Questioning Self-Support

My friend Dougald and I get together almost every Friday morning for breakfast and we usually end up discussing something about either the Old Testament, Missions, or both (surprise, surprise since we are getting degrees in these two fields, respectively). This morning, we settled on my area of study–missions.

Specifically, we were talking about missionaries and self-support. Generally, though, in discussions surrounding self-support, the object of the discussion is usually native churches. However, we find that not enough is said about missionary self-support.

Breakfast purchaseBoth of us are members of churches who voluntarily cooperate as a convention of churches, i.e. the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the jewels produced by this effort is the Cooperative Program, a joint financial endeavor to fund a host of convention-wide institutions, with 50% of the funds dedicated to international missions, 22.75% to home missions, and the rest split up in various degrees to theological education, and some other important entities, as seen here. One of the benefits of the CP has been the ability for Southern Baptists to fully support missionary units serving overseas; (that’s not to say that Southern Baptists weren’t funding missionaries prior to the advent of the CP in 1925).   The CP was a vast improvement over the funding drives and giving methodologies prior to 1925. Even though the Great Depression took its toll on Southern Baptist entities, the convention came out strong and the CP (along with an economic boom) helped the SBC go strong for decades. Not only that, the types of support missionaries received has only gotten better over the decades; higher salaries, vacations, more frequent furloughs, full health coverage, and retirement benefits are types of all the things missionaries have enjoyed since 1925 that they weren’t guaranteed before. However, the current global financial troubles combined with a decrease in CP giving, have led us to reduce our deployed missionary presence and streamline our efforts at home. Certainly economics isn’t the only force at play, the health and spiritual vitality of our cooperating churches is a major factor. Still, we wonder if it’s not time to reconsider the way we fund the missionaries we send.

Should missionaries, for the sake of the gospel, reconsider whether the types of benefits they receive are best for the kingdom?

Is full-support the best thing for the on-going pursuit of reaching the unreached? Could it actually be hindering our progress? No one is calling our paradigm bad or sinful, but is it wise?

Ultimately, as far as it is possible, should missionaries first pursue their own self-support?

Right now, these are just questions. They are tough questions, the answers to which require conviction and dedication, especially if you say missionaries should support themselves. I’m not ready to commit, yet. I can imagine a plethora of scenarios when having a support structure seems to be right and best. But here are some more questions to ponder that speak to the unspoken assumptions that often prop up our views, including my own:

How much does our own American nationalism keep us from approaching missions with wild abandon? By this, I don’t mean “manifest destiny” or “American Exceptionalism”, but the fact that we still consider the US as our home, where we will retire, where our kids will go to college. Is emigration a possibility? Like the monastic missionaries who spread the gospel all over Europe and across Asia?

Do we overvalue health and security? Unlike our forebears, we are not accustomed to infant mortality, spousal mortality, disease mortality. We don’t give birth in primitive hospitals, like billions of the people we serve do, we don’t go to their dentists. The early “modern” missionaries worked the land with their hands and walked and rode horses to their fields of service. We aren’t of the same pioneer spirit. Does that make us value the ease of modern living too much?

Are we afraid of hard work? Do we expect to be paid? Having a salary is a right for nobody! It is a privilege provided by labor. National missionaries will live off of almost nothing to share the gospel in a neighboring country, why are we any different? Have we imbibed too deeply the entitlement mentality of our home culture?

Would we stay if the money ran out? During the Great Depression, missionaries lived together, some living on the field without support, just so they could continue to proclaim the gospel. The greatest missionary organization the late 19th century was the China Inland Mission, founded on the principles of faith and prayer. They did not solicit funds and volunteers crossed the oceans from every class. Are we attracted to missions because of a guaranteed salary in an exotic land? It is much, much harder to be a bivocational church planter in the US, financially speaking. Is it only money that keeps you from going?

