Missionary finance: boon or bane?

The history of Seventh-day Adventism places Jesus’ Great Commission at the very heartbeat of its existence. Today the church has planted its logo in 215 of the 237 countries and areas of the world that are recognized by the United Nations.

Hundreds of missionaries have left the comfort of their homes to take Christ to the nations of the world. We are one of the most dedicated and active Christian missionary agencies on the planet.

Our world church statistics of 2012-2013 indicate that we had nearly 18,000,000 baptized members worshipping in 75,000 churches, increasing at a rate of over 1 million baptisms annually. Over 18,000 active ordained ministers and 255,000 employees serve those congregations and its institutions. We operate close to 8000 schools with a total enrollment exceeding 1,800,000.

We run food industries, hospitals and sanitariums, nursing homes and retirement centers, publishing houses, TV and radio stations, clinics and dispensaries, orphanages and children's homes, aviation organizatiions and medical launches.

We treated over 17 million outpatients in 2012. We have our own UN recognized NGO (Non Governmental Organization), international agency, ADRA, that provided aid of $246,088,214 to beneficiaries of 1,294 projects in more than 120 countries.

The total tithe and offerings income, reported for 2012 was a staggering $3,276,600,259. All this money is meant for the propagation of the Good News about a loving God and the soon return of Jesus so people around the world will be ready to meet Him when He comes on the clouds of Heaven and as many as possible will thus inherit the New Earth.

Whether we talk about Missions at Home or Missions Overseas, money is an integral part of how we conduct Missions. The late Adventist Missiologist, Dr Borge Schantz, who was advisor to my D.Min. dissertation project, “Towards the Financial Self-Support of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Egypt” (Cairo, 1994), stated that “Missionary finance is perhaps one of the most important, but also most complicated and sensitive issues contemporary missionary agencies have to face.”

I have often wondered why our members have little interest in church finance in general, and missionary finance in particular, especially due to the fact that it would appear more is said about money, wealth and possessions than anything else in the New Testament.

The establishing and running of the Seventh-day Adventist church in any given part of the world, involves finances. However, Jesus didn’t mention money in the Great Commission. Church governing bodies therefore devise practices that soon become policies to finance their vast evangelistic outreach.

Along with the management and handling of money comes complications which can easily hinder the mission of the church with the potential to stifle the very reason and purpose for which that money was given in the first place.

Unless we are aware of the dangers inherent in the handling of missionary finance and we lay a solid foundation based on sound biblical principles, we will be wasting precious God-given resources and unintentionally slowing down the spread of the Gospel instead.

In Adventism, money to run our world-wide evangelism program has come largely, over the years, from the mother church in the USA. However, one cannot assume that just because an unabated dollar manna keeps on pouring from Washington DC to say, Burkina Faso, Egypt, or to other still dependent mission fields for decades on end, that it will genuinely help in the symmetrical growth and development of the church in those countries.

Although I have served in all sorts of capacities over three decades in Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso (where I pioneered the work of our church), Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Scotland, New Zealand, and England, I will focus my observations on Egypt to underscore the harm that results from keeping a national church financially and leadership-wise dependent upon the mother church, over time. 

Adventists arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1877. The church was formally organized by L. R. Conradi in 1901. Over nine decades on, in 1992, 78 percent of the church's operating budget originated from the General Conference, Headquarters of the World Church.

The president of the church in Egypt, the treasurer, and one of the departmental directors, were all expatriates from the UK and the USA. In other words, the church was still reliant for its survival and its operation on Western missionaries and Western funds, nearly a century after it had been officially established.

Money is often given with the best of intentions by Adventist members from wealthy Western nations to finance the mission of the church in poorer and economically depressed countries. However, where principles of reliance on God, accountability, transparency, responsibility, the main purpose of what those funds are for, and the empowering of the recipients of those funds to no longer depend on them, is not taught and practiced by the missionaries, mission will be impacted and suffer.

Ongoing economic and leadership dependency of national churches on Western churches has a way of robbing its recipients of dignity and the incentive to practice financial biblical stewardship, take leadership responsibilities, and do what is in the best interests of the growth of the church. When an ethos of financial helplessness, spiritual lethargy, evangelistic apathy, and leadership inertia sets in, we know we have a problem that needs addressing.

Quoting Glenn Schwartz, Marvin Newell writes, “…the bane of money from affluent cultures indiscriminately given to national initiatives, and one of its greatest dangers, is the creating of long-term crippling dependency (2007).”

According to Walbert Buhlman, in his foreword to Professor Jonathan J Bonk’s book, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited writes, “A basic argument of this book is that an imbalance in the relative wealth of evangelizer-missionaries and those among whom they work distorts the transmission and inculturation of the gospel.” There are alarm bells ringing here and there among missiologists about the dangers of missionary finance.

A detailed analysis of Adventist church finance in Egypt revealed that only 2.5 percent of revenues was spent on evangelism, the main reason for the existence of the church. The lion's share of the budget, or 87.59 percent, was spent on wages, administration, and the Nile Union Academy. In other words, the church was introverted, spending just about all of its American funded appropriations on itself.

