If you know anything about rust, you know how destructive it can be. In an industrial world that relies heavily upon materials that are subject to the permeability of rust, great measures must be taken to maintain pipes, cars and building structures. Rust can transform something that is extremely functional and useful into a destructive problem, or something beautiful into a wreck. Rust cannot just be painted over and ignored. And in fact, it can be a hidden menace, lurking unknown beneath the surface of a structure until the damage has already been done.

Paternalism operates in much the same way. It is a fairly simple concept really, but one that can be applied in so many different ways and circumstances so that, like rust, it pervades a culture and a community in a degenerative way. We have already discussed resource paternalism and we will later discover how spiritual ministry can also be affected by paternalism, but today, we will take a look at the effect of managerial paternalism and how that might best be avoided.

Managerial and resource paternalism overlap in many regards. They both involve community and poverty alleviation projects. But managerial paternalism does as much to hinder the psyche of the community as resource materialism does in terms of the economy. When it comes to short-term mission trips in which time is of the essence, to come into a community and crank your projects out as fast as you can and leave with a sense of satisfaction and completion seems like the best route to take. With valuable skills and a heart to serve, Western missionaries might think they will do the most good by taking control of a project.

In reality, while managerial paternalism might produce a good immediate result, it does not contribute to the overall health of the community and can actually produce a society that is less sustainable when the missionaries are gone. Taking control and sole responsibility for projects, albeit often done with good hearts, negatively accomplishes a few notable things:

  1. Locals develop an inferiority complex that submits to the authority of wealthy foreigners and prohibits them from being productive when missionaries are gone.
  2. The community becomes dependent on outside leadership and resources, and is unable or unwilling to initiate change on their own for future endeavors.
  3. Missionaries undertake projects that locals actually understand to not be the most effective or beneficial to their society.26

No one would realistically want this to be a result of something they are intending to flourish and produce community vitality, but it can be hard for missionaries to let go of their managerial styles and “get it done” attitude. But “process” must be put ahead of “production”27 in order to sow good seed and establish firm roots in a community.

Consider Matthew 7 and the parable of the builders and foundations Jesus gives. However heartfelt and genuine it may be, to engage in managerial paternalism would be like building a house, or a community rather, on sand. When the winds and the rain come, that community will not have a solid foundation to stand upon. The initial life-giving projects will last for a time, but will be devastated because of the community’s inability to maintain and replicate them independently.

Instead, missionaries ought to use their skills and abilities to help enable locals engage in and complete projects themselves. Take, for example, a construction project. Hiring local construction experts and laborers to work alongside willing mission workers would give the community a sense of ownership that would have a more positive and far-reaching effect than just raising a building. Dependency would be replaced with confidence, independence, and a tangible example of what the community can do for itself.

Missionaries must also be aware that participating in this sort of community engagement may mean that the project is not accomplished in the time frame or manner in which they would like. Adhering to a culture’s collectivistic tendencies, perceptions of time, and public customs, might be difficult when it comes to finishing a project as planned, but doing so will have a long lasting impact that outweighs potential concerns.28 Even where a project is not completed during a mission team’s visit, permanent local staff might be able to continue the work and finish the project on their own.

Unlike the shaky and false foundation built on sand, a firm and lasting foundation is laid when the community is involved in its own development and restoration – one that will not be so easily corrupted by rust and decay.

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26 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 113.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.

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