The following guest post is by Scott Bessenecker. Scott serves at the Associate Director of Missions for InterVarsity. The views he expresses here are his own. The author of multiple books, including The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor, Scott is an insightful missions strategist. I have quoted him earlier in this series. His new book, Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian Industrial Complex, will be out in October. For more info, please see the following blog series Scott wrote: The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures.
(The picture above is a painting of a Dutch trading vessel from 1762.)
The Protestant world’s connection with for-profit styled organizational structures dates back to the early 1600s when the first limited liability corporations were forming. The East Indies trading companies emerging from countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands were founded and run by devout Protestants. Protestants were, by and large, the architects of both early capitalistic ventures and of the modern non-profit organization. William Carey, one of the early Protestant missionaries, used the commercial trading society as the template for the missionary society he founded.1 The capitalist business structure and Protestant mission were wed long ago. Thus, a parachurch organizational model, founded upon the idea of doing mission by using the capital investment of middle class or wealthy people, is in our organizational ancestry.
Turning around this capitalist, business-shaped, organizational paradigm is no small feat. Funding our mission from wealthy and middle class benefactors has been a pillar of parachurch mission for hundreds of years. Add to this the ways in which income disparity has grown in recent years, concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands, and we will find that funding people who are not well-connected to the middle and upper class a profound challenge.
But is widening the parachurch staffing pool to include ethnic minorities and those cut off from wealth impossible? Certainly not. The majority of Christian mission for the past 2,000 years has been conducted by “ordinary and unschooled” men and women. “… not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (I Cor. 1:26).
Here are a few ideas which could move parachurch ministries further down the road of attracting and retaining qualified ministers who are either ethnic minorities or not well-connected to the middle class.
￼1. The Bi-Vocational Option: This is standard fare for ethnic minority urban church pastors, but relatively un-accommodated and only marginally tolerated in the white parachurch world.
I think that a more aggressive approach to make space for bi-vocational ministers without burning them out would open the door for many. How might we work around a variety of employment situations? Are there best practices from those who have tried and failed or tried and succeeded from which we can learn? Are there business owners or industry professionals who would be willing to work with parachurche ministries to create healthy options for the bi-vocational minister? Are parachurch ministries willing to spin off businesses which could supplement the incomes of our bi-vocational ministers?
2. Creative In-kind Giving: Parachurch ministries might focus more energy on calling ministry partners who may not be able or interested in giving money but who could help reduce living expenses of our ministers. I know a developing world Christian leader, for instance, who lives rent-free due to the generosity of a poor friend whose family owns the apartment in which he lives. A YWAM ministry I know is in fellowship with a local restaurant owner who gifts the YWAMers one meal per day. Intentional communities who share a common purse or work together to pool their resources might be able to free someone up to minister part or full time. I think we could open up our imaginations simply by drawing enough people together to explore these options.
3. Redistribution: I realize that redistribution is a dirty word in some circles, but the fact remains that wealth has been be very poorly distributed, and those who have been cut out of wealth for generations have so much to contribute to mission if they could only be released to full or part time ministry. Some organizations (my own included) take a percentage of all donations and release this to our minority communities to bolster the funding of good ministers who simply have little access to the enclaves of wealth in this country. Just how much redistribution is necessary and the mechanisms for redistribution are likely to differ from parachurch to parachurch, but it should be an ongoing and open discussion, and the minority communities should be given the greater say in this process. Which leads me to my final point.
4. Turn the Purse Strings Over to the Excluded: In Acts 6 the excluded community (Greek speakers) received the short end of the stick when funds were distributed for their poor widows. The solution was that the Apostles (the “included” Hebrew speakers) released control of the funds to those who were being overlooked. They choose a handful of godly leaders (all Greek names) to take charge of the common purse, trusting they would not commit reverse discrimination and short change the Hebrew speaking widows. Parachurch ministries should release, or heavily involve, godly, minority leaders in policy-making decisions around finances.
Obviously there are a variety of governmental regulations by which we must abide, but our financially excluded friends are quite capable of navigating these regulations, particularly if experienced white leaders partner carefully without shutting down creative options with a “that-won’t-work” knee-jerk reaction to alternatives.
We live in a broken world where wealth has concentrated into relatively few hands. One of the consequences is that wise, talented and godly individuals who could dramatically advance our mission find it extremely difficult to pay the entrance fee to mission. To compound this, most Protestant churches and parachurch ministries are founded upon a predominantly white, predominantly capitalist worldview. We have constructed resource-driven, individualistic, for-profit shaped organizations that work well for white and middle class ministers but not so well for ethnic minority staff.
Addressing this systemic inequity will be painful and messy. Likely there will be many mistakes along the way. But until we create a more severe attempt at partnership between the haves and the have-nots, our ministries will continue to exclude too many capable, gifted leaders.
I say we take the commercial vessels we’ve been sailing our ministries upon and chart a new course.
photo credit: public domain
- “Carey, as a Protestant rejecting the Catholic, monastic forms of mission, had no ecclesiastical structures to look to for guidance. So, he proposed a mission society based largely upon the model of secular trading societies, which were being organized for commercial purposes.” Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 261 [↩]