World Vision USA has altered their employee handbook to allow them to hire members of committed same-sex unions. As I noted on Twitter, I find their rationale incoherent, but not terribly surprising.
Of the various threads I could take up, though, I want to focus on the decision which many conscientious Christians who deeply disagree with World Vision USA’s decision now face: should they continue on supporting the child that they had been, or should they send their donations elsewhere?
It’s important to note that the question is not strictly financial. As with many organizations, the funds an individual contributes in support of a child do not go to that child directly. They are “pooled” and sent to support the community which the child lives in. Similarly, the contributions are used to justify additional grant money from governments that are thrown into the various pools as well, all of which provides help for the community and from which the child benefits indirectly. This is not uncommon: it allows World Vision to maximize the impact of the money by focusing on the structural issues within a community that contribute to everyone’s flourishing.
Obviously, the careful structure would make the “child support” rhetoric less punchy and useful for raising donors. But it also means that when an individual withdraws support, the community which had been the recipient incurs some financial loss, but that loss is spread across the whole of the community (rather than, say, a particular child no longer receiving a $35 check every month). Of course, if individuals withdrew their support en masse a significant impact would be felt. But the effect of pooling funds means that responsibility is pooled as well.
I mention all that only so we are clear on what the decision is at stake. There are other factors that matter, too, though. Most importantly, supporting a child frequently means establishing some kind of relationship with them through letters, gifts, and other communications that are meant to support a child’s well-being directly. Sometimes these are quite robust, and can provide important emotional and spiritual levels of support to the child who is the recipient of them. It is also here where many people will feel the dilemma the strongest: regardless of whether the child might suffer any serious material loss (because of the pooling effect), there may be a serious loss and confusion that withdrawing support would introduce. And there may be a genuine loss of relationship and of instruction within the donor’s own home with one’s own children, and so on. There may, in some cases, be a real loss of possibilities of evangelism: the harvest may have been ripened due to years of sowing and watering, and walking away may remove one significant factor which may contribute to the eventual reaping.
It’s important to underscore how important this is for the decision: to ignore it would be to reduce every bit of giving that had gone on to a strictly financial transaction. But charity ought not be purely monetary. To view it as such is to corrode the practice of giving for the giver, not just the organization who receives it. It would undermine the entire logic, and would do harm to whatever organization the donations were transferred to, as the new relationship between the donor and the organization would be established on strictly monetary and utilitarian grounds. Prioritizing the relationship with the child in the decision about whether to withdraw support or not locates the financial considerations in their appropriate position: as important, but by no means all-important.
All this could be mitigated, of course, if World Vision USA opened up pathways for people to continue to correspond and send packages to children without sending money to World Vision USA itself. Such a possibility would allow for many people to keep up the kind of support they prefer to give directly, without necessarily entangling them in supporting a ministry that they (rightly) think has made a decision that is deeply inconsistent with the Gospel it has taken upon itself to proclaim. If made available, I would commend such a possibility without hesitation or reservation. The loss of funding for particular communities might still leave them with fewer resources than otherwise–but directly supporting the child might offset some of the lack they experience.
But presuming that option is not available, there are other complicating factors for the decision. Jonathan Chan pointed out to me on Twitter that WorldVision’s local support teams are dependent upon the country for their leadership, which means they have no structural relationship with the decision that WorldVision USA has made. So World Vision USA’s decision may not have any material or substantive impact on the work they do elsewhere, or World Vision’s other branches faithfulness to the Gospel.
All this makes for a relatively thorny problem. But one possibility that Christians should avoid, it seems to me, is simply ignoring the difficulties altogether on the pure grounds that World Vision USA saves lives. Many organizations save lives, and the Christian who gives money to World Vision USA is unquestionably committed to doing so. But they are committed to more than that, which is why they have chosen to give to World Vision rather than some other organization. Indeed, it may be those additional motivations that prompts in some cases the giving to be genuinely sacrificial: removing them alters the entire character of the giving for many Christians. World Vision USA is good at what they do: but they are not the only organization that is good at what they do.
