By Janie Mehaffey
READ THE SIDEBAR: “Church Pursues More Active Partnerships” by Janie Mehaffey
A church cuts off support to a missionary after 20 years. Is it a travesty or a natural progression of ministry?
Church and mission leaders are considering this and other mission-giving questions after Sam Stone stirred up the topic in his May 11 CHRISTIAN STANDARD column, “Second Thoughts About Mission Giving.” Sam’s article pondered, “What constitutes missions giving?” and “What responsibility does the church have?”
Whether looking at it from the church’s perspective or through the eyes of a mission/parachurch organization, the view is the same: shifting cultural needs and economic limitations are changing the way missions partnerships are developed and nurtured. That, combined with unique traits of the Restoration Movement, has leaders calling for updated strategies so that healthy church/missions relationships can be sustained and collaborations can increase their impact.
Obviously, churches in the Restoration Movement will continue to decide how to distribute their own missions dollars. That’s how our local congregations, independent and autonomous, have always functioned. As a result, leadership preferences and changing times all factor into allocation of those funds. Some churches designate missions funding only toward those causes with a direct evangelistic reach. Others take a broader approach. Some invest worldwide. Others consider their community a mission field.
“Isn’t that the beauty of the Restoration Movement?” asks Shane Whybrew, director of development for FAME, a medical evangelism mission based in Indianapolis, Indiana. “A local congregation can define for itself with local autonomy what they believe their ministries should be laser-beam focused on.”
“There are so many good works that ultimately it comes down to what God is calling our congregation to do,” agrees Mike Washburn, executive minister of Richland Hills (Texas) Church of Christ. “He has placed each of us in different communities to make an impact. He’s given all of us gifts to do different things. The mission has to be determined by the vision God has given you for your organization or church.”
For a pastor like Matt Mehaffey, who planted The Pursuit Christian Church in Miami, Florida, last winter, it means the work his church supports will look different from Midwest church/missions partnerships. Mehaffey finds this freeing. “A lot of churches feel like they have to do everything,” he says. “I like that we can say, ‘It’s OK. You can’t do everything.’ We need to realize what our clear calling from God is, and then support things—and support them heavily—so we can be that laser beam.”
While this independence liberates church leaders, it also adds responsibility. Narrowing the focus requires churches to make tough calls. Saying “yes” to one group means saying “no” to another.
But many churches have not worked through this difficult process, so their missions giving is inconsistent and confusing.
According to Bob Smith, campus pastor with The Pursuit, that means practically anything can be considered a mission. “A church can put anything under the category of Missions, [and] it [can] come down to who has the best PowerPoint or ‘I knew your cousin’s uncle twice removed.’ It’s not about their vision because they don’t know what their vision is.”
After 30 years as outreach minister at Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, Smith finds himself sitting on the other side of the table raising support for the Miami church plant. He says churches are really seeking answers. “As I’ve gone to raise support, sometimes I end up giving the church advice on how to have a missions strategy. Most people are doing this as volunteers and don’t have time to develop strategies.”
Because God has called the church to spread the good news within its current culture and community, developing a missions strategy is not a one-time task. Many leaders believe that as culture and communities change, so should the church and the missions it supports.
As president of Crossroads Bible College in Rochester, Minnesota, Mike Kilgallin believes this puts the onus on the beneficiary to help fulfill the church’s self-determined purpose. “God has only called two organizations into the world: families and the church. It’s up to the church to call into existence those things that can assist it in carrying out the ministry of Matthew 28 or Acts 1:8. We call it ‘missions’ because it has generally meant ‘being sent out.’”
Kilgallin says churches helped start Crossroads College so it could assist in training up teachers, preachers, and other workers to proclaim Christ, both abroad and domestically.
“At some point it may be that churches will say other colleges have picked up where Crossroads was,” he says. “Then we need to close the doors or become something else because they will no longer need us.”
Whybrew considers this part of the DNA of the Restoration Movement. “Because it’s a movement and not a monument, it’s a continually happening thing,” he says. “We seek out where God is working and desire to follow his plan.”
Stone’s article identifies a wave of churches cutting off support from long-term missionaries in order to embrace new endeavors. Many leaders find this to be a disturbing trend, but are more concerned with the way the relationships are being severed.
“If the definition of missions is a partnership, you don’t just walk in one day and say, ‘We’re done,’” says Smith. “Many times there’s no negotiation or discussion between the church and the parachurch. The missionary gets a letter saying, ‘You’re out; someone else is in. See ya.’”
While Stone suggests the solution is for churches to remain consistent in whom they’re supporting, others propose that churches and missionaries need to communicate the terms of their partnership more clearly.
Kilgallin says a predetermined, mutually developed partnership agreement would help each party know what is expected and understand how to hold each other accountable. “Open communication takes place primarily before the relationship begins, so that way there’s no ‘Dear John’ letter.”
Such an agreement would require churches to outline their missions strategy for current and potential missionaries to ensure they are working toward the same goal. If headed in parallel directions, the church then must identify and/or uphold the terms of the agreement, including:
• Length of partnership—One year, three years, renewed annually based on evaluations.
• Communication methods—Letters, e-mails, phone calls, Web sites, face-to-face visits.
• Roles—How will the missionary be trained and counseled? Do outside parties need to provide expertise?
• Termination—Warnings, one- or two-year notice, phasing out.
In turn, the missions organization must be clear about what it needs from the church. Kilgallin recommends, “Those on the field need to come with a list and say, ‘If you support us, here’s what you can expect from us. And here’s what we’re asking from you. Would you be willing to do this, this, and this?’ That then becomes a negotiating tool.”
Gerald Moreland of Warren (Indiana) Church of Christ feels that churches miss out on huge opportunities when they don’t fulfill their role in the partnership. “It involves more than a check. It involves prayers, understanding of what’s going on, caring, and sharing.”
Moreland, who serves on numerous missions boards, has observed that challenges arise when churches don’t understand that role. “There are numerous discussions out there like this. How do we communicate with missionaries? How do we respond to this changing scene?” he observes. “We have to encourage churches through articles like Sam’s to help people know what really defines a true missions relationship.”
Washburn wonders if one solution might be to showcase healthy relationships through shared avenues, such as the Christian Standard, the National Missionary Convention, and the North American Christian Convention. “I’d love to see some definitions of good partnerships and examples of best practices,” he says.
One thing he knows for sure—these conversations must continue in order to hold churches and missionaries accountable. “The whole idea that we’re defining missions—asking what are we doing and how are we partnering—it’s a healthy pressure that needs to exist if we’re going to give God our best.”
Janie Mehaffey is a communications strategist for Fishhook, a communications and creative services company helping churches and other Christ-centered organizations compete in a crowded culture.