You’re Not the Hero: Avoiding Paternalism in Short-Term Missions

Adapted from Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Participant’s Guide, pp. 36-39.

Healthy, effective approaches to addressing material poverty start by recognizing and celebrating the gifts and resources God has already placed in a community. This can include natural resources, people, families, neighborhood associations, schools, businesses, governments, or individual skills.

Starting with assets isn’t ignoring the needs and problems that exist, but rather recognizing that there are assets available within a community and its people to address the problems and create new opportunities. The exciting process of asset-based development is focused on identifying, mobilizing, and connecting these assets.

Doing asset-based development well is a long-term process, though. It requires experiential knowledge about the history, culture, and capacities of a community that you just can’t pick up in a short-term mission trip. As such, short-term trips are prone to pursue quick activities that position team members (rather than local leaders) as the heroes of the stories that get told when they come back.

The Poison of Paternalism

This tendency to want to be the hero of the story is, at one level, just an outworking of our pride and anxiety—pride because we want to believe we’ve made a difference, and anxiety because we know our churches, families, and friends have supported this trip financially, and we want to have something to show for their investment.

Digging a little deeper, though, there can be an underlying lack of trust that God really has given the needed resources to the people we’re going to serve—or worse, an underlying belief that we are “better” than someone else because of our material wealth and the relative freedom to act that it gives us. These tendencies can bubble out as paternalism.

Paternalism is habitually doing things for people that they can do for themselves.1 And because it’s ultimately a heart issue, it can take various forms:

  • Resource Paternalism: giving people resources they do not truly need and/or could acquire on their own.
  • Spiritual Paternalism: taking spiritual leadership away from people in material poverty, assuming we have more to offer than they do.
  • Knowledge Paternalism: assuming we have all the best ideas about how to do things.
  • Labor Paternalism: doing work for the people that they could do (or do better) themselves.
  • Managerial Paternalism: taking ownership of change away from people in material poverty, insisting that they follow our “better, more efficient” way of doing things.

Not All Poverty Is Created Equal

Not all poverty is created equal. Clearing debris after a hurricane and renovating houses for people a year later may seem like similarly valid responses to poverty. But context is everything. We have a responsibility not to harm a community when we enter it, and to not undermine the long-term poverty alleviation work already being done.

But we love doing things, and we forget that people in material poverty are not helpless. There are times when more or less assistance is needed. But the people we serve are ultimately created in the image of God with unique gifts and capacities. We dare not rob them of that dignity through our efforts to do and accomplish particular tasks! Instead, we have an opportunity to learn from them and affirm their dignity, even through short-term trips.

Avoiding Paternalism in Short-Term Missions

While you may have never personally experienced material poverty, consider your experiences in your job, school, home, or church. Have you ever been on the receiving end of spiritual, managerial, or knowledge paternalism? How did those experiences make you feel?

As you reflect on those questions, remember to know-before-you-go to avoid passing on the harm of paternalism to the people you will visit.

  • What type of asset-based interventions is the ministry hosting your trip already doing? What about local churches in the community you’re visiting?
  • What actions by your group could support their success? Listen to people—whether the host or community members—describe the kinds of resources and assets they have in their community. Encourage local people and workers, and celebrate stories of how their assets have been used in the past and will be used in the future.
  • What actions by your group could hinder their success? Do your planned activities focus on relief work when developmental work is the focus of your host organization and church?
  • How might you specifically hold each other accountable to support, rather than hinder, successful ministry on this visit? You may have opportunities to work alongside community members on a task that they have initiated and are executing, blessing them with your company and additional labor. But involvement should always be under their leadership and participation.
  • Pray for the work that God is already doing in the community you will be visiting. Pray that God would give you open eyes and hearts to recognize that work and to see the gifts He has given the people there. Ask for wisdom as you enter the community, coming alongside your brothers and sisters as they engage in the long-term process of poverty alleviation.

To learn more about how your church or ministry can help without hurting when it comes to short-term missions, check out these videos and books.

  1. This is a modification of the definition of paternalism found in Roland Bunch, Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement (Oklahoma City: World Neighbors, 1982), 19–23. ↩︎
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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