There is much good talk and fine-sounding theory about sustainability and sustainable development these days. When I first went to Ethiopia and did community health, I thought that my work should continue beyond my time, without outside financial input. It was a noble-sounding idea; I didn’t want to create financial dependency but rather wanted to see long-term productive service or ministry.
I would like however to suggest that we might think more deeply about sustainability. Not to throw away the concept, but to make it deeper, and root it more in the character of God and His kingdom.
Wikipedia defines sustainability this way: “In ecology, sustainability is how biological systems remain diverse and productive. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. In more general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes.”
So first we need to recognize that sustainability is about the endurance of systems of processes. For something to endure it has to have continuous input of resources; a plant for example needs sun, water and good soil. Sustainability is not about my financial resources; it is rather a question about how the system/ministry/project/organization/church will continue to endure and produce fruit beyond my personal involvement. My most important contribution may not be the money, but resources, skills, attitudes that are far less tangible than money.
The community health project that I did in southern Ethiopia in the late 80’s was not sustainable, i.e. it did not continue after I left. However the individuals that I was able to influence — that Jesus transformed — in the process of trying to do the project, they became the key to sustainability. Today there are many effective community health efforts there, combining the Word of God with the good works of Jesus. They are certainly not all from my wife and I! But by His grace I was able to plant some seeds. The Good farmer was able to grow up those seeds into a much stronger crop than I could ever have dreamed of.
In writing to Timothy, Paul wrote “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim 1:5). Our aim is not just to sustain our work so that it might continue, but to that our work (and instruction) will grow up into a harvest of love. This means that the heart matters, not just our acts. To work along with the Holy Spirit and work in the Kingdom of God — the servant of the Lord must also attend to his or her conscience and keep the heart pure. This is only possible by the tremendous power of the gospel, not by finances.
To be sure, the way we handle finances is important! When things go well and a project or system continues beyond my involvement, finances and resources will still be needed — and we should prepare leaders to take things to the next level (and it may mean we need to continue to put in finances!) Yet money should not be the root issue. At the root is the character and promises of God, and the character and behavior of the leadership we have mentored or left in place.
Ultimately God is the one who produces the good fruit of righteousness and joy; we read in the previous verse that ‘the administration of God is by faith.” (1 Tim 1:4).
The good news is this. We are not just talking about a machine which we want to keep running. We are talking about something organic, productive, and multiplying fruit. Our aim should be on growth and transformation – whether we are putting in money or not. Our model needs to be less mechanical and more organic; “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matt 13:33)
The way we go about our health and development work makes all the difference.
Sometimes the thing we want to ‘produce’ can’t even be produced, and our efforts seem to die away. But the way we go about it, even if our dreams seem to die, can yield fruit if we are working along with the Lord Jesus Christ, keeping to a good conscience and a pure heart by grace. Don’t be overly discouraged if you don’t seem to have something ‘sustainable.’ Look deeper for seeds that you can plant in others’ lives that can grow up — even long after you may be gone.
Sometimes the thing we want to ‘produce’ can only be produced when led by local believers or the local community, and our job is to come alongside them (partner) and help prepare them for these leadership roles, as servants with a good conscience and hearts of love.
In the end the deepest things are not materials or economics, but love from a pure heart. And if you have not found out where to get these things, look to the good news of God in Jesus.
Where do you struggle with sustainability and might these simple ideas offer some hope?