Salary Caps for Missionaries

In the village in which I live, a Tsonga earning $300 (R3,000) per month would be taking home an enviable paycheck. When I originally set out to raise the funds for my departure, passage, and family back in 2004 I was pointed by some missionaries and mission board directors to raise $4,000-5,000 per month. No one counseled me to see how I could save money from what appeared to be the industry standard. Though we still sing “For Christ count everything but loss…,” over the last ten years the numbers seem to be marching on so that it is not uncommon to hear that missionaries need to raise $1,000 more per month than in 2004.

A few years ago, a friend in ministry emailed me about the financial scenario a single-woman missionary found herself in. She was heading to a central African country, but was told by her mission board to raise over $5,000 per month. This pastor wanted an opinion as to whether that salary was really necessary. Tonight, a pastor told me about a missionary raising $9,000 for service in Africa.

Studies vary depending on which sets of data are being examined, but in general, lists of the poorest countries in the world are dominated by African nations. With that as an introduction, the question deserves attention: What is a God-honoring, economically viable, appropriately commensurate salary for an African missionary? Or more crudely, but probably more memorable: Should missionaries have salary caps?

Foiled by Japan

When I have questioned the need for missionaries to receive so much monthly support, I have heard on more than one occasion about the rising costs of living in Japan. Other modern countries could be inserted there as well, but Japan’s a good one since last year the average salary was around $40,000 per year. If a missionary wants to go there, how could he live and minister with a paltry $2,500 per month? A friend of mine who plants churches in Cambodia surveyed over 2,500 cross-cultural church planters in 2007 and discovered a number of interesting facts not the least of which is that less than 2% of those missionaries were serving in Japan. (The survey is not online, but I can send it to you if you’d like it:

I would suggest therefore, that the question of missionary salaries is still valid for the great number of missionaries going to the developing countries of the world as well as—though possibly with a little less pinch—those going to the richer nations. Holland’s standard of living (for example) does not alleviate the responsibility that a missionary going to Zambia should feel.

Distinction between salary and ministry funds

The next most ready response has to do with the expenses that missionaries incur which other professions do not. It will be argued that missionaries have to save for furlough, renting church facilities, printing, paying salaries of nationals, and other unique ministry expenses. These funds, the reasoning goes, are needed not only for salaries, but for the tools of the trade.

This objection encapsulates several different philosophical questions that deserve their own turn at the microphone. First, what makes a purchase a legitimate ministry expense? If the use of money could discourage personal responsibility, that potential line item in a budget takes on a decidedly moral flavor that should not be overlooked. In the context of the developing world, Western missionaries need to think very carefully about money’s power amidst those who so rarely wield it.

Second, if an expense is determined to be legitimate, are there ways to reduce those costs so as to cut the overall budget? Mission board fees, mailing hard copies of prayer letters, mandatory group healthcare policies, and travel costs that multiply due to year-long furloughs all could be examined by an efficiency expert to run a tighter ship.

Salaries as a means of staying missionary attrition

However, I suspect one of the reasons for missionary salaries being set as they are has to do with the fear mission boards have of losing their investment. It is rare to have this voiced explicitly, though I have participated in conversations where the door has been cracked open for this potential reason. More study needs to be done here to ascertain more clearly the rate of attrition during deputation, the first term of service, and the fifth year onward, but it didn’t take me long to think of four families who left their field of service before four years was over.

If a family is struggling financially while also adapting to a new culture, language, and form of ministry, the combined strain may be too great. Mission boards then set their expectations at a certain level so that at least that one category of concern, their standard of living, won’t cause them to come home early and thus lose the investment of years without anything to show for it.

Several years ago, Mission Frontiers posted excerpts from the book Too Valuable To Lose by William Taylor discussing the issue of missionary attrition. Though I haven’t read the book, the copyright is from 1997, so he is definitely writing in the modern era of missions when boards typically influence their missionaries’ levels of support. The recommended salaries may ultimately reflect boardroom discussions about how to get more return on their investment. But if that is so, is that a Biblical or even pragmatically effective way to increase missionary effectiveness?

A gospel-centered approach to missionary finances

Complex questions can rarely be answered wisely without nuanced responses self-consciously settled on the most rock solid presuppositions. Of course for the missionary, the gospel is one of his most basic beliefs and should inform every corner of his missiological philosophy.

