If there was ever a word that was surrounded with misconception and confusion in the missional realm, it is that one. Anyone who has ever worked for a faith-based* mission organization has inevitably had more than their fair share of confusing conversations around this topic.
Random Christian: “So, how much money do you need each month to do what you are going to do?”
Missionary: “My organization has calculated that I will need $6,000 per month to function effectively in my role.”
Random Christian: “Yeah, but how much of that do you actually NEED? Like, for real?”
Missionary: “I will need $7,000 per month to house, feed, clothe, and educate 50 orphans in a developing country.”
Random Christian: “$7,000! That’s way more than I make in a month! I wish my job paid that well!”
I could list plenty more examples, but I think you get the idea. Often, when people discuss missionary support, they don’t actually know what they are talking about. This is not a criticism, it’s just a reality. And it’s not their fault.
For most people, their only experience with monetary transactions stems from their personal income. They work for their employer, their employer pays them money, and then they take that money and pay for their personal expenses. That’s normal. And that’s good. But that’s not how faith-based ministry works.
Faith-based ministry functions much more like a business. We, as individuals, are responsible for a wide range of business-like expenses that an average employee never has to think about. As a simple explanation, let’s look at how the U.S. Postal System (USPS) ran last year.
The USPS is an independent government entity, in that it is internally self-sustaining. It produces it’s own operating costs, without govt. subsidies.** In 2018, for the USPS to conduct their business, they required $70.6 billion dollars. They conducted said business while employing 497,000 workers.
If the USPS were a non-profit, faith-based organization, with all of their employees being responsible to cover their own operating costs (like we are), then each employee would need to have a monthly support level of $11, 837.69.***
That figure does not represent what your mailman gets PAID, mind you. It is how much it COSTS for your mailman to perform the services that are required of him: transportation and storage of goods, packing supplies, vehicle maintenance, healthcare, retirement, social security…etc. His take-home pay (what he lives off of) is a small percentage of those operating costs.
Is everybody tracking so far? Your mailman requires $11,837.69 each month to deliver your mail. This is a fact. It is also a fact that he DOES NOT GET PAID $11,837.69 each month to deliver your mail. He only ever gets about 1/3 of that amount to use to buy his groceries, clothe his family, and keep a roof over his head. The rest of those funds cover necessary expenses to do the job that he is expected to do.
That is how it works for faith-based support. We have expenses OUTSIDE of ourselves that need to be met for us to perform the services required of us. Our support is NOT our paycheck. MOST of our support goes towards necessary overhead costs: health insurance, transportation, taxes, social security, literacy supplies, consultant checks…etc.
To take this apples-to-apples comparison a step further, what ramifications could you foresee coming if we were to, say, only allot 80% of each mailman’s monthly support? How would that affect the performance of the USPS? What if we only gave them 70% of what they needed each month? 50%?
And remember, we’re not taking these funds from the mailmen’s take-home pay (though, their take-home pay will undoubtedly be affected). We are taking them from their overall operating costs. Would you expect the USPS to adequately perform its stated objective while only providing it with 75% of its operating costs? Of course not. That wouldn’t make sense.
And yet, that is what we do when we send out missionaries with less than 100% support. We are sending them to do a job that costs $1,000 and only giving them $750 to work with. More than that, it is actually viewed as a LUXURY for a missionary to receive 100% of the monthly support that their ministry requires. Personally, I’ve only ever met two missionaries who could claim such a status.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing a loosey-goosey approach to finances and saying that a missionary’s checking account should reflect a thoughtless, perpetual spending spree. Personally, I love a good, accurate budget, with fluff and frivolities kept to a minimum. Let’s bring those expenses down as low as we can! But, once we’ve done that (our organization is very realistic with their figures), we can’t cut expenses without inhibiting the work we’ve commissioned missionaries to do.
We understand this in most other areas of life, but with missions, we seem to use some sort of fantastical, fairytale form of mathematics:
“You need $8,000 a month to see an indigenous church planted among a people group that has no written form of their language, no road access, no electricity, no local health care, and no stores of any kind? Well, that sounds great! How about we send you over to do that with $6,000 a month? And make sure you do a good job!”
I’m not saying people don’t care about missions. I’m not saying that people don’t give generously and sacrificially. On an individual level, there are many people engaged and invested in the lives and ministries of the missionaries they support. No question.
What I AM SAYING is that the church, at large, seems to have accepted something of a double standard where their missionaries are concerned. As a final proof of this, if I might be so bold, I ask you to consider the following proposition:
What if, at your next annual church budget meeting, one of the leaders suggested that your church take an additional 25% out of the annual operating costs of the church and invested it in bringing all of your missionaries up to 100%? To be clear, he would be suggesting that 25% of the money that is currently being used to operate your building, run your programs, and pay your staff will no longer be available for your church’s use. But he still wants the church to fulfill all of its regular functions.
How would this idea be received? What would be some of the ramifications of accepting that proposal? Does that sound like a problematic (possibly irresponsible) approach to ministry?
Because the converse of that proposal is currently the operational norm for the American church in regards to missions. We are sending out missionaries to do important, valuable work, and we are expecting them to do 100% of what their job description entails, but we are knowingly insisting that they do it with much less money than the task requires.
This is not meant as a request for more funds for our personal ministry. My goal is simply that we might see the church (the thing that all us Christians are an equal part of) engage with supporting our missionaries in the same way that we engage with supporting our secular businesses.
If we truly value the product or service, let’s be willing to cover the cost.
*This is a term used in our line of work that means, “The organization you work for does not cover your expenses or pay you. Instead, you need to find individuals and churches to commit to paying for these things.”
**This is according to my Father-in-law, who recently became an employee of the USPS. If this is inaccurate, I can give you his contact info, and you can harshly admonish him. Please mail your scathing remarks though, as it would be a shame to miss out on that ironic opportunity.
***$70,600,000,000 ÷ 497,000 employees = $142,052.31 ($142,052.31 ÷ 12 = $11,837.69)