Even if a Christian decides that it is right to continue giving, they ought do so cognizant of the changes that have gone on and the potentially altered character of the organization which they are supporting. And if they decide it wrong to continue giving (even for a temporary season), then their decision should not be construed as one that is necessarily unsupportive of children. Publicizing the end of that giving seems to me both noxious and wrong: but so then does publicizing the beginning of such a relationship as well. We cannot take too seriously the danger that by broadcasting the goodness of our deeds we have our reward in full. There is no harm in pursuing a good with sobriety, modesty, and quietness.
None of that, of course, answers the question of what a Christian should do given the competing claims and goods at stake. There is a sense in which a pure claim to fidelity to the Gospel might impel them to quit giving immediately: I think that response is understandable, but given the substantive conditions I’ve outlined above, not entirely warranted in every case. If a person has only two months ago started sending money and corresponding, ending it would not nearly be as significant as someone who has corresponded with a child for six or seven years.
What, then, should a Christian who thinks World Vision USA has made a grave organizational error do?
The first thing to do is, of course, inform World Vision USA of your conclusion and the difficulty they have subsequently thrown you into. Angry, belligerent emails and phone calls are not a Christian mode of response. But level-headed, patient, and clear reasoning can be. It would be prudent to ask for World Vision to set up pathways for people who have decided they can no longer give to continue corresponding and supporting their child directly, as a sign of their willingness to help those who disagree with their new vision carry on those modes of communication that first and foremost make World Vision a Christian organization, even if it costs the organization a great deal of money and time to ensure that it can happen. Opening up such pathways would convey World Vision’s commitment to unity of the right sort, namely that which respects and seeks to maintain lines of communication within and across real and substantive disagreements that it recognizes must be maintained.
Second, it seems to me that continuing to give in a situation where there has been a substantive relationship established with a child would be appropriate, at least for a season. Given that education and formation happens at the local level, and that the other branches of World Vision are not beholden to World Vision USA’s decision, there is nothing substantive lost by maintaining support temporarily. The boundaries of a “substantive relationship” are, of course, somewhat fuzzy. In the abstract, what sort of relationship qualifies is impossible to discern. But some sort of differences are obvious, as I noted above, and those differences introduce genuine and substantive reasons for acting that must be accounted for in this case.
But I would add a qualification to this, if support continues: I would notify World Vision USA that the continuing of support is for the purposes of the child alone, and that when the financial-support relationship comes to an end (as it does automatically at age 21, and at other ages for a variety of reasons) it will not be renewed or transferred to another child, but will be taken to another organization. There would be two ways to look at this sort of communication: either it could be seen as ‘holding World Vision hostage’ by threatening to remove financial contributions, or it could be a form of ‘informing World Vision USA of a decision so they can make alternate arrangements’. Which description belongs may depend entirely on how the communication is given: non-profits need to know how to project their finances, and giving them some advance warning that support would be withdrawn at least allows them to seek alternative means of funding in the interim.
But the effects of these sorts of organizational decisions are often slower moving than internet responses or commentary. The logic of the traditional marriage case depends upon a commitment to something like a “moral ecology”, but that means that the effects of certain decisions are not often known until several generations later. Analogically, this sort of symbolic move will have a substantive effect on the moral ethos of World Vision USA, but the fruit in its own organizational life and in its relationship to the broader World Vision organization (the structure of which is not entirely clear to me) may not grow for a while. For those who are committed to supporting particular children, that delay is a benefit, as it allows support to continue while still expressing a fundamental disagreement and communicating to World Vision USA the reasons for such a disagreement and the end-point of any future support or help. It’s a slow withdrawal, to be sure, but we are to be patient in doing good, even when doing good demands changing the recipients of our support.
Third, I would begin any new contributions with another organization and encourage those who ask to do the same. Food for the Hungry, Compassion International, and others do similarly good work to World Vision. Best of all may be your own denominational support structures, which presumably are accountable to the body where you worship.
There are doubtlessly other paths through, and unquestionably many people will object to various elements of what I have written above. Some may claim I am either making too much of a trivial issue or compromising my fidelity to the Gospel. But what we ought not do is ignore the various and complex issues at stake for many Christians. Seeking the right here means remaining attentive not only to our sense of moral integrity, but to the good of World Vision USA, the child that we may have folded in some way into our lives, and the communities where they live. Any counsel that does not attempt to bring coherence and unity toward those aspects is too stunted to be useful.