After more than 20 years of professional ministry experience and a decade focused on philanthropy and developing leaders for the nonprofit world, I often get into conversations about how to know if all the work we’re doing is actually worthwhile. The large majority of us don’t have the time, training or priority to become experts in community change. So how can we approach trying to make a difference in the world without making everything worse?
So here’s my take:
With so many issues and injustices all around us, knowing where to start is difficult. The things that make us sad or angry are often indicators of where we should get involved. Have the courage to pray the dangerous prayer of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by those things that break the heart of God.”
We are rich, but we are stupid, and we usually don’t know it. Our privilege often blinds us to our inadequacies. Impactful people ask questions, challenge their own assumptions and constantly seek to improve their work and themselves. There is an endless amount to learn if we want to do anything significant.
Some of us tend to function at a theoretical level, removed from the front lines of difficulty, but the biggest changes are often small changes multiplied by a lot of people. It is always personal.
Constantly check that what you’re doing is still making the difference you desire. Ask the people you are there to serve if what you are doing is the best way to help. Things change constantly. Our strategies have to change too, or we end up trying to address new problems with old solutions that don’t work anymore.
We all want to believe that our sincere effort is enough, but service in a troubled world is no place for naive sentimentality. Rigorous commitment to the truth and a relentless focus on results is the only way to be sure we aren’t wasting our work and resources. We have to be able to show the impact we’re making with real outcomes, not just a few touching stories.
Helping is hard, and it will test every aspect of who you are. Too many people burn out along the way, with devastating results for themselves, their family and friends, and those they were trying to help. You can’t care for others for long unless you are also taking care of yourself. Rest, reflection, recreation and relationships are not optional.
This might be the toughest one for a lot of us. Most of us tend to move on too soon and never experience the personal growth and lasting outcomes that come only through persevering over a long period. The result is unfinished projects and immature leaders. Having a meaningful impact takes time.
The sheer volume of injustice and need in this world is overwhelming. The distinct advantage of people of faith is that we know something better is coming. We need to frequently remind ourselves and one another that the old hymn gets it right; “Tho the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
Maya Angelou gave probably the best advice for anyone who wants to be part of making the world a better place: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Editor’s note: This piece by Chris Wignall has been excerpted from Jared Brock’s book, Bearded Gospel Men. Used with permission.