This is an article from the May-June 1998 issue: The Mission to the “Aucas”

How Missionary Attitudes Can Create Dependency

How Missionary Attitudes Can Create Dependency

The following article was presented by Glenn Schwartz at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society hosted here on the USCWM campus on April 17, 1998. This article deals with the fact that the problem of dependency is more than just a financial one. It is also a problem of our attitudes. Glenn Schwartz is the founder and director of World Mission Associates located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

-Rick Wood


As with many things in life, when it comes to dependency, there are two kinds. One might be called unavoidable dependency and the other avoidable. Unavoidable dependency characterizes newborn infants. It also comes to everyone when we are no longer physically or mentally able to care for ourselves. Peter was told that a time would come when he would not even be able to put on his own clothes (John 21:18). Terminally ill people experience their own form of dependency which we all accept and understand.

When it comes to avoidable dependency there are also two kinds. One I’ll call self-induced dependency. This may be the result of choosing to become dependent on drugs or alcohol, for example. This kind of dependency can be avoided or even cured as many people have learned—sometimes through sheer determination—other times through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. In short, people can usually be delivered from self-induced dependency if they want to.

The other kind of avoidable dependency is what one might call other-induced dependency. Children spoiled by materialism or with excessive money from their wealthy parents are in the category of other-induced dependency. One spouse sometimes does so many things for the other that when the first of them passes away, the one remaining is unable to care for himself or herself even though he or she has retained reasonable physical and mental health. This could be called other-induced dependency, however well-meaning it may seem when it is occurring.

For the past ten years I have been concentrating on the problem of dependency among mission-established institutions. I have concluded that this most often falls into the category of “other-induced” dependency.

Some Root Causes Of Other-Induced Dependency

One of the factors behind dependency among mission-established institutions is the Western understanding of the Biblical mandate to evangelize the world. I am referring to the mandate, both cultural and evangelistic, to bring the entire world under the authority of the Kingdom of God. It is symbolized in two political or theological doctrines. One is the Western Hemisphere concept of Manifest Destiny. The other is sphere sovereignty which led to the philosophy of apartheid in South Africa. Both of these have been powerful forces driving Westerners to go out with a form of authority which, when not rightly handled, sows the seeds for the problem of dependency in the Christian movement. If ever there was a need for a shift in Western missiology, it is just on this point. It might be helpful to think of the shift being from the Mosaic “thus saith the Lord” to the Pauline

“I beseech you therefore brethren.”

A second assumption which sows the seeds for dependency among mission-established institutions has to do with the way in which Western missionary candidates are recruited and motivated. One of the assumptions is that missionary candidates are being recruited to go out to do something significant among the world’s poor, needy and unevangelized people. The emphasis here is on doing something which I believe often results in the development of the dependency syndrome. Without a proper understanding of how to help, Westerners end up doing things which others could do for themselves.

As a result of this doing, Westerners often create projects, programs and institutions, which cannot be carried on or reproduced by those they are trying to help. Sometimes those who create this outside-induced dependency carve out a future for themselves from which they cannot seem to be extricated, if indeed they want to be extricated. If they don’t really want to be extricated, a conspiracy develops which thrives on the need to be needed on the part of the outsiders. The need to be needed is a very powerful force.

But let me return to the dichotomy between doing and being. What a missionary is going out to do is a very important part of how we raise prayer and financial support. For example, how much support could one raise if the pitch would be “I am going out to be rather than to do? I am going out to stand beside open graves and weep with others at funerals. I am going out to encourage other people to be all that they can be before the Lord. I am not going out to do what they can do for themselves.” Or more specifically, “I am not going out to attend business meetings with church leaders who have the privilege of managing their own affairs.”  If you think that support raising is already tough, try replacing all the rhetoric about doing with the concept of being. See how far you get with that one.

Admittedly this is an area fraught with problems. Some missionaries might hide behind just being as an excuse for their lack of productivity. Herein lies the challenge: How can one have a productive ministry without doing those things which create or perpetuate dependency? Admittedly, that is a subject too ponderous for this short presentation. But it is of critical importance if the dependency syndrome is to be understood and avoided.

