was both different and wrong. It was, as you can imagine, a nasty little fight that didn't end well. And you'd think I would've let it go and realized that she was right. Different in certain settings may be wrong but in most cases different is just different. But I actually drove both routes and timed them to prove that my route was shorter and, therefore, the right way to go. I found out there was little difference in travel time between the two.

To this day it's hard for me to learn lessons, and sometimes painful. If we are to reverse benevolent oppression we must give up our conviction about there being one right way to do things. The simple truth is that we in the American Christian church are as much affected by our culture as people anywhere else in the world are by theirs. Our freedoms, affluence, governmental system, technological advancements and other influences form our opinion of ourselves and the world we live in. It also helps form our definition of right and wrong. Yes, we seek truth in God's Word, but even our understanding of truth found in scripture is colored by the culture in which we've grown up.

This is a huge handicap when it comes time for us to help people in other cultures. This handicap can be mitigated if we are aware it exists. If you are bristling right now at my suggestion that our ways are not right when all I'm saying is our ways are different then it might be hard for you to engage with other cultures. I've certainly met people who are eager to do the equivalent of driving both routes to prove that the American way is more expedient. To those folks I would say that expedience is often not the goal in other cultures so, from the outset, your measure of right and wrong is flawed.

If you can embrace the truth that there is more than one right way to do things and celebrate those who do things differently to achieve the same goal, then you have a fighting chance at changing the way we do charity. Absolute right and absolute wrong does exist. However, it is much more rare than any of us imagine. We need to be much, much more careful about using those labels and become much, much more comfortable accepting different.

This is one more step on our road to reversing benevolent oppression.

Friday, February 08, 2013

None of Our Business

One of the challenges Christian charities face in making the changes I'm suggesting if we are to reverse benevolent oppression is overcoming our aversion to behaving like the best of the for profit businesses. While the most successful charities are very mindful of business best practices and embrace the idea of generating revenue, there are many that don't.

The natural question that arises for me is this: If my ministry is wholly dependent on donor dollars and I have no concept of what it takes to generate an income how can I then teach others how to stop relying on donor dollars?

This is a conundrum that must be dealt with. I have a friend who is a second career pastor. His first career was as an officer in the Navy. Recently his church bought a printing company that they intend to run as a for profit business that will support the ministry of the church. The church I attended in Colorado runs a restaurant and that's what the public sees. Often people are surprised when someone over lunch tells them they are sitting in a church. If we are to bring sustainability to the world, then we must practice sustainability here at home. It's time that every non-profit (churches included) considered for profit ventures to generate revenue for their mission.

For several years I headed a non-profit corporation and did all the usual things one does to raise money. I had meetings with potential donors, both one-on-one and in groups. We hosted an annual dinner, an annual golf outing and ran capital campaigns. On regular occasions potential large donors who were successful business people would withhold their gifts because they didn't trust the leadership of the ministry. Being in leadership I found that offensive, but they explained that it was hard to trust a ministry run by a church worker. Traditionally church workers lack the skill set to run a business. They don't manage all the various aspects of business well and, subsequently, donor dollars are often used ineffectively. Looking back on that, and having been involved in some charities run by church workers I confess that today I wholeheartedly agree with their perspective.

If we are to succeed in making the transition to sustainable partnerships we must engage the business community. We must employ the best of the best practices that make businesses successful. We must put ministers in their proper place guiding the ministry aspects of our work but, except in rare cases, we must not allow them to run the business of the charity. There's much more to be said about this, but this is enough to digest for now!

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Sometimes It's Okay to Give Money

Many recent posts may lead some to believe that I'm advocating the end of donating money as a form of helping people. This is not the case. There are times when giving money is crucial and necessary. My point is that those times are far more rare than we think they are and should be severely limited.

Going back to my post that talked about the eleven billion dollars poured into Haiti since the January 2010 earthquake. The experts say that the long term effect has been negative but in the early days the money helped people cope. That is the key. In situations of extreme emergency when all or most means of self-sufficiency have been lost due to accident or natural disaster, then providing short term financial assistance is absolutely the right thing to do.

When we continue to pour dollars into a situation after the emergency has passed we are no longer being helpful. Instead we are crippling people's ability to lift themselves out of disaster and re-establish a normal life. Even if the new normal looks nothing like the old normal it's vital that they be allowed to work toward it.