Have we considered how many more missionaries could be sent if we supported ourselves?  I wonder if our answer to this question reflects our fixation on going, and not on being sent. In the Great Commission, Jesus is the one who says “Go!”. John makes it absolutely clear that we are “sent” by Jesus. Mission is a sending, much, much more than it is a going. If your local church is sending you, how can money be an object? Could it be that the CP has kept some churches from actually being obedient in the sending of missionaries? (Lest you be discouraged, healthy churches haven’t let cooperative money keep them from sending.)

These are all complex questions requiring complex answers. But, I think I must say, “Don’t let money keep you from being sent.” If you have the nations on your heart and you believe God is leading you to another country, approach the elders of your church and ask them to send you, no matter the cost. Be prepared, though, to be an active part of the provision!

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23 Comments

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  1. Wes, we never talked about the last one. At least not this morning anyways. I’m really commenting to follow commentator since you mention me.

    It is well worded. Far better than I could have.

  2. Very thought provoking. Gary and I actually were talking about this subject this morning.

  3. I just felt like this was very one sided. Really surprised you didn’t balance all those negative thoughts with some positive ones in each question. How long has it been since you and Dougld lived where you exposed your wife and children to three misquito born illnesses that could take their lives, which you don’t find in the land of plenty (good ole USA)? My wife just delivered a baby in a hospital I bet you guys wives wouldn’t. I’m not angry so I won’t rant and rage, just surprised at the lack of love, you made it sound like we don’t make sacrifices, but there are plenty brother.

    • Glenn,

      I must be honest. I was taken aback by your response. I think you you are taking this too personally and making hurtful accusations. I must say I’m a little hurt by them, especially coming from a brother. I’m almost wondering if you are responding to the same post I wrote!

      I am open to correction but I feel that all I did was raise questions in my post. Questions, that I admit in my post, I’m not willing yet to answer. If you think otherwise, please indicate specific points and I will gladly respond in kind. I have no intention of belittling anybody.

      However, I think we should assess our sending philosophies, and history shows us that there are a plethora of ways for the church to participate in the Great Commission. Fully funding of missionaries is just one way. I’m only asking if its still the best answer. Nothing more, nothing less.

      Yours in Christ,

      Wes

  4. Wes:

    I think there’s quite a spectrum between CP/IMB funding models and self-support–and not every model will work in every situation. Other sending-agencies require m’s to follow a more societal model and raise funds from a number of churches with existing relationships with either the m or the agency. Some go out independently supported by a single church (great accountability!), others by a few churches.

    We went out in a hybrid sense, raising about $10k annually from a couple of churches, friends, and family. The ministry we served provided housing, emergency medical care, and $10k per family. We and other quasi self-supporting m’s were jealous of the IMB personnel we served alongside of, as they had the best accountability support, field support, and financial support.

    I think before we suggest field personnel cut back, I’d like to see our stateside pastors and leaders agree to cut back to a lifestyle similar to those on the field. Here in Wake Forest a reasonable match might be found somewhere around $35-40k annually.

    Rick

    • Rick,

      Thanks for your comments. I think you bring up a great point about pastors. My home church pays well over 100K to its senior pastor and around 100K to is Senior Assoc pastor. They have several other paid staff, and they have a very small LMCO gift each year per capita. There are a lot of churches where some fat needs to be cut!

      That being said, I’m not calling for cut backs to help meet the budget. I’m asking bigger questions than that. What if the missions enterprise was truly self-supporting? Is that even possible? How much does our dependency (because that is truly what it is either way) on financial gifts rather than our labor, even if joint labor, hinder the spread of the gospel? Could there be a paradigm shift in the works? I don’t know the answer, I’m just dreaming a little, and I’m trying to identify the current beliefs and assumptions I hold which keep me from dreaming biggest!

      -Wes

  5. If we really spent 50 percent of CP receipts on international missions, we could be doing so much more – actually equipping missionaries with ministry budgets to meet material needs where they serve and not bringing missionaries back from the field. Unfortunately, that 50 percent only comes after we spend 65 percent of the CP in our own states. So, we are spending 50 percent of 35 percent – a very lopsided investment when you consider the population of North America by comparison with the population of the rest of the world.

