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“She Calls Me Daddy”

The Impact of Paternalism on Local and International Missions



We gathered around the new children’s home our church helped finance. It was pretty rustic; no electricity, two children to a bed and no running water. As we looked around for the first time, we reminded ourselves that this was so much better than the dump the children were living in when the missionary found them.


Our missionary was a 50-year-old retired pastor, from the US and had lived in in the village for about three years. He now ran a home with about 60 children. Some of the children were family members of the staff and others were from the northern tribes. Those from the north had fled the child armies in the early 2000’s and were found living in the dumps scavenging for food.


We had been in country for over a week and planned an afternoon of VBS for the kids. The Missionary asked the kids to leave school early to attend our activity. The younger children began to trickle in around 2, but the older kids were late, stating that they were studying for exams and could not leave early. The missionary grew frustrated that our team had to wait on the teenagers, so when they arrived it happened...


He called us all into the open area between the dorms. The children all sat on the dirt floor in the center, while our team of 12 sat around the edges.  We leaned our backs against the dorm room walls not knowing what was going to be said. Using two student translators (two different tribal languages), he began what I consider to be the vilest speech ever spoken over children.


“Did you know that these American’s paid the equivalent of a year’s salary to fly all the way to Uganda to help you?” With those words, most of us grew sick, hung our heads in shame or put our sunglasses on to hide our tears. He went on to talk about how disappointed he was that they failed to be on time and show us proper respect for our sacrifice. That, if the behavior continued, they would be punished. I wanted to stand up and scream at him to shut up, to tell the children it wasn’t true. That the Lord had provided for us to meet them because they were worthy and loved. Shamefully, I did nothing. I just sat there privately crying and wondering how the hell we got here… What were we a part of? Were we supporting a man who called himself "Papa" to children, while telling them they needed to cater to our every accidental “demand”? Shouldn’t he be proud of them for working hard on their exams and bettering themselves?


This is an extreme case, but the western church has a long history of PATERNALISM in the developing world. According to, paternalism is “the system, principle, or practice of managing or governing individuals, businesses, nations, etc., in the manner of a father dealing benevolently and often intrusively with his children”. Agape International Missions wrote an interesting blog on the subject. Here is how they define paternalistic missionaries:


“Missionaries will often heroically enter into struggling communities and do building projects or institute programs without the involvement of the local community. And while this might make Western believers feel like they are giving a gift and doing something good, they might unknowingly participate in a negative cycle.”


I have even found myself unknowingly acting out paternalistic behaviors in less blatant ways. It’s as simple as paying an electric bill for a family in need and expecting to have the right to speak into their lives and the use of their money. We have to earn the right to speak and that comes through time together, not money spent.


What is the solution to this problem????


Find para-church and non-profit organizations that are locally led, working on self-sustainability and aren’t afraid to tell you NO. For more information about healthy ministry partners, Check out our previous blog called ‘Building Strong Partnerships.'


Yes, that is a cop-out answer! I tried to get away with it but Ken wouldn’t let me weasel out of dealing with hard truths and maybe not really having an answer. So, since I believe in the beauty of the nations caring for one another, I will take a shot at it...


The truth is that the issue is so complicated, so deep, so personal, and so painful that I am not sure I have a real solution. It is an ancient problem of one person assessing themself as superior to another. It is addressed in the scriptures:


"But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:8-12


We Americans take great pride in our deep belief in individual rights and freedoms. Our country was founded by individuals seeking to create a free nation for those they deemed worthy, while simultaneously oppressing the natives, women, indentured servants and the Africans they enslaved. Meanwhile, all of Europe was spreading its influence by colonizing the “savage” world.


It is under the shadow of this reality that well-intentioned, God-fearing missionaries serving in the developing world or less advantaged portion of our great nation find themselves. Their hearts are for Jesus and seeing the nations worship in unity. However, in the dimness of this shadow, we are unable to see how centuries of western dominance has impacted the missionary's ability to have an egalitarian relationship with those they are serving along-side in less affluent parts of the world. This is not just a western issue. Those who have oppressed have learned to function as slaves. It’s like a very dysfunctional dance that only leads to further pain. Just like the story, I told of Papa and the children’s home.


The solution lies in understanding and living out the core values of overflow (relationships, discipleship, dignity, empowerment, evangelism, and Spirit-led) and honest reflection for both the missionary and local ministry leaders. If they decided through prayer, discernment and open conversation that a partnership will be a blessing to all involved, they can begin to slowly move forward with local leadership in the driver's seat. Here are some suggested questions for both the missionary and local leadership.


Missionaries must ask themselves some painfully, difficult questions:


Has God asked me to go to…..?

Why do I want to go?

Why am I a good fit for this position? What do I hope to achieve?

Am I, and the gifts I bring, the center of the plan?

Am I willing to be the servant to all?

Am I able to spend years developing a relationship before earning the right to speak?

Am I coming up underneath a locally run organization?

Do I understand that local problems usually have local solutions?

Will the ministry survive if I bring no money with me?


I would encourage locally run ministries serving the underprivileged to ask themselves:


Do I understand that western missionaries need to earn the right to be heard?

Do I think that to keep our funding we must do what the missionary suggests even if I know the idea will be ineffective?

Am I looking for ways to make my ministry self-sustainable?

Could the job a missionary is currently doing be done by someone locally?

Is the ministry raising up local leadership to run the ministry in the future?




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