Determine The Problem To Be Solved

The world experiences its share of problems—hunger, joblessness, crime, environmental hazard—and you want to help. Yet be advised: It helps to get a focus before jumping in with both feet. What problem needs to be solved?It makes sense to start locally. This is your community, where you live, work or play. It also helps to be specific. Something needs to change! But wait. What should you do? Determining the problem to be solved becomes the essential first step.

In the quest to start a project, it’s easy to get off track. First Church decides to form an outreach committee. At the organizational meeting, the team’s self-designated chair polls members about what they want to do. Andy, who loves gardening and has expertise at it, says, “Let’s start a community garden!” Lucy, who has a talent for sewing, also loves to shop at thrift stores. She notices a many new shops springing up around town and suggests that starting a thrift shop would be a good idea. Someone else suggests raising money to give to local non-profit agencies that benefit the poor. And so forth. While none of these ideas are bad in and of themselves, the group has started at the wrong place by looking exclusively at what resources they have on hand and letting this determine what work gets done. They would be better off starting by identifying what problem needs to be solved. What in the community needs to change? Then ask: Are we the right people to do it? Do we have the resources to do it?

Here’s an example of having the patience to determine the problem. The Rev. Rodney Hunter of Wesley United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia, leads a predominately black middle class congregation (active membership 130) located in a low income community, although most members commute in from the surrounding suburbs for worship. Feeling “constantly bombarded” by requests for emergency assistance, the pastor created a “mission fund” through the church, but found it to be inadequate for those who faced major expenses, such as car repair or medical emergencies. What compounded the problem was the pervasiveness of predatory loans in the area, which offered immediate relief only to entrap borrowers through exorbitant interest. In the face of massive debt, charitable giving seemed neither practical nor wise. What could be done? Rev. Hunter, along with Rev. Charles Swadley, of Lakeside United Methodist Church, approached The United Methodist Credit Union to create a partnership. The result: the Jubilee Assistance Fund, which provides small dollar loans ($500 -$1,000) to church members to use as collateral for obtaining a larger loan from the credit union. Hunter said, “We still provide food or clothing when necessary.  But we’re concerned that it creates dependency. We want to help people help themselves.”

Here’s what the pastor did right. Faced with the problem of many people requesting emergency assistance, he asked, “Why do they need money? Why do they struggle with debt?” It turned out that predatory lenders,with their exorbitant interest rates, were significant part of the problem. Yet simply giving people the money created a new problem: dependency. Starting a small dollar loan program solved the problem. It took patience to identify the root causes of financial crisis in that particular neighborhood.

Sandra Swan, retired president of Episcopal Relief and Development, offers a simple trick for staying focused on the problem: do not think exclusively in terms of the people affected. The people are not the problem! People are hungry, but the problem is not their hunger, but something else. It may be a lack of jobs, lack of transportation to get to work, lack of training, or any number of things. The people experience the problem, but they are not the problem. It also helps to focus on “solving” rather than “helping.” Helping implies doing something to or for people, which treats them as children. “The helping that we decry is the helping that is an activity that masquerades as a solution to the problem. If we avoid using the term help, we will avoid falling into the trap of thinking that we have actually changed the system instead of merely smoothing over the symptom.” This could be compared to a doctor treating the symptom without diagnosing the underlying cause.1

Sometimes people think they already know what others need without asking. Robert Lichterman reports on a church group, part of a faith-based program called Adopt-A-Family, that had adopted a Latina single mother, Quenora. Often the group held discussions to determine what Quenora might need. Did she need clothes for her newborn? Maybe her teenage son Phillipe needed a job. Of course, it would be easier if he had a driver’s license. Karl, a volunteer, offered to ask Phillipe if he would like rides to the Department of Motor Vehicles. He also offered to teach Phillipe how to drive, if that was necessary. By the way, why did Quenora not ride the buses? The group thought about this and reasoned that she might not be able to read and therefore could not decipher the bus schedule. The discussion often turned into an elaborate guessing game. Did she know how to read? Did she have health insurance for her baby? Was her son in school? Why did she not like to ride the buses? And so forth. The group would have learned more if they had taken the opportunity to ask Quenora directly to determine what her needs were.2

Carl Dudley suggests coming up with a statement of purpose for your new program. At the same time, he cautions that single sentence statements may be a bit too general to be useful. Here’s an example of a too simple statement: Our mission is to educate the illiterate.” In crafting a statement, the goal you arrive at needs to relate to the local community and it needs to be limited enough that you can accomplish it. He offers this statement of purpose from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Alexandria as a good example of the well-balanced purpose statement: “The group probably most resistant to any social ministries is the group we want to target—parents with battered children. . .They have difficulty in parenting and lack identification of their needs. And they distrust help.”3

First, determine the problem to be solved.  Capture it in a statement that encompasses the particulars of your situation. Be realistic about what you plan to do.  These steps may keep your team on track early in the process. Otherwise, you may end up on a treadmill of activities without a clear purpose.

1 Sandra S. Swan, The New Outreach (New York: Church Publishing, 2011), 9,11.

2 Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 149.

3 Carl S. Dudley, Community Ministry: New Challenges, Proven Steps to Faith-Based Initiatives (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 2002), 60.

Photo: 3D Problem Solving, Chris Potter ( 11.30.2012. Flickr Creative Commons.


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