The “Price” of Being a Missionary. Or…”Did You REALLY Need That?!?”

This last Summer, we visited the States for the first time since moving to the Philippines. We were invited to speak at a handful of home groups, to share what we do overseas, show a slideshow, you know, the usual “tour”. Being able to reconnect to old friends, and make new ones, was so needed, and refreshing for us. One evening, after spending time at a church that has been very supportive of us, a lady visiting from out of state approached us and handed us a check for $100.00. She gave us specific instructions to use it for “fun time together as a family”. I don’t think she truly understood the significance, or the impact her gift made.

It’s no secret, most missionaries live on financial support from other individuals, churches, and organizations. Some, like us, are “tent makers”, and we are able to supplement our income with personal funding from our business. This is becoming more and more common, but it’s still a very small minority, and most missionaries raise funds on their own. Fortunately, the handful of people who support us on a regular basis are awesome, and we couldn’t do what we do without their financial, emotional, or spiritual support. I don’t say this to keep them happy or avoid the risk of ruffling feathers, but it really is true. We are blessed with a remarkable group of people in our lives. Unfortunately, very often “gifts” are given with strings, er, chains, attached.

I often wonder why some people who “give” to missionaries suddenly feel entitled to delegate, control, or judge every decision the recipient makes. I understand if a donor wants their funding to go to a particular area, such as kids ministry, human trafficking, etc. But, if the person you’re donating to isn’t involved in one of those areas, please understand that, and support them where they are at. If you feel passionate in one area, find a person or group that shares your passion, don’t try to change heart of the person you are supporting. We are not all called to help everywhere. God puts a call on each of us, we don’t all serve in the same areas. That’s the beauty of diversity, God places us right where He wants us. I also know accountability is important. I am all for financial reports, and I see no reason why a missionary shouldn’t feel comfortable opening their books for all to see. Oh wait, I can think of one little, bitty, tiny reason. Because they are judged on every cent they spend. You went to Starbucks? You took you kids to the beach for the day? You think you need to move to a safer neighborhood? Well, that house costs an extra $50 a month, and I don’t think you really need that extra bathroom, do you? I hear the frustration from other missionaries again and again, and it seems to be on the rise. Missionaries are terrified to post a picture of eating out at a restaurant (that in all reality, probably costs about the same as fixing a meal at home), showing pictures of our kids at the beach in their latest newsletter (a day trip that probably costs less than $20 here, heck, hubby and I recently did it for $7!), or admit that they own a color television. I have heard stories of people literally pulling support after seeing a picture on facebook or in a newsletter of missionaries having…gulp…fun.

It's got a roof, windows, four walls and a door! You missionaries are just tooo picky! (photo credit:www.thisismoney.co.uk)
It’s got a roof, windows, four walls and a door! You missionaries are just tooo picky! (photo credit: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk)

One thing families and couples are told over and over is “it’s absolutely essential to take care of your family and marriage while overseas!”. Then, when they actually do, they are being flagrant and extravagant. I guess “taking care of your family” means “sit in your home in the low rent district, slapping mosquitos away while sitting under a dim light bulb playing charades.” Missionaries often dream of having their children follow in their footsteps, and create multiple generations of a family that serves overseas, if they aren’t already part of a missionary lineage. Wow, I can’t think of a better way to encourage kids to carry on the family legacy than to never have any fun, family time, or an occasional splurge, can you? And for couples, forget it. Not only have they abandoned their kids for a day or two, but they are spending time away, alone, together? Ludicrous! If you’re strong enough to survive the plush missions field, by golly, you’re strong enough to have an marriage that never needs work, right?! I won’t go into the stresses of missionary life, it’s been hashed and rehashed over and over, and yes, I understand everyone, everywhere, has stress. But, most of those in the “western world” have an outlet to deal with it. In fact, most employees of companies who work overseas are given extra pay, free housing, bonus vacations, a whole myriad of benefits to deal with the stress of being away from their homeland. Pastors who take a family vacation to Disneyland or go on an expensive cruise “deserve it” (to which I agree) because of the exceptional pressures of pastoring a church. But, if people don’t see the stress firsthand, it doesn’t exist. 

What people think when a missionary says "we went to the beach with the kids for the day". I love our little beach, inexpensive, but simple!
What people think when a missionary says “we went to the beach with the kids for the day”. I love our little beach, inexpensive, but simple!

We live in an area that has a high density of missionaries, that work with several different organizations around the world. I can assure you. Very few are living a life of luxury, or even what most Americans would consider middle class. Most of us, even those “fully funded”, live an extremely modest lifestyle. You want to know why we post pictures of us at Starbucks or at the beach? Because it’s usually so dang rare. Remember, facebook is the highlight reel, not our everyday lives. And, if most families are like us, they’ve made a trade off to make the fun happen. If we splurge on something crazy like a movie or bowling, we end up eating a few cheaper meals that week to fill the gap. Oh, did I mention movies here are about $5, new releases included? I did the math, and if our family of 3 goes out for a movie night, we spend approximately 0.08% of our monthly budget. That includes refreshments. If hubby and I grab Starbucks, and we each buy a drink? About 0.03%. Not a bad investment into our relationship. I am going to go out on a limb here…I might be wrong…but sometimes I wonder if the judgement comes in due to the fact that movies, beach trips and restaurants are cheaper, and therefore it’s easier for us to do it here than in the States? And that’s “just not fair”? Don’t worry, there are a few things easier and cheaper to do in the Western World than in the Third World. Just a few. But, we’ll just call it a wash.

