Charity Skepticism

This post is a reworking of a few previous posts to introduce a key reason that I research and write about charity: the rise of charity skepticism in the Christian church. The posts that this brings together are The Case Against Charity (January 18, 2016), The Case For Charity (May 30, 2016), and Charity Matters (January 4, 2016).

Half a decade or so ago, I was given a copy of Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I was surprised at what I read. The core argument of the book is that charity – except in cases of real crisis – is harmful to both donors and recipients. It fosters dependency, erodes work ethic, and creates a sense of entitlement. Instead of giving charity, he argues, we should help people in poverty by creating jobs programs, using asset based community development, providing loans, and helping people participate in systems of reciprocal exchange. Traditional charity, according to Lupton, cannot hope to lift people out of poverty. We need a different strategy

What I didn’t know when I first read Toxic Charity was that it was my introduction to an entire genre of literature and an informal movement aimed at reforming traditional charity. Lupton’s book is one of the more famous in the genre, but there are plenty of others: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and YourselfSteve Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit SuccessRuby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, and more. There are TED talks, articles, seminars, workshops, and lots of other channels for this movement. All of them telling churches and other nonprofits that we need to rethink how we serve the poor.

Call it charity skepticism.

Charity skepticism comes in three forms.

Skepticism about giving. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that traditional charitable giving – usually described as ‘doing for others what they can or should be able to do for themselves’ – hurts the people who receive it and keeps them trapped in poverty. Traditional forms of charity like food pantries, clothes closets, Christmas toy drives, and so on encourage dependency and entitlements while destroying the work ethic of the poor. In order to avoid hurting the poor in these ways, we need to avoid using charity except in real cases of emergency. Instead of using traditional charity, we should help the poor enter into systems of reciprocal exchange where they can earn their way out of poverty: microcredit, co-ops, small businesses, and so on. The path out of poverty runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about the nonprofit sector. Charity skeptics are skeptical of the idea that the nonprofit sector is able  to attain the scale and influence necessary to solve massive social problems like poverty. Nonprofit organizations a tiny compared to the challenges that they want to conquer. And they are kept that way because they are unable or unwilling to adopt the best practices of successful for-profit businesses. In order for the nonprofit sector to increase its scale and influence, it needs to invest in talent, improve its marketing, and attract investors. The best way to do this is to attract large investors with the promise of financial returns. The path out of inadequacy runs through the marketplace.

Skepticism about people living in poverty. Charity skeptics tend to argue that people living in poverty have a distinct culture: they use casual language, rely on verbal and physical violence to settle conflicts, live in the present, see money as something to be spent, and so on. This culture works when a person is living in poverty, but doesn’t include good strategies for escaping poverty or fitting into the middle class. When a poor person receives a financial windfall, for example, she is more likely to spend it on immediate gratification than invest it in a future return. In order to make the transition out of poverty, people in poverty need to adjust more than their financial situation or their behaviors. They need to adjust to a new culture: the culture of the middle class. The path out of poverty runs through American middle class values.

Over the last decade, this movement’s influence has grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve heard its ideas discussed in nonprofit board meetings. I’ve had its books and other media recommended to me by employers. I’ve been asked to comment on it during talks at churches. I’ve seen the principles of Lupton’s ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ listed as criteria on grant applications. I’ve seen individuals change how they give, and churches and nonprofits change how they operate, based on the advice coming from this reform movement. But this movement is changing more than the strategies and tactics that we use to address poverty; it’s doing more than recommending microcredit over cash transfers. It’s asking us to change the way we think about the effectiveness of charitable giving, the way we imagine the church and nonprofit sector, and the way that we think about the poor.

But charity skepticism is wrong. Emerging research and rapidly growing literature indicate that charity — giving money to people living in poverty — is an effective way to alleviate poverty… provided that it is generous enough. Poverty is largely the problem of having enough money. And when people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives. Not every time, of course, but often enough that giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty.