Having listened to several Egyptian Adventist members over the years (1989-1995), when I was Field President, I learned several reasons why, in their estimation, after a century of work the church was still so heavily reliant financially and leadership-wise on the mother church, and what were their feelings regarding those two issues so tied up with the health and growth of their church. I was told the following:

  1. A mother is always a mother. She has to take care of her children. If the mother is rich, she has a greater responsibility to share with them.
  2. The lifestyle of missionaries clearly shows that we belong to a rich church. The rich have to share with the poor.
  3. I would rather give my tithe to ministers of other churches who need it more than to our own pastors who are wellpaid by any standards. Some failed to return their tithes because they perceived that their pastors were overpaid. In comparison to what the average village church member earned, they were right--otherwise not. There were astute business church members and other professionals who had far higher incomes than their pastors.
  4. Missionaries have built churches, schools, care homes, etc. They must now give us the money to maintain them.
  5. Missionaries have to make sure the money their countries send us is not mismanaged but is spent according to their policies. Hence we do understand that they have to occupy positions where they can exercise that authority. We are not responsible for that. They also need to pay for utilities (electricity, water, and gas bills) to maintain the churches they built. 
  6. To have the Adventist church in Egypt become financially and administratively self-reliant would be a good thing, in principle, but not something to aspire to, or work towards. It should even be discouraged since it gives an opportunity for the rich Americans to share with the poor Egyptians and that can only be good for both parties.
  7. The church would not be able to function if missionaries would leave and appropriations from the mother church would cease. This of course is a myth. Some of the wealthiest, most intelligent and generous Adventists I have ever met over the years are from the Middle East in general, and Egypt in particular. Sadly though, most of them live in the Loma Linda area. It's been said that there are more Middle Eastern Seventh-day Adventists living in California than there are living throughout the whole of the Middle East. However, we do have a core of Adventists in the Middle East region that have been blessed with sufficient wealth and leadership giftedness to grow and develop their church in their respective countries without having to rely on outside sources. 

In a survey which I conducted, 56 percent of Egyptian Adventist members were of the opinion that the Egyptian church should be totally, or partially, financially dependent on the mother church. A meager 5 percent of respondents supported the concept of the financial self-reliance of the Egyptian Adventist church. The others were undecided.

There is an ambivalence about missionaries among the nationals. On the one hand they quite like the fact that missionaries come with money, and they can open doors of opportunity for them to eventually move to a western country (especially the USA) but, on the other hand, they feel that too much time is wasted in translation since most missionaries cannot function in Arabic, and that, at the end of the day, nothing of real significance is accomplished by missionaries anyhow.

Even though the above picture may seem somber, there was a willingness and a desire on the part of members to be educated and discipled in a biblical and better way. The habit of financial dependence on outside help and the idea that the church can be run only by missionaries is solidly embedded in the psyche and culture of the Egyptian Adventist church. Members have developed that mindset because pastors have encouraged it, and pastors function that way because the world church has been most generous for a century with its finances and leadership personnel.

Although Egyptian Adventists have forever lived under the illusion that the financing of their church’s operation was the permanent responsibility of rich, North American Adventists, there was a slow but sure realization that this is not really a healthful situation after all. Some have started to realize that there is a better and more wholesome way forward. In conclusion, these are some of the recommendations:

  1. Conduct an ongoing biblical stewardship educational program.
  2. Change the culture of the church by educating members and employees to understand that the church is not a “milking cow," an employing agency or organization, or a mother/father figure who is duty bound to care for the material needs of their helpless children. The church is not a place where one takes, but rather where one gives.
  3. Set up income generating projects that will supplement tithes and offerings, if necessary.
  4. Restore the trust factor between church members and administration.
  5. Teach the church officials and the local churches to be financially self-reliant, responsible and accountable.
  6. Take concrete and definitive steps to eradicate the subculture dependency mentality that has plagued the church for generations.
  7. Reduce General Conference appropriations gradually, over not more than a decade, until it is no longer needed to operate the church there.

Missionary finance is a blessing in the setting up of the Advent Movement in any given country of the world provided the new converts are taught, from day one and continually, biblical principles of wholesome financial reliance and national leadership giftedness, as they put their total trust in God to bless and prosper them as they work hand-in-hand with Him. 

Missionary finance robs national churches of God's abundant, spiritual, and other blessings when they are kept in a  permanent position of unhealthy dependency vis-à-vis the wealthier western Adventist church.

Emeritus Pastor Claude Lombart writes from Kent, England, where he cares for his 89 year-old disabled mother. He served the church from 1977-2011 in various capacities in: Ghana (student missionary), Togo, the People’s Republic of Benin, Burkina Faso (President), Egypt (President), The East Mediterranean Field: Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (President), Scotland (district pastor), New Zealand (district pastor) and England (district pastor).

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