Wednesday, May 2, 2012

To, For or With?

I've been slowly walking through Kathy Escobar's book Down We Go, sharing with you some of the many things I gained from this great book. I can't capture all of what she says – I guess if I could you wouldn't need to read the book yourself. Last week I mentioned a paradigm shift that Kathy presents in her book and today I want to look at that (in case anyone thought I might never actually get around to it!)

In her chapter “There is no 'us' or 'them', only us” Kathy speaks about the work of friends at the Center for Transforming Mission in Tacoma. They build their work on a premise that “authentic transformational relationships can not be built upon power of inequality.” Yet, she argues, that is exactly the foundation on which much ministry is based. 

“In most Christian and typical mission-oriented circles, the most prevalent preposition has become the word 'to.'” We speak of needing to give or bring something “to” someone else: wisdom, biblical truth, life-changing knowledge or advice or any number of other things. “The problem with the preposition 'to' is that it begins with an 'I'm up and you're down' perspective of power that is patronizing and disempowering. Someone has more resources, knowledge, and put-togetheredness than the other. This posture often ends up making the one on the receiving end feel like a project or loser.”

I've seen this often in my experience. In fact I've often been guilty of it. I want to bring my immense(?) resources, knowledge and gifts to others so that by receiving them they can be better. The motivation is not wrong, Kathy acknowledges. It may be quite sincere. But it operates from a faulty paradigm that keeps the giver in control.

The second false approach to ministry can be identified with the preposition “for.” It is not radically different from the “to” approach, but emphasizes doing things for someone who is hurting, or disadvantaged or in any way “less” something than we are. It says to the other “Let me do this for you.” “The problem with this kind of approach to others,” writes Kathy, “is that it creates codependence. Helpers get sucked into helping and also end up in a one-up role where they are the ones who need to take care of the person, make things happen for them, or remain in the role where they [are] always 'serving' people.”

The fundamental problem with approaching ministry as a “to” or “for” activity is that it places the minister above the person or people being served. The ministry can become more about satisfying the desire or need of the minister to be useful. The person serving derives his or her sense of worth and identity from being needed. The focus and power remain with the minister rather than those being served. I think this often happens subtly and those serving often are not aware of the way in which ministering to others is about meeting their own needs for identity. Nor do we recognize that when we serve in this way we do so from a position of power and distance.

The new or alternative paradigm (my word, not hers) Kathy proposes is to think and speak using the preposition “with.” For example (from the book):

“I am with you in this moment, will stand alongside you, and am not walking ahead of you but alongside you.”

“I want to share my life with you, not just take care of you or tell you what to do.”

“You have some things I need to learn from you, too. Let's learn from each other.”

She explains this alternative relational dynamic, saying: “'With' removes imbalanced power from the relationship. It recognizes the fundamental dignity of the person...It begins with listening for the deeper story that informs the suffering. It waits patiently for the person to ask for help.”

I think she's on to something important here. I have had a few relationships that could have been “for” or “to”-oriented, but which I tried to make “with” relationships. They were challenging, but more rewarding. It meant opening myself up to listen, to learn, to be vulnerable and to walk alongside rather than swooping in, trying to resolve some problem quickly and moving on. These relationships are more difficult in many ways. They involve a higher level of personal risk and they require that we step down from our position of knowledge, power and control and enter into the life situation of those we say we care about. We must take the focus off of ourselves, off of being the savior or problem-solver for the other, and humbly open ourselves up to the transforming potential of true relationship.

“'With' relationships are messy, unpredictable, hard, confusing, and sure tap into our pain, history, fears, and annoyed, frustrated places. I understand how easy it is to stick with 'to' and 'for' modes of relationship. They protect us because they keep us in a place of power. They keep the focus off of us and on the other person. In the end, we don't need 'them;' they need 'us.' Even though that's easier, I believe that 'with each other' relationships create true transformation.”

What do you think? When you consider the relationships you have, particularly those in which you minister to others, are they more “to”, “for”, or “with” focused? How might it transform your life and those of others if you sought to enter into more relationships with a “with each other” attitude?

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