So From the swirling discussion of each of these categories with all their complex minor premises, does a gospel-centered perspective have anything to offer this question? I think so. Missionaries, mission boards, and pastors need to acknowledge that a missionary’s money can have a direct impact on the way in which his audience receives the message. The gospel is at stake to the degree that our use of money has the ability to manipulate certain non-verbal assumptions within our hearers.

What I am arguing for, is for everyone involved to actively discuss, before choosing a salary for any missionary in a particular context, what kinds of effects may be produced in his target audience by the use of money. Let’s be willing to forego any use of money—any category in a budget—that may distract the hearers (or the preachers) from the gospel regardless of whether or not it is an assumed part of a contemporary American standard of living.

Practically what does that look like in the context of the developing world?

  1. Don’t buy the product just because you can. If a missionary sells his US house and with the money is able to buy a mansion overseas, he should think through the grid of the gospel rather than saying, “I can. Therefore, I should.” Many times we automatically do this like birds naturally take to the air, but we need to accustom ourselves to the pain of introspection.
  2. Scale your living to a median within the spectrum of those you are trying to reach. Make home improvements gradually like an average man in your village might have to if he had a job and saved carefully.
  3. Strive to save money on the invisible portion of your support. Consider if your local church could do the same things or near enough to the same things that your sending agency is doing for a significantly cheaper price. Use email rather than printing letters. Look at some diverse options for overseas healthcare.

Numerous other issues are vying for attention either directly or indirectly related to this topic, but if we will at least recognize that missionary salaries are sometimes dramatically higher than the salaries of the nationals, and if we will admit that the gospel is potentially affected by our use of money, then the already huge linguistic, cultural, and spiritual giants facing the missionary may not be joined by the massive juggernaut of the economic giant as well.

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A Hint from a Jury Summons

Thus, my jury summons for 29 May 2013, “Do not wear shorts.”

To fulfill my duty as a resident of Illinois, I have to take a day off work, travel downtown, and be prepared to serve as a responsible member of society in a criminal or civil case. And all the while, I must do so wearing a garment that covers my legs.

Can they do that? And more pointedly, is that right of Big Brother to reach his long arm into my closet and govern my public wardrobe? The people I have talked to have all agreed: A public policy is necessary or else people would wear things “inappropriate.”

The word appropriate, which was used by a number of responders to my informal survey on the justice of this act of public control, was snuck in with the bare assumption that we all knew what it meant. But what is appropriate? Who decides? Is it in the Bible? Should the laws of appropriateness also judge us in public houses of worship? During family gatherings? Can society’s culture change what is or is not appropriate, or is it somehow rooted in something monolithic—some bedrock foundation of all life, say God’s character?

When I had Amy’s ring cleaned, all the employees of the jewelry store wore suits and classy dresses. They told me it was their company policy. Ditto for the life insurance salesmen I spoke with.

Don’t be distracted with my examples. I’m not merely interested in clothing for public events. But drilling down to the definition of the elusive “appropriate,” I want to ground my cultural sensibilities in something more sure than personal taste, public opinion, and certainly more solid than celebrity example (whether from the entertainment industry or the clergy).

How does some cultural expression become appropriate or, more controversially, inappropriate?

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“Contemporary Worship at 11!”

When we sing praise to an everlasting God, or sing about a Redeemer who died for us over two millennia ago, but do so employing musical forms that imply that the past is passé, we are communicating a mixed message. If a contemporary-sounding hymn is otherwise excellent, then I think we can survive it, especially in small doses. But again, it would need to excel in the other criteria in order to compensate for its defect [in sounding contemporary].

And surely, surely, no well-thinking church that employed such forms would advertise that it was doing so [by putting “contemporary worship” on the church marquee]. Bad enough to do it on occasion; even worse to call attention to the doing of it. Imagine a sign outside a church that read: “Piano out of tune: Come sing with us!” Well, if we must use an out-of-tune piano, let us do so as best we can; but let us not advertise the liability.

David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

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Vanity Fair’s Effect on a Christian

That Christian is in a bad state of mind who has suffered himself, by attention to worldly cares, or by light conversation, or by gayety and vanity, or by reading an improper book, or by eating or drinking too much, or by late hours at night among the thoughtless and the vain, to be brought into such a condition that he cannot engage in prayer with proper feelings. There has been evil done to the soul if it be not prepared for communion with God at all times, and if it would not find pleasure in approaching His holy throne.

