I just got a call from a family who arrived this week to adopt three teenage sisters, ages 13, 14, and 15. [I'll pause a second to give you a chance to fully grasp what that means for their lives...] While this couple has been here before on short-term mission trips, they left the rest of their friends and family thousands of miles away for the chance to be able to call these girls their daughters.
As I’ve previously shared, the life of an adoptive family in Nicaragua is challenging, to say the least. [Speaking of that post, it was through my online discussions about adoption care that this family actually found me! And God has used this and two other growing families to reinforce the need for the ministry we are trying to start, but that's fuel for another post ] Knowing the difficulties, you’d happily applaud our efforts if I told you we will spend Saturday morning “ministering to the needs of this adoptive family,” right?
But what if I were more descriptive of our activities? What if I told you we would be taking them to a glorious buffet breakfast that would rival any delicious restaurant in your hometown, followed by swimming at a beautifully appointed hotel pool?
After reading my first description of the morning and then hearing the nitty-gritty of the actual events, ask yourself: if you were supporting me as a missionary, would feel ripped off if you only received the first explanation? Angry? Would you think any less of our “ministry?” To take it one step further… would you question my use of your hard-earned support dollars (if I were receiving them) upon finding out that we have a pool membership at said hotel?
I just read an article about a “Missionary Code” some people use to disguise and beef up their descriptions of ministry activities. It’s not a very flattering piece about what can, and unfortunately does, happen on the mission field (as well as in many donor-supported organizations). The author wants us to question and hold accountable those who are living off of support, to ensure they are actually doing the work they were sent to do, and of course I completely agree.
While my example isn’t exactly the same as one described by the author of that post, I think it does help illuminate a very important struggle many missionaries have. It’s particularly timely given that Wyeth and I are currently considering how to seek funding for the new ministry efforts we’re starting here in Nicaragua.
The concept of this missionary code, which we’ve heard about long before reading yesterday’s article, causes us to seriously consider how to honestly communicate the work we do here, and how to talk about both our successes and failures. It makes us wonder… why does that missionary code even exist in the first place? What is happening among some missionaries and their supporters that causes such a disconnect between the actual events and how they are talked about later?
After 10 months on the mission field (which I know is a mere drop in the bucket), I have come to two somewhat startling (at least for me) revelations.
1) Missionaries are often held to a much higher standard than others in the church.
2) Missionaries are really — at the core — no different than the rest of the church.
Before I go any further, I think it might be helpful to ponder some opinions about the work of missionaries (as well as pastors and others who work for non-profit organizations).
- Do we think they shouldn’t have the latest gadgets, wear new clothes, drive nice cars, or even take vacations?
- What about dinner out and trips to the movies (or whatever entertainment options are available in their location)?
- Are missionaries in hot climates ever “allowed” to spend supporters’ money on stuff like air conditioning and pools?
- Is it OK to have a maid, or a driver? Does it affect your answer if the culture or location of the missionary dictates those are necessary?
Now, for each yes or no response, explain why or why not.
Ultimately, who gets to decide how the donated money is used? What do you think causes you to believe the way you do?
Sometimes I write just to explain my thoughts, but other times it is because I’m trying to understand why we do what we do. And this is one of those situations where I really do want to know: what do you think? So I’m going to let us all stew on those questions for a little bit before continuing with the rest of this post. I know I’m asking some tough questions, but look forward to getting some feedback.