Four Ways to Increase Benevolence Effectiveness
Helping the poor — and preserving their dignity
Helping the poor requires more than just good intentions. Often we try to fix poverty with material things alone and forget that material poverty is just a symptom of poverty. Therein lies the problem in many of our attempts to help the poor. Most of us would define poverty as a lack of material things, such as money, food and shelter. But the reality of poverty is more nuanced.
In the spirit of being benevolent, we can become blind to how our helping might actually be hurting. So, let’s walk through four ways to increase benevolence effectiveness.
Remember that God made all people in His image, with inherent dignity, and that we all need the reconciling work of Christ in our lives.
God calls every disciple of Christ to respect the life and dignity of every human being. Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God, and is not something a person can earn or lose through economic status. It’s too easy to become innocently arrogant when we minister to the poor, by comparing their lives to ours.
I served for 11 years at a church in Springfield, Missouri, that resided in one of the most economically challenged zones of the city. Several years ago, we developed an outreach ministry that went door-to-door within a one-mile radius of the church every month.
Misunderstandings of poverty lead to counterproductive efforts to help the poor.
I’ll never forget the day I approached the front door of one of the homes in our neighborhood. As I walked up, I noticed trash strewn across the front yard and broken-down vehicles in the driveway. I had been to the house before, but I had never met the homeowners. I knocked on the door, and, for the first time, a woman answered. I introduced myself and offered her and her family food, lawn care, home repairs and prayer — as I did for every house.
As I finished, the woman’s response caught me off-guard: “You’ve been coming here for months. Why? I don’t need your help. I have plenty of food. I like living here. Stop offering to mow my lawn. Help someone else. Please don’t come back!”
It was not until later that I understood how I had offended this woman and how our church’s benevolence ministries had gone wrong. I had offered her material things but failed to give her dignity.
This account, and others, forced our church to reconsider how we ministered. We learned that misunderstandings of poverty lead to counterproductive efforts to help the poor. Using what we learned, we took time to restructure our neighborhood ministries, and our outreach efforts enjoyed tremendous growth as a result.
Distinguish Between Relief, Rehabilitation and Development
In When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert outline three stages of helping the poor: relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is what people need right after a crisis, when they are incapable of providing for themselves. Rehabilitation is the process of restoring people and communities to precrisis conditions. At the end of the spectrum, you have development: a long-term venture concerned with walking with the poor, and helping them steward what they have.
Failure to diagnose the stage of ministry that a community needs results in minimal success. Say that it’s Christmastime for a community in the rehabilitation phase. They are still struggling, but they are not in crisis. When Christmas rolls around, your church organizes a toy drive. But, instead of collecting toys and handing them to the children yourself, why not make a toy store where parents can shop for their children? Then the parents can provide for their children directly, which reinforces the desire to continue improving, builds dignity, and develops relationships.
Partner with Other Groups and Ministries
Partnering with other churches, groups or local agencies can have a multiplying effect on the community. For years, our church coordinated its own Thanksgiving meal distribution for families in need during the holidays, where we would typically distribute 200 meals a year. A few years ago, we partnered with another local group with a similar mission to feed the hungry. Our combined resources and efforts resulted in delivering over 1,200 meals in the first year.
Recognize other groups, partner with like-minded ministries, and mobilize the gifts God has already placed in communities and individuals, empowering the poor to improve their own circumstances.
This does not mean we will never bring in outside resources or do things ourselves, but we will only do so in a way that complements, rather than undermines, local assets.
Give More Than Handouts
Giving handouts can be a dangerous and vicious cycle, increasing the pride of the giver and the shame of the recipient without ever addressing the roots of poverty. We need to teach our people to walk with the poor in humble relationships rather than providing temporary handouts.
Look for opportunities to form lasting relationships with low-income people, rather than looking for one-time interactions. I found the adage “never do for someone what they can do for themselves” a helpful guideline.
Ministering to the poor is tough work that requires thoughtfulness in our approach. These ideas should prompt us to reevaluate how much our efforts are helping the poor in the long run, and how we can adapt to help more effectively. We must work to help the poor, not with the goal of making them like us, but to help them realize who they are in the image of God.
This article originally appeared in the October/November/December 2017 edition of Influence magazine.