But charity skepticism is wrong... When people living in poverty are given money, they tend to invest it in ways that improve their lives... Giving money is almost certainly one of the most cost effective ways to address poverty. Click To Tweet

That doesn’t mean that charity skeptics are arguing in bad faith. I think that Robert Lupton, Ruby Payne, and others really do want to help people who are living in poverty. Unfortunately, charity skeptics have a prior commitment to the modern Western economic order. The skeptical argument wants to help people experiencing poverty within the bounds of systems that prioritize exchanges over gifts. Or, to put it bluntly, the skeptical argument tries to solve poverty with the systems that create and maintain poverty in the first place.

And charity is a powerful alternative to those systems. One of the things I’ll be doing with the blog going forward is making a strong case for charity from a Christian perspective. This will be based on three key ideas:

That charity is a cornerstone of the Christian faith. Traditionally, Christians have encountered the literal presence of Christ in two deeply intertwined ways: communion and almsgiving. In communion, we come before the altar to receive Christ’s presence. In almsgiving, we go to people living in poverty and make gifts to Christ. Communion and charity form a complete cycle of giving and receiving between Christ and the world.

That charity presents an alternative to living in an uncaring world.  Poverty and marginalization usually go hand in hand: the poor are pushed to the ragged edges of society, and those on the edges of society are denied access to the things they need to improve their lives. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charity presents a vision of the cosmos that competes with the vision of our dominant political and social structures. It suggests that we do not live in a world of limited resources that must be carefully distributed, but in a world where generosity is not only possible but natural.

That charity works. As I already mentioned, a growing body of research shows that giving to people living in poverty really does have transformative effects. People who are experiencing poverty tend to know what they need to do to improve their lives, and tend to meet those needs when they are given the resources to do so.

It’s Been a Hard Week

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on February 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 17:1-7 and Mark 8:31-38.

It’s been a hard week.

As many of you know, my dad hasn’t been doing well. He’d had dementia for a long time. He’s been in a memory care unit for years. He had a Transient Ischemic Attack — which is king of like a stroke but not a stroke — a few weeks ago.

And, earlier this week, he passed away.

There’s a line from a song that’s been going through my head for a while. I think the song is about a breakup, but the artist is clever, so it might be about something else. The line goes: I saw this coming, but still I am caught by surprise.

It’s been a hard week. You’re not seeing me at my best.

At the same time that my dad took a turn for the worse, I was supposed to be starting a new job as your pastor. I was so excited to come to my new office and meet with Pam and go to a council meeting and start getting to know all of you. I’ve been looking forward to this for what feels like ages. And I know that life here has continued while I’ve been gone.

It’s been a hard week.

In today’s gospel reading, it’s a hard moment.

Jesus has been preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside. Just a moment ago, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Then he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And they answered him, “The Messiah.”

And that declaration — that “You’re the Messiah” — matters. Peter has a very clear and very common idea about who the Messiah is and who the Messiah is supposed to be. The Messiah is supposed to be a great king. The Messiah is supposed to liberate Israel from foreign rule. The Messiah is supposed to restore Israel to greatness.

And so, when Jesus starts saying that he must suffer, and be rejected, and be killed, and rise again, Peter is angry. That’s not the way things are supposed to go.

And Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him… something. We don’t know what he said, but it must have been something like, “It’s not supposed to be this way. You’re wrong.”

And Jesus explodes: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And he calls the crowd over — like everyone needs to hear just how wrong Peter just was — and gives them the bad news.

Anyone who wants to follow Jesus has to pick up their cross and follow him… to suffering, to rejection, to death. Do you want to save your life? You will lose it. Are you willing to lose your life for Christ and the gospel? You will save it.

It’s a hard passage. It’s a hard message. And it’s been a hard week.

But the hardest thing about this week hasn’t been my dad. And it hasn’t been missing out on a first week that I was looking forward to.

It’s been this: I knew that I would be preaching from this pulpit, across the street from a high school. And lurking in the background — in the back of my mind with that song lyric — is the fact that a week and a half ago a young man walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and reminded all of us that we are dust, and to dust we will return.

