Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ministry and Sustainability... 4 keys to long term mission and ministry

One of the big catch words in ministry these days is sustainability.

As a missionary, I think everyday about sustainability. If I start a project, can I sustain enough momentum to get to the finish line. Once a project is complete, will locals be able, or even desire, to take leadership.

After serving with Adventures in Life Ministry earlier this year, a friend of mine from The Rock Church in San Diego asked to me write in sustainability for his blog. He saw what we are trying to do in the southern part of Mexico and noticed that all of our efforts are aimed at sustainable ministry models.

In other words, if we aren’t around, will those ministries continue? This question focuses us not only on financial resources, but people resources as well.

Sustainability is such a critical issue that it is ignored at the risk of developing ministries that have no chance at long term survival. Yet that is a ministry model many in the United States seem intent on perpetuating both here and abroad.

Let me give you an example.

A few years back, a missionary friend of mine was sharing her disappointment about a coffee house ministry she and her husband had developed in Central Mexico. They were preparing to leave the country at the end of their assignment and she was saying that no one had stepped forward to continue the ministry.

She was upset that at the end of 3 years work, there might be no lasting evidence of their time as missionaries. Soon after their leaving, the coffee house did in fact close. In the end, the ministry that was born through her prayers, effort, and love of the Mexican people was not sustainable.

Everyone liked the ministry, everyone valued the ministry, and the work they did there was good. But it was not sustainable.

Why? Because the ministry was conceived, born, and nurtured without much input from those whom they were serving.

This is a critical flaw in a lot of ministries, again, both here and abroad. We have a lot of great ideas, but along the way, we somehow forget to allow others to shape and take ownership of those ministries.  It is as if we want to maintain our personal fiefdoms.  This is not only selfish and short sighted; it guarantees an interruption in ministry when you have turnover at the top.

A few years back I started talking with people about sustainable agricultural ministry in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It took years before anyone came along side of me and said they’d love to be part of that ministry.

It took a few more years to actually get moving on the project because we had to get local participation on the concept.

In January of 2010, we planted our first crop. After almost 5 years of dreaming we were finally moving albeit at a glacial pace. In May we had our first harvest and in June we planted again. All done with local help.

Throughout the summer, locals tended our crops, weeded the field, and are now waiting for another harvest in mid-October. In February 2011, we will plant again.

Building consensus and the networks necessary for the long term health and sustainability of ministries takes a lot of time. For Adventures in Life Ministry, it has taken years for our project in Oaxaca to get to this point. It has taken years of all the unglamorous stuff like planning, researching, praying, asking for help, and connecting with and listening to people.

So let me leave you with a few practical steps that will help ensure the sustainability of your mission and ministry.

1. Have a plan. Many ministries are started with little more than a dream, partially developed. While this method can work, by no means is it preferred. Ministries that have a plan and have thought through the issues have a much better track record of success and sustainability.

2. Involve those whom you plan to serve. It is always better to work alongside people. The only way to get buy in and sustainability in ministry is to involve others. Listen to them!  People support that which they help create. My missionary friends developed ministry for people, not ministry with people.

3. Know that you don’t have all the answers. This is incredibly hard for us “can do” Americans. Listening to others, particularly those different from us does not come naturally. But successful long-term ministry demands it.

4. Develop long-term relationships to facilitate your ministry before you start. This is known as laying the groundwork. You cannot do it alone, so why try? It takes time, often more than we want to commit, but it is worth it.  Even if it means delaying the launch of your dream ministry for a while longer, isn't it better to build your ministry foundation on a strong footing of long-term sustainability?

So there you have it... four steps to help you ensure long-term sustainability in your ministry. Is this list all inclusive? By no means. But if we are really going to consider the true cost of our ministries, we must at least start here.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's Not Wrong, It's Different

I was checking Facebook the other day, and someone noted that they always seem to have a bunch of questions, but not a lot of answers to those questions.

That has stuck with me.

When you have served as long as I have as a missionary, people tend to believe, or at least hope, that you have all the answers about where you are serving.

It often does not go well when I have to explain that yes, as a matter of fact, I have been serving in Mexico for over 20 years, but no, I cannot answer your question.

Sometimes the reason is because I simply do not know the answer.

However, most times, there is just no easy answer. For example, when someone asks why we can’t solve the issue of hunger in a specific country, often the answer is just too complicated for us to consider.

But then there may be another reason. Maybe there is no answer within our framework, and we are unable to consider a response outside of our personal box.

To understand this, take a look at the latest blog post by Brian McLaren at “God’s Politics” titled “Post Colonial Theology.” Here, McLaren asks in a world of “modified theology” i.e. black theology, liberation theology, etc., is theology with no modifier just seen as normal?

If the answer to this, as I suspect, is yes, then, applying his concept to other things, how do we interpret God’s ongoing work outside of our own context?

Or to put it another way, when you ask me a question about the church in Mexico, how can I respond when the answer may be so far outside of your normative box, that you are unable, or maybe even unwilling to understand?

Now you may say Dave this is all well and good, but what’s your point?

Well stay with me here and let’s move the discussion away from theology and concentrate on what McLaren is trying to say.

Paul teaches in Corinthians that [we need to become] all things to all people so that by all possible means, I might save some. How can we do that if we are unable to understand those with whom we serve?

This is big within short-term mission because wrapped up in this issue is the question of who drives the bus.

When locals suggest a certain way to do something that may differ from our ideas on how to do it, if we automatically see our way of doing something as normal, then naturally, we would see another way as wrong, or incorrect.

When that happens, we tend to pull back on participation, support, help, and involvement in foreign aid and mission.

And that is sometimes why those of us on the field have no answers. Because we know that the people asking the questions may not like, or understand our answers. Because those answers may come with what McLaren calls modifiers, thus calling into question the normalcy, or orthodoxy of our responses.

Rather than adopt a position of wanting to learn from those that are different, particularly on the short-term mission field, most participants go with the expectation of doing something, and doing it the American way, because we believe our way is best.

It is as if our way is the normative that McLaren speaks of, thereby making any other method, a modified, or wrong way.

So when you ask your missionary about something, understand there is frequently no easy answer. We have to consider a wide range of realities, and often, those can only be seen from a lens of years of experience where we are serving.

Should you avoid asking the questions? By no means. Just understand that the answer you may receive, while different from what you expected or wanted to hear may not be wrong, just different.