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  • Bradley Bell

Fully-Funded vs. Support-Raised Missions

I love teaching adults their shapes. They really think they know them.


“What’s this?” I ask, drawing a shape on the whiteboard.


“Duh—a circle,” they reply.


“Yes—but what if,” I posit, “to a person in another culture, that’s the sun?”


For a moment you can hear the grinding of mental gears. Then a fun conversation ensues about the differences between literate and oral cultures. To literate Westerners it’s natural to think that literacy (learning based on the written word) is superior to orality (learning based on the spoken word).


The reality is, however, that most of the world is (and has been, and will be) oral learners. As one of my former professors said, “In a world of oral learners, we literates are the ones with the learning curve.” Therefore my shape-teaching thesis is always this: literacy is actually not superior to orality. Both are unique. And God is in them.


What could this possibly have to do with being a fully-funded or support-raised missionary? Well, here are the basic parallels:


Premise: To Westerners it’s natural to think that being fully-funded is superior to being support-raised.


Reality: Most of the world’s missionaries, however, are (and have been, and will be) support-raised.


Thesis: Being fully-funded is actually not superior to being support-raised. Both are unique. And God is in them.


Ok, there’s all you need to know about this article. But if you’d like to learn some shapes together, keep reading.


Fully-Funded Missionaries


I have been a fully-funded missionary. It’s pretty awesome. I like to refer to it as “the Land Cruiser'' because it seems to have all the bells and whistles. So here are some of the benefits, along with a few unpleasant surprises.


Financial Security


First for the obvious, as a fully-funded missionary, money is not a primary concern. You do not have to take years to raise support. Within a few months of being “approved,” you can be on the field. You usually don’t have to cover your health insurance. Or training. Or flights. Or housing. Or vehicle. Or visas. Or overhead. Or furlough. You typically never have to worry about changes to your income or your primary needs going unmet. In certain contexts, you may even be able to accrue and save substantially. You are free pre-field, a-field, and post-field to focus entirely on the objectives of the organization.


Organizational Oversight


I made that last statement intentionally. The financial security provided by a fully-funding organization also binds you to focus on the objectives of your organization rather than solely your own objectives. This is certainly a blessing if you desire closely managed parameters and hold to the same strategic values as the organization. Even though they will likely take into account your sense of calling, gifting, and experience, they will also likely determine where and how you will serve. That means if you desire more freedom in your ministry and find yourself drifting outside the organization’s values and objectives, you may become at odds with your conscience and your organization.


If, for instance, you find that a different strategy would be more effective in a particular context, you must (1) convince your organizational leaders, (2) pursue the strategy without approval, or (3) abandon it altogether. In such a scenario, you may be faced with justifying your organizational commitment for the sake of financial security. And that is a tricky place to be.


Collective Identity


Because everyone in a fully-funding organization usually walks through the same application procedure, interview process, pre-field training, and financial regulations, there is a strong sense of internal collective identity. You have a shared language and commitment. The financial and structural independence then creates a culture where you naturally identify with organizational colleagues. You’re part of something much bigger.


However, this also tends to create dissonance between you and missionaries outside your organization (as well as with national partners). Insider language and experience can further heighten the divide. This often makes it difficult for you to relate and partner well—or even see that as a detriment.


Employee Regulation


Although the language of fully-funded organizations rarely reflects it, as one of their missionaries you function in many ways as an employee. This is by necessity. If thousands of dollars are going to be invested in you, there must be strategic selectivity. That means the application, interview, assessment, and “appointment” processes must function on some level as a hiring process. That also means the processes of ongoing evaluation and accountability must be guided by the organization’s values and objectives, which ultimately determines your ongoing funding (employment).


This creates some measure of clamoring to get into and stay inside the Land Cruiser. That can lead to approaching interviews with a secular employment mindset: seeking to prove yourself as the most worthy candidate rather than honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses. It can also lead to a “performance” mindset on the field: in order to justify and maintain employment you must satisfactorily produce. Producing, performing, and proving yourself are normative and central to employment—but they are not central to the gospel. The lines can get easily blurred here.


Unconscious Entitlement


In a world where most missionaries are (and have been, and will be) support-raised, fully-funded missionaries are the ones with the learning curve. Having all your needs automatically met is a vastly different experience than being a support-raised missionary. But if you’ve never been a support-raised missionary, you likely don’t have a clear understanding of such differences. Thus it’s easy to assume superiority.


