Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions "But This is How We've Always Done It"

"But This is How We've Always Done It"

The church was justifiably proud of its community food pantry. It had grown over the years from a closet in the church basement to a spacious, well-run distribution center with its own separate building adjacent to the church. It looked more like a small grocery store than a “pantry” with rows of neatly stocked shelves, bins for fresh produce, even a cooler for perishables. A state-of-the-art computer system kept track of inventory, recorded donor contributions, monitored distributions and the recipients who received them, and maintained good financial records. Because it was so well run, local grocery stores and bakeries felt good about donating their surplus and outdated food.  Other churches contributed as well.

It was still called “the pantry,” the quaint name left over from its meager beginnings when occasional bags of food were given out by the pastor. But it had evolved into a full-fledged food distribution operation run more like a business than a basement charity. It had a full-time director, a part-time bookkeeper and several dozen regular volunteers. It was now open four days a week and served growing numbers of needy beneficiaries that streamed in from all over the county. School counselors and agency caseworkers referred clients needing emergency assistance. The “pantry” had become widely known as an important player in the city’s social safety-net.  As I said, the church was justifiably proud of the ministry of its community food pantry.

Then one day a church member handed the pastor a book—Toxic Charity! It made the case that give-away programs hurt the poor more than they helped, that a crisis response to a chronic need creates dependency, that doing for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves destroys a work ethic. Needless to say, it was a very disturbing read. It called into question the validity of their best community ministry. If it were true, that give-away programs are hurtful, the entire structure of the “pantry” would have to be dismantled. And not just the “pantry”—much of their service outreach and mission trips would have to be revamped as well! This is not the kind of disruption a busy pastor needs.

What to do? Dismiss the book and hope it doesn’t get circulated among the membership? Build a biblical argument to discredit and neutralize the premise of the book? Admit every ministry has its flaws, but that’s no reason to stop doing it? Or …

Perish the thought of changing the entire ministry paradigm. How could you tell all your volunteers their countless hours of selfless service were unhelpful, even hurtful?  ow would you inform all the generous donors the food they provided had harmful effects? What would you say to the families and agencies who count on your service? No, there is no way a pastor is going to do that. The fallout would be disastrous.  But …

Isn’t community service to be about helping the needy, not just making church members feel good? And if, as that darn book says, the way the church is doing service actually harms those they are attempting to help, then the program is clearly self-serving. Not intentionally, but in reality it may be more about the church’s self-interest than about those being served. Yes, Toxic Charity was indeed a very disturbing read.

If the church is going to have integrity, it cannot bury its head in the sand and assume that all is well—not after the alarm has sounded. Leaders must at least take an honest look at the outcomes of its charity. Is there really unintended harm being done? A few discrete, non-disruptive interviews with “pantry” workers might give some clues. Questions like: How often do you see the same people in the food lines? And how many reports do you get back from recipients that the free food has helped them over a temporary tough spot? And does the “pantry” seem to encourage trusting relationships, or do we have to be on guard against abuse of the system? A few questions like this will provide a bit of insight into whether the program is actually empowering recipients or fostering unhealthy dependency. Reassuring answers may put the issue to rest. Or …

Or they may raise more questions. Questions like: Why are there so few anecdotal success stories? Or why are recipients not becoming involved in the life of the church? Or why do the “pantry” workers seem somewhat defensive about the inquiries? Probe a little deeper and it may become apparent that, as that book claims, the whole well-run, give-away program reeks with hidden toxicities—dependency, deception, dignity-depreciation. That’s when the real problem arises: how to fix a ministry that most folk don’t think is broken?

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Bob is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through FCS Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community.