Another way to look at the doing/being issue is to remember what we all learned about the difference between advocates and innovators. Frequently when missionaries move from being advocates to becoming innovators it is then that the dependency syndrome gets its foothold. How much of the syndrome could be avoided if outsiders limited themselves to being advocates and permitted insiders to have the privilege of being the innovators.1 Again, this brief presentation is not a place for an in-depth treatment of that important subject.

This determination to do something is a very powerful force among Western missionaries. Everyone wants to know what I am going to do as a missionary when I get to my assignment. This often results in the determination on the part of the Western missionary to find something

of which he or she can be in charge. Being in charge of something provides more impressive material for prayer letters to send home.

About fifteen years ago I was in Liberia visiting with church and mission leaders. Local church leaders and missionaries had set aside some time for a discussion on polygamy. It just happened to be taking place while I was there. While the discussion was going on, a young missionary came over and tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could speak with me outside. When we went outside he asked if I was really interested in what they were discussing. (Any missiologist worth his salt is going to be interested in a local discussion on polygamy!) I asked him what he had in mind. He said, “I have a serious problem and I need to talk to someone right now.” I sensed the urgency and so we moved away from where the meeting was going on and sat down on the end of the verandah to talk.

He began with a statement that went something like this: “I am in charge of the evangelism committee for this church and . . . .” I interrupted him and said, “You’re what? You’re in charge? How can you be in charge? You’re a missionary.”

He said, “They asked me”.

I responded by saying, “I can understand that they asked you. But you agreed to do it???”

He replied, “Well, no one else wanted the job.”

Then I said to him, “Let me get this right.  You were smart enough to take the job, but not smart enough not to.” He sat there trying to figure out what I said. So I repeated it.

I saw that young missionary several days later and he was still shaking his head saying, “Smart enough to do it, not smart enough not to. . . .”

Missionaries have often taken such positions in the spirit of servanthood or so-called partnership. This is how they avoid being looked upon as uncooperative or unwilling to carry responsibility. This is another of those fine lines which we often encounter in cross-cultural ministry. It is where only the astute, well-trained, culturally-sensitive and Spirit-filled missionary will have a chance of getting it right. If envy weren’t forbidden in Scripture, we might all envy someone with those four qualities.

The secret is knowing how and when to gracefully decline when the offer of a position is made to us as an outsider. I personally found that the offer can be declined with rather dramatic positive results. Something happens when local people discover that the outsider no longer gives the impression that he or she is the most capable person around. That is what consciously communicates that the privilege of leadership belongs to local people, even if it seems on the surface like “nobody wants the job.”

Permit a personal illustration from my time in Zambia as a missionary. It was the custom there that any missionary visiting a congregation was normally invited to preach the morning sermon. This happened even when the missionary showed up unannounced and the pastor was ready to preach what he had prepared. I came to the point where I regularly declined such invitations to preach, saying something like this: “You can preach better than I. Allow me to sit with the people and listen.”

In short, I was sending that all-important message that “you can do it; I will gladly listen.” Eventually they stopped asking me and a new relationship developed between us.

There are a few creative ways to encourage local church leaders to begin to stand on their own two feet. It may mean some departure from the normal pattern of behavior on the part of the missionary or mission executive. The following are a few more lessons that I have learned.

One is that a missionary might make his or her greatest impact by declining the privilege of being involved in business meetings where decisions are being made, especially decisions about money. A church leader from Central Africa once said, “As long as there is one white missionary present in the meeting, we will vote the way he wants us to vote, even if he doesn’t say anything. We will watch his eyes and we will know how we are supposed to vote.”

In order to prevent this kind of silent, yet obvious and often powerful influence, I suggest that outsiders gracefully decline the opportunity to be present when local business is being discussed. Arrange to visit an elderly villager whom you haven’t seen for a long time or simply take the afternoon to do some hospital visitation. The surprise associated with your willingness to be out of the meeting when important decisions are to be made might make a more powerful impact on local leaders than your presence ever could make. Naturally some local people will ask questions like, “Don’t you care what we decide?” You can honestly reply something like this: “This is your church and it is your privilege to make decisions about your future and especially your day-to-day operations without my presence and influence.” Part of the unspoken message on such an occasion is this: “You are not only free to make your own decisions, but you are free to do what you do without the promise of money often expected when I as an outsider am present”.

