Privileged to feature a recent interview with Peter Greer. Peter is president and CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on Christ-centered job creation, savings mobilization, and financial training. He is also the author of the new book The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. You can hear Peter speaking in a lab session at the Catalyst conference in Atlanta October 2-4, 2013.
Bill: Can you tell me a little bit about HOPE International, a brief version about what you do for those who aren’t familiar with your mission?
Peter: In the early 90’s after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that was reading their Bibles and realizing how clearly God calls us to take care of those who are in need. So they responded generously. They ended up packing up containers and sending them over to a sister church in Zaporizhia, Ukraine.
Their response was good and right, but after doing that for a few years they started to feel dissatisfied as they recognized that they were unintentionally starting to create a sense of dependency and that it wasn’t really making a lasting difference.
It felt good to continue to give, but it wasn’t really having the impact that they wanted. Actually, the model changed really when a pastor in Ukraine said, “You’ve got to stop helping us, because your help isn’t helping.”
That realization started them on a journey to say, “How do we really make an impact and how do we transition beyond a time of short-term relief to a time of longer-term development?” Instead of thinking of missions as a foreign concept, they started thinking about empowering the local church to have that sense of mission and purpose in the local community. In the process of thinking that through, they discovered the tool of microfinance.
Very much at the core of this model is the belief that even if someone is living in poverty, that does not mean that they do not have capacity or potential. So they really turned the model on its head and started empowering the local church by investing in the dreams of the individuals in that church.
What started really with just being designed to be a church-to-church partnership in the early 90’s has now grown into the ministry of HOPE International working in 17 countries and right now working with over 550,000 families throughout the network. So, that’s really it. So exciting to take a step back and see what has happened that was beyond anyone’s goal or intention or dream.
Bill: So, they stepped out by faith…
Peter: It’s a good example of it, of what you were just talking about for your upcoming book (about walking by faith). [See my post The Secret to Living by Faith ]
Bill: Exactly. So, this latest book of yours The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good is certainly not designed to reinforce the status quo in our lives. It asks some tough questions of leaders in ministry. How has that message been received thus far?
Peter: There are several responses. The first response is — well, in the book there are some stories that I felt uncomfortable sharing, candidly, about when my marriage hit a low point, about when I was doing good works and realizing that it was all about me and not the people that I was serving, and the response to that has been interesting.
As I started to meet with people, it has given permission forthem to enter into a conversation that starts with a place of brokenness, saying, “I too have put ministry in the place of God. I too have run over my loved ones in the pursuit of doing good. I too have justified workaholism in the name of God.” And so the quote from Thad Cockrell about how strengths divide but faults unite has certainly been true.
I have found, for me, the primary benefit has been to realize how many of us have very real and very significant struggles, yet we can’t understand the gospel message until we come to a place of brokenness and start with a place of brokenness and find healing — not through our good work, but healing through our Savior. So there has been this wonderful sense in my own life and hopefully in the lives of others of getting to a place of brokenness that allows us to understand the gospel maybe in a way that I hadn’t before.
Bill: What you’re saying reminds me of something a good friend of mine, Dick Savidge, says, “Vulnerability invites community.” When we focus on our resume, we create more distance. So with that in mind, it seems as if in many portions of the church, we’re focused either on building up people’s self-esteem just to get them in the doors or on building up celebrities of sorts for the same purpose. Have you seen your message begin to collide with that trend in the church?
Peter: I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk about larger trends within the church. I can say that it’s ironic, right? Sometimes the way that we practice Christianity sure doesn’t look like the way of Christ. And when you think about the way of Christ, you don’t see celebrity. You see intentionality. You see that He had clarity of mission. He knew who He was, but He always was resistant to those that wanted to come and make Him king by force.
I think we also see that in the contrasting stories of how Herod received praise — people wanted to say, “This is the voice of a god, not of a human.” God struck him dead. As opposed to Paul and Barnabas that are in a similar situation. When people are saying almost the same thing, they want to tear their clothes rather than take away God’s glory.
Bill: I like the your use of the word “slowly.” It kind of creeps in. I think you did a good job of pointing that out in your book (The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good). I talk to a lot of pastors who wrestle with what you describe in the book, which is this: “There’s always more ministry to do. There are always more people who need.” It all seems important. They struggle with being obedient to their calling as a shepherd and yet still faithful to their family as a husband or wife or mother, father.
I’m sure you’ve probably had some of those sessions now with similar ministry leaders who’ve been in that spot. How do you counsel people who are doing what is obviously good work and yet they can’t seem to find the time or the way to create time to do what they know that they should do with their family?
Peter: I remember reading one study that showed that 80% of pastor’s spouses feel that they are overworked. And if that is true, if 80% feel that way, perhaps it’s no surprise that over time we see no difference in the divorce rates of pastors as we do from anywhere else in society.
I think the challenge in this is that we sometimes think that it honors God to give and give and give until we have nothing left. In a sense that’s true, that we are always supposed to be willing to give our lives away. Yet when we look at the example of Jesus, the One that we say we are trying to follow, why is it that Jesus was surrounded by need, never-ending need, and yet we see Him regularly going away to be alone to have time in prayer and walking away from those people who still needed to be healed and still needed His touch? Is it possible that if that’s what Jesus did, that maybe that’s the way that we’re to be, as well?
If we’re feeling like we have so much to do that we have never had a Sabbath rest, we’ve never taken away time because there’s always more need, maybe that actually isn’t the most loving thing we can do. I know personally that if I get to a point when my tank is on empty, I’m not able to love well, so it actually is a healthy part of ministry to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves so that we can continue to serve, as opposed to just do it for a few years and then look in the rear view mirror and see fractured families and fractured ministries because we’ve been running on empty too long.
Bill: That advice sounds similar to what you mention in the book (The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good) about being driven by performance and the need for guard rails. When I hear you say that I think, “Are we thinking that we’re serving, but in fact being driven by our own performance goals, our own wanting to get that cheap thrill of checking things off our to-do list? How do we resist that urge to just do something and feel like, “Today I got these 7 things done., so I’m OK?” How do you resist that tyranny of the urgent to put up those guardrails?
Peter: I do think there are helpful guardrails that can increase the likelihood that we will not be yet another story of someone who did a lot of good for a short amount of time and then had some self-destruction that caused incredible pain to loved ones and even to the ministry that we’re doing. I think some of those helpful guard rails have to do with making sure there is time for reflection, making sure we’re not so obsessed with all that we do that we’re forgetting that God seems constantly to care more about who we’re becoming. We should make sure that it’s not just externally-focused service without a sense of abiding in Christ.
You think about the Howard Hendricks survey from the two hundred and, I think it was, fifty-six ministry leaders that he surveyed that had experienced a significant blow-up. All of them had a couple things in common. They all had stopped having regular time to feed their soul. They all believed that it would never happen to them. They all had stopped having deep relationships where people were asking, not praising them for the good they were doing, but asking them the tough questions about what was happening in their mind and in their heart. Those are some pretty helpful guard rails.
Do we surround ourselves with people that we’ve invited to have that prophetic critique? Do we make sure that it’s not just about all that we do but that we’re making sure to feed who we are? Are we serving from a foundation of abiding in Christ? And do we believe that what we we are just as capable as anyone else of following the destructive path that we read about in others? That path of least resistance, the path of least work, leads to a pretty dark place.
Pick up a copy of his book The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. Watch for my review ( It’s good!) If you’re at the coming Catalyst conference in Atlanta Oct. 2-4, 2013, be sure to attend his lab session — and keep an eye out for me. Say “Hello!”