I have a number of friends who are Christian missionaries.
They live outside of their home countries and dedicate their lives to telling people about Jesus Christ and God’s love.
As you may expect, unless you’re an off-base televangelist, there isn’t much money to be made in ministry.
So, my friends have to raise financial support in order to do what they do. They get sponsored by churches and individuals who contribute donations to enable them to invest all their labors in ministering to others.
It strikes some people as a rather odd way to live. Perspectives range from seeing such people who live on support as lazy free-loaders to looking at them as spiritual heroes who should be well taken care of.
The truth, I think, is somewhere in between. And the financial realities are really not that unique.
Most pastors in developed countries live the same way. They work in a church full time, and their salary comes from the donations (offerings) that are contributed by members of the congregation. It’s not that their preaching “generates” income, but rather that they are freed up from the necessity of working yet another job to pay their costs of living. By receiving support from the church, they can invest all their time in fulfilling their role of service. Now, I do know some pastors who work at a church and also have a “normal” job, like being an electrician, but most pastors in the U.S. live solely on the support of their congregation. But they call it salary.
This is the same kind of support that my missionary friends have to look for–except that they usually have to make connections at many different churches in order to raise sufficient funds.
Non-profit groups around the world work the same way. They look for foundations and individuals who are interested in their cause and then they ask them for money. From these funds, the operating expenses and also the staff salaries are paid.
The model for this kind of living goes back to the Old Testament of the Bible. There, God instructed the people to make contributions (tithe) so that those who are serving in the Temple (the Levites) would have something to eat, so that they wouldn’t have to try and tend their own fields and flocks while also serving the nation’s religious needs (Num 18:21-32, 2 Chron 31:4-10, Neh 10:32-39). In fact, when the people became remiss in making these contributions, they were rebuked (Neh 13:10-14).
None of this is really all that different from anyone else who works a “normal” job and gets a “regular” paycheck.
If you get a paycheck from somewhere, you are receiving support to live on. In some cases, we think of people “making money”, but as far as I’m aware, only the U.S. Mint has the ability to do that. The rest of us simply circulate money.
Now in some cases, it appears that we are doing something–producing a product or providing a service–for which we receive financial compensation. Let’s take a store cashier, for example. The cashier provides the service of ringing up customers’ purchases, and the store gives him or her a paycheck. There is a sense of earning this paycheck for the work that was done.
True, but also there is a sense in which the store provides support to the cashier so that the cashier has the time and energy to be involved in the work and mission of the store. Otherwise, the cashier would have to go out and farm some land to raise food, grow some cotton and weave some material to make clothes, and cut down some trees to build a place to live. Instead, the cashier gets a paycheck and can pass that money along to others who have done the work of food, clothing, and home production.
The paycheck that the cashier receives frees him or her up from having to attend solely to basic physical needs; the financial remuneration provides an avenue so that the cashier can be involved in other kinds of work.
So, I look at missionaries living on support. They are certainly laboring. They may not be manufacturing a product, but they are serving others. Living in foreign countries, spending long hours traveling, meeting with people, teaching the Bible, praying–many of them also involved heavily in humanitarian and development projects, not to mention raising families, and yet a number of them work local jobs as well.
But as I look at these folks who are raising support, I realize that none of us are really operating under a different economic model. The salary we receive is just like the support they receive–except that, in addition to doing their work, these missionary folks also have to go around and spend time finding donors, writing thank you notes, and constantly living with the uncertainty of whether enough money will come in each month. People under a more traditional salary structure rarely have to spend so much time and energy assuring the existence of their next paycheck.
So, salary vs. support: I really don’t think there’s much of a dichotomy here. Each of us is to live with intentionality in our work, striving to be excellent with whatever occupation we have. And each of us should be intentional about how we use the financial compensation that’s circulated around to us. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take vacations or buy some things which are non-essential, but it does mean that we should realize that the funds we receive really do free us up from having to spend more time providing very directly for the basic needs of ourselves and our families. It’s the same for us as for the missionaries.
How are you using the support that you’re receiving? Are you living with gratitude? Generosity? Intentional in how you pass along the money that’s been passed along to you? Are you living with freedom, able to invest yourself in your occupation–and also other pursuits–because you are freed from tilling soil, knitting socks, and mounting rafters for your own personal use?
Are you contributing to others, helping to free them up from these same necessities, enabling them to invest their labor in serving and caring for others?
In some way or other, we’re all using our salaries to support the salaries of others.