by Rob Veerman
YEARS AGO, I MET A MISSIONARY who had just moved to town. “What brought you here?” I asked, trying to make conversation. “God brought me here,” he said without hesitation or further comment.
YEARS AGO, I MET A MISSIONARY who had just moved to town. “What brought you here?” I asked, trying to make conversation. “God brought me here,” he said without hesitation or further comment. Sure, I realize that God leads and directs his people, but I wanted to say something like, “Did he just beam you here like a character on Star Trek, or did he use more ordinary means and circumstances?”
I love how God uses ordinary things to accomplish his purposes. Did Jesus really need for a boy to hand over his bread and fish before feeding five thousand? I don’t think so. When someone gives a testimony, it’s not unusual to hear how God used a praying friend, a faithful family member, a book, a film, the scriptures in his or her native language, and a thousand other things. Somehow, God gets glory and we get to participate. For God to work through common, visible things is no less marvelous than a Damascus Road experience. I suppose God doesn’t have to use the ordinary, but he does.
Missionaries pour out their lives for the gospel because they understand God uses ordinary means to accomplish his work. I‘ve never heard a missionary say, “I’m just going to give a half-hearted effort and trust God.” Or, “I don’t need to prepare or study; God will just lead me.” Missionaries trust God and work hard. It seems like a paradox but it’s a truth we need to be comfortable with. I think of friends who spent years studying in university and seminary, who learned another language and who prepared for living in another culture, all in an effort to be fruitful and effective for Christ. God does the extraordinary with the ordinary.
It’s true too that God uses ordinary means to provide for our needs. God provided my breakfast this morning. But food didn’t just materialize on the kitchen table. God used farmers and trucks and distribution centers and grocery store cashiers to make it possible for me to have a good breakfast. That in no way diminishes the fact that these things were a provision from God. I still pray. I still ask him to provide. I still give him thanks.
In the same way, God provides for your needs as missionaries through people who go to work, get paid, and then write checks to your ministry. You’re able to do your work because donors do ordinary things like send money. How well are you managing these donor relationships that are so important to your ministry?
My wife and I have been donors for more than thirty-five years. We’ve contributed to a number of agencies and to missionaries who serve in a variety of positions in the U.S. and in other countries. It would be safe to say that all the missionaries are and have been universally appreciative of our support. But, almost universally, they don’t communicate very well with us—and I’m not sure they even know it. Over the years, we’ve seen all types of communication—from clear to unclear, scrutable to inscrutable, regular to irregular to almost no communication. While donors have shortcomings, there’s room for missionaries to do a better job engaging us.
Regardless of what your ‘job’ is, donor communication is part of it. And that part should be executed with proficiency and purpose just like the other work God called you to do. The extent to which you engage well with donors will likely have impact on not only financial support but prayer support and other ministry opportunities.
You don’t just pick up the phone, punch in a number, and start talking. You wait until there’s someone on the other end…even if it’s voicemail.
I was reading Psalm 34 the other day and was struck by David’s communication with God: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” Communication always has two parts: giving and receiving. You don’t just pick up the phone, punch in a number, and start talking. You wait until there’s someone on the other end…even if it’s voicemail. Unless both giving and receiving take place, there is no effective communication. In this one sentence of Psalm 34, David presents a picture of effective communication. He ‘gave’ his communication (“I sought the Lord”) and God ‘received’ the communication (“…he answered me”).
But wait, there’s more! In this verse, giving and receiving are confirmed because God “delivered me from all my fears.” Not only did David ‘give’ and God ‘receive,’ God chose to act upon David’s plea. Think about your own prayers—salvation of the lost, healing of the sick, guidance, protection, and so forth. I hope you pray with expectation. You ask for the Lord’s will yet you pray for specific outcomes. Effective communication through giving and receiving anticipates action.
It is obvious that communication must be given, but some people struggle with even this first step. I think of one missionary we faithfully supported for a couple of years. We rarely heard from him. We knew he was getting the contributions because we got a receipt each month. I finally wrote to say we were going to stop contributing. And guess what? We never heard from him. A similar thing happened with a family in Europe we supported for several years. I don’t deny that these folks love and serve the Lord, but their support suffered because they didn’t keep in touch.
A friend told me about a local missionary he supports. It’s an impactful ministry and the donor would be willing to increase his giving. He said, “If the guy would only call me up sometime and say, ‘Let’s get together for coffee’ or something, I’d be inclined to contribute more money.” This person is ministering in the same town as the donor, but is not doing a good job keeping in touch. As a result, he’s missing the opportunity to not only strengthen his financial support, but to get an eager supporter more involved in his ministry. The first step toward effective communication includes regular contact.
