How to avoid unhealthy dependency

by Trent DeLoach, Clarkston International Bible Church
Monday, February 12, 2018 | 250 days old

Books like When Helping Hurts and Charity Detox have popularized concern over the topic of creating unhealthy dependency in compassion ministry. If this topic is new for you, here is the gist. Creating unhealthy dependency between you and those you serve is bad. Pursuing compassion ministry in a way that empowers those you serve to use the resources they have to meet the challenges they face is good.

Here is a simple example. Let’s say you meet a refugee family and offer to provide transportation to their medical appointments. Providing a new refugee family initial transportation assistance is good. Soon they find a job, and they want you to drive them on their first day of work. Again, not bad.

But now let’s imagine they want you to take them to work every day, and they also call you several times a week to take them to the store, the bank, the doctor. You get the point. What was once a nice gesture to help a new friend out is turning into a burden, a burden you cannot consistently bear.

Worse yet, let’s imagine the refugee family has an emergency and they call you, but you are out of town. For various reasons, they never learned to use public transportation, they can’t afford Uber, and they don’t trust their neighbors. Can you see how unhealthy dependence can do more harm than good? Can you also see how the issue can start small and slowly grow in unhealthy ways? The entire time you mean well, but fall prey to the tendency of allowing unhealthy dependency to harm your compassion ministry.

This topic is especially tricky when you work with refugees. The physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual needs of refugees can be overwhelming when they first arrive. They are learning a new language, a new culture and a new way of doing almost everything. They need greater levels of help when they first arrive, just as we would if we were in their shoes.

It would be ridiculous to abandon a family at the airport when they arrive and expect them to find their own way to their apartment due to our fear of creating unhealthy dependency. So where is the balance? Following are three principles that can guide you as you seek to show compassion without creating unhealthy dependency.

1.  Always keep empowerment in mind.
The word empowerment means to give someone the authority or power to do something. In refugee ministry, the idea involves helping someone while teaching them how to do the task for themselves the next time. In the world of missions, there is a helpful acronym that explains this process. The acronym is M.A.W.L. The letters stand for model, assist, watch and leave. First, you model how to do a task while they watch you. Then you assist them in doing the task. Then you watch them complete the task on their own. Finally, you leave to move on to another task. It is a simple concept that keeps empowerment in mind. 

2. Err on the side of grace and helping.
Unfortunately, some have used the topic of creating unhealthy dependence as an excuse not to help. They embrace an odd strategy of not helping anyone to ensure they don’t inadvertently hurt someone. I am thankful Jesus didn’t adopt this strategy and neither should we. I believe it is best to err on the side of grace and helping when you can. Now, the best way you can help someone may be to refuse to do the task for them, but to assist or watch them do it while you are with them. It is OK to ride the bus with someone when it is their first time on public transportation even if you own a car. Choosing to err on the side of grace means you will make mistakes. However, I believe it is far better to be guilty of helping someone too much than not helping them at all.

3. Work as a team with established refugees.
Too many Americans want to the be the heroes with all the answers and all the resources. It does feel good to help others and be needed, however this tendency can create unhealthy dependency. I believe there is a better way. I argue that the best ministry to refugees in Clarkston is carried out by refugees who have been here longer and have traveled the road that new refugees are beginning. They know how hard the transition can be and they know how important it is for new refugees to gain self-sufficiency in navigating our country. Hence, I encourage Americans to work alongside established refugees who can help guide the compassion ministry to new refugees. This typically happens naturally, especially through ethnic churches. However, you can still encourage and promote refugees helping refugees as much as possible. Instead of being the hero, you will be the facilitator, and you will multiply your impact.   

This article barely scratches the surface of the debate surrounding the topic of creating unhealthy dependency in compassion ministry. If your curiosity is piqued and you want to dive deeper, check out Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like if We Cared about Results by Robert Lupton and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. After reading these books, reach out to an experienced practitioner to learn how they apply these concepts when working with refugees.

Nobody has this topic completely figured out. The debate will continue. Perhaps you will be the one to help those that work with refugees to balance dependency issues with compassion ministry.

Editor’s note: Trent DeLoach serves as the lead pastor at Clarkston International Bible Church, in Clarkston, Georgia, and has worked among refugees for more than 12 years. If you would like more information on any of these ideas, please email [email protected].