Probably one of the most traumatic experiences a missionary can face, is to be informed that his or her support is going to be terminated. It is my guess that this will be happening again as the impact of the global financial crisis starts having greater effect on the income of missionary organisations and churches. Over the past week or so, I’ve received three messages from missionaries or mission support organisations, all mentioning that dark days may be lying ahead. Things like a global financial crisis or a depression are more or less out of the control of the church. I was reading a post today of someone who described how their church had kept on sharing their funds in spite of severely hard times that they went through. People who make faith decisions like this need to be honoured. It is also understandable that individuals who had supported missionaries in the past, may now be faced with the harsh reality that they need to decide whether they will continue with their support or not.
I do not know of a single missions organisation that do not need financial support. Long distances that need to be travelled, the harsh circumstances under which most missionaries are working amongst people who more often than not are themselves barely surviving, the lack of proper schooling, sicknesses and many other issues have the result that finances are needed to support those who are working as missionaries. When it comes to the point of support, I can think of a few things which need to be kept in mind if the work has to continue over an extended period of time.
First of all I think that it is not wise for one individual or one organisation to fund a missions project on their own. Supporters lose interest. Financial circumstances change. A variety of things may occur which makes it impossible for the individual or the organisation to continue with their support. What happens if the supporter dies unexpectedly? What happens if the supporter’s source of income falls away? If a potential supporter is convinced that a missions project is from God, then they need to discuss it with other partners and get them to invest financially in the project in order to establish some form of sustainable support.
Secondly, new projects need to be considered prayerfully and not emotionally. Now, this works both ways. I’ve seen many a project being started due to the convincing arguments given by a missionary. But if such a project is from God and the supporters are truly living in a relationship with God, then God himself can convince the supporters to fund the project. Gather people together to hear whether the new project is really from God. But the argument also has another side to it. I’ve seen many a missions project stopped because the supporters or supporting organisation used equally emotional arguments why the project could not be started. Sometimes a new project has to be started as a leap of faith. As long as we are convinced that it is what God wants us to do, we need not fear to take the next step.
Thirdly, supporters need to realise that they are working with people’s security when they make decisions about support. I once attended a meeting in advisory capacity where the future support of missionaries working in Asia was discussed. The congregation was not going through a particularly tough time, but they did need to do some renovations to their own property. They then suggested that the missionary’s support be cut by 50%. I had trouble to control myself, asking the meeting where they wanted the missionary and his family to cut on their own budget. Their rent was fixed. Water and electricity was fixed. School fees for the children were fixed. The only place where they could cut, was on their monthly groceries. By cutting their subsidy, this family was effectively being told to eat less if they wanted to remain in Asia. The sad news is that the cut was approved. The good news is that individuals then started supporting the family with even more than the reduction in the subsidy.
Financial support for missions is an extremely sensitive issue. I am aware that some missionaries misuse funds. But on the whole, most of them are stretching the funds to cover much more than would ever be possible on the home front. Whether you want to start supporting a missionary or whether you are starting to feel the pinch and considering to withdraw your support, don’t do it without seriously praying about this and discussing options with Christian friends you trust.
I’ve said it before: I struggle to come to terms with missionaries manipulating funds from people in order to support their mission. Yesterday I received an email from someone that I don’t know within a mission that I know nothing about. The only time I hear from him is when they are in dire need of money. Freely translated, the email says the following: “Please pray with us that Father will provide and will bless our bank account at XXXX bank, account number XXXXXXXXXXX with R1720.85 (Rand – the South African currency) for essential reparations which need to be made to the mission vehicle. The reparations cannot be postponed and must be done as soon as possible. Also praise the Lord that HE will provide for the reparations.”
My emotions see-sawed between fury, indignation, frustration and disappointment after reading this. Most mission newsletters do speak about their needs. I have no problem with this. On many occasions people have said to me that they do want to hear about specific needs so that they can find means of providing what is really necessary. From time to time someone would ask me for a bank account number. But I’m getting sick and tired when I feel that missionaries are trying to manipulate others in giving money to them by taking them on a guilt-trip. Looking at that email my first question is: Make up your mind. Do you want us to pray that God will provide the money or do you want us to give the money? I would probably not even have had a problem if they had sent out regular newsletters to a number of prayer supporters with whom they have some kind of relationship and then to contact them with this special need. But asking that we pray that God will put the money into their account! I feel that I’m being misused.
I know a great number of people reading this blog are missionaries themselves. I would like to hear from those who are not missionaries but who feel obliged to support missionaries: How do you want to be approached when there is a specific need in some ministry? Do you want to be asked directly? Would you rather that God indicated where He wants you to get involved? Do you ever pray about where God wants you to give your money?
Help us, who are full-time missionaries, to understand how people feel who support missionaries.