The ultimate in excessive, over the top flagrance, right?
The ultimate in excessive, over the top flagrance, right?

Of course, there are exceptions, but aren’t there exceptions to everything? Yes, we hear about the missionaries who collect their monthly support, spend tons of time “strategizing” and planning, and really have nothing to show for their ministries. Yeah, I’ve heard about them too. They’re rare. Don’t assume everyone is like that. You have to be able to trust the person you’re donating to! If you don’t trust them to the point that you can’t give with no strings attached, maybe you should be giving elsewhere. Honestly, I think they’d rather say “no thanks” than be held prisoner over a donation. It’s weird that people have no issue giving to the big nonprofits, assuming that “they’re trustworthy”, without researching their percentages. Check them sometime. Most have a 50% or better administrative overhead. I’m being generous on the numbers, I know a handful that sit at well over 90%, I won’t name them here, but a simple google search will reveal some startling facts. But, when a missionary spends a fraction of a percent to take their kids to a movie or grab a cup of coffee on date night with their spouse, they feel like they have to hide it. I have been out with friends that sit under the thumb of donors, and they worry about if someone finds out they went out for the evening. Good grief, it feels like we’re high schoolers sneaking out of our parents’ house to go to a rave.

I would totally sneak out to hang with Morgan Freeman...
I would totally sneak out to have coffee with Morgan Freeman…

Like I said, we are partially funded and our donors are awesome. But, when our new friend gave us a license to go have some fun this past Summer, we were overwhelmed. She got it. Somehow, she understood. When we do something fun, there is an occasional twinge of unnecessary guilt, just knowing and seeing what we see. I know donors are an incredibly vital, necessary part of serving overseas, don’t think I am downplaying their importance. Not at all. Please just know that most people do the best they can to be amazing stewards of the gifts they are given, and do the best they can to serve others, serve God, and take care of themselves and their families. It’s not an easy act to juggle, which is why we need not only your help financially, but ongoing prayers, and emotional support. Despite the frustrations, we are all so thankful for the role our support system plays.

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6 thoughts on “The “Price” of Being a Missionary. Or…”Did You REALLY Need That?!?”

  1. Those stateside forget to add up the times they rush by McDonald’s etc or order pizza because they had a rough day. We may go out to eat once every three or four months. Bless their hearts!

  2. I live in Davao and all but a couple of the american missionaries live much above the life of the average Filipino. Missionaries may not believe that they live extravagant compared to their home country, but compared to us it is extremely so. I never been to starbucks and only movies two times in my life 😦 . This is why I never give to the church I attend because it is started and pastored by an american missionary. He has a super nice house and suv and takes his big family on trips all the time. so he can support it himself with american donation. I don’t think missionaries know how it hurts us to see them live like this and still ask us to give money to support their church. you need post your budget to compare, mine less than P6000 a month and more than most of my friends in Davao and I work six days a week. what yours?

  3. Sorry, don’t agree. Missionaries SHOULD be accountable for the money they are getting to do the work they are choosing to do, simply because it IS a role that demands living off someone else and getting handouts. My parents were missionaries (Thailand where I was born), I was a missionary (Colombia, SA), my sister and her husband (PNG and Thailand) were missionaries.

    From what I have lived and learned in my 42 years, is that if a first world country missionary is going to a 3rd world country to live and work, then they need to live like the nationals as closely as possible. I also strongly disagree with missionaries who go overseas to do a work and never leave, and never hand over the work to nationals to run themselves, whether that’s a church planting, orphanage work whatever. The whole idea would be to relinquish the control and responsibilities to the nationals and move on to anther work.

    In my lifetime, and experience I have seen many more missionaries who are abusing the role and not being accountable for the financial support they are claiming when putting up their hand to be in that role. It is what it is and thus should be accepted as such. Doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy their support, but they need to realise that even in this (ESP in this area) how they live and spend that support/handout is a HUGE testimony to the people they are serving both in the country they go to and back home, not to mention God Himself.

  4. Thank you for this article.
    I agree with Hope, doesn’t God want all of us to be accountable for our actions. We are not to judge a person by that action, but if you are heavily supporting a missionary, and you feel uncomfortable with some of their decisions, there is nothing wrong with expressing your observation, and simply ask for clarity. I see supporting a missionary like supporting a chuch. And if you see a church not being accountable as a whole, with the money being received, it’s ok to question for clarity.
    Being involved first hand with a missionary family that lives in the states, and lives a very lavish lifestyle, in an area filled with proverty, I became very uncomfortable being around them. It was painful to see the “toys” and the excessitivity that existed, and that excessitivity was prevalent in comparison to a person not living as a missionary. Within miles from their home lived families barely able to put food on their table, yet this missionary family lived over the top. When acquiring about some excessiveness, the wife become extremely defensive and came across not with an attitude of gratitude from her financial donors, but from an attitude of entitlement.

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