It’s the age-old question of whether or not good intentions are what makes good ministry, or whether it is something beyond that. Do we judge people and their effectiveness based on what they intend by their actions? Or do we attribute their effectiveness to their impact? Or in other words, based on how it is perceived by those on the receiving end.
Here’s the problem, as I’ve talked with people in urban contexts across America, all of which had an established and well-known Conservative Anabaptist church, there is a massive disconnect between those who are the ‘Mission workers’ and those who are being ‘worked on’. Instead of remaining in my cynicism and distrust of these ministries, I decided to start conversations and do a bit of exploratory research. I held many conversations over the last few years on a range of topics with a host of first generation Christians. No matter what direction I tried to take the conversation, it always found itself tracking into the subject of the savior complex. It very rarely was referred to this way, and we seldom ever used that exact term verbatim, but it was the topic of choice. Needless to say, most first-generation Christians who have appropriated into Anabaptist culture can identify with struggling against a saviorist culture. Among many more of those who have since left, the cry is even more resounding.
All around America, people are watching the work done by evangelicals and cast judgement on the work based primarily on how it is portrayed and consequently received. Disaster relief from the Amish and Amish-Mennonite groups are high in number, but underneath are swaths of people who scowl at these efforts. Conservative Anabaptist churches are flooding cities at rates unrecognizable, largely due to pioneers like my late adoptive father Clayton Shenk, who spent 33 years in the City of York laying the groundwork for the church I now attend. And yet, among these different cities, Reading, New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg…. There are indigenous families in all these places that can easily detail a disconnect that exists between them and these oft-touted missionaries. Why?
This disconnect makes me uncomfortable, because even those among my all-white adoptive family have been publicly accused of having a savior complex. Even worse, the term ‘white savior complex’ has made its rounds here in York, Pa where I am born and raised. While becoming unhappy to see the loving work my loved ones were doing be reduced to an ill-advised challenge on their intentions, I was forced to listen and come to terms with what this all really meant. My discovery? Keep reading.
What is a Savior Complex?
Savior complex is defined by Psychology Today as a “psychological construct that makes a person feel the need to save other people.” In layman’s terms, it’s the motivation and drive that leads someone to fix whatever is in their path, specifically in and for other people. Does that definition give you negative impressions? It certainly does for me, and people I know described by it aren’t exactly who I deem to be the best examples of Christlike love. I don’t enjoy friendships that are defined by this dynamic, and eventually, most people come to disappreciate it one way or another.
It goes without saying that a culture that, in theory, desires to be like the savior may become as Him in unhealthy ways. Not that they are like Him(this is our ideal), but that they would act as if they were Him. Jesus was a fixer, he went around charitably healing all those who called on Him for healing. He acted as a savior because… well, He was the savior. There are unintended consequences that lay in the trail of anyone who dare try to fill the shoes of the savior. It is not our position as servants to King Jesus to provide new life. We watch and empower, waiting to celebrate in unison with the angels that a new person has entered the eternal Kingdom. Anything more or less than that is dangerous territory, and it would do us well to ask ourselves some questions to see if we may be towing the line a little too much. We must take heed, we are not the fixers, we are not the saviors… We are the sheep, we can not fulfill the express responsibility of the Shepherd.
Work through this with me. Ask yourself these five questions and ponder whether or not you are erring on the side of saviorism.
Do you take it personally when someone fails to meet expectations?
How sure are you that the person you are helping desires your help?
Do you blame yourself when someone else fails on their own journey?
Are you the hardest working person in every relationship you have?
Am I the person for the job? Does my involvement make sense?
Let’s think about it…
Question #1: Do you take it personally when someone fails to meet expectations?
Well?… Do you? Part of this failure can come from a false and dangerous method of accountability that exists in church culture. Here is a real example from a friend of mine, with names changed to protect those involved:
A young man (James) has just confessed on his own volition that he has been stealing money from the ministry fund for three years. Yes, this is money that was supposed to be sent to support missions across the world, stolen in secret by a selfish young man. James is in full cooperation with all those involved, and has made public, albeit brutal, confessions. He is committed to change and is receptive to the necessary help.
