I was asked recently by one of my supporting churches to write up my suggestions for how a church should evaluate missionaries for support, by what criteria, and what other considerations should be considered. I realized in writing this up that these principles are actually both very important and little understood.
1. The missionary’s budget. Each missionary is responsible to his organization to have an annual budget approved, so it is appropriate to ask for a copy. Such a budget includes two parts:
2. Income. It is well to know what income the missionary is budgeted for, but not to question its validity, since this is part of the role the mission organization provides. Quite the opposite, often missionaries under-budget for fear of not raising enough funds. This is particularly true when considering travel expenses, which can elevate the need by many thousands of dollars a year, depending on the size of the family and distance to travel.
3. Ministry expenses. Missionaries are responsible not only to raise funds for their family, but also for all ministry needs. Obviously a new missionary and/or one with a small ministry reach will have a very different ministry budget than one with lots of projects and staff. To me it is logical to support those who are proving successful in growing their reach and impact, rather than holding back to “even things out.”
4. Experience and age. Generally the older and more experienced, the more the need, particularly as regards to future planning for things like college tuition for kids. Missionaries need to prepare for retirement too!
5. Ongoing vs. one-time expenses. All of the above are ongoing needs. Many churches forget that missionaries are in many ways no different than other church staff, in that they need to pay the bills every month. One church that supported us worked largely off of periodic offerings. This had the advantage of reminding them about us, but the unwillingness to commit to a minimum also impacted us. Later they changed to a budgeted amount, but they forgot to take up offerings for us, so the members started to feel like it was no longer their responsibility to support us.
6. Project needs. One-time expenses generally come in two forms: project needs and emergency needs. Any missionary doing his job well should expand and create new movements. This requires more money, but many churches have not thought through the need to encourage such good work and growth with the means to manifest them. So missionaries often stay stagnant without incentives to grow. Missionaries need the faith to expand, but also the support base to encourage growth.
7. Emergency needs. Of course anyone can have an emergency need, but missionaries are susceptible to extra vulnerabilities because of living in foreign lands and cultures, travel needs, access to health care, and the potential traumas associated with ministry and life in second and third world countries. Churches should have a fund that has a minimum of need for gatekeepers to make decisions regarding such funds, to make them easily available for such extraordinary needs. Otherwise, where will missionaries get the help they need?
8. Commitment level. Churches should consider what level of involvement overall they are prepared to make in the life and ministry of missionaries, and do so not in terms of dollars, but in terms of levels of ownership. By ownership I mean the extent to which a church says, “These are our people, and we consider that we are as committed to their ministry as they are – to THIS level.” The level is most easily measured as a percent of financial involvement, but no missionary wants a church that just sends checks. They need the intangibles that go with it, such as:
— regular, specific, and enthusiastic prayer support and covering.
— correspondence that goes well beyond Christmas card-level perfunctory.
— active and periodic questions, especially when on furlough, about ministry prayers and praises, and proactive consideration of needs, especially when the missionaries are in town.
When a church does not provide any (much less all) of the above, it not only sends a message of apathy, but it has an even more powerful effect on the church’s own witness and commitment to the Great Commission in general. When a church does not wholeheartedly invest in its most passionate members’ witness to the Truth and Love of Christ, then its own light on a hill will over time become extinguished.