Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Should Missionaries be Poor?

So I've been pondering this question: "Should missionaries be poor?"

I have been looking at this idea from two different perspectives:
  1. Having spent much of my life NOT as a missionary, I generally assumed that missionaries WERE poor, but I had not questioned whether or not they OUGHT to be so. What I now realize is that many missionaries may appear poor because they live in impoverished countries and serve impoverished people. In that case a missionary may chose a more simple lifestyle to better minister to those he/she go to serve.
  2. Having now become a missionary, I have met a great deal of missionaries who seem to think they SHOULD be poor since they are missionaries. But the missionaries I am meeting are not in a third world country, and they are not serving impoverished people. So should they really BE poor?
The thought that plagues me is this: What if I am living more extravagantly than those who are making sacrifices to support me? That thought makes me sick to my stomach. I mean I did get to go skiing in the Alps over Christmas vacation. Is that right? Should missionaries ski?

But then again, doesn't perspective play a role? You see, I FEEL like I am living a life of luxury in so many ways. And compared to much of the world, I am. I have running water, a warm bed, and electricity (most of the time!). But I bet if my American friends were to evaluate my everyday living situation, they would not call my life "luxurious." For example, we only have one car and we live in an 800 sq. ft. apartment. I don't know a single American family of four who lives like that. And I am not complaining...I really do feel blessed, it just occurred to me that we live differently than we did before we came on the mission field.

And I wonder how much of a persons' economic situation--whether missionary or not--boils down to personal choices. I mean we make a lot of choices to economize in some areas so that we can splurge in others. Don't you? We don't have cable T.V., we rarely eat out, we never go to movies, and we do our own taxes. We choose to save money in those areas because we love to travel, and we would rather save on some little day to day things so that we can spring for the occasional grand adventure.

Finally, a lot of a person's economic situation has to do with attitude. A lot of missionaries (and some non-missionaries, too!) have a bit of a "poverty" mentality. They think that they CAN'T afford things, and they seems to focus on THOSE things.

When my kids were little and we were in a store, and they asked, "Mommy, can I have this?" I decided resolutely to never tell them, "We can't afford that." I decided that because the one time I remember saying it, I was convicted. In that particular instance, "We can't afford that" was a lie. The truthful answer would have been, "If I buy that toy for you, I will not be able to buy the expensive hair conditioner that I want to buy for me." And then I began to notice that most often it was not the case that we could NOT afford something; but rather, that we had CHOSEN to afford something else.

Now I am not saying that "we can't afford that" is always a lie. When buying a home, a family must look carefully at their income to decide how much home they can afford. In that case it is very wise to be able to say, "We like that house, but we can't afford it" if, that is indeed the case.

But I hear, "We can't afford that" from most missionaries in reference to things like a new computer, a weekend away, or dinner out. And I think to myself, "really?" Is it really that you can't afford those things, or are you making other choices? And if you have chosen to put your kids in soccer clubs and to buy scrap-booking materials, then why not say with satisfaction, "We have chosen to do other things with our disposable income this month, " rather than "We can't afford it."

When our boys were little, and sometimes still today, when they ask, "Will you buy me this?" the answer we most frequently give is this: "God gives us enough money for ALL of the things that we need, and SOME of the things that we want. We need decide if this is really the WANT that we WANT right now. If we buy this it will mean that we can't do or buy ____________. I would prefer ______________. What do you think?" This is the most honest answer that I know how to give. Oh, and our boys know that we ALWAYS pay cash, and that large WANTS require months of saving, and therefore months of saying "no" to other wants.

But in that exercise with my boys, I realized that I was convicted by the "We can't afford that" response for a deeper reason. You see God is my Father, and my Father can afford everything. But because He doesn't want spoiled brats for children, He is careful and wise in how bestows material blessings. Sometimes, "We can't afford it" is a cop-out answer. God NEVER gives that response when He choses NOT to give us something. Sometimes, "No" to ourselves and to our children is the most loving and kind response; yet, if we let ourselves believe we have said, "No" because "we can't afford it" then we rob the "No" of its power.

Let's say, for example, that my son wants a certain video game. And let'say that at that moment 2 things are true: 1.) We do not have the disposable income set aside for that game at the moment and 2.) We don't think that the video game has acceptable content. How often do we use the first reason to avoid having to address the issues in the second? But how much more valuable would the experience be if we chose to prioritize the second reason for saying, "No!"? And how much better might we know our heavenly Father if, when we feel He has denied us certain "blessings," we ask Him to reveal to us the "blessing of His 'No.'"?

But back to the missionary question! While I believe that all of the above is true, I guess I am starting to wonder if people believe that missionaries should not have any disposable income at all. That is to say, should we only raise enough money to meet our absolute most basic of needs, live hand to mouth, month to month, barely getting by? And if we are to live that way, why? I really want to know. Tell me what you think!


  1. I just happened upon your blog today as I was searching for articles on the subject of how missionaries should live in the culture where they are living. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for your question; only more questions. I'm wondering if it's ok for missionaries to have nice things if the culture around them has nice things?

    We are also in Europe (formerly communist southeast europe) and people here have very nice things. They drive nice cars, wear the latest fashions, use "smart phones", and have high def flat screen tv's in their homes. Granted, many of them are in debt up to their eyeballs and could not afford those things without credit. So, for instance, if I wanted (I don't) a Lexus SUV to drive here, would that be ok? But, it seems to me that no one here would even notice. In fact, I think it would seem strange to people if I were to drive an old VW Golf instead of a newer model vehicle.

    In my opinion, missionaries do not need to be poor. On the other hand, they should not live so much better than the culture they are trying to minister to that their message is lost. For me, I am thinking that it's best to live frugally but in a way that relates to the culture. I should live responsibly without going into debt. I don't need a high def TV if I can't afford it. And even if I can, I shouldn't buy the biggest one I can find.

    Thanks for your article.

  2. I believe you make very wise decisions as a family and know that you find it important to seek God first. If God asks you to sacrifice and forego some "luxuries", I believe you would. We all should be handling our money in a way that reflects that it ALL belongs to God.

    Blessings to you!

  3. As a giver, it is easy to step into the roll of Financial Advisor if we are still holding a tight grip to what God asked us to give. When it is no longer "ours" to manage - we then lose our opinion on how it should be spent.

    Thank you for being so transparent and saying the "thing" people think but are too afraid to say.