“Dear Ministry Partners,
A little more than 40 days ago I was abandoned by all of my followers, condemned as a criminal, and publicly executed. I really had a tough week. However, the tomb I was once in is now empty, and I have since shown Myself and My glorified body to more than 500 people! I’m happy to report that, as a result, I am now running about 120 followers (though we would have liked to see more, given the uniqueness of the resurrection event). You should know that the only place we have to meet is a hot, stinky upper room. Sure, we’d love to have a better meeting place, but we want you to know that we’re not just spending your money willy-nilly. Anyway, pray for us, and please keep sending money.
This is what it might have looked like had the risen Christ had to write the ancient equivalent of our modern-day missionary support letters. If you’ve ever had to raise money as a church planter or cross-cultural missionary, you know how awkward writing such letters can be.
If you’re on the receiving end of those letters, you may wonder why so few of them feel authentic or meaningful. While they certainly serve an important purpose ‒ keeping supporters, prayer partners, and family members up to date on our ministry ‒ I often wonder if the benefits justify the costs; both to those who write and also those who read them.
Integrity of the Mission
One of the costs is to the integrity of the work itself that both the church planter and the supporter are partnering in. As one who’s written many of these letters, I can tell you that many missionaries are trying to justify the worthiness of our work in every support letter we write.
Though none of our readers has ever told us that we need to do this, we nonetheless feel that one of the primary purposes of the letter is to convince hundreds of ministry partners of this: “You are not wasting your money, and you should continue to support the work.”
In pursuit of that goal, we stressfully search our memory banks for a conversation we had, an event we put on, or a ministry we are starting that might illustrate the worthiness of our work. Sometimes that search is quick and easy, other times it is painstakingly difficult; at nearly all times it feels gross and dirty.
Why? Because we’re acutely aware that in so doing we’re transforming what was originally a service motivated by love into a commercial motivated, in part, by self-interest. One of the great dangers of the modern missionary support letter is that we turn our ministry into a product to be sold as opposed to a mission to be prayed for and invested in.
Integrity of the Relationships
A second cost is to the integrity of the relationship between church planter and partner. As we write our ministry updates, we often intentionally omit the pieces of our life and ministry that don’t “sell.”
For instance, since one of the primary purposes of the letter is to convince people to continue giving, we wonder if it is wise to share the entirety of our experience. We may hesitate to share our failures, because we fear it will make the “product” of our ministry less attractive, thus leading us to either ignore them altogether or minimize them as we recount them.
This is especially destructive as it means our ministry partners do not have the privilege of praying for us during the times our souls and our ministries need it most. We may also hesitate to share certain struggles from our personal lives for fear that being honest about struggles in marriage, parenting, or faith might lead our partners to believe we are distracted at best and unqualified at worst.
This means the people who most want to help us are robbed of the opportunity to do so. Right or wrong, we’re convinced that no one wants to read a monthly support letter filled with stories of doubt, fear, relational tension, disappointment, and failure. But these are present in the life and ministry of every church planter.
We thus fall into a pattern of “deception by omission” that creates distance between church planter and partner.
Ministry of the Mundane
In addition to the temptation to avoid sharing the harder parts of our life and ministry, we also often feel shame about some of the more mundane aspects that the aforementioned involves. Starting a church from nothing is usually a slow process.
This process includes countless days spent doing things that simply don’t “pop” in a support letter: adapting to a new city or culture, getting to know neighbors and local businesses, going on a retreat to build trust between key leaders, learning a new language, as well as a seemingly endless series of trips to the local café to meet with the most recent spiritual seeker who may or may not decide that they ever want to talk to us again (much less participate in the life of the church we are hoping to plant in order to reach them).
At times, we feel shame about spending so much time doing things that take so long to bear fruit, given that every month we’re receiving money from supporters who desire to see kingdom results. Other times we feel shame for spending any amount of money to rest or enjoy life with our family. We know that these things are paid for using money generously given to fund our ministry. What would people say if they knew we spent several hundred dollars to take our kids to an amusement park after months of putting up with our ministry-saturated schedule?
This shame over how we spend our time or money often leads us to “edit” our lives, thereby robbing supporters of the opportunity to truly know us. When we do this, we make a tragic trade; we give up true Christian partnership for a shallow exchange of information and money.
Share Your (Real) Life
I believe we need a healthier system for raising support. Until then, I recommend that church planters take the risk of telling potential partners up front that “exciting” ministry updates will likely be few and far between. But the updates will still come, because we are more interested in sharing our lives than we are in selling our ministries.
Similarly, I recommend that supporters assure their missionary partners that they are far more interested in the relationship than they are in the results. If we can trust in our Lord’s provision enough to do this, I trust God will be glorified through the means of our ministry no matter the measure of it.
This was first published on The Gospel Coalition.