It also includes specific contact. My Uncle Marty had a good and long life. He lived far away and we only saw each other about once a year, but I was fond of him. When he was hospitalized at age 95, I needed to send a card. “Get well soon!” or “I hope you’re feeling better” would not do. He was dying.
So I got a blank card and began to recall some memories—like the time he sent me a model rocket after I had asked him about his work in the aerospace industry. Or when I was a teenager and he gave me $15 to help with a car repair.
So on that blank card I was able to be specific and recount good memories. I was able to thank him and give God the glory for Marty’s influence in my life. It would have been a whole lot easier to get something from Hallmark, add a scripture verse, and just sign my name. I would have done my duty with a clear conscience and I could check that off my list.
Effective communication is given with specificity, not with a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, Uncle Marty was worth more effort than that. Your supporters might be worth more effort than you are giving them. It’s not enough to drop a batch of prayer letters in the mailbox and think, Whew, I’m glad that’s over with.
I talked with one missionary who sends out two hundred letters in order to get the bulk mail discount even though he has less than half that many contributors. “I don’t even know if some of them are still alive,” he told me. As a supporter, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be insulted. I faithfully contribute each month and regularly pray for this missionary. And he engages me with the same level of communication as somebody who may be dead! Effective communication is given with specificity, not with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Remember, meaningful effective communication must be received. And receiving means more than your letter arriving in a supporter’s mailbox. True receiving is when a supporter reads, understands, and digests your letter. Perhaps he or she is encouraged in his or her faith or moved to pray. Perhaps your communication stimulates his or her interest to get involved in a significant way with your particular ministry or global missions. That’s when meaningful communication has taken place.
My wife really appreciates when I give her a bouquet of flowers. They can be from the grocery store, a street vendor, or the backyard—where they come from isn’t really important. A box of chocolates or a bottle of perfume are nice gifts, but for her those kinds of things don’t communicate in the same way. Flowers communicate that I understand and know her. It took me a while to grasp the concept of giving her what she wants not what I think she wants. You see, I don’t always intuitively know what communicates love to her, but it’s still my responsibility to understand her and nurture our relationship. I have to work at it.
In the same way, effective communication takes work. You shouldn’t just send out a letter and hope somebody reads it. You may have nice pictures or touching stories, but are you really connecting with your supporters? Effective communication means working to understand what they want, not what you think they want.
Here are six things we (donors) look for as you (missionaries) communicate with us:
1. Passion. While your zeal will wax and wane to some degree, we want to see that you are passionate about what you’re doing. What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you going even though the journey is difficult? Frankly, if you’ve lost your passion, you might consider doing something else.
2. Simplicity. Most of us are more inclined to read something we can easily digest. For supporters who want more than the headlines, refer them to your website or blog. Send an occasional personal letter. I don’t remember the last time I got a personal letter from a missionary. Generally, letters should be one page with good margin space and include maybe a photo or two. It might come across as more spiritual if you cram a lot of information, but remember that you’re trying to get supporters to receive what you’re giving.
3. Clarity. Be clear and forthright in your comments. One of the best bumper stickers I ever saw said, “Eschew Obfuscation.” Stay away from mumbo jumbo, which the dictionary defines as “pretentious language, usually designed to obscure an issue.” That might describe some letters I’ve received when missionaries don’t have anything new to report or when things aren’t going well. We generally understand that you have a difficult job, you face spiritual warfare, and that you’re in it for the long term. You can be honest about these things. Furthermore, don’t assume we remember what you wrote to us last time. Don’t assume we know acronyms and abbreviations or people and places from previous letters.
4. Connection. We want to see that our contribution is having an impact for the kingdom. We support you because at some point God stirred our hearts and impressed us to be a part of your ministry. We don’t necessarily expect to hear of great spiritual victories with each communication, but we do want to know that you’re using your time wisely and engaging in the ministry God has called you to. We are less moved by third-party stories—we want to know what YOU are doing for the kingdom. We are serving vicariously through you.
5. Accuracy. Have someone else review anything you send. A couple of years ago, I did one of those Shutterfly custom photo books to commemorate a special family occasion. I spent two months gathering and scanning photos and writing text. I proofed and reviewed and proofed again. When the FedEx driver showed up with the final copy, I couldn’t wait to open the box. The book looked great. The next morning I proudly presented a copy to my daughter. Within thirty seconds, she said, “Did you mean to spell this like this?” As careful as I had been, two typos still slipped by. It’s sometimes difficult for us to see our own mistakes. That’s why it’s helpful to have another set of eyes review your material.
