Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

ambivalence and benevolent dictatorship


Benevolent dictatorship is common with Korean Christian ministries. They are paternalistic and they control all powers and make all decisions. Everyone else is subordinate. The reason it works is they convince all those under them to work hard because anyway the benevolent dictator, usually the boss or the pastor or the president, is a benevolent person, meaning, he is like a father of the family and he will always work for the welfare of the family and will never abuse his powers and will always sacrifice everything for the good of the family, including, making sure the members get more benefits than the benevolent dictator himself.

Not only Korean Christian ministries are like this, even Chinese churches are run like this also. There are many Christian NGOs too that are like this, where the absolute control and authority resides with one person or a board who are not elected at large, meaning, they elect themselves over and over again.

Some people who are not knowledgeable about law and corporate structures do not realize they are working within a benevolent dictatorship structure. Usually this label is applied to types of governments, for example, democracy, republican, monarchy, etc. A government with a benevolent dictatorship may involve having a king or a president who is not accountable to the people, who is not elected by the people, whose term is for life and extends to his dynasty, meaning, he also may extend his term to his heirs or personally appointed successor. The main difference is that this person, who is the head, is acting like a father, not an oppressive or abusive dictator. But in both cases, both are nonetheless dictators even though one is benevolent or kind or sacrificial and the other is evil or abusive.

In NGOs and churches, a benevolent dictator happens when the head, the president or the pastor (extended sometimes to the family of the pastor or president) controls all powers and authority and is not elected. The finances are run like his own personal funds and there is absolutely no accountability and no boundary line. The properties are also placed in his own personal name, and if in the name of the corporation or church, he legally owns the corporation or church because there is no election and thus, his term is perpetual. So even if the land title or building is in the name of the corporation, nevertheless since he owns the corporation, it is as though he owns it personally.

Some people may not know that there are so many of these benevolent dictator set up going on around in the country today, so many that it is necessary to now discuss the psychological impact of such a structure. Mostly, a benevolent dictatorship creates a deep form of psychological ambivalence among the followers or subordinates, or members of the community. The ambivalence is seen in many forms. The members for example may want to grow up but don’t really want to grow up. They want to become independent but also want to remain dependent. They feel they are in control of their work or future but feel they have no control at all. They believe they are part of the community but then they feel also owned by the community. They want to speak out freely but feel they will lose their privileges and status if they do. They may feel it is their obligation to question the leader’s decision but then they also feel disloyal when they do.

In a benevolent dictatorship, the member’s rights and privileges (including the right to be a member) are not secure, their tenure is always uncertain. Tomorrow they may be excluded or kicked out or terminated. They have no rights under the law because they have agreed to be a “family member” and not a real employee or member of a corporation with rights and privileges. They agree to less than minimum wages and work regular jobs because they are not really working for a carnal employer but they are doing it for the Lord. If they complain, they are made to feel like ingrates, without a debt of gratitude.

So many incentives are dangled over their heads, that for example, someday, they will inherit this or that. The biggest incentive is to be made to believer that someday all these will become theirs (like son inherits the wealth of his father).  Sometimes, they are brought to an expensive place like a trip to Boracay or Korea for a few days and that already is enough to make them satisfied and content for months. What they don’t realize often is that the big money is being spent by the benevolent dictator pastor so that a small trip to Boracay or Korea becomes just loose change in comparison. They will not question the finances or accounting also because they will feel like they are doubting their leader, they have no debt of gratitude and they have no faith in God (always a lot of ambivalence and guilt).

Instead of a benevolent dictatorship, NGOs and churches may opt for a transparent and democratic set-up. The members are made real members in that they can elect their head. The president or pastor is elected by the members by plurality vote. Each member has one vote each, including the head or pastor or president. There is absolutely no dynasty. The family members, for example, the wife or the daughter cannot just go into the finance office and get money without proper authorization.

Most benevolent dictatorship have no accounting, no audit, no budget and no spending controls. Everything is dictated by the head. In a democratic and transparent set up, all members know how every single centavo is spent, they know how much total money is received. Most benevolent dictatorship will not reveal how much money was received nor how much was spent. They also don’t want members to have one vote each because they really don’t trust the members even though they say they love the members and say they are one big family. This is the biggest cause of the ambivalence, that the members are told they are part of the family and are well loved but then they are not trusted and thus cannot vote or elect their heads nor allowed to look into the accounting. They are told to grow up but are treated always as immature.

Parenthetically, most Christian organizations adopt the corporate or business model for relating within the corporation. They have their boss and underlings. They treat everyone as employees instead of as brothers and sisters as the bible would. This is a kind of distancing or hands off treatment copied from worldly values.