The church does what many Conservative Anabaptist churches would do in this situation. They establish an ‘accountability group’ to ensure that restitution is made. Note, the group is primarily responsible to ensure that the money is repaid. Sensibly, the men in this group also have a vested interest in the spiritual well-being of this young man. They meet once a week to check the progress of the restitution, and discuss how things are going spiritually.
Here’s the thing… one of the accountability members desires a strict line of responsibility. “I want clear and measurable goals that can be answered with a ‘yes, I completed my goal this week’ or a ‘no, I failed to complete my goal”’. This is brilliant! So far so good. Well, week one goes by and James saved enough money to meet his goal! Then week two, and week three, and so on.
Week six hits and James has failed to make his goal. His life has become seriously complicated and he is suffering through massive turmoils. His mother is suffering from a terminal illness, his relationship with his father is wavering, his car just broke down… you name it. But one of his accountability members comes down with hard condemnation. “You agreed to this, you don’t deserve mercy, you don’t deserve excuses. You need to not fail again, or there will be consequences.”
If you’re like me, that doesn’t sound like a very supportive ‘accountability group’. And yet, that’s how many who have been in similar binds would describe their experience. What is most glaring about how most accountability groups are structured? Instead of thinking of how they can empower the failing brother to reach good and righteous heights, they apply pressure to condemn them to what they did in the past. Accountability doesn’t become something that encourages us to do good things(Hebrews 10:24). It instead drives unattached men and women to a naturally selfish ambition of applying what is deserved and will teach the greatest lesson. The action and sin is focused on for months and months, as opposed to the virtue and freedom that can be obtained through brotherly support. God help us! It’s so crucial that we don’t err in this way, because as was the case with my friend, his accountability group was so focused on ‘keeping him accountable’, they neglected his real need of support in the areas that were causing his turmoil in the moment. That friend is no longer attending a church, he no longer trusts church systems in general.
But… what is revealed in these presumably well-intentioned men who fall into this sort of condemnation is well beyond poor systems. It’s an indication that there isn’t enough trust in the saving power of Jesus to transform a thief into a servant! If we truly believe that a man who commits thievery can come to redemption and be givenpower through the Holy Spirit ,then why do we feel so slighted when we hit a bump in the road?
I’ll tell you what is most often the case. Savior mentality. People with a savior mentality make horrible accountability partners, friends, companions, and ministers. They hold so much weight into seeing you succeed, that they feel primarily responsible to see it happen. Their pupil becomes their project, and the success of that project is paramount to their self-worth as a fixer.
Accountability would be transformed in our Conservative Anabaptist churches if we would focus our attention away from fixing the condition of our brothers or sisters that have failed. But instead, looking unto Jesus, and endeavoring with, not against, to arrive at our brothers best condition. This can involve tough and harsh conversations, but only under the pretense that the person who is the subject of the accountability, has ownership of their journey. It is an ultimate mistake that a God that grants humanity the free-will to do as they choose, is represented by men and women who attempt to remove that free-will from others. Ownership isn’t something we should regularly be taking away from people, and it leads to relational chaos every time.
How often has accountability been done to people who never desired it in the first place? How often did it happen under the control and manipulation of others rather than in conjunction with the struggling brother or sister? Accountability without ownership is a failing idea. It does not work, and it will only cause conflicted outcomes. Even if we force a brother into success through fear and applied consequences, we leave them debt free but with a potentially unchanged or even a hardened heart. Even worse, an unchanged support system. Now we are right back where we started, a man that needs brotherhood, but all that is truly available to him is a waiting committee for him to answer to when he fails again. It would be helpful for many to consider the discipline of stopping at intervention. So many people waver at failure and jump into forced accountability. It’s almost as if it’s a coping mechanism of the saviorist.
This is why I am eerily nervous of Conservative Anabaptists who endeavor to help those struggling with drug addiction. I grew up in a home with two cocaine addicted parents. I was as exposed to hard drugs as any child could ever be, I observed the behaviors of addicts the greater part of the first 16 years of my life. When I moved out of my house at 16, my parents finally took the jump they had been promising me for my entire life. They came clean off of the drugs. But this was a ugly process that induced the most heinous and hellish of conditions for the next year or so. The withdrawal was horrific. I would visit often but would be met with the haze of depression and anguish that filled the room. Dad was dying, mom felt like she was dying. It’s still such today that when I drive past our old house, I get shivers in my spine. That place was a hell-hole, and yet, sober parents came out on the other side. They weren’t showered with copious amounts of passive-aggressive support. They had complete ownership of their journey, and they owned it, and conquered it. Even if dad only lived another year or so in sobriety, he gifted me that much, I’m eternally grateful. Mom is still sober today, going on 8 years!