    With that said, if a missionary can go with a platform that will support them financially, that seems outstanding. This should not, however, disqualify them from access to a ministry budget, materials, etc. to utilize in ministering to the people around them.

    • Daniel,

      Thank you for your thoughts. I think you are right on the issue with CP and state budgets. The GCR is hard at work rectifying that situation.

      Do you think there are platforms that could support an entire team in a city?

      • I don’t know. I imagine there must be some platform or combination of platforms that could significantly, if not totally, finance a team, at least in some circumstances. There could be Christian businessmen who might prefer to fund and lend their expertise to such a venture to giving with no other personal involvement.

        One difficult component of the CP giving model is that it is so impersonal. Societal giving, for all the difficulties, was predicated on personal relationship and passion for a cause. Since 1925, the challenge of making an impersonal giving pipeline more personal has been THE ISSUE for the CP.

        As for state budgets, the GCR has been embraced by a few states, but, in other states, significant change is going to require significant participation by a new generation of pastors in their state convention for any change to be suggested or embraced.

  6. Forgive me. I just don’t have time to spend here, to give it what it deserves. I just didn’t see any pros in your questions, only cons. I also remember Mark Zuck in a class there saying that the papers we had turned in were so theorectical he didn’t know how to grade them. Just get out and live on the field a while. Go to tough places and then make your thoughts known. But rememebr these are more importantly spiritual matters, and they warrant spritual preparation even before a cuasual discussion. Many fast and pray, not for a day or a meal, but for weeks before they get a word from God out here. Out here they won’t let go until God gives them an answer. Just be sure to seek God’s heart in these matters that impact workers (good and bad) on the field. I know you’ll do well. Again, plaease forgive me. Do good brother!

    • Glenn,

      I gladly forgive you my brother! I hope you family is doing well.

      I don’t want to ignore the pros of full support. I admit there are certainly situations where full-support, from a human perspective, is the best and only option.

      Really my target in this post is myself. I want to go overseas when I graduate, but I realize that going through a fully-supported option may not be possible. Would I still go?

      I think missionaries on the field have to ask themselves the same questions when they are not able to return because of funding issues. Bertha Smith refused to ask for money, but sought to return anyway during the Great Depression. She lived with missionaries on the field and they shared their regular provisions just so they all could eat. William Carey supported the Serampore mission virtually by his own salary as a professor for a period of time. In Scripture, Paul worked to support his ministry. I don’t think I’m being too radical by asking the question. I believe that if we can find a way to fund missionaries another way, then we may radically transform the missionary paradigm and increase the number of people participating in international mission to unreached areas. Is that a heady endeavor, sure? Should I not put my mind to these things while I have the time to? Why not?

      Your brother,

      Wes

  7. Wes and Daniel,

    I know of one businessman who is in Central Asia who is doing good business in a his country. He is making enough to support a team. He also is benefiting the people around him with his business. He was formally with a sending agency but resigned because he saw that he could use his gifts as a business man.

  8. What if the seminaries changed the way they do education to allow missionaries to have the skills needed to find jobs on the mission field? They could offer dual degrees in say missions and nursing, church planting and agriculture, or something else. Then the missionaries would have marketable skills like the apostle Paul. I know this probably would not work on every mission field, but it could free up some missionaries from full support. This is certainly not my area of expertise. I’m just throwing out an idea.

  9. Hey all, Great discussion!
    Thanks for asking these questions Wes!

    We have been conditioned for so many years, if not centuries, that missions is supposed to look a certain way. I in now way deny the pragmatic applications and utility of fully supporting missionaries. But, If we reexamine the categories of ministers I think it boils down to two: itinerant and stationary. Itinerant being someone who travels place to place for indeterminate periods of time while a stationary minister is someone who stays primarily in one area. That would put elder/pastors in the same category with a full time stationary missionary and put anyone that travels in the USA or any other country in the itinerant category.

    I think the NT does this. Everyone is a missionary! Not just Pastors or certain families that go overseas. The question is, are you itinerant or stationary. If stationary you should try to be self supporting weather an Elder/Pastor or general body member. If Itinerant you may receive help along the way. I think the common debatable passages about paying ministers begin to make clearer sense when read in this way ( Matt 10, Luke 10; 1 Cor 9, really ch 8-10 or 11. This is a whole pericope. And 1 Tim 5:17 as well as others).

