Overcoming Power Differences Through Relationships

At the root of so many of the issues and complexities of short-term missions is the inescapable power difference between visiting groups and the communities they work within. But acknowledging the difference and investing in reciprocal relationships can do a lot to diffuse the damage the power difference could cause.

Whether we like it or not, when we as American mission trip participants step into a community that is in need, we are the ones who hold the power. No matter what posture we take, there is an automatic power difference. Due to the perception of America around the world, good or bad, there is an expectation that we have money and resources. Therefore host communities take the posture of humility, not wanting to offend us, many times submitting their will and agenda to ours. We have the financial backing of a church. We have participants with expendable income.

We have the power to either make a meaningful difference or do incredible damage. What we do with this power matters to Jesus, and Jesus provided the example of how to humbly use our power. Here’s how Paul describes Christ in Philippians 2, with my asides about following Christ’s example:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. 

(How often have our short-term mission trips been about our selfish, church-centric ambition?)

Rather, in humility 

(Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s not thinking of yourself at all.)

value others above yourselves, 

(Let us put our preferences for our church, youth group, and trip participants to the side.)

not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 

(This is the reciprocal part. What if both mission trip group and host spent time looking into the interests of the other and find a way to do the work together?)

In your relationships with one another
(There is that darn word again, relationships.)

have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 

(Mindset is what we know to be true in our gut and living it out in deeds. To be Christ-like, to live like He lived.)

Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

(What if we rewrite this for ourselves? “Who, being an American, did not consider his privilege as an American something to be used to his own advantage.”)

rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 

Jesus, the Creator of the universe, did not consider His privilege as God as something to be used to His own advantage. Jesus stepped into our cold, dark, broken world and used His power for the benefit of those on the underside of life—the poor, displaced, marginalized, abused, oppressed, and kicked to the curb. Jesus humbled Himself, and when someone asked to be healed, He never turned them away. He used His power to stand up against the religious, oppressive authority of His day. Jesus lived with and walked with the outcasts of His day. He listened to their needs, their pain, and their heartache, and He understood what they needed. Jesus gave His power away to those in need by humbling Himself and setting them free.

The American church needs humility when we enter into short-term mission trips. We simply can’t develop reciprocal relationships when one side has the power they’re unwilling to give up. When we let go of our power so others can flourish, we’re able to receive from them the deep insights they have into their community and their real need. 

How do we humble ourselves and navigate the power difference? When we at Be2Live begin developing a new ministry partner, we don’t do anything significant with the ministry for at least the first year. We typically prepare a meal and do some on-site maintenance, whatever small, often unseen task that helps the organization and builds our relationship. But our primary focus is the relationship. We want to get to know the orphanage director, the pastor, the ministry leader, the volunteers, and the community. We want to hear their stories and understand what their true needs are. We do not want to make any assumptions, and we want to provide a safe place for them to share where it hurts. It takes time, and sometimes it’s a painful process, and it doesn’t look glamorous, but it is worth it.

Over time and through the posture of humility, we can create shared goals for our groups and the host organization. Talk to the host, find out what is needed, and discuss how your team can best meet the needs of the community. Be open with your hopes and be willing to adapt them to the feedback and insights of the host. Expect to have to ask more than once to get the full picture of their true needs, from our experience and research, few hosting ministries have groups that care more about the organization they are serving than their trip outcomes. As you proceed, communicate the goals to everyone involved, and keep the shared goals at the center of every part of the trip.

When we are humble and available, we will not only avoid making a negative impact, we will develop reciprocal relationships that have the potential to change lives and communities for the long haul. How cool is that!

This is an excerpt from the book “Reciprocal Missions: Short-Term Missions that Serve Everyone” You can purchase it on Amazon today!

Phil Steiner
President of www.be2live.org
Author “Reciprocal Mission: Short-Term Missions that Serve Everyone”



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