Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Plan

Having a plan is a good idea (except when it's not)
When I was just 15 years old my father took me on my very first trip to Zaire (now DR Congo). This trip sparked in me an obsession to understand why there was so much poverty in world, why it didn’t feel like go-gooder efforts were getting anywhere, and what the anti-poverty experts knew that I could then take back and share with folks in the church pews.  Thus, over 16 years ago (was it really that long ago?!) I enrolled in American University’s BA/MA program in International Development.

My plan seemed so simple:
  • Step #1: Learn everything that is known on the causes of and solutions to poverty.
  • Step #2: Use this knowledge to critique dominant do-gooder/mission models and offer an alternative path of action.
  • Step #3: Introduce new model to the masses.  Do this through writing a book, becoming a traveling keynoter/consultant, be elected/appointed to a leadership position, etc.
  • Step #4: Be happy in the knowledge that my work had made a difference in this world.
If only changing the world were as easy as it seemed back then. My plan was based on numerous na├»ve assumptions. For example, it turned out that anti-poverty experts knew a lot more about projects that have failed than they did about formulas for success (I spent five straight years analyzing countless failed development initiatives---what that did to my mental health is another conversation). It also turned out that when you try to explain to folks--especially church folk--that they are using antiquated mission models, their predictable response is not one of appreciation and requests for your advice on how to change. In fact, this is an easy way to quickly make yourself persona non grata in both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ religious circles. There aren't many returned phone calls or consulting contracts for the nerd who dares to suggest that a congregation/conference/agency overhaul its beloved mission program.  

Needless to say, I’ve been somewhere between steps #2 & #3 for several years now, and I often think of the old plan as a bad joke. At times I suspect that what I thought was my call was simply me listening in on the party line. There are, for example, a handful of recently released bestselling books that say much of what I've been trying to explain (Toxic Charity, for example). Change seems inevitable even without my voice in the mix, although I don't think we've reached a tipping point yet (perhaps in secular society, but the church is more resistant).

I've yet to find a book that covers everything that should be said on the topic, but I'm pretty pumped about the progress my father is making on his book. I've put him on a 1,000/words/day minimum regime and he's been sending me his daily updates for accountability.  At this rate he'll be ready to send the manuscript for professional editing by September. The book's format is heavily influenced by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so for those of you who have been hoping for a step-by-step how-to manual on mission work, this won't be it.  It will be, however, a journey into the heart of DR Congo and the ramblings of a mad man on a bicycle. Some of you will find it profound; others will be confused. If you've been following his blogs for awhile, I suspect you will find it enlightening and challenging. It has potential to become a classic, or, at least a cult classic. Of course, Mark Twain defined a classic as "a book which people praise and don't read," so I'm hoping that it gets read before that happens. There is already serious talk of an indie film (not of the book itself, but of one of the stories of heroism told in it); the filmmaker is currently seeking investors for the project.          

The deal Dad and I made was that I'd manage Friendly Planet Missiology this year so that his only professional responsibilities would be to ride his bike (where he does his best thinking) and finish the book.  Who knows--maybe next year will be the year of The Plan.  ;)

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