God's Word for today

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What is true empowerment? Some random thoughts...

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." - Chinese proverb

I'm probably risking incurring the wrath of some of my black colleagues and friends, but I've long had my doubts about Black Economic Empowerment (known as BEE). Not in the sense of the need for black people to be empowered economically - certainly, after decades of apartheid supression, it is vital that those left behind during those dark years be given every opportunity to participate in the economy on an equal footing.

And certainly there would be a problem with me being a Methodist minister and not being in support of the MCSA's "Four Mission Imperatives", one of which is "Economic Empowerment and Development". So I'm not against economic empowerment per se - on the contrary, it is something that I strongly support.

So why the misgivings about BEE? Perhaps it's because my years in the corporate world have exposed me to two of the worst examples of BEE: that of people being given positions based on skin colour rather than competence, and that of a handful of "elites" becoming obscenely "empowered" through lucrative deals, while the rank-and-file see little (if any) of this empowerment.

Having served in coloured congregations for the past two years - last year as a part-time pastoral assistant, and this year as a Phase One probationer minister - my other gripe with the way BEE is applied is that in the old SA, coloured people weren't "white" enough, while in the new SA they are not "black" enough - but that's a topic for another day...

But what prompted this particular post was an article that I read on the website of the South African Institute of Race Relations, which is the transcript of a speech delivered by the SAIRR's John Kane-Berman to the Solidarity trade union in Pretoria on 24 November 2009. The full transcript can be read here, and it raises a number of interesting points.

The one that really caught my eye is the assertion that BEE has inadvertently benefitted whites, rather than blacks (whom it was intended to benefit). Quite ironic, isn't it? One possible reason suggested is that as increasing numbers of black people were brought into government service, many of those former white employees who were displaced became entrepreneurs in order to survive.

While my own journey into the ranks of the self-employed was entirely of my own accord, certainly the three years that I spent running my own business between the time I left the corporate world and the time I entered the ministry probably did more for my personal development than the previous seventeen years did: it forced me to stand on my own two feet. In order to survive, not only did I need to work hard, but given the limit of my resources (human, financial, equipment, etc.) I had to learn how to work smart as well. "No work, no eat" became a daily reality!

And no-one gave a hoot or a holler what the colour of my skin was - all my clients wanted to know was whether I could offer the service they required. This came, interestingly enough, from two of my black clients - successful entrepreneurs who built their businesses from the ground up by sheer hard work and determination and WITHOUT any "leg-up" from Government or anyone else.

I'm not for one minute saying that one doesn't work hard when employed by a corporate or government department - certainly, the corporate world got their pound of flesh out of me - but I've also had far too many encounters with people who couldn't give two hoots about the person they are supposed to be serving, whether this in the bank, a restaurant, a supermarket, a government department, or even in a church - for them, it seems, it's "just a job".

One of these former black clients I referred to started out as a shift boss at a KFC outlet, and he too could have had this attitude that it was "just a job". But if that was the case, he would probably have remained a shift boss until today, if he had in fact remained employed. Instead, he used his relatively low-level position to learn everything he could about the KFC business - including the sovereignty of the customer. This is what took him from being a shift boss in a KFC outlet to becoming the ooutright owner of 16 outlets of his own now employs nearly 400 people. And who knows - maybe one or two of those 400 people will go on to opening their own KFC outlets one day?

Sadly, many of the new employees that got their positions thanks to BEE did not see their new-found position as a privilege, but rather as a right - and that the need to actually do some work seems secondary. Funny how history tends to repeat itself? Anyone who has experienced the so-called "civil service" first hand from some dour white drone in the old South Africa will understand what I'm talking about.

So what does this mean for the Church? A number of random thoughts come to mind (many seemingly unconnected to the concept of BEE, but please bear with me - I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this myself):

- For ministries (1): Often we as a Church are called upon to respond to crisis situations where it is necessary to "give someone a fish" so that they can eat today. However, our focus needs to be more upon "teaching people to fish" so that they can eat forever. One of the hard questions we need to ask, especially when one experiences people who knock on the door day after day looking for handouts (usually with the most incredibly long stories) yet never seem to make any effort to help themselves, is how long the person should be helped for. My own view is that there needs to be a definite limit on how long a person should be helped for - such time can be extended if there is clear evidence of effort on the person's part to attempt to help themselves, or the person is objectively unable to help themselves (e.g. if they are severely disabled). It surely cannot be our Christian duty to carry those who are in fact able to help themselves but find it easier instead to sponge off others?

- For ministers: The buck stops with us. We may be in the ministry because of a calling by God, but this does not mean that this is shelterd employment. On the contrary, serving God and being true to God's call is hard work - and so it should be. This means that when one candidates for the ministry, they should immediately be exposed to the work of ministry and the (sometimes) anti-social hours that ministry involves. While a balance needs to be maintained, one sure way to antagonise your congregation is to be shy to do the work.

- For ministers (2): the minister is often the only full-time, paid "employee" of the local Church, which means that the bulk of its ministry work is carried out by volunteers. And we must appreciate our lay folk and the work that they do! But that doesn't mean that mediocrity is acceptable, either. Ephesians 4: 11-12 speaks of ministers being given to the Church to equip people for the work of ministry. There are two key words here: "equip" means that we must train people and provide opportunities for them to serve. "Work" means that the actual work needs to be done. A hard, unpleasant, but necessary task that a minister may need to carry out from time to time is to ask a person to step down from a position where they are unable / unwilling to do the work required by the particular office.

- For the church at large (1): When we look for people to serve in the Church, we tend to look for people who have skills that can be used to serve God in the local context. While that is good and well and a wise thing to do, what we're not so good at is pairing such people up with those who DON'T have such skills but are eager to learn and serve. Why shouldn't the Church be a place where people can be skilled for life, rather than being wholly reliant on skills obtained outside the Church? And surely one way we can empower our congregations for the world outside is to provide them with skills and opportunities for learning within the Church first?

- For the Church at large (2): We also need to be serious about empowering people who have been historically marginalised, both in society and in the church, and take active steps to equip them to fulfil their rightful role. In the MCSA, women and youth come to mind here. But let us not fall into the trap of "tokenism". By this I mean pushing people into positions simply to make up quotas. While I support the stance taken by Conference this year that decision-making structures in the Church need to include at least 40% women and 20% youth, we need to be careful not to just "make up the numbers" - on the contrary, we need to actively identify persons from such groups, train them, and give them a real voice once equipped. This means (for example) that 20% of a local church's Society Stewards need to be between the age of 18 and 30. These younger stewards will need to be mentored, certainly, but they should not be dominated - this means that they need to understand their roles and responsibilities as outlined in Laws and Disciplines, and be given support to carry these out. Same goes for women. It is only when we get this right at grass-roots level that we will have any change of getting it right in the higher structures such as Synod and Conference.

I've said a little bit about a lot of things, and will most probably expand on a number of these in due course. But one lesson we can learn from the SAIRR's perspective on BEE is this: If we want to understand true empowerment, we need look no further than the example Jesus gave us in His earthly ministry: He called, He equipped, and then He sent out to do the work. All three are needed (in this order) if people are to be truly empowered. And if the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords can entrust the carrying-out of the Gospel message to what (to our eyes) is a fairly rag-tag, unsophisticated, motley group of men such as His disciples - and we can understand the true empowerment that our Lord gave them - perhaps then we can begin to understand what empowerment really means.

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