Missions and Money

picture of money

Once again, I’m tasked with writing a missionary prayer letter. Unlike this blog, its size is limited. I guess that I could write. “We need money for our mission work. Please send some every month.” Or I could give the amount. That is difficult, because if I give the amount, then it just begs for an explanation. The explanation is long, complicated, and full of uncertainties. Our income is currently variable. Wildly variable. I usually use a one year running average to figure out what our income really is. We have a few partners who give the same amount every month, like clockwork. May God bless them. That helps keep the minimums from being zero. We have some who give sporadically. We have some who give only at times and in response to conditions, like bonuses, that we can’t predict. It all adds up, and helps keep us working full time in Christian missions. We greatly appreciate all who give whatever the Lord puts on their hearts to give, because without that, we couldn’t keep doing what the Lord has put on our hearts. That is very Scriptural. Even Paul and Jesus had people who gave to them in support of their physical needs while they went on their missionary journeys. (Phil. 1:5; 4:13-17; Luke 8:1-3; etc.). There are other ways to fund missionary work, but this is the model used by the mission organizations we work with. It leads to good accountability between those who go and those who send them, encourages people to pray for the missionaries they support, and is remarkably efficient. It is especially good when all involved (both the goers and the senders) are sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I have known missionaries who don’t think it is proper to tell people how much they need, but just to pray. Most, however, don’t mind giving people a clue as to how well supported they are. This, of course, involves doing some math to figure out. I suppose that some might think that missionaries would tend to raise too much money and live excessively. I know MANY missionaries, and I haven’t actually met anyone like that. Usually, the opposite problem prevails. It is HARD to raise support. We would just as soon be done with it all and just get on with the work God has called us to, without having to worry if there will be enough money in the bank to pay the necessary bills. So what usually happens is that they raise just barely enough– and then only if their mission organization makes them raise a minimum amount. As time goes on, support tends to decay. People lose jobs, die, lose interest, or whatever, and stop giving. Sometimes churches split, die, or decide to reallocate their mission money. This forces the missionary back to fund raising, or worse yet, off of the mission field to get a paying job.

So how do we come upon an amount that we need to raise for support? In our case, we used two different methods, and they both came out to about the same amount. Method one was to use a formula given by a large and respected mission organization (Wycliffe Bible Translators), using a spreadsheet that they supply to their members. Method 2 was to add up the expenses we knew we had committed to (tithes, taxes, insurance, utilities, cheap housing, food, school fees, ministry supplies, transportation, etc.), and see what that came to. Both methods came to within a couple hundred dollars a month of each other, so we figured that it was reasonable and that we could survive on that and still devote our full attention to the ministries God has called us to.

Two questions come to mind regarding the actual amount. The first is “Why so much? It looks like more than most people make!” The answer, of course, is that most people are thinking of their take-home pay, and not the fully burdened cost to the employer of having them work for them. There is a huge difference in those numbers, consisting of facilities, supplies, retirement, taxes that you see on your pay stub, taxes you don’t see on your pay stub, insurance, travel, corporate utilities, etc. Missionaries like us have to raise support to cover the full cost of all of that plus a share of the organizational overhead, because there isn’t another place for that money to come from. And yes, we have to pay taxes, too. We often pay taxes in more than one country. So really, it takes some math to compare income on a fair basis. When you do the math, it usually comes out with the missionary looking poorer than the people supporting him or her.

The next question is “Why so little? How can you possibly live on so much?” I’m not making this up. I had to answer that question on scholarship applications for my sons in college in follow-up questions. It is as if they thought we must be hiding income or something, but we reported it all. Anyway, I’m not sure how we do it. Sometimes we don’t, and we go back into debt for a while. Sometimes we cheat ourselves by not making retirement fund contributions so that we can buy food now. Sometimes our living expenses are really low because we are off in a jungle somewhere with no place to go shopping. To be honest, we really should raise a higher amount.

There are other ways to finance missions, with varying credibility and results. The best alternate strategy seems to be the one where the sending organization separates fund raising and mission activities, and just pays missionaries fixed salaries and benefits appropriate to their mission field. Some well-known and effective organizations do this. It solves some problems, but creates others… and frequently results in fewer missionaries on the field. A close runner-up is the one where a missionary is self-funded. Few can actually pull this off for long. I know of a few “retired” people who can. It also works for some short-term missions, but rarely for a career in missions. Then there are the spurious suggestions of multi-level marketing, or worse yet, “Nigerian” scams. I know of one missionary who sent more money than he had to such a scammer, and had to leave the mission field and work a secular job for a few years to pay back what he had been tricked out of. Needless to say, no large inheritance or windfall funds were forthcoming after the “fees” were paid.

The one way that certainly doesn’t work is to expect the unevangelized to pay for the costs of bringing the Gospel to them before they even understand the infinite value of the Gospel, which is supposed to be given freely, anyway. No, it is the responsibility and privilege of those who believe in Jesus Christ already to bear the burden of obeying the Great Commission as both senders and goers. The law of LOVE compels us to make it so.