This wasn’t the first school shooting.

Marysville Pilchuck High School was four years ago. Santa Monica College was five years ago. Sandy Hook Elementary School was six years ago. Northern Illinois University was ten years ago. Virginia Tech was eleven years ago. And since I’ve skipped so many already, I’ll skip so many more and end with this: Columbine High School was almost twenty years ago and it wasn’t the first school shooting.

And, of course, there have been so many more that haven’t been in schools.

For most of my life, the question has not been if this will happen again, but when and where. We see it coming, and still we are caught by surprise.

And, I’ll be honest, I am a little afraid. I’m afraid that there will be a day when I have to call the pastor at Newtown Congregational Church right near Sandy Hook Elementary School, and ask how I am supposed to do my job — how I am supposed to be a pastor, how I am supposed to comfort a community, how I am supposed to preach the gospel — in the aftermath of a tragedy like that.

It’s been a hard week.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

Jesus told us that, while Christian life may have joy and gladness, it is not a life of comfort. We have to take up our crosses…

…for the sake fo Christ and the gospel.

…for the sake of the widow and the orphan and the alien.

…for the sake of the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger.

…for the sake of the naked and the sick and the imprisoned.

…for the sake of everyone who cries out for justice.

We have to take up our crosses. We can do that with joy and gladness. But we do that knowing that we are risking suffering and rejection and even death.

But here’s the thing. The cross isn’t the end. Even in Lent, the cross isn’t the end.

When Abram as ninety-nine years old, God came to him and told him that he would be exceedingly fruitful. A nation would come from him. Kings would come from him. And he would be called Abraham, ancestor of a multitude. And he was ninety-nine years old.

And Abraham laughed.

It must have seemed so unlikely. It must have seemed so impossible. How could Abraham, who was ninety-nine, and Sarah, who was ninety, have a child? How could they be the ancestors of a multitude?

But it happened. Old age is not the end. The cross is not the end.

Abraham had to have faith that God’s promise to give him a people would be realized. Peter had to have faith that Jesus’s promise that he would rise would be realized. And we have to have faith that God’s promise to us will be realized.

I don’t know what the world of that promise — what a world of justice and mercy and abundant life — will look like. But I know that world will only come about if we take up our crosses, in faith that suffering and rejection and death are not the end of the story, and work on making that world here and now.

A world where we have had the last school shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and support the leadership of the young people who are working for change.

A world where we have had the last mass shooting will only come if we take up our crosses and have hard conversations about the place of guns in our society.

And that might be uncomfortable. That might be hard.

But we knew that coming in, didn’t we?

It’s been a hard week. It’s been a hard week for me. It’s been a hard week for some of you. It’s been a hard week for the students, faculty, and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. And it’s been a hard week for a community in Florida that lost too many of its children on Ash Wednesday.

And no matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection.

No matter how hard it is, on the other side of suffering and rejection and death is new life. On the other side of Lent and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is resurrection. Click To Tweet

But to put that another way… on this side of new life is plenty of discomfort. On this side of resurrection are hard times. And the only way to get from here to there is to pick of my cross and follow Jesus.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Parkland, Florida, and everyone who suffers from violence. I’m going to think about what to do. I’m going to pray for the courage to do it. I’m going to pick up my cross. And I’m going to do my best to live for the Lord. Amen.

People I Listen To: Kaleidoscope

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Kaleidoscope.

Kaleidoscope is a fairly new podcast — as I write this there are only two episodes out (there will be more by the time I publish) — from award winning journalist and writer Deborah Jian Lee. On the podcast, Lee, along with pastor-in-residence Erin James-Brown, explore faith and justice with activities, authors, and spiritual leaders. It isn’t an academic conversation, though. The first two episodes featured deeply person conversations with M. Barclay (the first non-binary trans person commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church) and Eboo Patel (founder of Interfaith Youth Core and former spiritual advisor to President Obama). On Kaleidoscope, there is a profound meeting of personal narrative and broader ideas about faith and justice in difficult times.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Cleaning the Digital House… Letting Go of Attention Hogs

While I haven’t been thinking about it this way — it’s still ministry, after all — the move from fundraiser to pastor is technically a career change. And while there’s a lot that goes along with a job change and a career change, one thing I wasn’t expecting was that I would spend time cleaning the digital house. I spent serious time clearing out the blogs that I follow, unfollowing Facebook pages, deleting browser bookmarks, unsubscribing from so many email lists, and generally saying, “I don’t need to pay attention to this anymore.”

