Cross-cultural expatriate missionaries pay a price for their calling. They must learn a new language and culture, leave their family, and develop a new circle of friends. They generally have to wait years to raise financial support. Depending upon their adopted location, they may be liable to exotic diseases, dysfunctional infrastructure, and increased exposure to lawlessness or religious hostility. In developed locations, they may experience almost total indifference. They should go only if impelled by God.
Sending these missionaries can pose other problems, particularly if the total amounts being sought seem outsized to the average American, and celestial to nationals. Some excellent agencies give no jolt, while others fix bewildering support numbers. Given, most ministry costs money, so having more money than those served is necessary—but is most of the extra for ministry, or for the missionary and the agency? Missionaries are ultimately accountable to the Lord, not to my standards of what is “reasonable.” However, I am accountable to the Lord for the use of funds entrusted to me, so must make a value judgement as to whether or not a figure makes sense to me.
Not all missionaries go to the poor of the earth. It's legitimate to go to the middle class and to the upper classes, and to developed nations that have largely rejected Jesus. What economic gap is created by huge missionary incomes among the poor and middle-classes? Mahatma Gandhi said: "I have told my missionary friends, 'Noble as you are, you have isolated yourselves from the people you want to serve.'"1 As Jonathan Bonk put it: "How can the economically secure and lavishly materially accoutered missionary teach the poor--with any degree of credibility--about simplicity, generosity, contentment, or the costly sacrifice entailed in all genuine discipleship?”2
At some point the question of Jesus' lifestyle surfaces. To me there is a huge disconnect, for example, between the riches of the Vatican and the poverty of the life of Jesus and the apostles. God gives us richly all things to enjoy, and not all are called to a vow of poverty. But wealth usually creates economic and social distance with the relatively poor. East African missionary David Picton Jones (1860-1936) wrote to his agency: “Our life is far above them, and we are surrounded by things entirely beyond their reach. The consequence is, that they...cannot follow us....”3
While we reject the so-called “prosperity gospel”, do some Western missionaries unintentionally promote it? Becoming a Christian may be financially advantageous. African theologian John Mbiti wrote: “African Christians still regard the missionary or his home church overseas as 'omniscient' in all matters pertaining to Christian faith; as the 'omnipotent' in money and wealth."4 Disciples are supposed to become like their teachers.
Some missionaries are concerned that their incomes don't create distance, and decide to go with agencies that have more moderate support levels. It's possible for a missionary to go to the field with a reputable agency with half of what another agency requires. It's not unusual for missionaries going to European nations to raise a multiple of two to almost three times the average gross income of nationals, with packages of at least $125,000 per year. When going to African countries, that multiple can be forty times, with similar packages.5 Support levels for missionary couples going to the same European nation in the same year can vary by $50,000, per year. A survey of 5 large mission agencies revealed that none of them referenced missionary salaries to incomes of nationals in target countries, when determining missionary compensation.6
When challenged about support levels, missionaries sometimes admit that they also seem unreasonably high to them, but it's what their agency dictates. However, no missionary is forced to go through a particular agency. Like a car, they select the vehicle that best fits them.
Some agencies let the missionary determine the level of support. Mission agencies typically add a percentage to missionary support levels to fund home office personnel and functions. This can vary from about 5-18% or more. At least one mission has administrative staff that raise their own support, reducing those costs.7 For a missionary going to Europe, this can translate to $15,000 per year going to the agency. While I can't impute unethical motives, it is in the interest of the home office to have high missionary support levels, and to keep them on the field. I know of a retired couple going to the field for the first time, who did not need to be supported financially, except to cover mission administrative costs. However, their agency tried to get them to raise between $100-120,000 per year, anyway. A 2016 survey of 150 mission organization CEOs found that two of their six priorities for the next 3-5 years were “fundraising” and “new revenue sources.”8
Missionaries are constrained to maintain support levels, and often take 1 year in 5 to primarily keep and raise support. Missionaries can and have been pulled from the field to get their support back up to their assigned levels. A national ministry leader complained to me that missionaries regularly left their teaching posts for “home assignment,” creating a problem to replace them. I know another American missionary to Africa who has not left her village for the USA, for 8 years. She has no agency behind her (although I don't recommend that).
How can supporters determine what is reasonable missionary compensation? A good source is Numbeo.com, which gives average costs for many expenses on a global city-by-city basis. This provides an average for specific costs, such as rent and a dinner out, reported by residents. Another way is to ask for a complete breakdown of the missionary compensation package. Does the package create an outsized income, even by American standards, after compensating for travel and children's education? The Internet provides annual salary figures for many nations, for comparison. Other evangelical mission organizations could be contacted for a rough idea of what they stipulate for the same country, and size of family (or for a single). Missionaries should be asked if nationals are already available to do what they plan to do, and what advantage the US missionary might have over a national serving the same target audience, given that nationals know the language and culture.
In contrast to large Western missionary budgets and projects are Chinese house church leaders associated with the “Back to Jerusalem” movement. They intend to take the Great News, in turn, to Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, all the way back to Jerusalem.
We have noticed that many Christians in the West have an abundance of material possessions, yet they live in a backslidden state. They have silver and gold, but they don't rise up and walk in Jesus' name. In China few of us have any possessions to hold us down, so there’s nothing preventing us from moving out for the Lord…. We can't afford any big programs or fancy gospel presentations. All we have to give people is Jesus. We don't know how the Lord will provide for Back to Jerusalem, but we are determined that our eyes will be focused on the hand of God and not on human hands.9
1 Jonathan J. Bonk. 1991. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western missionary problem. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. p. 45.
2 Bonk, p. 79.
3 Bonk, p. 10.
4 Bonk, p. xiv.
5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage www.numbeo.com
6 Bob Waldron, “How Much is Adequate?: In search of equitable missionary compensation.” https://missionexus.org/how-much-is-adequate-in-search-of-equitable-missionary-compensation/ accessed 8/30/18.
8 https://missionexus.org/2016-mission-ceo-survey-traversing-the-global-landscape/ Peggy E. Newell, ed. North American Mission Handbook: US and Canadian Protestant Ministries Overseas 2017-2019. p. 39.
9 Brother Yun, et al. 2003. Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese church leaders share their vision to complete the great commission. Tyrone, Ga.: Authentic Publishing. p. 89.