Non stock non profit corporations have no board directors and no stockholders. What they have in the board are trustees derived from the word trust. It is an American invention because prior to that, there were only corporation sole. The corporation sole was a Spanish clerical invention and was more forthright in its paternalism in that the law required that there be only one person who owns and represents the non stock non profit corporation. It was forthright because it was plain and obvious the parishioners did not have any right (although there are a few exceptions in the law).

Many actually think the finances are confidential or secret and are not to be disclosed not realizing that all corporations are required to submit their audited financial statements to the SEC annually and these are public records which means anyone can look into them. Of course it is such a bother for many poor people to go to SEC to find out. Within a very pathologic culture like ours, many poor people feel they will be creating trouble simply by inquiring about the finances, like it was already an outright challenge to a fist fight in public (which again could be seen as a sign of ingratitude, another sign of ambivalence).

If Christian leaders love their members, the first thing they need to do is to empower them, and that means letting them elect their leaders and it could mean, electing not their present leader. Also, to empower the poor, they should teach their members or encourage them to be vigilant with finances. Many foreign Christian tourists come to the Payatas dumpsite to take pictures of the poor and use it at home to raise funds that they never send to Payatas. Many Korean Christian ministries operate here without disclosing how much exactly they have raised and collected from overseas. They believe that they are responsible to God and as long as they are faithful to God it is not important to involve the members in the transactions. They also do not have a clear delineation what are personal funds and what are corporate or ministry funds.

Naturally many abuses happen. Small cheating can happen like a pastor will tell himself he is entitled to some money, anyway they are only small amounts he will say, because anyway he is the one taking care of the entire flock and he is the one sacrificing or working hard. He usually is unable to distinguish between what is personal to him and what belongs to the body as a whole.

In a democratic set up where the poor are empowered, the rule should be that everything (all funds raised) should be always considered as belonging to the corporate funds or property unless it is clearly and specifically stated or declared or ruled otherwise. In other words, we assume the money or asset is owned by the corporation unless there are clear and explicit proof that it is not.

This is a good rule. For example, if the leader or pastor or president thinks it is his personal property, he must first get a written clear and explicit statement to that effect. Most pastors or leaders will just take the property or put the land in their name and tell themselves that since nobody questions it, then it is ok. But the ambivalence actually works two ways, the pastor or leader will appropriate for himself without asking clear permission and just believe that if there is any question that the people concerned should just speak out, and on the other hand, all the members feel they should not speak out because if they do, it is like they don’t believe in the leader anymore or else they will think they are being disloyal for actually asking the question. To avoid that, the leader must encourage the question and must assume the money or property is not personal. The leader must be the one who will show proof that it is really his personal property and not wait for the members to question it (which will never happen because to question is already an act of disloyalty).

The ambivalence continues even if the infractions or abuses are growing bigger and only until it gets too big that then a problem will arise or a conflict will happen. A conflict will happen because by the time the member speaks out, the problem is already too serious to be resolved normally. The role of the leader should always be to encourage people to speak out, to teach the members how to speak out, how to scrutinize the finances, how to figure out if there are cheatings and abuses. The leader should not just assume that the members will speak out if they need to. The leader should do the opposite, by making the members practice how to speak out, how to criticize and how to make the leaders accountable.

To remove the ambivalence which soon becomes a deep-seated pathology in the community, the leaders must make the members voting members, one vote each and allow them to elect people they want. This may be scary because most leaders don’t really trust their members, they don’t believe their members are mature enough to take control of the corporation. But maturity comes through trust. By giving them one vote each or making everyone equal, the leader is also ensuring that in case of a contest he will never win unless he has the majority on his side.

The members must also be taught that the corporate funds belong to them and that a leaders they are accountable for these funds to the members. The members should always be told about all the funds that are raised and the assumption should always be that all the funds raised by the leader belongs to the community or church unless the pastor or leader when raising the funds explicitly ask permission from the community for it, and have a written statement that the funds that come in will be the personal property of the pastor or leader (including a written statement from the donors explicitly saying that the funds are personal funds for the leader). Without that permission and written explicit statement, the property or money should always be the property of the community.

Owner or owned, accountable or not accountable, grow up and mature or not grow up, take control or be controlled, question or criticize or keep quiet and show gratitude – all these are working within the ambivalence of the members. They often believe they are being good and loyal when they don’t question, but then they also will not grow. The leaders don’t really trust them but then they are told that their leaders love them very much and are sacrificing for their welfare (paternalistic). They are told they are the owners but they feel more owned than owners.

Only independent and mature people can really become members of our community. If we treat them like children and they behave like little children with no voice and no ownership, then what we have is really just a kindergarten school and not a real community. In that context, the children will never grow up and thus the ambivalence will have taken its final toll.

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