Cutting the Purse Strings: How to Avoid and Overcome Paternalism

by Steve Murdock

The author offers a list of guidelines missionaries should and should not do when supporting any type of mission effort.

I was looking over the files of churches that for the past few years had been financially dependent upon our state convention. Our convention didn’t fund the churches’ entire budgets, but if they had not received our supplements over the past few years, they probably would have had to close their doors. At the very least, they would not have been able to pay their pastor and their light bills. Putting the folders back into my notebook, I wondered if we were possibly doing more harm than good. In some of the funding cases I oversaw, the church had gotten into a building prematurely. The building had seemed to come before the congregation (in other words, the ecclesiastical cart before the horse). In others, the church was healthy when it purchased the building (or when it was donated to them); however, membership and subsequent giving had diminished so that they could no longer afford the costs of the building.

I had inherited these funding cases when I came on board two years earlier as state mission director. Some funding plans were well thought out, budgeted, and had good exit strategies. Others were receiving funding simply because there was a desperate cry for help. Who, after all, could be so heartless as to deny funding to a struggling church? I certainly was not going to have heads wagging in disgust and pity at me; I was not going to be the grim reaper of struggling congregations.

Among missionaries and lay observers of mission work there is a rainbow of opinions regarding the detestable word “paternalism.” For many, just hearing the word conjures up images of such negative proportions that some feel David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer must be turning in their graves whenever the word is even murmured in dark corners. Due to decades of the propagation of modern missiological principles and teaching, most missionaries are conditioned to shudder at the very utterance of the word paternalism, and for good reason.

What Is Christian Paternalism Really?
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines paternalism as “a system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other.” This sounds more like a definition of a malicious political regime or government than a Christian mission entity. Nevertheless, even when it’s done in a Christian manner for altruistic purposes, paternalism has existed among missionaries and recipient nationals or focus groups for decades, if not centuries.
Basically, Christian paternalism can be defined as long-term funding and/or ministry coming from a church or mission-sending agency that is not proportionate to the average income of the focus group and has no strategy of phase-down or termination. In the many mission courses I took in seminary before serving as an international missionary in Peru, I learned that paternalism was something inherently unhealthy and was to be avoided at all costs. The rule of thumb was, “if any ministry, resource, or event is not reproducible in the recipient culture, don’t attempt it.” If the people among whom you are working cannot sustain the ministry at the level your funding provides, it’s simple: Do not provide the funding. Work at another level that is more realistic for their context and economic reality. These are tenets to which missionaries should always try to adhere.

Still the needs persist, and churches and ministries just getting started do not have offerings and budgets. So ministry funding appears to be necessary, and, after all, what are our mission offerings for anyway? Those of us who have supporting mission boards or agencies are provided at least some amount of funding every year, and not all of it goes for our personal living expenses. We are expected to use wisely the mission budget, however big or small, we have been provided. So how do we go about using those budgets most effectively and avoid paternalism?

Guidelines for Supporting a Mission Effort
Even though we believers rightfully disdain a list of dos and don’ts and live by what the Spirit leads us to do, sometimes a set of guidelines is helpful. The following is a list of things a missionary should and should not do when supporting any type of mission effort.

1. Do not create a ministry or structure that is not duplicable within the cultural or social context in which you are working. What we learned (or didn’t learn) in our mission courses is still true. If the on-going work is not sustainable in the recipient culture, do not attempt it. In other words, think a generation (or even a few years) ahead. Will what you are planning be sustainable according to current growth patterns within the people group or socio-economic group in which you are working? If not, don’t do it. Of course this seems contradictory to the old adage, “Attempt great things for God; expect great things of God.” And it may even seem to go against Philippians 4:13, which tells us that “all things are possible through Christ who strengthens us.” Although these biblical teachings are to live and die by, they are sometimes misused by well-intentioned missionaries while doing their mission strategy, either formally or haphazardly.

One example of well-intentioned but questionable mission efforts took place in Peru in the 1960s and early 1970s. Missionaries of the (then) Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention prayed and felt led of the Lord to start a seminary. They started with small classes, which grew to such a size that they needed a larger building. The mission purchased property in a town in a northern province of the country and built a beautiful, multi-roomed seminary building, complete with a courtyard and living quarters for students and/or faculty members. Through thousands of dollars funneled to it annually for the operation of the building, the seminary grew and thrived. Little money from the recently-formed national convention went to the seminary due to a very limited budget of a growing, yet fledgling, organization.