    The disciples, Apostles and others like Timothy were itinerant. While elders/pastors were stationary. Paul even as an itinerant often passed up this right to be an example for the church and its elder/pastors who are stationary (Acts 20:33-35?). Here he tells the elders of the church that they must copy him. 2 Thess 3 is another passage similar to Acts 20.

    As you all would agree we must start with what is truly biblical before we begin to be pragmatic. You may not all agree with me as to what is truly biblical but that is my 2 cents 🙂

    P.S. I really appreciated some of the brain storming in the comments above guys!
    Danny

    • Danny,

      Great thoughts brother! This is definitely something I need to chew on a little bit…thank you for sharing, I’d love to talk to you more about it, too!

      Yours,

      -Wes

  10. Hi Brother,

    I stumbled across your article when I was looking at my wife’s facebook page. There was a link on her wall. I hope you are doing well. It has been awhile since we had an opportunity to chat.

    The questions you ask are good questions and deserve careful thought. There are positives and negatives to every kind of financial support structure whether it be full-support, partial support, or self-support. In my opinion this is not an issue where the church must decide either/or. Each support structure is needed in the worldwide advance of the good news. If God is leading someone to live and serve overseas they should prayerfully explore all of their options and what may be best for the context they are headed to. Cross-cultural workers must be willing to consider a variety of options for support. This is already being done. I know people on the field who are being supported in a variety of ways. Because each of these support systems are not sinful or anti-biblical it is my opinion that we need all of these types of support methods on the table as we go to the nations. If you are unable to be supported in one way try another and keep pressing on to the nations with the blessing and support of your local church.

    With that said, I wonder if you might be willing to apply your questions to other ministry settings. For example theological education. Could we ask these questions of seminary faculty and staff?

    – Should Seminary faculty and staff, for the sake of the gospel, reconsider whether the types of benefits they receive are best for the kingdom?

    – Is full-support the best thing for the on-going pursuit of equipping pastors and missionaries? Could it actually be hindering our progress? No one is calling our paradigm of theological education bad or sinful, but is it wise?

    – Ultimately, as far as it is possible, should Seminary faculty and staff first pursue their own self-support?

    – How much does our own American nationalism keep us from approaching Theological Education with wild abandon?

    – Do Seminary Faculty and staff expect to be paid?

    – Would seminary faculty and staff continue to offer theological education as they currently are if the money ran out?

    – Have we considered how many more students could receive a solid theological education if Seminary faculty and staff supported themselves?

    Again Wes, thank you for talking about important issues related to M work! I miss hanging out with you guys and wish I could have breakfast with you on Fridays too!

    Blessings to you bro! Lets get in touch soon.

    • Hey my brother!!

      I’m so glad you commented. I really appreciate this paragraph:

      Each support structure is needed in the worldwide advance of the good news. If God is leading someone to live and serve overseas they should prayerfully explore all of their options and what may be best for the context they are headed to. Cross-cultural workers must be willing to consider a variety of options for support. This is already being done. I know people on the field who are being supported in a variety of ways. Because each of these support systems are not sinful or anti-biblical it is my opinion that we need all of these types of support methods on the table as we go to the nations. If you are unable to be supported in one way try another and keep pressing on to the nations with the blessing and support of your local church.

      I think you capture the intent of my post. I see my family facing this issue head on in a year or two and I want to have the right motives and right determination as we go through it. Will finances be an issue? Good or bad? That’s what I’m asking myself. The problem is we hear all this rhetoric on blogs, denominational literature, etc, saying things like — “We can’t go because there is no money.” Well, that is actually a lie. It’s an effort a guilting people into giving money. People choose not to go when there is no guaranteed money. Full-support didn’t stop guys like Bruce Olsen (Bruchko). I hope it doesn’t stop me.

