Missionary Support Raising, Part 1: What is it?

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What is support raising? How do missionaries get paid? How do they make money?

We have found over the years that most people are completely unfamiliar with support raising. Until I started my journey in missions, I didn't know anything about it either. The practical and logistical elements of missions never occurred to me. I knew that missionaries shared the Gospel overseas, translated the Bible, and used their skills and gifts to share Jesus in different ways. But it never occurred to me how missionaries pay their bills. I never even thought about their bills and living expenses. I'm assuming that my experience is not unique, so I wanted to explain for those who are like me that never considered some of these nuts and bolts of missions.

I think most of us are familiar with short-term mission trips. These are usually geared towards high schooler or young adults to spend a few weeks doing a service project. Some churches and organizations ask the participants to raise their own funds. This is usually done with a well-crafted letter sent to friends, family, and church members. Sometimes the group will do joint fundraising events like carwashes or can/bottles drives. Participants might do small jobs to earn the money, like babysitting or odd jobs.

In regards to fundraising, how are short-term missions different from long-term missions (or career missionaries)?
How to long-term and career missionaries make money?

Typically, missionaries are paid according to 1 of 2 main ways: 1) salary or 2) support/fundraising. There are pros and cons for each option. The missions sending organization usually determines that all of their missionaries will be paid a salary or all of their missionaries will raise their own financial support.

  1. Salary

Some missionaries are paid via salary. Most missions organizations that choose this option are denominational sending organizations. The best example of this is the IMB, the International Mission Board. This is the official sending agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Most, if not all, IMB missionaries are on salary and paid directly through the denomination itself. The denomination runs various campaigns to fund their missions efforts, such as the Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon fundraisers.

To some, this could be a perfect situation. The missionary focuses on the ministry assignments and the denomination takes care of all the finances, including raising the funds.

  • Salary - Cons

But there are some downsides to this model. For one, the missionary must agree with the denomination's doctrinal statement 100%. I don't know about you, but I don't usually agree with all the finer points of a particular denomination. No one has all the points of doctrine all figured out. I prefer to leave some wiggle room for disagreements in some areas and other expressions of worship and faith (while still holding strong to the authority of Scripture, of course!).

Going hand-in-hand with that point, usually a denominational missionary is assigned to plant more churches for that denomination. There can be less freedom to serve in the way and where the missionary feels called to serve. You know the proverb about the one who holds the purse strings has control.

The denominational salary situation could be great for those who want more accountability and oversight so they can focus directly on the ministry tasks at hand. If the missionary is part of a strong denomination that they absolutely love, this could be a great option.

Finally, the last con for the salaried missionary is their lack of support. Since they didn't need to raise financial support, fewer people know about them and their ministry. That means fewer people to lift them up in prayer. Prayer support is absolutely vital to ministry at home and overseas. It is recommended and highly encouraged that missionaries on salary still raise a team of strong prayer supporters.

  1. Support/Fundraising

If a missionary is not on salary by a missions organization or denomination, how do they make money? They must "raise" that money themselves.

  • Support Raising in the past

In past generations, a missionary (and their family) would "itinerate", meaning they would have an extensive traveling itinerary of church speaking engagements. Usually, their home church or denomination would help them connect with other churches in their area and around the country. Other times the missionary would have to "cold call" churches on their own to get speaking engagements. But the results were the same. A missionary family traveling around the country, speaking on Sundays and Wednesdays or mission conferences, telling about their callings, and asking the churches to support their mission. Churches in these past generations were more open to hearing from missionaries that weren't previously connected to them. The church would either commit to support the missionary on an ongoing basis or take up an offering for them to help send them on their way.

I remember in the autobiography of Gladys Aylward, The Little Woman, an English woman from the early part of the 20th century, tells about how she was determined "by hook or by crook" to get to China. The local mission society refused to send her, saying she wasn't qualified and wasn't smart enough to learn the Chinese language. But Gladys knew God had called her. She got a job as a maid and began working towards a one-way passage to China.

I think most of us think of one of these 2 ways missionaries raised support in the past. Either they traveled around from church to church, or they worked and saved to earn their own one-way passage.

  • Support raising today

There has been a shift in raising support for long-term and career missionaries. Most churches aren't open to missionaries that have no connection to them. In most cases, a missionary's home church cannot take on the full living and ministry expenses. If the home church cannot take on the expense and other churches aren't generally open to supporting missionaries not connected with their church, where does this leave the career missionary?

This means that the full-time and career missionary must go to their family, friends, and personal networks to financially support their living and ministry expenses before they can go to the mission field.

This can be a hard and intimidating process. But it can also be beautiful. It is beautiful to see friends, family, and even (former) strangers passionate for this ministry. It glorifies God when His people are personally involved intimately in ways that proclaim His name to the nations. It is beautiful for the missionary to see God inspire people and arrange means to provide for all their needs. It is beautiful for individuals to see personally how their sacrificial giving directly impacts the lives of both the missionaries and those they serve.

Raising support is more than just money. It is raising up a team. This team is a group of partners who come together in their giving and prayers to make a Gospel impact in the world. The missionaries are the ambassadors and representatives of this team, serving on their behalf in other parts of the world.

  • Support/Fundraising - Cons

Support raising is not all beautiful. It is hard work. It is vulnerable. Support raising itself is a full-time job. It is very personal to the missionary. It involves rejection. It requires vision casting and leadership skills. It is easy for a missionary to share their passion for the mission but it can be uncomfortable to bring up the topic of money. Money can complicate relationships. It can be a lengthy process to raise 100% of the financial support needed to live and thrive overseas.

Another con is the misconceptions among individuals in the church regarding missionary support raising. In our experience, we often had people reply, "Why are you asking me? You should talk to the church about this." Support raising can be viewed as begging or asking for a handout, instead of as an opportunity to be personally involved in something God is doing in another part of the world.

Support raising is...

Support raising is an opportunity for both the missionary and the supporter. Together they join forces and leverage their giftings and resources to make Christ known at home and abroad.

Support raising is an invitation to the missionary to humble themselves and ask others to help bears their burdens. It is an invitation to the supporter to actively live out one of the "love one another" commands.

Support raising is not only about money. It is not less than money. Support raising includes prayer, emotional, spiritual, and practical support also. Missionaries need a team 'back home' that is lifting them up in prayer. Reaching out and checking on them emotionally and spiritually. Crossing cultures to share the gospel and making disciples while raising children involves a lot of emotions. It can be easy to get distracted by all the tasks of ministry that one begins to neglect their spiritual life. Missionaries, too, need partners who will ask them how God is speaking to them, how their prayer life is, what are they learning in the Word, etc.

Support raising is partnering in the Gospel. When a missionary is funded via salary, individuals in the church miss out on a personal opportunity to partner in making a gospel impact in the world. Individuals and families that partner with a missionary play a personal and intimate role in the ministry abroad. It is not relegated to something "the church" is doing or supporting. But when the missionary reports back to their partners, the partners can say, "this is something I am a part of!"

Stay tuned for part 2 of the series about "Missionary Support Raising"...

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