I’m recovering again after a hectic week – the reason why my blog-writing has been pushed to the back for a while. On Sunday I flew down to Cape Town where I had been invited to attend a capacity building workshop co-hosted by USAID. Flying back to Pretoria, I stepped into another meeting with representatives of a Christian trust and after driving home I spent a few more hours in another meeting with a NGO which is showing some interest to partner with us in Swaziland.
Up to now I’ve never really been bothered with capacity building. I have more or less a feeling that things are going fairly well with our home-based caring ministry in Swaziland. We have money (not quite enough, but we manage) to do the basic things and I would be satisfied if we can keep this up. So I wasn’t all that eager to attend the conference. But then, before I left for the conference, a friend told me that God might be setting us up for something larger than we have been doing up to now and that we may need more resources to do what He wants us to do. (OK, so that’s not quite what I wanted to hear!) But it changed my attitude to attend the conference with a more open mind.
The overwhelming feeling I had was that most people presenting conferences like these have no idea how rural Africa looks. In most cases the people we work with in Swaziland have no electricity, no water (sometimes a communal tap, but not always), no telephone (although more people are using cell phones), little food (some homes have three meals a week instead of three meals a day!), and a large portion of the people in the rural areas are illiterate.
But then, at the conference, we heard stories of Christians and congregations who are aching to become part of the solution to the world’s problems. People living in affluent communities who feel that they want to start investing their money in ministries deeply involved with the world’s problems – bringing hope and light to those communities. And as I listened to this I realised that there must be a way for those with the resources and those doing the work on grass-roots level to connect with each other. It doesn’t seem right that people are eager to get involved with God’s work on a greater scale and others are looking for ways in which to increase their influence, and these two groups cannot be connected.
But after this conference and the hard work (and we worked really hard in smaller groups), my favourite topic kept coming into my mind: partnerships! In rare cases it may be acceptable for someone with a lot of money to write out a cheque. But that’s not the ideal. We need people to come and look and feel and smell and taste the reality and then sit down with us to think of ways to have an even greater impact on this country – to think of long-term solutions.
So: This is an open invitation to get involved in Swaziland. If you’re part of those people aching to do something outside your own community, send me a note. If you belong to a church longing to do more than merely keeping those inside the church happy, send me a note.
During the recent Courageous Leadership Award ceremony, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, spoke off the cuff when asked to announce the winner of the award. Gathered in the room for the celebration dinner were senior members of the Willow Creek staff, members of World Vision, the three finalists and then quite a number of business people. He said some very inspiring things, challenging each and every person in the room to make a commitment to visit at least one “place of pain” (as he calls it) within the next twelve months. It is true that one has to be confronted with the real need of the world before one can really become inspired to make a difference.
But then he said something which really stuck. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it went something like this: “If someone with a keen mind (from a resource church) could link up with someone with a passionate heart (usually in a frontline church), amazing things could start happening.” As I listened to these words, I realised that this may well have been one of the “a-ha!” moments in my life. It made so much sense to me when he put it like that.
People with keen minds are usually focussed on finding solutions. They see a problem, analyse the immediate need, find a solution and very often even supply the solution. Unfortunately, however, this may not be a long-term solution. Very often the solutions involve not only a huge amount of money but also a lot of maintenance. I remember how a group of well intentioned people once visited Swaziland, found that someone they had grown to love had to wash each night in a zinc tub, then built him a shower, complete with petrol pump to transfer water from a container on the ground into another container on the roof of the house, so that he could shower. When I saw this, I just shook my head, knowing that this would only work until the petrol is finished. Or until the pump breaks.
I have often had people coming to visit us with great ideas how the people could start some kind of small business through which they could generate money. But the moment I ask the question to whom they will be selling their products, the answer comes: “To their neighbours!” Well, the only problem with that is that the neighbours are usually as poor as they are. And in the end all that is happening is that the little money within the community is being circulated amongst them. This is not a solution.
The people on the frontline with the passionate hearts are also looking for solutions but are mostly hindered due to a lack of resources. But I find also that we are hindered by a lack of ability to look objectively at a problem. We are so closely linked to the needs of the people on the ground, that it takes great effort to stand back for a moment or two to view the problem objectively and to possibly find a new or better solution. But what would happen if the people with the keen minds could come together with those with the passionate hearts, where both groups interact to find the best long-term and sustainable solutions for the people in need?
Finding ways in which the people could effectively and economically grow their own vegetables, makes sense. But this is a long-term project in which a lot of time will have to be invested if it should work. But people with keen minds may be able to do this effectively. Teaching people basic skills to build and maintain their own homes so that they do not need to pay professional people to do the work, makes a lot of sense. But people with keen minds need to get involved with this. Even setting up a small business makes sense, as long as plans are also in place to sell the goods produced outside the community so that money can come into the community.