I recently met with a group of area secretaries representing some sixty countries in which their large mission society is working. They were asking me how to raise consciousness among the leaders of some of their dependent churches regarding local ownership and decision-making. They especially wanted practical suggestions for them as mission executives. I asked how many of them sometimes visit the fields for which they are responsible. They all said they did. I then asked how many of them participate in business meetings with the local church leaders when they make such visits. They acknowledged that they did. All of a sudden it got very quiet when I suggested that might be part of the problem. It took a few seconds while the thought sank in. It is hard to imagine a mission executive from overseas not being invited to or not attending a meeting of local church leaders when he or she is in the area. After all, that is when real business is done, when the moneyed person from overseas is present.

I suggest that mission executives (and missionaries) take a look at that definition of “real business.” Real business at a time like that is often when local people get out the shopping list and make a plea

for so-called partnership. And then, in the name of global cooperation, commitments are made about how the outsiders will help to fund what remains of local vision. Sometimes even local vision is not very local.

How does one deal with the question about not caring which I mentioned earlier? The most caring thing one might do is to think so highly of the gifts, abilities and privileges of local leaders that the outsider wouldn’t under any circumstance want to interfere. And when that attitude sinks in, sometimes a very powerful message can be communicated. It is an effective message from silence or absence, rather than the rather overpowering message which accompanies personal presence, personal influence and outside money.

Tim Mitchell is one missionary who responded to this kind of thinking. Several years ago he sat through a five-day seminar I conducted in a rural part of Transkei in South Africa where he served as a missionary. He listened to what I said about outsiders taking back seat positions and not needing to be present when important decisions are made. He made the decision to change his personal mode of operation. Now, some five years later, he testifies to the positive things that happened among local leadership since he receded into the background. It reinforces what I believe so strongly, that if you think being in charge of something is fulfilling as a missionary, you ought to learn the blessing that comes from not being in charge. Tim Mitchell learned that blessing very well.

Psychological Residence

In the matter of missionary conduct, I find it helpful to ask where outsiders have their psychological residence. By that I mean, where do they feel at home? We have all learned and often taught the importance of moving into the local frame of reference in order to carry out a valid cross-cultural ministry. This includes learning the local language and maybe even dressing and wearing one’s hair as local people do such as Hudson Taylor is said to have done. The aim is so that others do not need to come into our frame of reference or, to use my term, into our area of psychological residence in order to learn the Gospel. That principle is simple enough. The challenge is to figure out how to function as an insider without bringing into the situation the power, authority and resources of the outsider which everyone knows we have as Westerners. Unless that is avoided, the seeds of the dependency syndrome are sown and it may be next to impossible for anyone in the future to break the addiction to outside resources which develops.

I once met a missionary serving in Indonesia who modeled what I am talking about. He was a Mennonite by the name of Dan. The following is his story.

Dan was assigned to work with a local pastor in the capital city of Jakarta. The pastor with whom he worked did not have a motor car and Dan felt he should not have one either. So Dan traveled around Jakarta on a small motor bike so that his position would not be deemed to be higher than his colleague, the pastor. Dan said he and his wife often rode across the city on the moped arriving at a Bible study covered

with the oily exhaust of Jakarta’s diesel buses. But Dan was determined not to buy a car until the pastor bought one. Dan said the longer it went, the more it looked like the pastor was not going to get around to buying himself a car.

One day, however, the pastor said, “Dan, I have been thinking about buying a car. Would you be willing to go with me to help choose the right one?” Dan agreed to do so and they went off together. As soon as the pastor had finalized the deal, Dan said to his colleague, “Pastor, for some time I have been thinking about buying a car, too. Would you be willing to go along to help me choose the right one?”

There is no way to estimate the impact of that kind of demeanor on the part of a missionary. How many times is the Western missionary forging ahead with the mandate of evangelizing the world with all the power, authority and money of the Western missionary society behind him or her, all the while running rough shod over local customs, decorum and common sense missiology! Little wonder that local initiative is stifled.

Think again about balancing the role and function of the outsider. It is not an easy challenge. It will certainly demand sound cross-cultural training,  the kind to which I am sure all who teach mission studies are committed. Little wonder that those who have no cross-cultural training miss the importance of this kind of thing.

The Sense of Urgency Regarding the Task

If the demeanor of the missionary is so important, it points to the importance of cross-cultural training.  But how do we balance the urgency of the task with the need for adequate cross-cultural training? Or how do we balance the urgency of the task with waiting for local initiative to develop? Let me suggest something which may help to move us in this direction.

