This month we’re tackling a big topic in the world of Christian nonprofits and global missions – empowering local ministries versus creating dependency. This is the last part of our blog series looking at tough questions for Christian nonprofits. (Be sure to check out Part 1 on Ethical Childcare and Part 2 on The Missions Conversation.)

I have a memory from childhood (that’s at least based in reality, but may be mostly made up!) of riding in the backseat of our family’s minivan and overhearing my dad talk about missions committee meetings. I’m sure all kinds of topics arose, but there’s one that stuck with me more than others; how to get people in the US to loosen their grip on overseas ministries and encourage overseas leaders to step up and “own” their ministries. I’ve always been overly pragmatic, so I remember sitting in the backseat of the car thinking, “It can’t be that hard. Just DECIDE to do it and then DO it!”

And it sounds simple, right? Should we empower local ministries or create dependency? Even if you don’t know anything about global missions, cultures, or ministry, everyone knows it’s good to empower people and build them up. And who would ever want to foster weak, dependent relationships in any area of life? But when we look around at US nonprofits and churches, we see a whole lot of people with good intentions who find themselves fostering dependency, usually by accident. (If you’re new to this topic, “When Helping Hurts” might be the best book to start with!) Turns out it’s not quite so simple! For most of us, it comes down to a couple of real concerns.

 

1 – “It’s risky to turn over leadership to local leaders before they’re ready.”

Americans are problem solvers by nature. We seem to have this innate belief that if we think long enough and work hard enough, we can figure it out – regardless of whether that’s true or not! In the world of global faith, we’re often eager to take charge, “fix” problems, and help people avoid every potential pitfall. “What if they run out of money?” “What if they do something unscriptural?” “We’re worried that they won’t know what to do in ___ situation!” Those are incredibly compassionate concerns, but it’s also a way of thinking that puts ourselves in God’s shoes. Who decides when people are ready to lead? We do! By what criteria? By our criteria!

Some of my greatest personal growth has come at times when people gave me opportunities to serve, offered some help, then set me loose. Those people knew that I would make mistakes, but they gave me freedom. Rather than waiting until I had passed every test or met all of their criteria, they trusted me and walked beside me as I grew. (As experts are prone to do, they’ve given this approach a name “MAWL” for Model – Assist – Watch – Leave.)

In fact, we want to see that happen in ways far greater than today and we’re not concerned with whether or not our name is involved.

Agape Asia wants to change more children’s lives and share the Gospel far into the future. In fact, we want to see that happen in ways far greater than today and we’re not concerned with whether or not our name is involved. Imagine if ten or twenty years from now there are hundreds of churches in Asia changing children’s lives and sharing the Gospel because of what we do today. And what if none of the people being served know who Agape Asia is? That would be amazing!

Investing in long term vision like this means we need to be willing to tackle short term difficulties, have tough conversations, and let people fail in safe ways. It even means helping a few less children today so that many more can be helped down the road. We loosen our grip and empower others today so that much more is accomplished long-term in this mission. Agape Asia wants to build strong ministries that don’t fall apart because bank transfers become difficult, internet goes down, global politics change, etc. Of course we want to be here to help, support, and empower as long as we can, but that’s not our main concern. We want to work with local Christian groups to make them stronger in their faith and ministry because of our involvement, not weaker and more dependent on us.

Our partners in China are a great example of this. We have worked with some of them for decades because they’re great people and they’re great at what they do. But over the past few years, we have faced a steady stream of challenges in China. Several years ago, Agape had to quickly transition hundreds of children out of care centers and into family-based care. There have been banking difficulties, reporting struggles, and organizational questions. In each of these situations, our partners in China looked to us for answers and surely hoped that we could solve these issues from afar. But the reality was, these questions could only be solved by the people who live in that context day in and day out.

My compassionate side would love to wave a magic wand and make these struggles go away. But I know that any magical, American solution I come up with would probably not be a perfect fit for their situation. And by removing every hurdle that arises, I might actually rob my friends of the chance to experiment, fail, learn, and grow. If Agape Asia always controlled and led, my friends in China might grow stronger faith in Agape Asia rather than growing stronger trust in God! And instead of learning to adapt and solve problems using their God-given gifts, they may get the message that only Agape Asia can really fix problems using our foreign “expertise”.

This approach of empowerment is also firmly rooted in the Bible.

This approach of empowerment is also firmly rooted in the Bible. Think of the Apostle Paul and his relationship with the Christians in foreign cities. He worked with them, taught, discipled, and then left. It seems crazy to us that Paul left some of these places just months or years after arriving. These new Christians didn’t have any formal ministry and didn’t even have the New Testament yet, but they had the Holy Spirit. Paul trusted God and these local Christians, so we should too!

 

2 – “It’s not realistic for local people to raise money for ministry. Don’t you think they would already be doing that if they could?”

Our friends at Flint Global have helped us learn a lot about this. (Go learn about them – they’re amazing!) There are so many questions and assumptions that we all need to unpack involving money and ministry. Too many to tackle here!

But one thing has become clear to me after years of conversations with Agape’s amazing partners. Most of our partners in Asia are eager to support their own ministries, willing to work hard towards that end, and have some existing resources/skills that could make that possible. But at the same time, I’ve heard our partners say they weren’t sure if we would support that and they’re not sure how to get started. When I hear that, I know exciting conversations are on the horizon!

For the past few years, these conversations have followed a similar pattern for Agape. We find Christian leaders in Asia whose heart and vision matches our own. We bring in Flint Global to walk through conversations about sustainable ministry, provide biblical perspective, and go through business planning. When we have all put in lots of thought and prayer, Agape is able to bless these local leaders with grants to grow local funding sources. During the past few years this has included a buffalo dairy, school bus, hospitality business, delivery business, and more. As those businesses grow, a few things happen.

First, some of the profits go to support the local leader’s family, giving them greater dignity, security, and independence. Second, they’re able to put some of their income directly back into their ministry. Today more than 300 abandoned and at-risk children are being fully supported by local leaders in Asia using local money and that number will keep growing! Third, this generosity and empowerment multiplies. Local leaders who have been blessed with grants almost always turn around and share a portion of that income with other leaders. The gift ripples out further than we could imagine.

Today more than 300 abandoned and at-risk children are being fully supported by local leaders in Asia using local money and that number will keep growing!

This is exactly what we’re seeing in Nepal this summer. In addition to the businesses listed above we have been able to bless four Christian leaders in Nepal with grants to start small businesses that will fund their ministry. These leaders have each committed to put 13% of their profits back into the ministry for the next ten years. Because of the investments that Agape and our donors are making today, lives will be changed for years to come. Hundreds of abandoned children in Nepal will find new hope. Dozens of new communities will hear the Good News of Jesus. And it’s possible because we’re serious about compassionately empowering our partners in Asia to carry out their God-given ministries.

Agape Asia has committed to “tithing” 5% of our budget each year towards equipping local ministries. If you’re interested in more in-depth information about how we Empower Local Ministries (or any of our other work), you can request one of our white papers here.