On Changing an Institution

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 Because it was so well run, local grocery stores and bakeries felt good about donating their surplus and outdated food.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 giveaway 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 giveaway 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? How 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, giveaway program reeks with hidden toxicities—dependency, deception, dignity-depreciation. That’s when the real problem arises: how to fix a ministry most folks don’t think is broken.

Changing an institution that is heavily vested in “the way we have always done it” is a major challenge, especially for a pastor whose job it is to keep that institution growing and keep the members reasonably happy. The last thing a leader wants is to stir up divisive controversy that could alienate good and faithful members. But a spiritual leader must also have integrity. So if it becomes apparent that change is necessary to ensure responsible care for the poor, there is no alternative but to act. But how?

Certainly not a frontal assault. Too much damage could be inflicted on the “compassion corps” by declaring their good works toxic. A much subtler change strategy is needed. Distributing copies of Toxic Charity to key leadership (perhaps covertly) will stimulate considerable discussion. Such conversations begin working the soil. Visiting a few innovative models—best practices—being implemented elsewhere by other ministries helps to move the discussion from critique to creativity. Encourage a few key leaders to attend the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA.org) annual conference, a gathering of practitioner thought-leaders committed to assisting ministries to empower the poor. That will definitely till up some soil. It is not at all unlikely that, through a non-confrontational exploration process, interest in new methods of service will be kindled. A food co-op “buying club” model, a bartering system, a thrift store with deeply discounted basics—such ideas that have succeeded in other places can ignite the imagination, especially of entrepreneurial types.

Adding a new, complementary program is far less volatile than attempting to dismantle and replace an existing one. The “pantry” stays. At least for a time. But alongside it you may chose to offer recipients the option to join a “buying club” co-op in which members pay $3 bi-weekly and receive back 10 to 20 times that amount in groceries. Members, like shareholders, have the pride of ownership, control of food selection and accountability to each other. Dignity replaces beggary, belonging replaces impersonal food lines. Like one church discovered, as co-op membership increased, food lines dwindled until eventually almost no free food was distributed. It’s one idea. The point is this:  Transitions from “doing for” the poor to “doing with” them need not be disruptive or alienating. It begins with one decisive step in the right direction.

The “pantry” may continue to function for years to come, but the shift to empowerment has begun. A door has been opened that allows church members and recipients alike to experience first-hand the differences between the pridelessness of one-way charity and the dignity of reciprocal exchange. Outcomes will eventually become obvious. Once empowerment principles take root and spread beyond the “pantry” to other areas of ministry—benevolence giving, service projects, mission trips—a paradigm of development will become the new norm.  

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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.