Published on: 18/12/2019

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Signs your mission might be heading off-track

In her second article, Elim missionary Siân Davies looks at the ‘white saviour complex’ and the potential dangers of undertaking missions overseas

Read part one here

In January a missionary – and the charity she founded in Uganda – were sued for allegedly operating an illegal medical facility for malnourished children. The lawsuit proposed that hundreds of children died at the facility and that the missionary led clients to believe she was medically trained before treating them.

It is a story that has been used by campaign groups to take a stand against what has become known as the ‘white saviour complex’ and to highlight a prevailing culture of white privilege that still lingers in postcolonial countries receiving such aid.

It is proposed that it is this culture, and its inherent binary power-relationship, which has enabled foreigners to get into positions where they have such unearned, unchallenged and unmonitored access to people.

Alongside the campaign group’s articles sit pictures of the missionary holding Ugandan children and sharing stories of her role and impact. So, what relevance does this story have to us? In my previous article, I defined the white saviour complex and detailed some of the consequences of not safeguarding against it.

This story is acutely relevant for those participating in short or long-term missions, and for sending churches and financial supporters.

If you are involved in missions, how do you spot the warning signs that your approach to mission may have gone a little off-track, or at worst is causing harm? These examples have been gathered from a range of sources, as well as personal observation and experience, and can be applied across Christian leadership.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so use these examples to support an exercise of self or organisational-reflection.

The important premise is that having good intentions on the mission field does not necessarily mean we are ‘doing good’.

Warning signs to look out for

  • The mission becomes interlinked with an individual’s identity, and its success or failure with how they feel about themselves.
  • When the mission is successful, it is seen as confirmation that God is favouring them personally or endorsing their lifestyle. The boundaries you have with others, especially vulnerable groups, are different than what you would exercise or be expected to exercise in your home country.
  • Those leading a mission feel envious of the success of other missions or ministries.
  • Longer-term, the individual becomes burnt-out but continues to take on more.
  • The mission narrative revolves around producing photos and stories that emphasise the receiver as impoverished, and the mission or individual as ‘the problem-solver’. Personal or sensitive moments with the beneficiary are detailed or photographed.
  • The individual is over-familiar with a country and its customs, and bases decision-making on these views. They may also use white-privilege to avoid following local laws.
  • The mission is ad-hoc and is dictated by an emotion-based response. It does not effectively support local partners or link into longer-term projects.
  • The mission involves carrying out activities that the individual would not be qualified, able or allowed to do in their home country. Those involved do not see opportunities to genuinely submit to and credit local leaders.

Most of us have found ourselves at some point falling into one or more of these traps. My final article will explore some of the practical ways in which we can avoid them on the mission field, and instead ensure that the focus remains on the one who is our Saviour.

Siân Davies - The Biojemmss Organisation

Siân Davies is the founder and CEO of The Biojemmss Organisation (biojemmss.com), as well as an Elim missionary. She has extensively researched the saviour complex.

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