Perhaps we need to start praying for more people with keen minds to get involved in finding solutions, not on their own, but together with us who have the passion for the people in need.
This is a question which all missionaries working in poor countries will have to answer. And the answer is not as simple as we sometimes try to make it.
I was recently reminded about this issue while watching a DVD of an international missionary organisation working in Swaziland. We all realise that DVDs or pamphlets or whatever other medium is used, are made in order to convince people to donate money towards the cause. The DVD starts with a shot of a number of school children, singing and dancing with Bibles in their hands. The caption reads: “Swazi kids excited about their new English and SiSwati Bibles.” These Bibles had been handed out to them with the help of donations received from overseas. Who’s heart won’t soften when seeing children in darkest Africa dancing with joy because of receiving a Bible?
Many people however feel that it is wrong to hand out Bibles free of charge. The logic behind this conviction is that something is only appreciated if it is paid for.
And now the question: Who is correct? Should Bibles be sold or handed out? And the answer, as I said earlier, is not as simple as saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985 we used to receive boxes full of tracts, some in English, others in siZulu (closely related to siSwati) and when visiting schools I handed out these tracts by the thousand. But there came a time when I became convinced that I’m not doing the right thing. I did realise that the children were merely grabbing the tracts, not because they were really interested in reading them (although I believe that many did read them), but because it was something given to them free of charge. After making this decision I planned the distribution of literature in a much more disciplined way. The fact is that I became convinced that I could distribute Jehovah’s Witness literature or even Muslim literature free of charge and that the children would still grab as much as possible.
So what is my solution? In the good old days I was able to get 30% discount from the Bible Society if we bought Bible directly from them. Bibles were fairly cheap (around $2) and after the 30% discount they were still affordable for most people. We literally sold thousands of Bibles. But at the same time we were open to hand out Bibles to people who we felt would put the Bible to good use and who could not afford to pay for it. I’ve received many things free of charge which I deeply appreciate and I sincerely believe that many people receiving a Bible free of charge would also appreciate it. Which means that we used both systems of giving and selling Bibles, but always selling it without profit.
Things have changed. The Bible Society refuse to give churches discount. Discount is now only given to stores and prices have gone through the roof. The cheapest siSwati Bible available in stores would probably be around $12 – this in a country where 70% of the population live on less than 45 US cent per day! Money received for Bible distribution is now used to buy Bibles at shelf price, but then we sell them at about a quarter of the price at which we buy them. And then we still have an understanding that Bibles may be handed out free of charge or sold at an even lower price if the recipient can really not afford to buy it.
We don’t have much singing and dancing with Bibles in the hand using this system. But I’ve seen many people sitting with their Bibles, reading it and when I look at the congregation on a Sunday as they follow the Scripture reading in their own Bibles, I see Bibles with pen marks, showing signs that they have been used. For me this means more than the singing and dancing.
While at a missions meeting last week, a friend of mine told me about a DVD with the name, The Second Chance. I was able to get a copy of the DVD and our family watched it on Saturday. The story is about a pastor, Ethan Jenkins (played by Michael W Smith), the minister of music at a suburban mega-church called The Rock, and Jake Sanders, a pastor of an urban church called Second Chance. He has a nice church and his salary is sponsored by The Rock. Once a year pastor Sanders is invited to The Rock to give a three minute talk on how things are going at Second Chance (and to thank the people of The Rock for their help!) On one such a morning, he tells the people of The Rock that they should keep their money if they were not willing to become personally involved in his ministry amongst drug addicts, prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, dysfunctional families and worse. Obviously the people from The Rock are greatly upset by these words and pastor Jenkins, who had invited him to speak, was blamed because he was not able to restrict pastor Sanders to the prescribed three minutes nor did he coach him properly on what to say. And so pastor Jenkins is seconded to Second Chance to teach him a lesson.
Towards the end of the movie the leadership of The Rock meet with local developers who want to build some stadium in the area, but in order to do that, Second Chance church will have to be demolished and the church will have to be relocated about five miles away. And this was the part of the movie that really touched me personally, as I saw the leadership of The Rock making decisions without consulting the leadership of Second Chance, planning a wonderful new campus for Second Chance and after everything had been finalised, only then calling in the people of Second Chance and informing them of the plans.
What was clearly shown in this part of the movie is how often people in the church (those with the money) can make decisions on behalf of those with less money. Very often the decisions in itself are not bad. Usually the decisions are for the good of others. But because the decisions had been taken without consulting those mostly affected by the decisions, huge mistrust and accusations are bred between the two groups and in the end, instead of working together, they work against each other. And I couldn’t help wondering how often I may have done the same thing – with good intentions – but still, breaking down relationships instead of building them.