Ministry with the Poor at Its Best: Ministry from the Margins

Jesus Christ relates to and embraces those who are most marginalized in society.... Christian mission has at times been understood and practiced in ways which failed to recognize God’s alignment with those consistently pushed to the margins.... Therefore, mission from the margins invites the church to re-imagine mission as a vocation from God’s Spirit who works for a world where the fullness of life is available for all. (Together Towards Life, excerpts from ¶ 37)

 The quote above is excerpted from a recent mission affirmation document from the World Council of Churches (WCC) entitled Together Towards Life (TTL). For almost a decade, the WCC has been working on this “new ecumenical discernment to seek vision, concepts, and directions for a renewed understanding and practice of mission and evangelism in changing landscapes.” This is interesting to me and relevant to The United Methodist Church for a number of reasons.

First, it is interesting to note how the WCC’s ecumenical discernment parallels the discernment process that has been taking place in The United Methodist Church for decades. The UMC has explored these themes under various rubrics, including the UMC Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, the UMC’s Four Areas of Focus (including Ministry with the Poor), and the church’s current emphasis on increased missional engagement as a means to increase church vitality and make new disciples for Jesus Christ.

Second, the concept of mission led from the margins to the center, instead of our traditional approach of leading from the center to the margins, is directly relevant to my work. For the past 4½ years, funded by the General Board of Global Ministries, I have been a full-time consultant on Ministry with the Poor. My work involves collaborating with others throughout the denomination in an effort to transform the ways in which the church and its members understand poverty and relate to people and communities living in poverty. Much of our work involves identifying and lifting up local ministries that illustrate the way that ministry with those on the margins differs from ministry to or for the marginalized poor. (For the Guiding Principles and Foundations of Ministry with the Poor, click here.)

Transforming Perceptions

The phrase “Ministry WITH, not to or for, the poor” has become the mantra of the “Ministry with the Poor” area of focus. Starting with the premise that all God’s children have gifts, graces, and needs, Ministry WITH—in contrast to typical donor/recipient transactions—requires the building of caring and respectful relationships among those who experience poverty and those who enjoy more privilege so that together they can understand and develop sustainable responses to the causes and conditions of poverty. It is encouraging to see how “Ministry WITH, not to or for, the poor” has caught on in some circles in the church. However, the truth is that actually discerning and living out the difference—engaging in authentic, relationship-based, transformational ministries of love and justice—is more complicated and much harder to practice.

Those who engage in mission or ministry have been acculturated to lead—to take charge, to fix, to get things done. To the extent that there is any relationship between the mission volunteer—or a not-for-profit service provider—and people living on the margins, the power and leadership typically lies with the donor or service provider, not the recipient. This reality perpetuates an “us/them” dynamic that is counterproductive and potentially harmful. It tends to create dependency rather than self-reliance.

By contrast, the concept of ministry from the margins turns this traditional paradigm on its head. By doing so, it cuts through layers of attitudes and behaviors that usually govern the way that the dominant relate to the marginalized—not only in mission but in general. The concept of ministry from the margins also takes us directly to the bottom line of what it means to embody the radical, countercultural message of Jesus.

Clearly, I believe in ministry from the margins. But I must confess that, by temperament and training, relinquishing leadership to the margins does not come naturally to me. I am a doer, a critic, an advocate, a change agent, a justice seeker. I tend to enjoy speaking more than listening. Waiting is an anathema to me. Patience is not one of my virtues. But I thank God for opening my eyes to these predispositions through my current involvement in Ministry with the Poor on behalf of the UMC and through my previous work with the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. (The Poverty Initiative is now an integral part of the newly created institute at Union—Kairos: The Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.)

Leading from the Margins

The Poverty Initiative is dedicated to “raising up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor.” Its focus is on laying a sustainable foundation for an antipoverty movement by training, nurturing, and connecting both religious and community leaders who are committed to building such a movement. The Poverty Initiative convenes and networks grassroots activists (known as “Poverty Scholars”), seminarians, and other religious and community leaders to participate in interdisciplinary, experiential trainings and strategic dialogues. These gatherings include Bible studies and theology, history, sociopolitical and economic information, and training in media and technology, along with hands-on engagement with those living in poverty and working to address it.