This point is important: When we continue giving emergency aid to people who have suffered a disaster after the emergency has passed we effectively prolong the disaster and keep them in emergency mode.

Living in a constant state of emergency, urgency and need for outside support crushes the soul, breaks the will and destroys personal motivation and productivity. So when we give money without any restrictions, accountability or expectations it should be done very, very rarely, for a limited time and with clear communication to those receiving it so they don't expect it to keep coming forever.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Defining Sustainability

If we are to eradicate benevolent oppression then we must set a goal that everything we do with partners around the world is designed to be sustainable. In order to accomplish this we need a simple definition of sustainability.

On a trip to Kenya to set up future projects my host and brother in Christ, Daniel, had arranged meetings with various ministries. The goal was to learn what they were doing and see if there were any meaningful ways in which we could help them advance their ministries. Daniel told me about a leader of one ministry who, when he heard an American was coming to visit his ministry, insisted that I pay a certain amount of money to visit and agree to purchase food for all his staff. Daniel firmly declined and we never visited that ministry.

When crafting a sustainability strategy the simple question that must be answered is this, "Would this project continue unchanged if not another charitable dollar was given and no one from the outside ever came back to visit?"

That may seem like a very high bar. I mean, let's face it, what ministry in the United States could claim they are sustainable if all donor dollars dried up and outside volunteers stopped coming? Crafting a sustainability strategy for U.S. ministries is a topic for another time but one that needs to be addressed (teaser: I believe every ministry should develop a 'for profit' side that can fund the ministry side).

As we work with our partners in developing countries we should always be moving toward self-sufficiency. This means developing solid, realistic business plans. It means making accurate revenue projections, doing cost/benefit analysis, considering return on investment (ROI), and determining how much time it will take to reach profitability. These are just a few things to be considered as you determine how much capital investment will be needed to get a venture off the ground. This model engages savvy business people in missions because this cannot happen without their expertise. These models must be based in the culture in which they're set and primarily assembled by partners in that culture. While some best practices are universal, we must be certain that everything we propose fits within the cultural context where we're working.

While I can't envision a day when our partnership with and support of ministries in other countries would disappear entirely, we must have such a day in mind when building a sustainable model. We must proceed as if our partners will one day be able to function without our help. If we don't then we'll never be able to fully withdraw support and invest in the next project or ministry.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

An Argument for Short Term Missions: Part 2

We can't underestimate the power of presence. This is true both for those who are visited and for those who visit. I have seen it time and again when a short term mission team shows up the people we visit are excited and encouraged. In many cultures it is an incredible honor to welcome visitors into their homes. On a visit to Uganda I was introduced to a woman who cared for three teens orphaned by AIDS. She was over 100 years old and living in a dirt floored brick home that had recently replaced the mud hut she had lived in most of her life. She could not even stand but lifted her hands to me and wept with joy. I asked my Ugandan partner what she was saying and he told me she was thanking me for the honor and blessing of visiting her home. It was my turn to weep.

No amount of YouTube video clips or late night commercials will replace being physically present in the lives of people. If I go to someone and ask them to contribute $2500 to advance a worthy project in Kenya I guarantee that, in most cases, the answer will be 'no'. If I ask that same person to go with me to Kenya, they will find the $2500. Once they have spent time in Kenya, worked in a medical clinic for orphans, stood alongside Kenyan workers building a kitchen or cleaned up a building to create a community health care facility their lives are changed. Their sense of place in the world shifts in good ways. And the people they serve with are also changed in some fundamental ways. In short, relationships form that cannot be defined by money or even the work that's accomplished.

Short term missions cannot and must not be about one group of people going to rescue another group of people. That is demeaning, wrong and too often a big part of our motivation. If we go we must go as servants, partners and members of the same family. We must go intending to build relationships not buildings. Anyone can build a building. It doesn't take a team of strangers to do that. When we go just to build what we end up doing is offending. I'm reminded of a team that went to Puerto Rico and was assigned to paint and clean a nursery. Instead of doing what they were asked to do they decided all the toys in the nursery were unsuitable so they threw them all away and bought all new, clean, fresh toys. If you get what I'm talking about then you know how horribly offensive and hurtful that act of 'charity' was to the people there. They wanted to visit and build a friendship which they didn't get and they got a nursery full of new toys which they didn't want!

