Eddie and Sue Arthur

Missionary Support: Some Thoughts

In polite society you should never talk about religion, politics or money. Well, I never claimed to be polite and this post is going to break two of those rules. I’m going to talk about “support” for missionaries; in the jargon of my world “support” almost always mean money.

Of course, this is a highly personal topic for us. If you click on this link, you can find out information about our support; among other things, you will read:

We do not receive a salary for the work we do with Wycliffe and our income is dependent on the goodwill of friends and churches around the world.

The last time either of us received a salary was in 1984, since then, we have relied on friends, family and our supporting churches for all of our income. To be frank, this is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it is a real privilege to know that people care about us and value the work that we do enough to give us a slice of their hard-earned income. It’s hard to express how much we value this contact with our supporters. THANK YOU. On the other side of the balance, there are times when it would be nice to have the sort of regular income that comes from a normal job. However, the bottom line is that we have enough for our needs and to allow us to carry on our work, even after 31 years of this lifestyle.

But this post isn’t about us.

Let’s take a step back and think about missionary support in a broader context. This sort of personal support system is predicated there being people who have the means to actually support the missionaries. It works in the West and parts of Asia, but not so well elsewhere. Even then, there are struggles. It can be hard for people in the back-office to raise support. Churches are keen to get behind evangelists preaching the Gospel in some far flung region, but less happy to support a book-keeper who works in an office around the corner. This, despite the fact that the book-keeper is absolutely essential to the evangelist’s work. The solution to this is for the mission agency to use central funds (often taken from the evangelist’s support) to pay for essential work in the home country.

In fact, the same thing happens overseas, too. Local workers are rarely able to raise financial support and are generally paid salaries from central funds. It is important to remember that as the church grows around the world, local people are very often in responsible leadership roles for mission agencies; we aren’t just talking about cleaners and cooks here.

What this boils down to, is that both at home and “on the field” there are two classes of worker, those who have to raise their own support and those who are paid salaries. This dichotomy raises some challenges that make me question whether this model of financing missions is actually viable or appropriate in our day and age. Here are a few points, which are not specific to any organisation or place.

  • One advantage of personal support is that it tends to be maintained through periods of financial crisis. However, during these times central funds may dip and the only way to save money is to lay-off local staff. The total support costs of a missionary may be significantly higher than the salary paid to a local worker (who may well do a better job than the expatriate), but it is the local worker who will have to go.
  • Employed staff have their rights and responsibilities covered by contracts and such like. Supported missionaries bring their own finance to the field and often act as though they are free agents, not only that, but they have to go home every few years to raise more support. It can actually be far easier and more efficient to run an office using local staff. But see the previous point; Agencies which work on the personal support model struggle to have sufficient funds for local staff.
  • If salaried staff are incompetent, you can generally replace them with someone who can do the job. The process may be convoluted, but it can be done. If supported missionaries are incompetent (it happens, honest), there is much less that you can do.

Perhaps the most important problem is the distinction which exists between those who have to raise their support (who “live by faith” in the jargon) and those who are paid a salary. There is no doubt that in the minds of some people, the former are seen as superior, more holy than the latter. It’s tripe, but people do think that way.

Thanks to the amazing generosity of our friends and churches, the personal support system has worked well for us for a long time. We have no complaints on a personal level. However, I have to ask whether this model is appropriate in a world where mission is no longer simply people from the rich world going to the rest. I don’t have a solution, but the question needs to be raised.

 

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

3 Comments on “Missionary Support: Some Thoughts

  1. I appreciate that these are only “a few points… not specific to any organisation or place”. However, I wonder which “parts of Asia” you think can succeed with the “personal support” model? Basically just super-rich Korea and Singapore or is there another category besides wealth?

    Maybe I could share some testimony from a Chinese context. Some of the wealthier urban churches do operate this kind of personal support system, often facilitated by big international agencies. However, the dominant model for wholly indigenous cross-cultural mission (typically towards Muslims) seems to be tent-making. The late He Enzheng and Mecca Zhao* bought a farm and sustained their ministry this way. I appreciate that these are only “a few points… not specific to any organisation or place”. However, I wonder which “parts of Asia” you think can succeed with the “personal support” model? Basically just the Little Dragons (Korea/Singapore) or is there another factor besides wealth?

    Maybe I could share some testimony from a Chinese context. Some of the wealthier urban churches do operate this kind of personal support system, often facilitated by big international agencies. However, the dominant model for wholly indigenous cross-cultural mission (typically towards Muslims) seems to be tent-making. The late He Enzheng and Mecca Zhao* bought a farm which the Lord used to sustain their ministry for decades. Some Chinese missionaries in northeast Africa also support themselves through farming and business ventures are used in Muslim-majority areas of China and Central Asia. This model brings its own challenges,** but is clearly one of the NT options. Would it work for other majority world missions?

    One of your side-points is strikingly provocative from a Chinese context: “Local workers are rarely able to raise financial support and are generally paid salaries from central [=Western] funds.” Really?! Having had their fingers badly burned in the 1940s, the Body in China is very wary of this. Many mainland churches would flatly refuse funds from the West (though skilled teachers and trainers are welcome). An article in a recent issue of OMF’s Mission Round Table details how OMFers in north Thailand were ‘held back’ for decades by their refusal to pay Thais, but nonetheless regarded it as a non-negotiable of Biblical mission. I can see a space for Wycliffe paying people to do linguistic work where there is no church (just as you can pay a pagan to paint the roof), but more than that starts risking Three-Self principles.

    I have been praying for some time that more Chinese missionaries will get training in Africa. The Africans have stable institutions to provide space for serious reflection (especially on Islam), while the Chinese might provide an alternative to the “wait for the white man to pay” attitude that some of my colleagues have encountered from some Africans,*** not least because the Han now have the money to pay for things themselves. And of course studying just south of the Sahara would lessen the culture shock when the missionaries reach fields in Central Asia or the Middle East.

    Sorry, this turned into a blog post of its own!

    *For those not familiar with them, they are the paradigmatic pioneer Chinese missionaries, perhaps set to fulfil a similar role to Brainerd from the US and Carey from the UK. A married Han Chinese couple, they lived and witnessed in Muslim-majority Kashgar from 1948 until they recently went to sleep in the Lord.
    **The LMS expected the earliest British missionaries to support themselves through farming, but it was a disaster. Maybe the Western Church abandoned tent-making too soon?
    ***For the record, I don’t think these attitudes are innate to Africans, but reflect the post-colonial context and desperate poverty.Some Chinese missionaries in northeast Africa also support themselves through farming** and business ventures are used in Muslim-majority areas of China and Central Asia.
    It seems that both models are found in the NT

    *For those not familiar with them, they are the paradigmatic pioneer Chinese missionaries, perhaps set to fulfil a similar role to Brained from the US and Carey from the UK. A married Han Chinese couple, they lived and witnessed in Muslim-majority Kashgar from 1948 until they recently passed to glory.
    **The very first LMS missionaries were expected to support themselves through farming, but it was a disaster. Maybe the West abandoned tent-making too soon?

    • Yes, you are right, I’m thinking of some of the ‘Tiger’ countries, not Asia as a whole.

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