What Should Wealthy Churches Do (and Not Do) with Donated Money to Avoid Creating Unhealthy Dependency

I’m currently reading through a book by Glenn Schwartz entitled, When Charity Destroys Dignity.

I thought the content in one of the chapters was particularly solid enough to bear repeating.  So this information is mostly from chapter four of that book.  I think the advice is mostly relevant for individual Christians as well as churches.

The first point is to define “wealthy.”  The definition given is, “those who have more than needed to live on.”  So “wealthy” doesn’t just mean “western,” but rather any church (or person) who has more than they need for themselves. In some cases, by that standard, many westerners are not wealthy.

The second point is to think about where financial unbalances come from in the first place.  Especially when there is a potential that wealth was created in a questionable way.  Schwartz writes, “In other words, someone may not have received a fair price for the raw materials that were sold to those who manufactured them into items for sale.”  He goes on to add, “Those who are benefiting from this imbalance end up with more than they need to live on (excess spendable income) which they then decide to give back in the form of charity.”  Then Schwartz makes this anecdotal point, “Would Ugandan farmers prefer the charitable handout, or would they rather have a fair price for their raw materials?”  Probably the latter. 

This is a complicated factor, but the bottom line is that, “all of us should look at the income we get and ask, ‘Has it been gained in a fair way?’”

Glenn’s List of Positive Ideas:

  1. Preach the Gospel Where it has not been Preached (particularly the 10/40 window)
  2. Consider Providing Full Missionary Support for a Missionary Family (instead of supporting many partway)
  3. Invest in Cross-Cultural Training for Missionaries (more important than many realize)
  4. Invest in Mobilization Efforts (“wherever there are sleeping Christians, waking them up and motivating them to make the Kingdom of God their highest priority is a worthwhile investment”)
  5. Invest in Ministries that do not have a Natural Giving Constituency (e.g. radio broadcasting, campus organizations, Bible translation)
  6. Help Refugees (but sensitively, being mindful of their dignity)
  7. Invest in Preventive Health Programs (rather than curative health)
  8. Invest in Breaking Dependency-Not in Creating it (investing in employment projects, job creation schemes and revolving loan funds)
  9. Never do for Others what They Can and Should Do for Themselves
  10. Don’t Forget about Outreach in Your Own Community

Others I would add to Glenn’s list that I also don’t think create unhealthy dependency are:

  1. Disaster relief, particularly if it has a gospel emphasis (eg Samaritans Purse)
  2. Organizations that combat worldly thinking (eg Focus on the Family, Answers in Genesis)
  3. Prison Ministry (eg Prison Fellowship, CEF)
  4. Supporting the Persecuted Church (eg Voice of the Martyrs)

Items to Exercise Particular Care With:

1. Child Sponsorship Programs. Often there are extended families intact to care for their own children.  “If outside child sponsorship is used in a place where the extended family could and should be doing such things, the outside funding becomes a substitute for the family.  It is here that the seeds of dependency can easily be sown.”

2. Don’t send money to individual church leaders. “Frequently when individual church leaders get outside funding, their own church members don’t know how much has been received or how it is used.  If local believers suspect that funds are coming in from the outside, it can easily destroy local initiative for giving.”

3. Don’t subsidize literature which reduces its value in the eyes of those who buy it.  “This principle has to do with Bibles and other Christian literature.  Some years ago a person who was becoming aware of the dependency problem said, ‘But our whole ministry is to give away literature.’  Without realizing it, they were reenforcing the idea that people are too poor to pay for what they want; in that way, free literature exacerbates the problem of dependency.  The end result is that eventually people begin to think that Bibles and other Christian literature should be free of charge, not realizing that somewhere, someone is spending a lot of money to produce it.”

4. Be careful about providing scholarships for people to be trained outside of their cultural context. “Sometimes those who have been educated outside of their cultural context find it difficult or impossible to go back and minister among their own people.” (reference Pius Wakatama’s book Independence for the Third World Church: An African’s Perspective on Missionary Work)

5. Avoid building church buildings for people who can build them for themselves.  “Building church buildings is one of the biggest areas of abuse in the dependency syndrome.  Once while in Capetown, South Africa, I was doing a seminar, and a man stood up and said, ‘I know what you are talking about. We went over to Namibia, built a church building and gave it to the local people.  We had taken enough money and people from Capetown to complete the project.  We gave the building to the people assuming they would use it as a church.  After we left, the people divided the building into four parts and four families moved in and used it as a place to live.’  Consider this: If local people had built that buildingi n Namibia with their own hands and with their own resources, is it conceivable that it would have been divided up and used as a place for several families to live?  It is most unlikely.”

“Regarding church buildings, remember this principle: People can have a church building equal to the houses in which they live.  If they live in a house that is made of sun-dried bricks with a grass roof, they can have a church of sun-dried bricks and a grass roof.  If they live in a house with burnt bricks and an iron roof, they can have a church with burnt bricks and an iron roof.  If they live in a house with carpet and air conditioning, they can most likely afford a church like that.  The problem is that many of us as westerners look upon people who live in modest houses and conclude, ‘You shouldn’t have to worship in a church that looks like the house you live in’ – and then the problem of dependency gets a foothold and is perpetuated.”

5. Avoid glittering projects such as satellite dishes, etc.  “Sometime ago I heard about some well-meaning westerners who gave a satellite dish to a bishop in Central Africa.  While the pastors for whom he was responsible were hardly getting any salary, he had something that was very much out of character in his community.”

6. Be careful about food aid projects which may have the potential to affect local prices. “One of the dynamics … is the long time between the identification of the need and the delivery of the food aid”  [referring to food aid corresponding with a farmers yield which can decimate local markets – reference Travesty in Haiti for a good example of this]

Glenn’s Conclusion

“There is no simple answer to the question of how resources should be used in the Christian movement.  The challenge is to keep the love of money which is the root of all evel, from looking like the Good News of the Gospel.  Another challenge is to use resources in a way that does not create or perpetuate a dependency mentality.”