So why do I get nervous when Conservative Anabaptists endeavor to help these kinds of people? Because they aren’t usually committed near enough to the addict to truly help. If you can’t be let down hundreds of times by a person bound by their addiction, then you are not equipped to bear the full load of their burden. It doesn’t mean you can’t help, but if you take it personally when a heroin addict relapses, then you may be erring on the side of savior work as opposed to serving work.
Granted, it hurts us personally to see someone we love fall into vices. We see the folly in it, and we want to see them be free. However, a constant obsession with good results to pay for our hard work as a friend is selfish, carnal, and unwarranted in the Kingdom of God. Heed the words in Luke 6:35, “lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.” It’s no wonder there are very few addiction recovery centers run by Conservative Anabaptist organizations. Anabaptists may historically lack the patience to truly help those in the depths of addiction. Food for thought.
*Interestingly enough, recovery centers draw some of the hardest lines imaginable from their inhabitants. This however, isn’t done from the selfish ambition of applied results, it’s done to apply the discipline needed to overcome. Recovery centers officials often appear calloused and cruel, based on the fact that they don’t have a savior mindset. They know what recovery will take, and they can only afford to take on people committed to that recovery. That’s ownership!
*Another thought, perhaps Conservative Anabaptists are better equipped to be a landing place for recently recovered addicts. Many people are looking for a sense of belonging and recovery post-withdrawal.
Over the last six months, one of the most significant conversational barriers I have encountered has been the disconnect between the good deeds of well-intentioned people, and the impact their actions are having on those on the receiving end. It’s no secret that my perspective on urban missions and ministry programs is highly sought after. I have walked a course that very few have in the Conservative Anabaptist context. A person of color, raised in a rough urban neighborhood, that joined a Conservative Anabaptist church, and has sustained that membership over a long period of time. I don’t tout that as a badge of honor, because God knows things have only gotten harder to be who I am in the context of where I live and go to church. But as I have networked this last decade, I’ve found just two other men that share similar life-paths to me. That is an astonishingly low number of people, and yet, the topic of this article is one of the major reasons why.
What have I discovered about the savior mindset? It’s a very real issue in our Conservative Anabaptist churches, and I hope that the rest of these questions help some of us identify it in ourselves.
Seek to love others without exacerbating the conditions of met expectations. Set fewer relational contracts, and more relational commitments. Bearing the burden means acknowledging the risk of consequences. Are you in? Or are you out? Believe it or not, addicts, those in accountability groups, and struggling brethren would like to know. It truly matters to them.
Check back in a few days for Questions 2 and 3. If you want to be notified whenever I post, subscribe at https://urbanitemusingskw.wordpress.com/
Edit Credits: Carla Boner, and Ray Metzger
Wow! I am learning so much reading your blog. Thank you for sharing with us. I am looking forward to the next one. Bless you!
Thanks, Keeshon. Your writing forces me to think about uncomfortable issues I might otherwise be unaware of. Interestingly enough, savior complex also is a real issue for the mom of a large Mennonite family.
Savior complex is defined by Psychology Today as a “psychological construct that makes a person feel the need to save other people.”
Is this the same thing as what’s called “having a burden for the lost?”
Thanks, Keeshon! I really appreciate the thought and candidness that went into this! So many of the thoughts you shared are things that I have observed but coming from the “other side” I wasn’t entirely sure that my thinking was on track. God has really been working on me and my “savior complex” and it is still a work in progress and your words have really helped organize my thoughts! Looking forward to the rest!
The term has been associated with Africa, and certain characters in film and television have been critiqued as white savior figures. Writer Teju Cole combined the term with “industrial complex” (derived from military-industrial complex and similarly applied elsewhere) to coin “White Savior Industrial Complex”. Africa has a history of slavery and of colonization. Damian Zane of BBC News said due to the history, Africans find the “white savior” attitude to help them “deeply patronising and offensive”. Zane said, “Some argue that aid can be counter-productive, as it means African countries will continue to rely on outside help.”