INTERVIEW, PART ONE: Brian Fikkert

Charity Detox had the opportunity to speak with Brian Fikkert, Founder of the Chalmers Center and author of When Helping Hurts. The interview will be posted in two parts. Part One reports on the first half of our conversation, which focuses on the process of change for organizations seeking to detoxify their charity. Next week we will publish the remainder of the interview, which focuses on Fikkert's new book, "Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions."

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Shawn Duncan: Charity Detox is a community of practitioners convinced that change needs to happen in the way we practice charity. Many have read books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity and are trying to figure out how to navigate the difficulty of change.

What have you learned from groups that have been able to successfully make the move toward more responsible charity?     

Brian Fikkert: It really starts with leadership. If it doesn't get to leadership fast, it just gets bogged down. I have seen a number of laypersons in churches read a book, get excited about making changes, and change not coming because leadership was not on board. Until leadership sees a need to change, nothing happens. 

The biggest obstacle for leaders to embrace this kind of change is that they often have a vested self-interest in not changing.

For example, if you are the pastor of a large, suburban congregation, your primary goal might be mobilizing your people for ministry. Your focus, then, is on your own congregation, getting people moving, and seeing how they are growing. This means that you are not thinking about the people you are supposed to be helping externally and how effective - or not - your ministry efforts actually are.

In this scenario you would define success by the fact that, for example, you have half of your congregation going on short-term missions trips. This activity could also mean that your church is growing because people are drawn to it.

For you to change, it is going to cost you something!

The problem is that we have vested, entrenched interests. The process of change requires leaders who are actually leaders, which means they understand that it is not about them.

SD: Have you seen people who are not in a position of leadership be able to overcome this and bring about change at the leadership level? If so, what have you learned from them?

BF: FIrst, I have to say that I am speaking only anecdotally. I do not have a broad base of social-scientific data I'm pulling from!

I'd say one of the main ingredients is faithful and consistent communication across time. Share a book with leaders. Take leaders with you to see a model of ministry in action that embodies healthy practices.

In a lot of ways this is a process of 'discipling up.' It takes a lot of humility, and you have to lead by example. Get involved in a healthy ministry and take your pastor alongside with you.

And pray like crazy! I have seen the Holy Spirit work transformation that goes against logic! 

SD: What if you are a leader that is on board with the need to do things differently, what will it take to be able to navigate this process of disruptive change? 

BF: Humility. Leaders have got to be humble and must communicate that she or he is broken and makes mistakes. Leaders must be willing to admit that they have led the church or organization down the wrong path in regards to current ministry practices. Leaders will have to make a habit of confession and transparency. They must be willing to say, "I've made mistakes. I continue to learn and grow. Here are some adjustments that need to be made in what we're doing."

We really need leaders who can lead with a posture that goes counter to a leadership culture that says leaders are the ones who have all the answers. There is a book called With that talks about learning to live a life with God when we tend to be under or over God or trying to get things from God or do things for God. With invites an awareness that God is will us in the process of figuring things out, of trial and error, of learning and growing together.

The process of change requires experimentation and leaders who can say, "I don't know all the answers, but I am growing and learning and would like you to come along with me in this journey of discovery."

SD: When leaders begin to articulate this new vision and begin to implement these changes, they are often asked, "What evidence, not just stories, do you have that this is working?" How do you respond to that question and those like it?  

BF: (Long knowing sigh.) There is no quick answer to this. I will try to be as concise as possible.

Interestingly enough, applied statistical work is actually my area of training and expertise. I was trained and for years did empirical research to figure out how to make data, or evidence, speak to people.

And I am increasingly skeptical about all of it because most empirical data/evidence actually proves nothing. 

This question challenges me because what the inquirer means by evidence or proof is not the same thing that I would mean by evidence or proof. This gets us to the first issue in dealing with this question: there is not an agreed upon standard between donors, researchers, and practitioners about what it means to have evidence. That's the first thing.

The second thing is that we have to learn how to measure the right things. I want people to know that I believe that we should look for evidence because it is part of our learning process, and it allows us to look for and witness to the work God is doing! Evidence is good!

But, boy, is it hard to learn to measure the right things! What really matters takes a long time to bear fruit.

So, we have to know what we are measuring, carefully articulate to people what we are measuring, and them show them how to measure it.

SD: Could you share an example of a group that started out with a toxic model, became convicted of the need for a new approach, and successfully navigated the change?

BF: Yes, LifeChurch.

At one time their plan was to grow their church through short-term missions trips. Being very strategic planners, they soon became aware that their growth target was so large that there wouldn't be enough airplanes taking off to accomplish all they wanted to do! They came to see that their strategy just didn't make sense. As they were realizing this, they read When Helping Hurts and other books like it. 

For them, the change started because not only was their strategy not practically feasible, it was not philosophically sustainable either.

 So, they shut down their short-term mission program!

Now they are very deliberate and strategic about forming long-term partnerships that focus on groups that are doing development work. To be as large of a church as they are, they have relatively few partnerships because they are so intentional about with whom and how they partner. Their leadership still takes short-term trips, but they are for learning, visioning, and cultivating long-term, healthy partnerships.

One of the board members for the Chalmers Center is from LifeChurch. They are extremely well versed in organizational dynamics. They understand organization leadership and organizational change. They know what they are doing along these lines and really understand the science of change. This base of knowledge and experience, combined with strong leadership, is why I think they were able to make such radical change.

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Be sure to sign up to be notified when PART TWO of our interview with Brian Fikkert comes out net week. In PART TWO the conversation turns to discuss his most recent book, "Helping WIthout Hurting in Short-term Missions."



Posted on November 26, 2014 .