Fully-funded missionaries, it is said, are free to focus on the “main things.” That opens the door for the assumption that support-raised missionaries labor in “lesser things”—and because of the emphasis on strategic performance, may themselves be lesser missionaries. In other words, as a fully-funded missionary you risk seeing your rare experience as the standard. And because your experience is defined by having all your needs automatically met, it’s frighteningly easy to develop a sense of unconscious entitlement.


Ironically, I wasn’t aware of this until I transitioned from fully-funded to support-raised. When I stepped out of the Land Cruiser, the Spirit used my sudden neediness to help realize my prior grumblings about lack of salary increase, unapproved budget expenses, limited vacation allowance, partially funded ministries, and unsatisfactory furlough allotment. I had no idea that entitlement had been gutting my gratitude. Beware.


Church Disconnection


Finally, being a fully-funded missionary often means your relationships with partner churches are broad and shallow. Many churches, almost all of them completely unknown to you, have given money to your organization to fund you. There is certainly beauty and benefit to such cooperation. The inevitable impact, however, is that you have no ongoing, reciprocal relationships with nearly all of those churches.


What interaction you do have, then, has to be leveraged largely to bolster giving to the organization. And even among the small number of churches with whom you do have relationships, those relationships are usually characterized more by optional partnership than deep dependence. In terms of the daily function and needs of your life and ministry, you simply don’t feel your need for them like a support-raised missionary.


From a pragmatic perspective, that’s freeing. From a New Testament perspective, that’s broken. Paul, even when working to supply his own needs so as not to be a burden to local churches (or to be bound by them), still maintained deep, ongoing, reciprocal relationships with them. Fully-funded missionaries can certainly cultivate such relationships as well. But in doing so they’ll be swimming upstream.


So, there is a brief overview of the Land Cruiser. In the spirit of Harry Boer’s words about missions organizations, fully-funded missions is “an abnormality. But it is a blessed abnormality.” It is a unique way to engage in God’s global mission, though we should be honest about its pros and cons. How, then, does it compare to support-raised missions? Well, stay tuned for more shape-learning in part two.


Support-Raised Missionaries


Thus far I have given consideration to both the benefits and unpleasant surprises of fully-funded missions. Mostly for fun, I described it as “the Land Cruiser,” with the appearance of all the bells and whistles. But what’s it like outside the Land Cruiser?


Well, I have also been a support-raised missionary. It’s pretty awesome too. I like to refer to it as “the rickshaw” because to Westerners it seems unimpressive and even risky. So here are some of the challenges, along with a few pleasant surprises.


Financial Insecurity


This is the definitive factor that naturally comes to mind (hence the categorical language of this article on the basis of finances). But it is actually less central to many support-raised missionaries than you might expect. Yes, in most instances, very little is covered by a partner organization. Thus there is the pre-field task of determining how much support needs to be raised to cover all the expenses of a term overseas (which must take into consideration dynamics like the country’s standard of living and the economic disparity between teammates from other countries). Then comes the work of raising that support (not simply in the form of one-time gifts, but the commitment of ongoing supporters). This is inevitably bound up with the missionary’s relational network and—in some regards—ethnicity (as minorities tend to have a harder time raising support).


That can be a heart-wrenching and exhausting process, especially while also carrying the normal demands of life. There is also the a-field task of maintaining support and seeking more support for unexpected needs. Then there is the post-field task of reevaluating and renewing support for the next term. Coming from Western culture in general, and particularly from the fully-funded perspective, this sounds like terrible financial insecurity.


But if you talk with support-raised missionaries, they rarely see it that way. Heart-wrenching, faith-building dependence on the Lord for their daily bread is a part of the journey that they may not always enjoy, but the fruit of which they would never trade. And it may be more reflective of the humble neediness of New Testament sent ones (Luke 9:58, 10:2-8; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10, 8:9).


Organizational Flexibility


What the support-raised missionary loses in terms of financial security, she gains in terms of organizational flexibility. Of course, this isn’t always the case (depending on the sending church and partner organization), but in general support-raised missionaries experience less intensive oversight. In fact, this even allows for them to go without a sending church, partner organization, or team. That means they can more fully lean into their own sense of calling, gifting, and experience to determine their location, values, objectives, and strategy.