Assume that all who are preparing for cross-cultural ministry accept that they need cross-cultural training. (I wish that were true, but let’s assume it anyway.) Good solid missionary training might take several years of concentrated effort, if not a life-long commitment. Several weeks of training are only immunization which convince missionary candidates that they have had enough of that; now they can get on with ministry. Little wonder they don’t have the patience to wait for local initiative to develop.

Some of this tension might be resolved if those who are committed to the urgency of the task will also commit themselves simultaneously to the training. Fortunately, this is more and more becoming possible through distance learning which a number of institutions are pioneering these days. But what about those who aren’t mature enough to go to any field far away from home anyway and would benefit from serious concentrated cross-cultural studies even in a classroom? With the help and creativity of those designing the study program, why not build active ministry into the process in a multi-cultural inner city situation nearby? Here is the pitch: “Come study with us and begin your cross-cultural ministry now.” Or better yet, “Are you eager to get to the field and begin your ministry? You can do it right now while you are studying on the side in our training program.” Remember,

for the sake of the urgency, the studying is on the side, not the ministry. That brings the urgency issue together with the importance of training. It also gives some candidates time to mature while they make their blunders closer to home where the expense is not so great. And so far as the patience required for local leaders to come on board, perhaps this period of training will give the Christian time for patience to develop.

What about Paternalism and the Missionary Demeanor?

Admittedly paternalism sometimes creeps into the heart of Western altruism and perhaps even more often into the demeanor of missionaries. There isn’t time to develop it here, so I will just mention it in passing. We as Westerners cannot imagine how our benevolence or altruism could possibly be at the root of the dependency syndrome. After all, we use money to solve many problems. Furthermore, we get such a good feeling from giving that we may not even realize when paternalism creeps in. Sometime ago we challenged someone on what was clearly to us paternalism. His response was classic. He said, “How can you accuse me of paternalism? I treated them like my own children and they didn’t appreciate it!”

I am sure you will agree that there are many ramifications to the dependency syndrome. I have barely begun to scratch the surface in this brief paper. For a longer treatment of the subject, there is an eight-hour video series available through World Mission Associates.2

What Hope Is There for the Future?

Is there a ray of hope for this situation in the future? Is it not that today’s and tomorrow’s missionaries have access to training that was not available even thirty or forty years ago? If they take advantage of it, the Christian movement will certainly be better off in the next generation than it was in the last. Of course, the effectiveness of this depends on whether those teaching missions are familiar with the dependency syndrome and know how to help everyone avoid it. This represents a challenge for many of us.

There is another ray of hope. It is in the new missionary force—especially from the non-Western world —which is not so well endowed financially that it will create and perpetuate financial dependency as the Christian movement spreads. As Art Glasser once said about the China Inland Mission: “We barely had enough money on which to survive as missionaries ourselves. We could not have spoiled churches with money if we wanted to.” 3 When this came up in a recent gathering of retired OMF missionaries, we heard his colleagues who had lived on modest income agree with resounding affirmation.


Missionaries can speak and act with authority and urgency, and they do not need to create the dependency syndrome in the churches which are started. But it will take a new and sometimes radical approach for that to happen. It remains to be seen how many are prepared to pay the price for the innovation and how many have the courage and humility it will demand. After all, taking this approach means bucking a lot of history over the last century.

It is also now available on audio cassettes. Both are available through William Carey Library at the prices listed here.

Video Series WMA-VIDEO •Retail $150  •Disc. $135 •Whls. $122.50 Audio Series WMA-AUDIO •Retail $100  •Disc. $90 •Whls. $81.25

To get wholesale price you must order 3 or more. Call 1-800-MISSION.

Various articles are also available on the world wide web at <>. 3 For more on the wealth of Western missionaries see Jonathan Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1992

  1. We are indebted to Dr. Alan Tippett, who introduced us to anthropologist Homer Barnett, for bringing the concept of advocates and innovators to our attention in missiology.

  2. The eight-hour video series entitled Dependency: Exploring the Issues and other materials on dependency and self-reliance among mission-established institutions includes a 125-page study guide which can be obtained through World Mission Associates, 825 Darby Lane, Lancaster, PA 17601-2009 —Att: Larry Estepp (800) 230-5265


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