When does helping hurt?

I once heard paternalism defined as “doing good for others without their permission.”

Over the past decade, I’ve had a seat at the “global missions” table and I’ve gotten to meet thousands of well-meaning North Americans who truly want to bless people from other countries. Our own KidZ At Heart International board members, staff and volunteers all are included in this group! We want to make a difference in the kingdom; we want to equip people to effectively reach and teach the children of their own culture – for Christ! So, can our best efforts actually end up hurting those we seek to help?

This past week, I’ve been forced once again to re-think what we’re doing and how we are doing it. As God will often orchestrate, the thinking process kicked off from various sources…a combination of new ministry opportunities coming forward, a great book, a reflective mood and some gently probing questions from wise mentors.

In our case, we are seeking to launch KAHLA (KidZ At Heart Leadership Academy) in several key regions of the world. (Insert here whatever “project” or ministry you are currently considering in order to “help” someone else.) The purpose of KAHLA is to provide in-depth children’s ministry training for key leaders in strategic regions of the world. Our desire is to equip top-level leaders to be change agents in their churches, denominations, and countries! So what could go wrong?

Two of our board members, one who works with Wycliffe International, the other with the U.S. Center for World Missions, asked some great questions:

  • Do we know what is really wanted?
  • Is the energy for this project coming from North America (us) or local leaders?
  • How do the local leaders want this to happen?

Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath (Bantam Books, 1999), shares an entire chapter called, “Doing Good Badly.” As Muller puts it, “Doing good requires more than simply knowing what is wrong.” To the point, huh?

Like many visionary leaders, when I believe God has shown me the mountain top, I want to be there yesterday. Muller’s words (the morning after the board members’ questions) truly challenged me: “In our frenzy to make the world a better place, it is easy to presume that the romance and magic of our good intentions will protect us from doing unintended harm.”

Again, as God will often do, he spoke his will through several voices. The board members’ suggestions? Take our time, ask more questions, involve more key leaders, listen, pray, don’t move too quickly.

Muller’s suggestions? He identifies Sabbath as a key tool for slowing down long enough to hear from God, from ourselves, from others: “As we drive forward without stopping, even our generosity takes on the characteristics of a high-speed train, forcing compassion, wanted or not, right prescription or not, on everything unlucky enough to get in our path. Even a good heart can cause harm for ourselves and others if it has no rest in it (emphasis mine).

God’s “suggestions,” pretty much the same…I think you’re getting a theme here.

So as we move forward to launch KAHLA (again, insert your ministry or project here), we’ll be trying to slow down long enough to listen to local leaders, to mentors, to ourselves, and…most importantly…to God.


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