In recent years, there has been a trend for some missions supporters and churches in the West to move away from sending their own missionaries in favor of supporting “native missionaries.” The logic goes something like this: “Why pay $60,000/year or more to support a family of American missionaries who will struggle to learn language and culture when you can support a native missionary who knows the language and culture already for $50/month?” At first glance this seems like a great idea. And in some places it might be. But there are other factors at play when deciding to support a missionary from your home country or someone more “local.”
The historical, cultural, religious, and economic situation varies greatly from country to county and not all non-Western nations can be lumped together when evaluating whether foreign missionaries are still need. In this post, I want to look at several questions that can help us evaluate whether missionaries are really needed (or wanted) in a given location. I will use Thailand as a case study since it is the context that I am most familiar with.
As my wife explained to a long-time friend how we need to get our support back up before returning to Thailand, a puzzled look came over her face. “Don’t they pay you a salary?” Actually, they don’t! The idea that missionaries get paid a salary just like an employee at any other company is one of the biggest misconceptions about missionary support that I’ve run into. And I know that my wife and I are not the only ones who’ve encountered it.
Unlike NGOs who apply for grants to fund their operations and pay salaries, missionary organizations generally don’t have those funding sources available to them. So where do missionaries get their money? In this post, I want to briefly explain the three major ways that missionaries are funded. I hope that this will be a help for those interested in becoming missionaries, for those who wonder how missionaries get their money, and for missionaries who want to help their friends and supporters understand their circumstances.
There are some missionaries who don’t need any external financial support from churches or individuals. Some of these self-funded missionaries go to the field when they are older and have retirement savings to live on. Others may have served in the military for twenty and have a government pension to live on. Others are bivocational missionaries who have regular secular employment in the country where they serve. The school where they teach or the business they run provide ample income for them to live and minister. Within this category, we might add those missionaries who are partially self-funded. They have an internal source of income that contributes to, but does not provide fully, for all of their needs. So, they still need traditional missionary support in addition to whatever pension or local salary they draw from.
There are some church denominations who fully fund all missionaries who are accepted to work under their denominational mission board. The biggest of these is the Southern Baptist Convention, although the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church use the same type of pooling system. On the plus side, missionaries who get their money this way don’t have to be concerned about raising or maintaining a certain level of financial support. On the down side, there is sometimes less personal connection and commitment between local churches and individual missionaries. And, more significantly, if the denominational mission board needs to make budget cuts, they may eliminate funding for your position, or for your entire field of service. Under this system, there is still occasion for missionaries to need funding for exceptional needs above and beyond what is in their normal budget. However, regular living and ministry expenses are covered by the denomination.
Individual & Church Funded Missionaries
The majority of missionaries rely upon the generous donations of individuals and churches to make up their budget for living and ministry costs. Whether they are working under their denominational mission board or an independent or inter-denominational mission organization, it is up the missionaries themselves to find their own support. This generally involves contacting individuals, families, and churches to see if they want to partner with them in prayer and finances. In the American context, some missionaries are quite forward and will solicit money directly, asking you to consider a gift of $50, $100, or more on a monthly basis. Others merely present their ministry, ask for prayer, make their needs known, and leave it up to the individual/church and God. The best, or most biblical way to go about support raising is a huge topic in itself but it will suffice for now to note that the majority of missionaries cannot do what they do without the voluntary financial support of local churches and individual believers.
Transparency in Finances
The question of missionary finances can be mystifying at times, for all involved. Churches want to know, “Does this missionary really need money? How much? How will the money be used? Are they doing a ministry that we want to support? How do we ask this missionary about finances without seeming too nosy?” Missionaries want to know, “How interested is this church in supporting with us? Is there any rhyme or reason behind how much they give or don’t give? How can I be upfront with my financial needs without seeming like a mercenary?” Supporters (and potential supporters) want to know, “Does this missionary need my support? Will my contribution really make a difference? Or will it just go into some organizational blackhole somewhere?” Not everybody has the same questions about missionary finances but regardless of where someone stands, missionaries and those who support them should be brave enough to ask good questions and openly communicate about finances as needed. Personally, I do not like to seem like a salesman. But at the same time I know there are people who are interested in what my family and I need as missionaries and want to help us if they are able. But they are not going to know unless I tell them. The most helpful guideline that I’ve heard regarding communicating about money is, “Share about finances commensurate with interest.”
Dependent on God’s Provision
There are pluses and minuses of each model of missionary support and many missionaries, at one time or another, wonder if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But what type of support is best for a given missionary (and his family) will depend upon one’s home church and sending organization. At the end of the day, however, all missionaries are dependent upon God to provide the resources that they need to do what God has called them to do. My wife and I are thankful for the many churches and individuals that provide our support and trust God to raise up new supporters at the right time when current supporters are no longer able to give or when needs increase.“God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply.” - J. Hudson Taylor
After mentioning our up-coming home assignment (or "furlough") in our last prayer letter, we received a curious email. “I didn't know missionary work also has furlough. In our education sector in the States, furloughs are mandatory for schools due to budget cuts. Is your furlough due to a budget cut or do you just need a break?” This email reminded us that outside of missionary circles, there is some confusion about why missionaries go on home assignment. Is home assignment just a code word for a funding raising trip? Is home assignment just a big long missionary vacation? Is home assignment like a sabbatical? Do missionaries go on home assignment when they get fed up with their host culture and just need a break? There is a bit of truth in all of the above. But there is also a lot of misunderstanding. In this post, I’d like to look at some reasons that missionaries go on home assignment in hopes of creating greater understanding between missionaries and their supporters back home.
It has been asked whether missionaries should support themselves with secular employments (rather than accept full-time paid support) for the sake of being a good example to believers? A missionary working full-time in the secular world without monetary support from home would be a benefit to the church in two ways: 1) gives an example of living out the Christian life in the secular world, with integrity and hard work and Gospel witness, and 2) gives an example of how one can do ministry and work in the secular world at the same time.Many Thai churches are very small (less than 50 people) and can not afford to support a full time pastor or church planter. If the missionary church planter sets the precedent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that “real” ministry can only be done by a full time paid professional, then the expansion of the church could be hindered as those with a heart for evangelism and serving the Lord think that they need to quit their job and go to Bible school before then can “really” be a minister of the Gospel. For many Thai Christians with a heart to serve, and a call to ministry, bi-vocational pastoring and church planting is probably the most viable option that will not be a burden to them and their families, and beneficial to the planting and development of new churches.
When a church building goes up on the mission field, everybody feels good. The missionary feels good. The local believers feel good. The church back home feels good. Having a church building gives the impression that a church has been established. It is a visible sign of the Christian faith in a community. Everybody feels good that the Gospel is advancing and the presence of a church building is a sign of that advance. Or is it?When the construction of a church building is largely funded by foreign money, the presence of a church building is not a true reflection of the strength and numbers of a local church. Also, if missionaries (or their home churches) are always standing by ready to supply money for newly established churches on the mission field to build church buildings, then this desire to be helpful can foster two wrong ideas: 1) church buildings are necessary in order to be a “real” church and, 2) if you need money, look to the missionary (or the well intentioned short-term visitors from their home church). When the foreign missionaries and their churches are seen as sure sources of money, then the local believers’ motivation to give financially to their own church is lessened and local believers are less likely to make decisions that the missionary doesn’t agree with. If they do, then there is the fear that perhaps the money supply will be cut off. In this way, independent decision making and partnership in the Gospel as equals is diminished. A patron-client relationship harkening back to the days of colonialism is unintentionally nurtured.