More than by anything else, all of this work is shaped and motivated by the Poverty Initiative’s overarching commitment to grassroots leadership. The founders of the initiative have decades of first-hand experience with living in poverty as well as engaging in antipoverty campaigns and activism that ultimately have not led to lasting, systemic change. They are acutely aware that those most familiar with and most affected by poverty have unique knowledge, experience, and insights about its conditions and causes and need for systemic solutions. The poor also have the greatest stake in eradicating poverty. So the Poverty Initiative recognizes that building a successful movement to end poverty requires the leadership, know-how, and effort of those living in poverty.

As you probably can imagine, encouraging and nurturing “leadership from the margins” was a totally foreign concept to a take-charge do-gooder like me. Being accustomed to top-down work and governance, I was challenged to adjust to a bottom-up paradigm. I had to curb my impulse to take charge and dominate the conversation. It required learning humility and practicing how to be a follower. Besides that, learning to share or cede control takes time and patience. It requires a lot of listening, dialogue, relationship-building, trust-building, and collaboration.

But, the truth is, it wasn’t until after I became immersed in the UMC’s emphasis on Ministry with the Poor that I came to appreciate how the Poverty Initiative had opened my eyes to the critical importance of encouraging and nurturing leadership from the margins to the center instead of from the center to the margins.

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that leadership from the margins is just a smart community organizing technique. Leading from the margins, like Ministry with the Poor, is first and foremost grounded in Scripture.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, NIV; Isaiah 61:1-2)

When Jesus read aloud those prophetic words from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he signaled that his was a ministry with the poor. The Spirit of God had sent him to be with the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and the outcasts—all of them being people living on the margins of society and all of them being, literally and figuratively—“the least of these.” Responding to God’s call, Jesus left his home and relinquished the income from his secular carpentry job to become an itinerant preacher and healer with those living on the margins. His ministry wasn’t about fixing the poor. It was about compassionately identifying with, serving with, and being engaged in ministries of love and justice with the poor and marginalized. Indeed, in Matthew 25:40, Jesus actually equated himself with the poor, warning us that whatever we do or don’t do for “the least of these” we also do or don’t do for him.

That the Spirit of God anointed and sent Jesus to be in ministry with “the least of these” and that Jesus also identified himself as one of “the least of these” tells us that God is aligned with those on the margins. (TTL ¶ 37) Jesus came “that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV) To have life abundant and to enjoy life to its fullest, people need to have self-worth, need to be treated with dignity and respect, and need to feel empowered to lead. Therefore, mission from the margins invites the church to reimagine mission as a vocation from God’s Spirit who works for a world where the fullness of life is available for all. (TTL ¶ 37)

People and communities living on the margins have unique gifts, graces, and assets to share with the world. They are leaders of change in their own lives and communities and transform those who serve in ministry with them, alongside them, in partnership with them. Isn’t that the very reason that Volunteers in Mission almost always return from mission trips “on fire”—stunned to realize that they came away from this experience with far more than they gave?

In relational encounters with those who are in poverty or marginalized, we experience God, we see the face of Jesus, and we encounter the power of the Spirit at work in the spiritual, moral, and creative gifts of the poor. For that reason, authentic, relational ministry with those on the margins is mutually transformational—enriching both sides of the relationship and transforming both the church and the world.

Ministry from the margins pushes the envelope of what it means to engage in Ministry WITH those living in poverty or otherwise existing on the margins. My aspiration is for United Methodists to see, accept, and embrace the fact that the highest and best form of Ministry WITH is ministry led from the margins.

This article was originally published in the March-April 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.



Mary Ellen Kris

Following a thirty year career in law and public service in New York City, in May 2010 Mary Ellen was awarded a Masters of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she pursued an interdisciplinary concentration in Poverty and Justice and joined in the mission of the Poverty Initiative at Union. A United Methodist Deaconess and an engaged member of the New York Annual Conference of the UMC, since May 2010 Mary Ellen has been under contract with Global Ministries to support, interpret and promote the Ministry with the Poor Area of Focus of the United Methodist Church, collaborating with others throughout the UMC who are seeking to transform how the church and its members understand and relate to poverty. She dreams of reawakening the Wesleys’ Jesus Movement WITH those on society’s margins, and reclaiming the Methodist church of, by and WITH all God’s children, including those who some call “the poor.”

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.