A few years ago I found myself standing in virtual lines with dozens of organizations seeking to sign up summer volunteer groups with local ministries.
We all had motivated students prepared to rake, organize, paint or to read with children. However, the soup kitchens, senior centers and children’s programs were already full of volunteers and had to turn us away.
One creative non-profit offered to let visitors pay to help feed their local homeless community. That’s when I bailed and flew to the next city.
In Atlanta I met with Carrie McClung Dean, co-pastor of Edgewood Church with her husband Nathan. As she bounced her baby on her lap, we talked about volunteer opportunities. Carrie had clearly fallen in love with this community, and her commitment to her neighbors was inspiring.
“Your students could sort through the stacks of coats we have in boxes, but if they organize our elementary school’s coat closet, how will the local parent organization ever learn that they need to run it themselves?” She made a solid point.
For two decades our office had been organizing volunteer opportunities for thousands of students. Our goal is to find mission work that matters — helpful jobs for students that might otherwise be left undone. We want to be the presence of Christ in places where overworked, underfunded non-profits need extra hands.
However, it is no secret that there has been a seismic shift in the landscape of local and global mission. Anyone paying attention has read When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert and Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton.
My conversation with Carrie and others called for a reimagining of our organization’s philosophy of mission. As painful as an honest self-evaluation can be, we needed to acknowledge our dependency on finding volunteer assignments en mass to meet our own programmatic needs.
It felt a little like unhealthy dependency. Who really needed whom? Even worse, if we discovered that our students were inadvertently enabling cycles of poverty, were we willing to stop sending them as volunteers into the world? It was a sobering conversation, one that could threaten the viability — or at least foundational identity — of Passport.
Change is scary. Questioning the validity of one’s core values shakes up comfort zones and shines a spotlight on shortcomings. No one wants to discover that she has just spent an entire career enabling 100,000 well-meaning teenagers to enable brokenness in the world. Thankfully, that is not where we landed in our process of reimagining.
Our students have accomplished some amazing, life-giving work from the slums of Kenya to the backstreets of Boston. But, no one gets it right all the time. Every organization, church and missionary needs to take a critical look at why it does the things it does.
If the answer is because “that’s the way it has always been done,” or “because we just love to do it,” then keep digging.
The rise of volunteerism and ease of travel mean the world is flooded with volunteers. Most volunteers have time and money, but no particular skill. This makes evaluating the way we choose to “do mission” in the world more critical than at any time.
Just because we can organize a coat closet doesn’t mean it is helpful. It may just perpetuate cycles of poverty in an inner-city school by eliminating an opportunity for local parents to be more involved. Just because we can fly across the globe to volunteer does not mean it is helpful or good stewardship of mission dollars.
Leaders of student groups, congregations and denominations need to ask such tough questions before crossing town and, especially, before flying around the globe.
Passport recently spent some concentrated time asking such tough questions. We wanted to reimagine ways to offer a thoughtful expression of Christ’s love in the world. We wanted to identify and deconstruct outdated mission habits, and thereby avoid enabling cycles of dependence.
We sought to identify what was working. Like everything in life, it is an ongoing conversation. Feel free to engage us in it! NFJ
—Colleen Walker Burroughs is vice president of Passport, Inc., a national student ministry based in Birmingham, Ala. (passportcamps.org), and founder of Watering Malawi (wateringmalawi.org). This is the first of six columns about rethinking one’s corporate philosophy of mission.