Short term missions must be undertaken with much preparation. But most of that preparation is training Americans how to behave in other cultures. Most of the preparation is reminding ourselves that we go to build relationships with capable and competent partners who will continue to advance their ministry even if we never show up. If we go with our minds and hearts in the right place short term missions can be very effective. If we can't then we shouldn't go at all.

Monday, February 04, 2013

An Argument for Short Term Missions: Part 1

As we...and by 'we' I mean those in the Christian church trying to reverse benevolent oppression...look at all the ways the church has inflicted itself on developing nations some of the harshest criticism falls on short term missions. And rightly so. In many cases a short term mission trip to a developing country is nothing more than a poorly disguised vacation. Worse than that, criticism that has been levied is fairly accurate that short term teams do things and build things that the local people don't need, won't use and aren't sustainable. They leave behind a mess that doesn't help anyone in the long run but makes the 'missionaries' feel really good about helping.

So we should stop doing short term missions, right? There are certainly those who have made that argument. I'm not one of them. Short term mission trips do play an important role in reversing benevolent oppression. I witnessed one example of this on a visit to Tijuana, Mexico. A ministry there helps build school playgrounds (in Tijuana the playground is a large concrete surface). They bring volunteers and money, but only after the community has raised it's portion of the costs and committed local folks to work on the project. This creates a cooperative situation that is driven by the people in the community being served. The request for a new playground comes from the people in the neighborhood. They raise the money for materials. They schedule the work. They sign-up as volunteer workers. Only then does a team from the U.S. agree to come and work alongside them to get the playground finished.

In this model the short term missionaries are partners working at the invitation of the people they are working with...not for or in place of. It is crucial that we not completely take over and do for them but that we do it with them. Some would still argue that if we simply gathered the money it takes to get to another country and sent that to our indigenous partners they could hire all the help they need and get so much more for the money we're spending.

In theory this is true. But in practice it doesn't work that way. Tomorrow I'll explain why.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Unfettered Charity - The Methamphetamine of Developing Nations

Lest you think I'm being hyperbolic with the title of this post, let's look at what happens to healthy, capable people when they get hooked on meth. Here's a before and after picture of an actual meth addict. They say it only takes one hit of meth for you to be hooked. From there you quickly abandon any healthy pursuits and your life becomes consumed with doing whatever you can to get your next fix. You'll betray family and friends, commit crimes and even sell your own body to get the money for meth.

Eventually you're so lost that you can't take care of yourself. You have no capacity to fend for yourself or get out of the addiction that's killing you. Someone has to intervene and get you on the road to recovery. Often for this to happen you have to hit bottom and be willing to accept help. Immediately after that the source of your addiction has to be taken away or you have to be taken away from it.

Unfettered charity...and by that I mean charity without any limitations, expectations, boundaries, or exactly like methamphetamine. It takes very little to get people hooked. Once on it they become so dependent that they soon lose any sense of self-respect and will do anything to keep getting it. If you don't believe that's true take a few minutes and research the leaders in many African countries that today are allowing the Chinese to plunder their resources and enslave their own people as long as the money pours in. And the Chinese are just the latest in a long line of benevolent nations looking to take advantage of Africa, the United States included.

Meth addicts don't give up their addiction easily and the victims of our charity won't either. They will need help. In this analogy what I'm proposing is not only risky but, for some, may be impossible. I'm asking the meth pusher to stop supplying the drug to the addict. More than that, I'm saying the pusher must not only take the drugs away but must then hang in there with the addict as they go through withdrawal and then walk with them into recovery. Help them restore their sense of self, rediscover their capabilities, and re-engage as fully functional members of the global society.

This will be hard because at every step along the way the pusher, driven by a misbegotten notion of compassion, will be tempted to bring out just a little hit to get the addict over a rough patch. If we who have created this problem can't overcome our natural inclination to throw money at people who are in need then there is no hope for recovery. My prayer is that God will give us the strength to make this switch. If we can't we're no better than a dealer cooking up another batch of meth.