After a couple of decades, leadership of the new International Mission Board (which replaced the Foreign Mission Board) changed, and it was decided that all “institutions” be turned over to local leadership within a year. This, of course, included the seminary and all its property. The national convention was in no shape economically to assume the enormous fiscal responsibility of maintaining such a structure, especially with such short notice. The national convention put the building up for sale. It didn’t sell for some time. Eventually, another mission board took pity on the struggling convention, bought the facilities, and took over the leadership and maintenance of the seminary. The names changed. The paternalism remained. Even though we should attempt great things, if a work is not duplicable within a decade by the group with whom one is working, it most likely should not be attempted.

2. Do not begin funding a work with no growth strategy plan or exit plan. In fact, some say, do not begin funding a work at all. Allow the new congregation or mission organization to assume responsibility of any economic support. There is wisdom in this statement; however, the fact remains that if the missionary and national brethren are on the field, knocking on doors, leading people to Christ, and starting Bible studies and eventually new churches, at least some outside funding is already being provided. There were thousands of dollars involved in the missionary’s seminary or Bible school training, not to mention his or her travel and living expenses on the field. Even if the missionary writes his or her own studies, many times there are copies to be made, Bibles to be purchased, etc., especially if it is a highly literate society. So in most missionary scenarios some funding is given, even if few to no resources or national personnel are funded by the mission-sending agency.

If the support is seen as “seed money” and not as a perpetual lifeline, and there is an exit strategy that is viable and realistic, then monetary support can be healthy. But just as a farmer realizes that if he or she spends too much on seed, his or her overhead will be cost-prohibitive once the harvest finally comes in, so should the missionary be leery of putting too much start-up money into any new work. To carry the analogy just a little farther, if the farmer chooses poor seed, the crop will not make it, and all his or her toil will have been a colossal waste of time. If the initial start-up money is not spent on culturally-appropriate tools, funding will have been wasted.

A good rule of thumb is that if the focus group your mission agency is trying to reach is of little affluence and economic means, do not create something they won’t be able to manage even if every member of the new work is tithing and giving to special offerings. I heard a mission professor once speak of a church plant in Mexico in which a team of well-intentioned short-term missionaries went every year to build the congregation’s new church building. After a few years of summer labor, the building was complete with beautiful walls and windows, professional electrical wiring and plumbing, and plenty of educational space. The missionaries were content, sighing and smiling at the fruit of their labor. A few years later another team of volunteers went down, and much to their dismay, discovered the building had not been used at all. When they asked the pastor why, he said, “Oh, that’s the ‘gringos’ church.’” They discovered that the congregation could not afford the maintenance and utilities for such a structure, and besides that, they did not build it; the “gringos” did. It was “their church.”

3. Do not do all the work yourself. Allow the new believers (and sometimes even non-believers) to share the load. They will take ownership of the work, and it will have value to them. Many a valuable work has been done well by the missionary; however, after the missionary was gone, the work did not continue. Unfortunately, this is an error of which I am guilty.

As a young missionary on the field in Peru, I was in charge of the local Bible institute. With part of my tithe money and just a little money from one of the local churches, we finished building a part of the church that housed the institute. Since the U.S. dollar went much farther than the Sol (Peruvian currency), I was able to finance most of the construction to finish the classrooms, buy some books for the library, and donate a used but good quality word processor. With direction from the national theological board, I made adjustments to the national curriculum to match our provincial realities and set up the class schedule. I supervised the part-time secretary and taught about one-fourth of the classes. With a little help from other “musicians,” I orchestrated the entire Bible institute “symphony.” I was practically a one-man band.

The reason I mention all this is not to boast, but rather to lament and repent. After we were all asked to leave so abruptly the “institutions” our convention had been funding and operating, the entire institute structure fell apart. The last I heard there were some classes being taught here and there, but there was really no degree offered and the church-planting requirements were no longer in place. If I had just turned over more of the responsibility—both financial and work-related—perhaps the collapse of what was becoming a very viable structure for producing church planters would still be in place today. Instead, it became a shell of what it once had been. This is not due to great strategy and management on my part. Quite the contrary, it was because of my lack of foresight that what I created was nowhere near sustainable by its recipients, and the local pastors really did not have ownership of the system. It was a blatant example of paternalism if there ever was one.