They also more likely have the freedom to choose submission to a church, organization, or team apart from financial security. In some instances they even have a place at the table in leading those entities. However, lack of oversight can also result in a lack of clear direction or accountability. The denial of the Western value of financial security may just end up replaced with the Western value of individualism, which is not necessarily reflective of the triune God’s communal mission. Plus, severing oneself entirely from a sending church is not reflective of New Testament missiology. Support-raised missionaries do well to check their motives here.


Isolated Identity


Many support-raised missionaries choose to partner well. And when they do, they can get the best of both worlds: a sense of collective identity within the partner entities and a sense of collective identity with other support-raised missionaries. Sure, they may not share in the same application procedure, interview process, pre-field training, and financial regulations, but they do share the common experience of the rickshaw (and if you’ve ever ridden in a rickshaw then you know it can be a powerful shared experience!). Thus they more naturally have the ability to relate and co-labor with missionaries outside their doctrinal or strategic streams.


Unfortunately, not all support-raised missionaries choose to partner well, and this can lead to an isolated identity. It’s not clear how you’re part of something much bigger—and you can become satisfied with that. I know there’s a bad stereotype here, but it’s a bad stereotype for a reason. Beware being a lone ranger.


Personal Autonomy


This may seem like a repetition of the characteristics above, but the nuance is this: a support-raised missionary is not so much of an employee. There is no Land Cruiser to clamor into and stay inside. Therefore they can more naturally choose to honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses in the application process (I say “choose” because the opportunity remains to “prove” oneself).


They can also more easily choose to avoid a “performance” mindset on the field (again, I say “choose” because they can still carry the burden of “producing” for their financial supporters). Being faithful and fruitful certainly still hovers overhead—but employment does not. Although it may be counterintuitive, that kind of autonomy for missionaries can be freeing.


Unchecked Bitterness


If you’ve been in the Land Cruiser, then you know what you’re missing out on. If you’ve never been in the Land Cruiser and then you encounter those who are in it, you become aware of what you’re missing out on. In those instances, support-raised missionaries may be glad that they’re missing out on certain things. Yet at the same time, they may find themselves embittered by what they don’t have.


This can be especially true if they have been rejected by the Land Cruiser at some point. Some missionary candidates never recover from such rejection, assuming the Land Cruiser is the only way (or the superior way) to be a missionary. The bitterness that can grow from these scenarios may include, on one end, an inferior sense of identity, or on the other end, a superior sense of one’s faith. As we are warned in Ephesians 4:31 and Hebrews 12:15, watch out for unchecked bitterness.


Church Connection


Finally, being a support-raised missionary usually means your relationships with partner churches are narrow and deep. Unless your support base is merely with individuals, you will likely seek financial partnership with as many churches as possible (obviously, they have the capacity to be bigger givers than most individuals). And if you are being financially supported by a church, in most cases you have developed a relationship with it, and will want to maintain that relationship long term.


Yes, whether with individual or church partners, that means visiting them, communicating with them, praying for them, being open with them, and depending on them. Thus you are more naturally inclined to be church-centric than most fully-funded missionaries. That opens the door to move from just financial support to strategic partnership. And it widens the impact of your ministry (both “over there” and “back home”). Of course, that takes more time and effort. But if the Bible teaches the centrality of the local church in God’s global mission, then it ought to be reflected in missionaries’ relationships with local churches—and especially their sending church!


Conclusion


Now for a disclaimer: throughout this comparison I have made many generalities. If you’ve been reading thoughtfully as a fully-funded missionary or a support-raised missionary (or simply as a strong proponent of either), I would imagine that you have noted many exceptions to the rules. You may even have been outright offended. But that was not the intent of this article. Ultimately my desire was to communicate this:


Premise: To Westerners it's natural to think that being fully-funded is superior to being support-raised.


Reality: Most of the world’s missionaries, however, are (and have been, and will be) support-raised.


Thesis: Being fully-funded is actually not superior to being support-raised. Both are unique. And God is in them.


So, fully-funded missions or support-raised missions? Well, either way, it’s still missions—even if it comes in different shapes.


This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective: Part 1 and Part 2.

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