      Regarding theological education, right on. There are no sacred cows. A good friend of mine and I have discussed this issue at length. As much as I am pro-education, and see the necessity of the highest levels of Christian education (especially overseas), we have to question our institutions. I would add to your good questions: Are they efficient? Are they built on a faulty foundation of enlightenment rationalism? Do academics trump spiritual formation? Are we damaging students by removing them from ministry? Is education necessary for ministry? How is the way we educate people contribute to the paradigm that ministry is a job? Are we driven by money?

      The thing is, our institutions aren’t self-supporting. We are dependent on financial giving (otherwise our tuition would be triple!). Is that healthy? Does that inhibit the gospel?

      Great questions that need to be asked. I’m hoping to be involved in theological education for the rest of my life…Lord willing in an international context. I would love to see self-supporting theological institutions. I think it would be healthy for local churches and the gospel. I don’t know yet how to do that. But I pray that I’m willing to continue asking these questions when the time comes.

      We should also ask these questions of church staff, of paying ministers.

      As Americans, we are especially prone to allowing economics drive our structures and decisions. I want to be one of the voices questioning that dependency. We are very quick to talk about dependency as it relates to international ministry, but we are extremely slow to ask those same questions of our own national structures.

      Bro, I miss you and we are praying for you!

      Yours always,

      Wes

  11. Well, I just caught up to this posting and I was a bit surprised. I consider this blog to be on the edge of things regarding current mission trends and such. So forgive me but it sounds as if you are pretty unfamiliar with the world of tent-making missionaries and the incredible impact being made by men and women in the field who are not 100% supported by churches or missions agencies.

    I’m not sure how to answer the questions posted in the blog (not dealing with the comments here) since I’ve assumed by now (2011) that most missionaries are very familiar with tent-making options. It seems that perhaps (and I’m probably wrong) your denominational stance on missions may have left out a good part of your missions education regarding the work of the church world-wide, other than what your denomination’s practices. (I’m not disparaging your denomination – I love the work the SBC does in-country and outside of the USA.)
    Tent-making is a term given to those who support themselves (from some % to 100%) via a skill set or vocational/career ability. These do not include people who are working in a “cover” industry, i.e. travel agent in India when they never actually have any clients or arrange any travel. It is a person who is intentionally located cross-culturally for the express purpose of their mission endeavor, using their skills/vocation to support themselves.

    There are many advantages to this model – as well as some disadvantages. In many areas of the world, traditionally supported missionaries are not only unwelcome by authorities but are treated with suspicion and confusion by those to whom they minister. What better means to making relationships and becoming part of the community than by working among that community in an understood model of work – i.e. engineer, businessman, entrepreneur, teacher, nurse, etc.?

    There is an entire segment of missions dealing with tentmakers and their work. Probably the hardest part of their mission is their sending churches not appreciating that tentmakers, and their families, are exactly the same as a 100% supported missionary. They have the same goals – reaching the lost, making disciples, planting churches – as non-tentmakers while at the same time dealing with the additional pressure and struggles that come with working abroad. True, they may have less worry about finances, but they may also have less support from home – furlough, prayer teams, recognition of their place in the church, etc.

    Anyway, as you can tell, I could go on and on. To find out more about Tentmakers, I’d suggest Global Opportunities (www.globalopps.org), an agency devoted to training individuals and churches about tentmaking.

    • Charles,

      Thank you for your post and the link to GlobalOpps. I am familiar with tent-making, and Business-as-Mission, though I must admit that my denominational education hasn’t dealt with it much. It is something I highly value and may perhaps do myself in the future.

      Like I state at the outset of the main body of my post, I’m writing from the perspective of a Southern Baptist, and my primary target for the post would be Southern Baptists, or any others who rely on the giving of others (rather than the work of their hands) to serve overseas. Still, I greatly appreciate your response and I’m glad you gave it. I’ve heard some people disparage tentmaking and faith-missions because in their experience, they see tentmakers having less time to do mission. If you don’t mind, I would be honored if you would respond to that perception.

      Thank you brother,

      -Wes

  12. Reblogged this on CP+me.

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