Book Review and Interview: From Relief to Empowerment – How Your Church Can Cultivate Sustainable Mission

I am pleased to introduce you to a book that invites the church to a journey toward a more holistic method of mission and poverty alleviation. Laceye and Gaston Warner have written From Relief to Empowerment: How Your Church Can Cultivate Sustainable Mission.

The Warners support the idea that mission flourishes when relationships are characterized by mutuality—a difficult, but important, balance to sustain. A mission that moves beyond relief to empowerment opens ways to address systemic forms of oppression and poverty….“From Relief to Empowerment” examines ZOE, a Christian non-profit, and United Methodist Global Ministries’ Advance, as an example of a sustainable mission that can empower even the most vulnerable to help themselves. –from the publisher’s website

Laceye Warner is associate professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School and a United Methodist elder (pastor). Gaston Warner is the chief executive officer of ZOE, which empowers more than 28,0000 orphans and children in seven countries, across three continents including Zimbabwe, Zambia, India, and Guatemala. He is also an elder in The United Methodist Church.

In the context of describing some churches’ efforts to provide relief, the Warners help us understand why these practices are insufficient:

While these practices are consistent with the Gospel, they do not portray the fullness of the triune God’s plan of salvation as described in Scripture. And more pointedly, such practices, when administered to rather than with individuals and communities, not in crisis or enmeshed in complicated socioeconomic ecologies, can actually be destructive.

They go on to cite Bob Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help as they describe how churches and non-profits often “miss the big picture because we view aid through the narrow lens of the needs of our organization or church— focusing on what will benefit our team the most— and neglecting the best interests of those we would serve.”

From Relief to Empowerment has received many endorsements:

“One of the best things that God has done in the church in recent years is a recovery of the sense that the church is a mission,” said Will Willimon, professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and retired United Methodist bishop. “The church is God’s sending into the world, in word and deed, agents of the realm of God. We could have no two better guides in this recovery of the missional church than Laceye and Gaston. With their experience in theological education, ZOE, and the local church, they show us practical ways for every church, not only to be on a mission, but in a sustainable mission. This book is a great gift, particularly for pastors and churches who are trying to keep up with Jesus’s mission to God’s world.”

“ZOE invites us into Christ’s mission as humble learners, encouragers, and partners. The journey of ZOE is a remarkable unfolding of receptivity and generosity, of learning and teaching, of creating and observing,” said Hope Morgan Ward, resident bishop, North Carolina Annual Conference. “This book will help us celebrate possibility and live faithfully into Christ’s mission in the world.”

There have been a number of books written to help the church understand how to best respond to poverty around the world. From Relief to Empowerment makes a unique contribution by unpacking the concepts  help the reader see the importance of and potential for long-term, recipient-focused work of empowerment:

Relief is something we can control. To offer empowerment is to relinquish control of the situation to the recipient instead of the giver….Empowerment involves moving pieces, addressing physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wholeness. In relief work, a mistake may have very negative and immediate consequences. In empowerment work, a mistake, and the lessons learned from it may clear a path to a better life.

Just imagine if God were only interested in a relief approach with you and me. What if prevenient and justifying grace were the end of the divine intervention? If God did not rely on our own initiative in growing closer to God and one another, so much of the messiness of our Christian journey would be removed. But it is in the call to discipleship that we learn what it means to serve God.

I had the opportunity to interview the authors recently and find out the genesis of this book as well as some of their goals.

Chris Robertson: What was your original purpose or goal for From Relief to Empowerment?

Laceye & Gaston Warner: The purpose of the book is to give leaders a resource to facilitate conversations on the long-term impact of mission practices—specifically the role and limitations of relief and the possibilities for empowerment. While relief efforts remain an important component of outreach ministries, this book considers the long-term impact of mission practices through the lens of a particular empowerment initiative.

CR: What are the top two things you most desire people to come away with after reading this book?

LW/GW: First, we hope readers will gain an understanding of empowerment’s multifaceted effectiveness (financially, socially, psychologically, and spiritually) in contrast to relief in situations of long-term poverty. Practicing mutuality through empowerment is more challenging than relief, but the impact is exponentially more beneficial to all. Second, we introduce people to a current initiative practicing empowerment. The description of ZOE invites readers to consider their contexts and begin to imagine how empowerment practices can be accessible to their communities.

CR: This is an important message that the church needs to understand and more normatively embrace. What are some ways you have presented this to pastors and churches? What pushback have you received?

LW/GW: Ten years ago engaging students and congregations in a discussion that relief (including mission trips) could be harmful in some situations would consistently provoke resistance. With increased attention to outcomes, not merely inputs, the idea of empowerment is not resisted as strongly. What remains difficult is the practice of empowerment—and even more so—shifting practices of relief to practices of empowerment.

Relief efforts are short-term, input driven, and give those offering the relief a high level of satisfaction. Conversations with leaders of helping organizations and churches about the long-term impact of relief and empowerment require much more than an elevator speech or a sermon. Practicing empowerment is a relationship and a shared journey in a community that flourishes when there is trust, accountability, and room to fail—and succeed—over time, but also room for others to explore their gifts, identity, and what constitutes success on their own terms.

Receiving pushback is ultimately promising. It means people are thinking about and processing these concepts and questions. It is when a church or organization is content with or even proud of their relief approach (because it offers them a meaningful experience) that one grieves for the damage inflicted through good intentions.

CR: Your book definitely challenges the reader to think not only on a local scale, but a global scale. It is often challenging for American Christians to think globally as the context is far removed from their own. What are some practices American Christians can implement to help them develop consistent habits of thinking globally as well as locally?

LW/GW: In Scripture, when Jesus was asked “who is my neighbor,” instead of drawing a comfortably close circle of synagogue, neighborhood, or even all Jews, Jesus instead cast the net much wider to include all people. It was the despised, foreign Samaritan who was a neighbor to the person in need.

Traveling internationally seems more accessible than ever. Often those participating in international mission trips expect to make a significant impact on those they visit through building projects or distributing supplies. These efforts usually do not make the long-term positive impact expected—and are very costly in time and money for all involved. However, immersion in another setting, whether near or far, can allow a person to see things, including suffering, that one is unable to see in one’s own context. We can become blind to what is overly familiar even when we live in the midst of stark realities of poverty. Rather than participating in international mission trips to save the other, participating in immersion experiences as pilgrims can offer lessons and practice on how to see poverty and participate in mutual relationships within one’s own neighborhood.

CR: Do you have any stories of individuals who have thought incorrectly about poverty alleviation whose thinking has changed and the results of that thinking shift?

LW/GW: Often we use ZOE, the case study from the book, as an example. ZOE began as a relief organization. The board and staff wanted to help orphans and did not know a better way. Then, through attentive listening to indigenous leadership, the US-led organization took a bold step and implemented an African-designed empowerment model. By using ourselves as an example of moving from relief to empowerment practices, we hope to encourage those struggling with these important questions.

CR: Is there anything you would like The Green Room audience to understand about sustainable mission in particular?

LW/GW: Sustainable empowerment in situations of long-term poverty is not only better for the recipients, it allows for a deeper and richer participation in God’s reign. When we participate fully in God’s work in the world we not only experience reconciliation and restoration of relationship with God and neighbor but also with God’s creation. When practices of empowerment permeate our lives in a community, God’s grace restores our relationship and interconnectedness with all.

Thank you, Laceye and Gaston for your good work to make this important available. May God use this book to help the church focus our efforts on empowering people for the long-term.

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