That’s not to say that I got rid of everything. I just edited my online world a little.

And I think it’s a practice I might continue. My feeds are a lot neater. My bookmark bar is less cluttered. I’m not scrolling through or clicking ‘read’ on an endless stream of content I don’t care about. I can focus on the things I care about because I made room for them… by removing the things that were taking up attention I couldn’t spare.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. There are, of course, all of the things on my social media feeds. There are the books I read because I feel like I’m supposed to. There are television shows that I only watch because I started watching them however long ago. There are all of the things that have become habits that don’t have to be habits. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission.

Which is to say: things I can let go of.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission. Which is to say: things I can let go of. Click To Tweet

So let this be a new practice and a new discipline, going through my digital life every so often — maybe once a year — and deciding what I can get rid of. At least, until I let go of this practice, too.

A First Attempt at a Schedule

One of the first questions I had when I was called as a local church pastor was how to schedule my time. There are a lot of competing demands on a pastor’s time, from congregants demanding a pastor who is available and working 24-7, to other pastors telling you that good self-care requires two days off a week. How is a first time pastor supposed to do everything that needs to be done without burning out?

This is my first attempt at drafting a schedule that will work for me and for the congregation. There are just a few design considerations:

I wanted one reserved day off and the possibility of another one.

I wanted flex time that could absorb additions to the schedule, wither by being the space for those or by making a space for things that had to be moved.

I wanted a day to get worship in order at the beginning of the week. No Saturday night sermon panic for me!

So, without further ado, here it is:

Monday is mostly for worship preparation and sermon writing. The mornings are at home and the afternoons are in the office. Right now, evenings sometimes have committee meetings, but I’d like to move those so that Monday nights are free time.

Tuesdays are divided. Mornings are general work in the office. Afternoons are ‘variable’, so they can be used for visits, community office hours, or whatever else needs to happen. Right now, evenings sometimes have meetings on them. I’d like to move as many meetings to Tuesday evenings as I can.

Wednesdays are full days. Morning are reserved for flex time, so there’s a spot to take care of anything that had to get pushed off the beginning of the week. Afternoons are variable again. Evenings often have church activities.

Thursdays look a lot like Tuesdays. I’m in the office in the morning, and I hope to use that time to finish up worship prep. Afternoons are variable again. Evenings are for general work, but at home.

Fridays are my day off.

Saturdays are flex days. They can be used for events or for anything that had to be pushed off another part of the week. Saturday can also be used for a day off if there’s nothing pressing. Evenings are reserved, as much as possible, for rest and family.

Sundays start with worship at 9:30am sharp (though I’m in before that). Sometimes there are meetings after worship, and I can also use the time for visits and calls. Hopefully, I can finish up the day before it gets to late and have the evening for family time.

About This Blog: Being a Pastor

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: being a pastor.

As I wrote earlier, I’m taking on a new adventure as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa. I’ve been part of the United Church of Christ my whole life. I graduated from seminary more than a decade ago. I’ve worked and volunteered in the church — and in church-related organizations — for years. But this is my first time being the pastor for a congregation.

That means that I’m figuring some things out. What kinds of schedules work? How should I manage writing a sermon every week (and more during holiday weeks)? How can and should administration work in a congregationalist setting? And so on.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing my experiences being and becoming a pastor. I hope that this will give some insight into the life of your pastor, and I hope it will give some other pastors some ideas about what might work for them. I’m not going to pretend that I know everything — I’m barely going to pretend that I know anything — but I hope I can share what I’m learning and that my experience can be fruitful for others.

