Paternalism to Partnership

"Can I just brag on the Lord for a minute?" the preacher began. He went on to describe the good works his church had been involved in during the week and the gratitude he felt towards God and his faithful congregation. Together they packed snacks for local school kids, ministered to one another in fellowship, and gathered supplies for the ongoing missions they supported. This was good and important work, said the preacher. And I wanted to agree, but something in me felt unsettled.

I wish it were that simple -- good works done with good intentions always yield good results. However, sometimes the good we set out to do misses the mark. In fact, we're learning from those who've been recipients of such ministries, that our good efforts have unintended consequences.

How do we tell the difference between enabling activities and healthy engagement? At EIRO, we've found that one useful tool is plotting a program or activity on the spectrum of paternalism to partnership. The more markers of authentic partnership a program or activity exhibits, the healthier it is.

Of course, no one sets out to practice paternalism, but it happens. Let me share two representative examples of good intentions gone awry:

A few months ago, Georgia residents received a series of promotional mailers from political groups regarding a state constitutional amendment on the upcoming ballot. The flyers were asking for your vote for an educational amendment they stated would improve poor schools. The issue I took was with the stark contrasts between the images. On the flyer, the poor performing schools were shown with sad black children, but the well-performing schools were portrayed by images of happy white children. Of course the intention was to support lower performing schools, but the imagery used made me wonder if there was any sort of partnership happening in this group or on the amendment.

Another example of paternalism is a photo from a church's weekly email of a young white teenager on a mission trip cradling a small black child in her arms with a caption reading, "Are you concerned for the least of these?"

You might think I'm creating a racial issue where none exists. However, these images and texts convey the prevailing, dangerous, paternalistic idea that low-income individuals and communities (often pictured as people of color) need higher-income individuals and communities (often white non-materially-poor people) to fix their situations.

No matter the race, if one group assumes an exclusive role of the giver and other the recipient, the exchange has become inherently transactional and paternalistic. Though neither party intends harm, this exchange diminishes the dignity of the those accepting help and thwarts the psyche of the benefactor.  

On the other hand, partnership ensures that the dignity of all parties involved by encouraging reciprocal relationships. A legitimate, mutual - not equal - exchange acknowledges the dignity of all by valuing the assets each has to contribute.

Susan Feurzeig, a UMC pastor, is part of a new team partnering with neighbors experiencing homelessness in midtown Atlanta. Here's how she describes their approach:

Our greater vision is to include people who are homeless in creating program goals through simple surveys and to build community from the ground up, making sure that our leadership is multiply diverse (racially, socially, in terms of experience: including people with homelessness in their background).

The inclusion of folks receiving services in the planning, execution, and review of all stages of benevolent activity is essential to valid partnership. This inclusion and exchanges allows everyone to partake in celebration when the shared goals are met.

So next time you’re considering a good deed, ask yourself if passes the partnership test. If so, you can be sure that your efforts, since they utilize the gifts of God’s people, will definitely be give you something about which you can brag on the Lord for a minute.