A More Nuanced Approach to Ministry with the Poor.


So by now, you’ve probably seen the 20 Things list that was posted on daveramsey.com. Many, including myself, first learned of this post by reading Rachel Held Evan’s article “What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty.” You’ve probably seen – and perhaps even participated on one side or the other – in the ensuing backlash and defense battle in social media land.

If you’ve seen those, then I’m sure you’re aware that a number of counter-lists have already popped up. Such as this one by Andrew Jones, and this one by Ben Irwin (and then this follow-up post).

And then there was the ironic “commentary” that Dave Ramsey added as a postscript to the original post. I almost decided to dedicate an entire post of my own to responding to the response to the responses to the post…but then I said that out loud and decided to just mention a couple things and move on.

In his postscript, Ramsey’s criticism of how others communicate strikes me as an ironic self-indictment. Communication is not confined to transmission – it hasn’t actually occurred until it has been received. (Thus the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…”) We cannot ultimately control what others will do with our words. However, a seasoned communicator such as Ramsey should know there is no such thing as a “simple list,” and that by saying nothing initially, he said a lot.

His entire ministry is built on teaching people about practices that lead to debt and poverty, and practices that lead to wealth. If he didn’t want people to read an implied causative relationship in this comparison of “what the rich do every day that the poor don’t,” he should have stated that explicitly.

Sadly this list could be somewhat helpful – if properly contextualized, nuanced, and unpacked. But it wasn’t. This was sloppy communication, plain and simple. And it just went downhill from there.

Defining the good and bad habits of “rich people” is a contextual process. The same need for contextual awareness applies to the habits of “poor people.” Those contexts are not the same, so comparing their habits is as useless as comparing…well, any two sets of unrelated things.

The truth is that yes, making better choices is important. And even the painfully awkward, “I’m no Max Lucado,” paragraph has a valid concept underneath – our attitude does directly impact our situation, how we deal with it, and whether or not we will let it define us.

Unfortunately, those messages – assuming they were intended – are very difficult to hear over the noise of poor communication and suspicious indications that Ramsey’s awareness of the landscape stops with the middle class. This list of habits, as a means of assigning a general “cause and effect” relationship between poverty/wealth and the specific activities is remarkably flawed. But the way in which this self-described “mature teacher” responded is worse – and, at least from my limited perspective, caused noticeably more damage.

Apparently some people have accused this post, and Ramsey’s ministry, of “hating the poor.” I haven’t seen those comments, but encountering overstated responses online isn’t a unique phenomenon. That isn’t to defend inappropriate statements – I do not.

On the other hand, misrepresenting millions of people’s situation in a way that makes them look inferior to “the rich” in matters of basic self-care is deeply insulting – in addition to being totally misleading. That some people would see this as more hateful than loving is one more aspect that should not have come as a surprise. Calling them immature for doing so is a failure to accept responsibility for poor communication (at best).

However, in the midst of various Facebook discussions, I’ve seen a several versions of the same question come up repeatedly. The paraphrased version is, “If the 20 Things post represents an overly narrow and simplistic understanding of poverty, what would a more nuanced approach look like?”

That’s a great question, because it recognizes the insufficiency of defining your position by what you reject.

Even beyond the present issue, I have a number of problems with Ramsey’s material – most of it having to do with how it is presented. And yet, I do believe that people struggling with debt, uncontrolled spending, and other financial difficulties associated particularly with the middle class context in America would do well to attend a Financial Peace University class and implement the practical tools it offers. I use the “debt snowball” principle on a regular basis in my work as a coach and teacher/trainer – there are a lot of solid principles in this material.

So an important step toward a nuanced approach would be to acknowledge how critiquing one aspect (or several) of something doesn’t require wholesale rejection of the entire project. We don’t have to develop an all or nothing approach. Likewise, supporting one or more aspects should not lead to blind support of the project either.

It seems that things change somewhat if we understand Ramsey’s use of the word “poor” as relating most directly to “the struggling middle class.” That context is still way too broad, but many people in that socio-economic bracket are educated, have / have had / have access to dependable and financially viable jobs, and also have the relational networks (other friends and family in relatively stable financial situations) to benefit most directly from Ramsey’s strategies. And for that group of people, I am glad there are practical programs like this available.

Next, I would say, if you want a nuanced approach to working with the poor, you need to actually know and be in relationship with people living in poverty. Talk to them…but, more than that, listen to them. Start in your own community – be aware of the places of marginalization in your own back yard.

As you become aware of these places, find a way to simply be present in that space. Whether it’s a park, a library, a coffee shop, a laundromat/washateria (depending on what part of the country you’re from), the deli counter and lunch area at the grocery store, or walking down the street – just pay attention. When you have the opportunity to engage in conversation, do so with genuine curiosity and listen to what people have to say.

That’s where the nuanced approach begins…by replacing our mental concept of the faceless “poor,” with the names, faces, and stories of actual people living in poverty.

You could also try talking with people who already live, serve, and work with and alongside the poor.

Some potential resources:

Christian Community Development Association – a well-established national organization with a phenomenal track record.

– For folks in my state, there is Texas Christian Community Development Network, the hub of which is in Waco – where you can also find Mission Waco. TxCCDN operates an annual conference – No Need Among You – that can help provide both broader awareness of issues and practical ways to get involved.

– The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is home to an amazing resource in CitySquare.

– I’d be happy to connect you with residents in our (Missional Wisdom Foundation) Epworth houses. These folks are engaged with the issues present in the lives of people in their actual neighborhood – homelessness, adapting to American culture as a refugee from a war-torn country, under-resourced minority communities in a city that has been charged with influencing racial segregation and actively blocking opportunities for the poor to make those “better choices” we’ve been hearing about.

Maybe you’re not ready to get into a long conversation. I get it. This 6 minute video can shed a lot of light on the nature of poverty…and why it isn’t really about money.

Wayne Gordon & John Perkins of the CCDA, along with a list of participant contributors, have written a fantastic – and brief – book about community development, working among the poor, and the various cultural issues that come into play. Making Neighborhoods Whole is an accessible but content rich primer.

One of my favorite lines from this book is, “We are finally beginning to realize that programs do not fix communities. Only neighbors can do that” (50).

For a description of how a lack of nuanced awareness can cause harm – and a recommendation for focusing on the assets, rather than shortcomings, of the poor -pick up a copy of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself. By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

And then for a completely different take on the “propensity to build wealth” in the way of Jesus, I strongly recommend God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

Finally, for a description of why things are not as simple as Corley’s list and Ramsey’s response seem to insinuate, check out No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future, by Joerg Rieger.

So, spend time among the poor… and listen to their stories. Talk with people who already work alongside the poor…and listen to their stories. Pick up some resources on the theology, theory, and practice of both ministry with the poor and the broader issue of community development…and listen to the stories from these various perspectives.

And as you listen, notice the points of connection with your own passions, gifts, and callings. Once you’ve made that connection; once you gotten to know the names, faces, and stories of people in your own community, I suspect you’ll discover that their dreams for a preferred future, and the most pressing obstacles to those dreams, are no longer foreign to you.

Of course, all of this merely points us in the direction of HOW to develop a nuanced approach – but I think you could do worse than using “listen to people” as your approach.

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Posted on December 4, 2013, in Missional, Poverty and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. gailynvanrheenen

    Thanks, Bret. Very well done. I love the video on the theme that poverty is lack of friends. Giving of self in friendship eradicates poverty. Blessings!

    Gailyn

  2. Thanks Gailyn – yes, Rachel’s post was where I first heard about the 20 Things list – failing to mention it was a pretty big oversight! I’m actually going to add it in now. 🙂

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