Whether you supervise church planters, oversee mission budgets, operate ministry centers, or dig wells for impoverished areas, don’t proceed unless local believers and/or the community can take ownership. Sooner or later, it must be part of the strategy to turn the ministry or project over to local people. It’s best to do that as much as possible as early as possible.

Dealing with Inherited Paternalism
There are likely other guidelines that could or should be mentioned, but space is limited. One thing that must be covered, however, is how to deal with cases of blatant paternalism that you have inherited. Sometimes mission leaders discover that thousands of dollars and days and months of volunteer labor have been donated to a church or ministry and the paternal support continues even after decades of giving.

Recently, our convention discovered a church that had been the recipient of mission benevolence over a period of twenty years to the overall tune of around $42,000. Finally, after losing a convention-funded pastor and gaining a very capable bi-vocational pastor, the church is still weak, but at least supporting its own facilities and ministry. In this case, it may have actually been better to buy a modest, economical building and donate it to the church than to string it along over a number of years.

But the question remains: What do you do with the paternalism you have inherited? Of course, it always depends upon the circumstances, but little by little the recipients (or victims, depending upon how you look at it) need to be weaned off the mother’s milk. Do a feasibility study. Know the demographics. Predict trends by studying the church’s past and the way the community has changed or remained stagnant around it. Look at the pastor. Is that person vocational or bi-vocational? What should the pastor be according to the means of the congregation? Many a church has actually done quite well with a lay or bi-vocational pastor. Is the congregation living beyond its means?

Most of all, the one who inherits a blatant paternalistic support case must show the compassion of Christ. A clean “cut and run” is never a solution. As long as some funding is still available, abandoning a struggling congregation abruptly should never be an option. To this day, bitter feelings from nationals in several Latin American countries can still be sensed when one speaks of the sudden cutting off of support that took place back in the mid to late 1990s. In some cases, partnerships of decades were dissolved almost literally overnight when suddenly sizable amounts of funding were dropped by the American mission agency. All this could have been avoided with a firm but reasonable funding reduction plan. In most cases, the resentment was not over the fact that the mission stopped funding these mission “institutions”; it was how it was carried out. The abruptness was too much, too soon. A more reasonable reduction plan would have saved a world of heartache. If a church planter is receiving $1,000 per month, have him or her down to $200 per month over the next five years. At the beginning of his or her sixth year, funding ceases, with some flexibility and willingness to go a little further if necessary, but not perpetually. If a church has always received mission teams to do the annual Vacation Bible School, encourage the supporting team to come back next year and insist on doing the work with the church and not for them. If a national congregation is counting on mission teams to build their edifice, tell the group that the worst thing they can do is buy all the materials themselves and do all the labor. The recipient church needs to have ownership. They can buy the materials, or at least some of the materials. They can help with the construction. If they are not prepared to do that yet, do not do it for them.

The Pioneering Spirit Today
The fastest and most durable growth of evangelical churches that took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries happened because of the pioneer spirit. When certain evangelical churches discovered that there were no churches in a new settlement coming up fifty miles farther into the new territory, they started new churches as they moved along. They didn’t wait for a seminary graduate to have a pastor. They selected one of their own to lead the new flock. The denominations that survived and thrived on the frontier were rugged, God-reliant pioneers who did not depend upon others to build their churches. Most either had bi-vocational or lay pastors, but their churches survived (and many eventually thrived) because of the refusal to wait for help that was not soon to come.

This pioneer spirit is what made American churches strong and what built the evangelical missionary force. Just as the builder generation spoiled their children (the Baby Boomers) after World War II, strong, well-endowed churches are spoiling their children today by giving them everything they need or want. If we want our children (new churches) to survive, we must do as the mother eagle does, and boot them out of the nest so they can test their wings. They must fly on their own. And just like the mother eagle, we must be prepared to swoop down and rescue the eaglet in mid-air when/if it isn’t quite ready to fly. We must lovingly wean the new church or ministry off paternalism. Any other option is simply not healthy.


Steve Murdock currently serves as mission team leader for the Baptist Convention of Iowa. He has also served as a Baptist missionary in Peru and with the Baptist Spanish Publishing House, as well as the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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