My wife and I served as FMB/IMB missionaries for twenty-four years, and I’ve taught missions at three SBC seminaries. You can mark me down as a fan of the Southern Baptist Convention’s method of funding missions. The International Mission Board (formerly Foreign Mission Board) receives 55% of its funds from the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (LMCO) for International Missions, 40% from the Cooperative Program, and about 5% from special gifts, bequests, and interest income. To explain the last, the IMB receives most of the money from the LMCO in the first three months of the year. So, the IMB treasurer places some of the money in short-term certificates of deposit in banks. Thus, the money draws interest until it is needed later in the year.
There are two basic approaches to funding foreign missions: the societal method and the convention method. The SBC employs the latter method. Our SBC churches give to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The money supports the work of our International Mission Board and the 3,600 missionaries who serve overseas. Under the convention method, the missionaries do not have to raise their support; rather, new missionaries become salaried employees of the IMB.
With the societal approach to missionary funding, the missionaries must raise their own support. This is often called “faith missions.” Most mission boards are “faith agencies” that expect their missionaries to raise the money they need for travel, living, and ministry expenses. For example, our Voices readers are familiar with the Wycliffe Bible Translators and Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). Missionaries with those organizations are required to raise their financial support. It works like this. When a missionary is approved by a faith mission board, the mission board informs the new missionary how much monthly financial support necessary to live on his/her field of service. The missionary begins writing, visiting, and speaking to relatives, friends, churches, and Christian groups to solicit their support. Typically, a church or individual will pledge to give a monthly amount. Those donations are received by the mission agency and passed on to the missionary. The missionary is not allowed to depart for the field until the necessary amount of support has been raised. Personally, I have known approved missionary candidates who never raised enough money, and they could not go to their field of service. Beyond that, it is challenging for faith missionaries to keep the donations flowing. They must send lots of newsletters and reminders to their donors.
When my wife and I were appointed, we went on salary, and we did not have to raise support. We were grateful for the SBC approach. During my years of service, many faith missionaries told me that they envied our support system. Let me share two personal experiences that will illustrate my point. My dear wife was raised in an independent Baptist church that supported faith missionaries. That is the only system she knew, and she thought it was best because she knew all their missionaries personally. After our training at the FMB/IMB’s Missionary Orientation Center, we returned to Texas to stay with her family before departing for the Philippines. We went to the Wednesday evening service at her church and discovered the church was holding a business meeting. The church’s Missions Committee recommended defunding a missionary family in Brazil their church had supported for twenty years. The problem was that many of the new church members did not know the family, and they were designating their money to missionaries they knew. So, the church could no longer fulfill its monthly pledge to the missionaries in Brazil. Now, my wife had lived and served with that family in Brazil for a summer. When the church voted to defund them, she was shocked and angry. As we drove home, she said, “You’ll never hear another complaint from me about the Southern Baptist system.”
A second illustration comes from the Philippines. We lived near a couple who were faith missionaries. Our kids played with each other, and we enjoyed their friendship. One day they visited and informed us that they had to return to the USA. A church in the Chicago area provided 75% of their monthly support. That church had called a new pastor, and he wrote to tell them the church could no longer support them. So, the whole family had to return to the USA so they could raise new support. Thankfully, they were able to do so, but it took them more than a year.
Both approaches to missionary funding have advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the SBC approach is that missionaries are not burdened with raising personal financial support, which often takes a year or two in the best of times. Also, IMB missionaries need not constantly remind donors to continue giving. Our missionaries can depart for the field after completing their training. The disadvantage of our system is that it is impersonal. I’ve had pastors tell me that no IMB missionary has ever visited their church. (They’ll come if you invite them, and don’t forget retired missionaries are glad to come.) The advantage of the “faith” approach is that it is very personal for both prayer and giving. The disadvantage is that some missionaries never raise enough support to go to the field, and constant fundraising can be a burden.
Our International Mission Board spends 83% of its income overseas. A 75% expenditure is considered a standard metric for charitable organizations. So, you can count me as a satisfied beneficiary of the LMCO and a satisfied donor. By writing one check my wife and I can support 3,600 missionaries around the world. The Apostle Paul writes, “ And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace. Who bring glad tidings of good things” (Rom 10:15, NKJV). Let’s commit ourselves to send some more.