Get your grammar straight. Understand things like where to use “me” rather than ‘I’ and ‘you’re’ as opposed to ‘your.’ These things won’t necessarily impact reaching the world for Christ, but there are correct ways of expressing yourself in the English language. This includes proper punctuation and capitalization. There are also generational considerations. It may not communicate well when a millennial writes “I appreciate you guys” to an audience that includes women. Don’t assume that it’s okay to call someone who’s your father’s age by his first name. These may seem silly, but we supporters appreciate being respected.
At the risk of stating the obvious, if a husband and wife are supporting you, make sure they’re both getting your email. It has taken us several years to get all the missionaries we support to send their letter to both my wife and me. I’d say to her, “We haven’t heard from so and so for a long time” and she would say, “Didn’t you get their email last week?” Well no, because my email wasn’t on their list. That’s basic stuff. You’re not keeping in touch if someone is not on your list.
6. Regularity. Do you have a supporter communication plan? Make a plan for the year. Give yourself deadlines. If your plan is to send out six letters, then put six dates on the calendar. Make sure you allow time for writing and proofing (and printing and mailing, if applicable.) With a plan, these dates should not take you by surprise. If you are struggling with what to say, perhaps you could have a theme for each letter. Here are some theme suggestions:
Letter 1 theme—My ministry – an overview of what I do and why I’m here
Letter 2 theme—My organization
Letter 3 theme—My family, how we’re doing personally
Letter 4 theme—Testimony from someone who’s a beneficiary of my ministry
Letter 5 theme—What I’m currently doing and/or working on
Letter 6 theme—Christmas
Will you be visiting any supporters personally during the year? Planning the date, time, and logistics are vital, but you should also plan the visit itself. You should have some expectations. Think about what a successful visit will look like. Not too long ago a missionary couple stayed at our house. After we exchanged pleasantries, looked at photos, and asked them a few questions, there was a great lull. I prayed for them and we all went to bed early. They came without a plan.
Passion. Simplicity. Clarity. Connection. Accuracy. Regularity. With thoughtful application of these points, you can help your supporters be better receivers.
Whether we supporters can articulate it or not, we want to ‘act,’ we want to be involved, we want to make meaningful contributions. And we’re more likely to act if you engage us well and skillfully present us with compelling opportunities.
A couple of times a year, my wife and I volunteer at a free dental clinic. I’m not a dental professional like my wife, but I can help in other ways. I do things like take out the trash, direct traffic, and escort patients. At one clinic, there were so many volunteers that we were tripping over each other. After a few hours I determined that my help was not needed and went home. The organizers had not done a good job deploying their volunteers. I wanted to make a difference, but I wasn’t needed.
Maybe we supporters have a longing like that. We want to do something. Most of us still get up and go to work every day. We’re concerned about saving for retirement and what’s going to happen with healthcare costs just like you. Most of us are giving to you above and beyond what we’re giving to our church. We’re giving voluntarily, not bound by scripture to contribute specifically to you. So it’s a pretty big deal that out of all the worthy ministries we could contribute to, we have chosen to contribute to yours.
Don’t act like God just beams support into your account (or not) and there’s not much you can do about it. Give God the glory for the ordinary and visible means he has put in place to provide for your needs. Isn’t it interesting that the Bible, from beginning to end, instructs God’s people to trust in him, yet it places a high value on skills? The Old Testament speaks of skilled weavers, skilled metalworkers, skilled musicians, skilled carpenters and so forth. These people used their skills to glorify God. The New Testament talks about studying, working, and learning. It’s okay to develop your skills to be a better communicator.
God is working through the ordinary means of a missionary reaching out to a supporter to help us more fully participate in the kingdom. We might spread your story to other supporters. We might give more faithfully and generously. We might even sense God calling us to go somewhere in missionary service. As God uses you in our lives, we just might be changed.
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Rob Veerman is managing partner and special events producer with an Events/Com audio visual production company.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 2 pp. 194-201. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. In your ministry, do you think there is a relationship between preparation and effectiveness? How does that view affect your understanding of the relationship between your support and your ability to communicate with supporters?
2. Supporters are not the focus of your ministry but they are an important part. What are some things you are doing or can do to engage supporters more fully?
3. How would you make a communication plan for the coming year?