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‘Helping without Harming’ Workshop

November 23, 2022
Photo: Peggy Nydam

About 45 people in Classis Ontario Southwest recently gathered for a workshop on how to help without causing unintended harm.

The workshop brought together deacons, ministry leaders, Disability Concerns and Safe Church advocates, and others for an all-day workshop at Grace Christian Reformed Church in Chatham, Ont. Presenters from Diaconal Ministries Canada, World Renew, and Congregational Ministries led discussions on a variety of ways to serve the communities in which we live and worship in positive ways.

Ron Vanden Brink of Diaconal Ministries Canada (DMC) said one goal of the workshop was to help churches and individuals move from a needs-based community development orientation to an asset-based one.

“So often, when a church looks at the community around them – and tries to figure out how to get involved – they look for needs that they can service . . . as the experts with all the solutions,” Vanden Brink explained. “An asset-based or strength-based approach begins by looking for, and works with, strengths that are already in the community. The people living in the community are the drivers of change.”

In morning sessions, participants heard from World Renew and DMC staff. Presenters shared stories about churches that, in their desire and attempt to help their communities, had unwittingly brought harm. This can happen by creating dependency, dismissing skills and assets already in the community, diminishing dignity, altering relationships within the community, and unintentionally introducing other harmful effects.

Workshop participant Mary Blydorp said, “I find it good to be reminded to take off our ‘I will help you’ hat and to first spend time with the one requesting help to attempt to build a relationship.”

Participants were also reminded that there are different types of poverty. Because material poverty can be the easiest to see, it is often the one addressed by well-meaning churches and individuals. However, poverty or wealth can also be of an emotional, relational, or spiritual nature. In seeking to help neighbors and communities, it’s good to keep in mind that communities experiencing material poverty may be rich in other ways that can be utilized to build up the entire community.

Assets to look for in communities, said presenters, can include things like individual skills and capacities, communal assets, services already in place from other institutions, and physical and economic assets.

Presenters encouraged deacons, and others who seek to serve, to start with listening, and to keep that posture throughout the relationship. They further promoted ways of helping that build capacity and dignity, empowering people to help themselves.

Principles of asset-based community development were discussed as they relate to both local and global contexts. World Renew presenter Peter Bulthuis, for example, shared some of the ways World Renew serves globally in disaster response, rehabilitation, and longer-term development, and he discussed some of the potential pitfalls of global interactions. He mentioned the importance of a sense of ownership if positive change is to be lasting in a community or culture.

“I appreciated that the workshop was led by presenters from both World Renew and Diaconal Ministries Canada,” said Blydorp. “We have learned about World Renew's work in development overseas and in looking at a community’s assets, but I feel that it is harder to carry that out in our local communities where people are so accustomed to handouts. It was good to again be challenged to look for what people have, not just at what they need. . . . We were also reminded that each person is created in God's image.”

In the afternoon, participants were invited to discuss in groups and to meet with others serving in specific contexts or focus areas, such as Disability Concerns and Safe Church ministry.

The “Helping without Harming” workshop is available to Christian Reformed churches across Canada. John Klein-Geltink, a member of the committee that organized the event, noted, “We did the workshop in 2020 – before the pandemic – in London. [At that event] we did not see a lot of people from the western side of the classis, so when COVID restrictions eased, we decided to run the workshop again, in Chatham.”

Fourteen “Helping without Harming” workshops have now taken place across Canada, said Bulthuis, “And we would love to do more!” He noted that workshops can be tailored to suit the contexts and preferences of different classes and groups, with a variety of time frames, or by having only DMC or only World Renew present.

“The takeaways are for folks to have conversations among/inside of their diaconates and to begin to make plans to do and be better . . . to consider the potential impacts of what they're doing,” he said.