By Mike Sweeney
When I speak to people about the prospect of entering cross-cultural ministry, I often hear them say, “I would love to become a missionary—if only I didn’t need to raise my own support.”
I understand. The prospect of going church-to-church marketing myself never appealed to me. But, looking back on the whole adventure from the opposite side, I wouldn’t trade the relationships that developed with our supporters for anything.
For the 15 years we served as Bible translators in Papua New Guinea, we always knew there were people praying for us by name, people concerned that our boys had something for Christmas, people who actually wanted to hear our stories when we were on furlough, people who would go out of their way to help us meet the needs of those we served on the other side of the world.
The word supporter came to mean much more than “someone who bankrolls our work.”
Things have changed since we first went to the field in 1991. At that time, we, like most missionaries from the Christian churches, were supported mainly by congregations—at first a dozen, then 14, and eventually 16 congregations sent us regular financial support. Added to that were a few generous individuals, mostly family.
The average missionary today may have only a few congregations and dozens of individuals sending them funds. Church missions committees are overwhelmed by requests, and it may take years to get your name included in the budget.
I’m not sure how we were able to raise the necessary funds in a year. We did the standard things—sending out mailings, speaking at churches, passing around prayer cards with our pictures on them ready for posting on refrigerator doors. In the end all I can say is that financial support is best raised while you are on your knees. And when it comes in, there are people attached. When I think of missionary support now, I think far more of the people than the money.
When we first went to the field, there was no e-mail, at least not for us in Papua New Guinea. When we corresponded with people back home, there was often a two- to three-month turnaround for letters. It is difficult to carry on much of a conversation with that kind of lag time, but we did our best to keep people informed with our quarterly newsletters.
We all know how full our mailboxes get and how little time we have to read much of it. I used to wonder if anyone really paid attention to those newsletters. But on our first furlough we met dozens of people in different churches who remembered what we had written better than I did. Often I’d see the newsletters posted on bulletin boards in church foyers. That was an indication people cared, and it was more poignant to me than their financial support.
Eventually we acquired the ability to do e-mail. By the time we left the field in 2005 I could get on my computer, connect it to my ham radio, send short e-mails via an operator in Darwin, Australia, and get responses back from the U.S. within 24 hours.
Not only were we able to keep people apprised of our prayer needs, but they could tell us about theirs. We were able to celebrate with our friends when their children married or their neighbors were baptized. We could mourn along with them when someone they loved died. When our son was injured in boarding school and evacuated to Australia, people in the U.S. were praying almost immediately. We were 10,000 miles away, but still very much with them.
Two congregations in the Northwest ministered to us with what they called “Christmas in July.” Knowing it took four to five months to ship something to Papua New Guinea, they would request our “wish list,” ask for donations, and mail Christmas presents for our family in the summer. We received them in time to put under our tree in December. Being somewhat of a last-minute Christmas shopper myself, I was flabbergasted that some folks would put that much effort into planning ahead just to help the Sweeneys have a nice Christmas. Another congregation put together a homemade, super-sized greeting card each year and had everyone sign it. We left those up year-round.
VISITORS FROM HOME
What does it mean to a missionary to have visitors from home? Unlike some mission fields, you can’t just pop in to Papua New Guinea on your way to somewhere else. It is a long, tiring, and very expensive journey—and that was just getting to the country.
We didn’t get a lot of visitors beyond the standard internship groups. But twice, churches made the special sacrifice of raising funds to send people to spend some time with us in our home. They didn’t come to do a project. Indeed, there’s not a lot a visitor can do to help a Bible translator do his job. And it’s not just that they came bearing gifts, although we still take pictures with the digital camera we were given, and Linda continues to create quilts with the fabric we received.
But to have someone make that trip to our village, to feel the muggy heat we lived in, to experience the interruptions when people brought their sick children or needed a bag of rice, to slog through the muddy trails for the four-hour hike back to the airstrip—it all meant that someone could now understand a bit better what our lives were like. It meant we had special advocates, a stronger bond with a congregation back home.
As Paul said to the Corinthians, these people were our letters of commendation. And when we returned to speak to those churches, our visitors were there with their own stories to tell. Relationships move to a higher level when you know there is someone who understands what life is really like. It’s not that they admire you or feel sorry for you—but they’ve been there; they’ve seen it and felt it for themselves. Until someone comes out with scratch-and-sniff video, the value of a visit cannot be duplicated from a distance.
HOLDING US UP
In 1999 we came home for our second furlough and in November discovered that Linda had cancer. In the ensuing months, in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation, we put 42,000 miles on our van visiting churches and supporters across the country. Crazy, you say? Not if you knew how deeply those people ministered to us during that time. Their prayers and encouraging words gave us strength and the hope we would return to the field for a third term.
A supporter is, in the end, someone who cares. They support you—they hold you up. We depended on our supporters for all kinds of things: prayer, friendship, understanding, a sense that we were not in this alone.
The money aspect, which is the major issue a missionary candidate considers when he or she is trying to get to the field, becomes secondary in the midst of the fray. The relationships we developed with congregations and individuals over those 15 years are some of the most precious things in our lives today—and we’re not receiving a penny from them anymore.
Even now, after we’ve been home from the field for three years, we can visit one of our old supporting congregations and have someone introduce us by saying, “These are the Sweeneys—they’re our missionaries.”
And we always will be.
Mike Sweeney is president-elect at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee, where he has served as assistant professor of world mission and New Testament.