STM: Between Colonialism and Paternalism

One of the wonderful things about studying Missions is that no one really knows what they are doing. Whenever one messes up… one is in good company. This is all too evident in Short-Term Missions.

Unbridled Enthusiasm: Some churches now see the future as the demise of the long-term, cross-cultural missionary. Some of those in this category are the “Just Send Money” folks… where resources flow to local ministers, while keeping foreigners away. (Curiously, they don’t mind local ministers coming to “Christian countries” to be trained… maintaining a toxic inequity… but that is for another day.)  Others see the demise of long-term missionaries with its replacement by Short-termers. The inherent limitations of STM for long-term program partnerships and outreaches is actually pretty obvious. The need for bi-cultural individuals to serve as liaison between STMers and local hosts should be evident to most. Add to that the challenges of ethnocentric clashes, “religious tourists,” and economic inefficiencies, and it becomes clear that a strategy built solely around short-term mission is doomed. Even other religions that build much of their missions strategy around STM (or at least MTM) such as LDS still have long term site coordinators.

Unbridled Antipathy.  Some go the other way. Some cite the cost. Some cite the lack of training of participants and the ultimate inability of STMers to do long-term work. Additionally, there is the thought of some that feel that STMers do more damage than good. Some see the tendency of Christians using STM as more of a vacation than a mission as a problem.

For the unbridled antipathy, perhaps a a testimony would help.

1. Back in 2003, I joined a team of ten that went to Londrina, Brazil (a beautiful place). We helped build a church there. It was part of a partnership between the Parana Convention of Southern Baptist Churches, and the Baptist General Assembly of Virginia. The partnership was long-term, each helping each other in different ways. The trip helped to inspire me to be involved in missions and eventually led to my family and I going to the Philippines.

2.  In 2009/2010, in response to typhoon damage in the Philippines, our mission board sent over Chaplain Charlie Benton. He provided training for our team to do crisis stress defusing. This was a big help, and has moved us forward allowing us to help out with a number of crises in the Philippines. This particular STM mission has made us far more effective in the following years.

These two stories I believe attack the antagonism of those who do not value STM. The first story points out that STM can be of value to the STMer. This cannot be ignored. I grew from the experience and that provides some genuine justification for STM. The second story shows that short-term missions can genuinely help long-term. Additionally, both point out that STM can be a strong aspect of a longer term relationship between Christians in different countries. STM has its value.

But there there are two implied concerns that need to be addressed as well.

A.  Fear of Colonialism. A colony is a region that is ruled/owned by outsiders. These outsiders utilize the colony primarily for its own benefit. Related to missions, there is the fear that STMers go to a foreign country and gain from it… with loss for those in the mission field. (Seems to be a bit of Christian “Marxism” here… the presumption that if one group of people gain in an exchange, then the other group must lose.) There can be an aspect of reality to this. However, the fear is a bit misguided. When we have short-termers coming to the Philippines, I have told people in our local church in Baguio that those coming are likely to learn/gain from us more than we will learn/gain from them. I ask the people whether they will embrace their role as trainers of those that come? With at most (perhaps) one exception, the alleged recipients were happy to help those who came to help. Short-term missions should not be parasitic… STMers should not be there to selfishly hurt. But one should not be afraid that the short-term missionaries gain from the experience more than the recipients of the mission.

B.  Fear of Paternalism. A more recent fear is that when the “haves” (whoever or whatever they are) help the “have nots” (or “have less”) it could be for the wrong reason and create a toxic relationship. In a sense this is the opposite of the first. One is fear of the “haves” gaining from the “have nots,” while the other is fear of unequal relationships that may demean the recipient.

But if you think about it, the two kind of negate each other. Paternalism creates the presumption that missions recipients have less, while the colonial presumption is that they have more. Bringing the two together shows that it is NOT about haves and have nots, but “HAVE DIFFERENTS.”

However, related to both colonialism and paternalism is the presumption of inequity of power. This is a more realistic concern. However, if we embrace the idea of each having different resources, the inequity of power only really exists is we support such a belief (through stereoptypes, prejudices, and policies).

If Christians around the world edify each other through missions, rather than viewing certain groups has having and others as needing, one does not have to have such fears.

Ooooops! Some Mistakes I Have Made #3

Parable of the Talents
Parable of the Talents (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mistake #3.  The Challenges of Dependency, Paternalism, and Stewardship

One of the first things I learned in missions is the danger of paternalism. A missionary should not amass control others but empower others. Therefore, one should not pass on resources with a lot of strings attached.

I also learned that giving can create dependency… so there is a risk in providing resources. One should focus on helping people discover and utilize the resources they have.

But problems come up.

When we tried to give without strings attached, sometimes we got burned. We forgot that one of our roles is a steward and we are responsible also to our supporters. This risks of paternalism are there… but the risk doesn’t justify bad stewardship. There is a tough balance here. Too much control can cause problems. Too little control can cause problems.

We provided help to people in need… sometimes it helped and sometimes it did appear to create dependency. And yet, some people when they were helped would take off and soar. Again, there is a stewardship issue here. Just as in the parable of the talents, one needs to find out how the person responds to a little help. Some rise up and some fall down. Again, I learned I needed to provide a certain amount of oversight to mentor the person. Generally, it seems like giving long-term to a group results in dependency. However, giving to individuals can empower or debilitate… it depends on their character and the nature of the relationship between the supporter and the recipient.

I read books on the dangers of dependency and of paternalism. However, in the end, these have to be balanced with the need for stewardship as well as the need to be a source for empowerment.

Some successes and some failures… but always learning. But learning only through books has its drawback, because it often takes real life situations for one to discover the nuances of ministry that are not really covered in books.