Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Let's Rename the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Alright, everybody, it's official: I have posted on Facebook a video of me dumping a bucket of ice water on my own head. For a few weeks now, I've been waiting for someone to challenge me. (Thanks, Alana.) In that time, I've read lots of other people's posts about why the ice bucket challenge is great or why the ice bucket challenge is terrible. Now that I've joined the club, I feel that it's ok for me to share my thoughts about the whole phenomenon that is sweeping social media.

For starters, let me say that this isn't a post about embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). To be honest, I don't know what I think about ESCR. I have mixed feelings about the ethical conundrum that is the destruction of fertilized embryos to develop life-saving treatments for ALS, Parkinson's disease, etc.. Some argue that these ice bucket donations aren't being used for ESCR. Maybe not, but the ALS Association does engage in ESCR, so I think it's worth giving people a free pass on the challenge if they have moral grounds for skipping it. Let's not crucify them for simply ignoring the challenges they get. And, those of you who object for that reason, please don't use this as an excuse to talk about how evil ESCR is and how those of us who write a check to the ALS Association are supporting it. Even though I haven't made up my mind about ESCR, I wrote a check to the ALS Association because I felt it was the right thing to do. I can live with moral ambiguity.

So, now, to the challenge itself. As I understand it, the tradition is that, when someone is challenged, she or he has 24 hours to either write a $100 check to the ALS Association or dump a bucket of ice water on her or his head. Some people now say that those who dump still have to write a $10 check. Others think that the ice water gets you off scot-free. Either way, unless you're Patrick Stewart, no one wants to see a video of you writing a check. We want to see and hear people take in that desperate shocked breath that says, "Oh my gosh, this water is freezing!" That's why we challenge our friends--not to raise money for the ALS Association (although that might be a small part of it) but to force our friends and family and colleagues into showing the world their own moment of water-soaked embarrassment. 

It seems to me that the entertainment value has outgrown the value of the donations. That my children, who have no money of their own to give, think the ice bucket challenge is great demonstrates that point. Yes, we're raising tons of money for ALS research, and I think that's fabulous. But let's get back to the disease itself . That's why I think we should do away with the "challenge" part and instead use the ice buckets as an entertaining way to show the world that we've already given money to the ALS Association. Let's call it the "ALS Ice Bucket Campaign."

I wrote my check before anyone challenged me so that my gift would be a free expression of my support rather than an arm-twisted, motivated-by-public-shaming payment. I did not write the check so that I wouldn't have to dump water on my head. There are enough Facebook videos out there of me getting wet to show that I don't mind being soaked--even with ice cold water. I wrote the check because I think the ALS Association deserves my support. I know people who have died from ALS, and, although I have never cared for someone with the disease, I know, from a distance, how terrible it is. That level of suffering alone is enough reason to write a $100 check. And, if the ice water helps the world know that supporting the ALS Association is a good thing, then let's keep dumping water on our heads and posting videos of it online. But let's stop challenging people to do it and, instead, use the ice water as a way of demonstrating our support as a grace-filled invitation to others.

Everyone should feel invited to write a check to the ALS Association. Those of us who care deeply about the movement and want others to know it should dump water on our heads as a sign of solidarity with those who suffer from the disease. We shouldn't point the gun of shame at anyone by challenging them to do it. We should give because we want to. And they should do likewise only if they want to. And those of us who want to make a big deal about it should post our videos online.

In our church, we use an every-member canvass as the heart of our stewardship program. I disagree with my friend Steve Pankey, who wrote that an every-member canvass is motivated by guilt. Maybe that is true in his experience, but it is not the case in mine. Our canvass isn't motivated by pressure or guilt or shame. It's a way for those of us in the parish who are faithful stewards to invite others to do the same. We don't show up at people's houses asking for a pledge. We reach out to people, tell our own story, and invite others to participate. Whether they do or not is completely up to them. If your minister or congregational leaders rely on pressure and intimidation to fund the church's budget, you should find a new church--one in which the leaders are committed to grace. And, if your friends are pressuring you to write a check to the ALS Association or dump water on your head, ignore them. Write the check if you want to. Dump the water if you want to. But don't let guilt lead you to do anything. It takes the joy out of giving.


  1. Truth be told, I've never been part of an "Every Member Canvass" in either of my Christian vocations: lay and ordained. My point was, and is, that at some base level the human interaction component of pledge drives, be they in the Church, for public television, or the United Way, is to motivate others to give by highlighting givers of prestige within the community, which I classify as using guilt as motivation because by our nature, we want to be associated with good people doing good things. It is basic sociology.

    That being said, the Church, of all places, shouldn't be highlighting that guilt component for its gain. The Church is unlike other non-profits in that we say that giving isn't about the money but about one's spirituality and relationship with God, but we don't actually practice that. Instead, we use guilt, most likely unwittingly, when the only people who talk about stewardship in a congregation are the clergy or vestry members. When we fail to include the gifts of all of the members: from the $20,000 a year giver to the @1200 a year giver to the child's mite box; and highlight only those givers of prestige, we create a system in which guilt, or at least pride, become the motivator for giving.

    In the end, there is no getting around how someone else will respond to something. Even if we invite people of all ages, shapes, and bank account sizes to speak about why they give, some in the congregation are going to hear it as a guilt trip and will either give, or not, based on that reaction. So, if we're going to do stewardship in the church or raise money for charity elsewhere, we've got to stop pretending guilt isn't some small part of it, or at least stop getting offended when the ice bucket challenge feels like it is intended to make us feel guilty because, most likely, it was intended, in its pre-viral state, to be an out for those for whom a hundred dollar donation wasn't a possibility.

  2. Dear Jack Sander...or "marck from USA." Usually, I let any comment that is posted stay on the blog and trust that readers can figure out for themselves what is worth believing and what is not. However, this is a Christian blog, and I will not allow comments that promote healing through casting spells to remain on the site. Thus, I have deleted your comment. In so doing, I am not contradicting the veracity of your story. I am simply saying that it is inappropriate for this blog. I wish you every blessing and pray that you will know the saving power of Jesus Christ, whose name is the only name for true healing. Yours respectfully, Evan D. Garner