Joel 2:12-17 (for Ash Wednesday)

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

About This Blog: Fundraising and Communications

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: fundraising and communications.

I’ve been a nonprofit development professional for more than a decade. I’ve worked for institutions of higher education and for social service agencies. I’ve volunteered and consulted for churches. I’ve done everything from annual fundraising campaigns to capital campaigns to designing websites and newsletters. For over ten years, I’ve lived and breathed development work.

I’ve also been part of the church — and, specifically, part of the United Church of Christ — for my entire life. And, to be blunt, we aren’t very good at this work. Churches from every part of the political and theological spectrum are struggling with their fundraising and communications. Stewardship campaigns are ineffective, websites are outdated, and very few congregations are innovating when it comes to engaging their constituencies. These problems aren’t the only cause of shrinking churches and budget struggles, but they’re certain one of those causes.

Part of what this blog is about is sharing best practices — practices that have been honed in the bigger nonprofit sector — with the mainline church. We can be responsibly and faithful stewards of the gifts that have been shared with us. And we can use those gifts to share the good news with more people.

About This Blog: Charity

In an earlier post, I wrote about refocusing this blog on three topics: charity, fundraising and communications, and being a pastor. In this post, I’m taking a little time to talk about one of these foci: charity.

In 2012 or so, my parents sent me a copy of Robert Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). It was my introduction to a movement — let’s call them ‘charity skeptics’ — that believes that charity is harmful. As Lupton describes it, America rejected the idea of doing for others what they can, or should be able to, do for themselves when welfare reform passed; but, through private charity, we continue to perpetuate a welfare system that creates dependency, erodes the work ethic, and cannot alleviate poverty. The solution to this problem is dramatically reducing charity in favor of a different approach that favors employment, lending, and investing.1Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 22, 128 And, of course, Lupton is not alone in this. Thought leaders like Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Ruby Payne, Steve Rothschild, and Dan Pallotta all make similar or complementary arguments. And a lot of the work of charity skepticism is aimed specifically at churches and Christian nonprofits.

As a pastor and a nonprofit development professional, I’ve spent the last decade or so studying the history, philosophy, theology, and effectiveness of charity, philanthropy, and other forms of giving. And the simple fact is that while charity skeptics may have some good points, and while some alternatives to traditional charity (like microloans) might be effective, the overall thrust of the skeptical argument is wrong. Charity is a cornerstone of Christian theology; charity is the foundation of the alternative social order that the Christian church embodies; and charity works.

I’m working on another, bigger project about charity and charity skepticism. But part of what this blog is about is what charity is and why it matters, as well as where (and maybe sometimes why) charity skeptics go wrong.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Whiting Wongs with Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Whiting Wongs with Dan Harmon and Jessica Gao.

Race has been a major driver in many aspects of American life — far more than we tend to think — for all of American history. A famous political example is the relationship between the three-fifths clause of the Constitution and the electoral collage. The three-fifths clause let states count three-fifths of the slaves who lived there for the purposes of representation. Since those slaves couldn’t vote — and no white person cared about their opinion — that basically amplified the voice of every white person in those states. While that obviously applied to the House of Representatives, where the representation of each state is determined by population, the electoral college ensured that it also applied to presidential elections. The electoral college is a system that doesn’t make sense unless you look at it through the lens of the role of race in American history.

Entertainment is another area where race is an important driver. As a white person, it’s easy for me to ignore the lack of diversity in my entertainment diet. But the fact is that the American media landscape is dominated by white people. In addition to that, people of color — and women, and LGBTQ folks, and others — are often erased from their own stories. It’s common to have a character of color ‘whitewashed’: played or voiced (in the case of animation) by a white person.

In Whiting Wongs, Dan Harmon (CommunityRick and Morty) and Jessica Gao (Rick and MortySilicon Valley) take on race in media. Everything from diversity in the writers’ room to the importance of seeing people like you on television to Dan’s hatred of sharks gets attention. And these topics get attention with humor, honesty, vulnerability, and grace.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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