Albert Barnes

Well said, Mr. Barnes. The soul may be brought into a “condition” where it “cannot engage in prayer” rightly–specifically because the “proper feelings” have been rendered inoperable. If the presence of these feelings can help avoid a great “evil” then it would behoove us to discover and master them at any cost.

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What Do You Talk to a Missionary About?

Not long after arriving back in the US, the returning missionary is likely to hear that most unanswerable of questions, “How’s Africa?” Since that question is so common, and since it is so difficult for a number of reasons, here’s a list of questions the next time you have to endure time with a missionary in case things are getting dull.

  1. Lifestyle: How is your life similar to life in America? How is it different?
  2. Occupation: What do you do each day?
  3. Language: Are you learning a language? How is it going? Are you discouraged?
  4. Sins: What sins might a missionary be especially tempted with that another Christian in the US might not?
  5. Devotion: How have you been spiritually? How has Christ become more precious to you? What verses or Scriptural ideas keep you persevering in ministry?
  6. Reading: What books have you been reading? Do you have any book recommendations?
  7. Friendships: Who are your closest friends? Do you have any close friends among the Africans?
  8. Success: Have you had any encouragement in ministry recently? Can you tell me two or three things that have encouraged you?
  9. Challenges: What is your greatest challenge in ministry? What other difficulties wear you down?
  10. Church: What do your church services look like? How are they like ours? How are they different? How is your church managing when you are not there? Will your church ever stand on its own?
  11. Ministries: Do you have other ministries that take a lot of your time? (college, other evangelistic efforts, etc.)
  12. Prayer: How can I pray for you?


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An Unusual Conference

Last week I attended the Conference on the Church for God’s Glory. Dan Hester, my brother-in-law and I went together and we met up with about half a dozen men from Bethel Baptist in Schaumburg, IL as well.

One pastor, who in the past has been no friend of Reformed theology, said with a laugh that it was “a bunch of Reformed guys” and there appeared to be some truth in that evaluation. About 100 men were in the auditorium to listen to 8 or 9 45-minute lectures from the creme de la creme of conservative, separatist Christianity. There were 6 speakers in all with Kevin Bauder getting three slots to himself.

Incidentally, when I first saw him in person I thought he was Doug Wilson—tall, bearded, snowy mountain hair.

Positively, the facilities were great, the books were a blessing, the snacks and church helpers were impeccable, and the singing was outstanding. They used great, classic hymns with a full body of earnest, male voices forming the choir.

Probably the best speaker was the youngest—is that any indication of who has their pulse on the important issues? A 33-year old pastor from Michigan spoke on why pastors need to study theology. He explicitly rebuked Biblicism as being a non-position, described himself as a “4.7, 4.8, or even 5 pointer depending on the day.” He said that if pastors don’t understand dispensationalism and covenant theology they will constantly miss the point of many texts and in the process teach their people a shallow hermeneutic.

They gave us Pentecost Today? by Iain Murray along with several other books. At the end of the day, Dan and I were the only ones of our group left, and all the pastors were allowed to enter the bookroom and take whatever display copies they wanted for free. My brother-in-law and I garnered a few goodies before having nearly 2 hours of great conversation each way in the car.

The conference was held at a church that obviously had thought carefully about beauty in architecture even putting the Five Solas in stained glass high above the pulpit. The brickwork was nearly Presbyterian though the church was Baptist.

Of the 9 total sessions (including a boring panel discussion where they didn’t allow for audience questions!) most of them were good or better.

One speaker read a lengthy, single-spaced manuscript (which we all had copies of) in 45 minutes. He read it rapidly with very few pauses. He didn’t stumble over words because they would have forced him to slow down. The overall effect of the delivery was so forced and disconnected, that I joined the rest of our section and probably the rest of the room in a collective sigh and knowing smiles of disbelief when he finally ended right on time. The paper was supposed to be an exposition demonstrating that Lordship salvation is the Biblical gospel. However, I think it would be more accurate to say that the offering was an exegetical discussion of systematic theology with plenty of Greek and unfamiliar terms (“parabola” found its way into the first line and “genitive of…” whatever made an appearance more than once).

He laughed only once that I recall in the whole lecture: when he quickly read the one line that had to do with sinners and eternal punishment. That typified the whole presentation–a disconnected rush to finish delivering an academic paper in time. I asked a few pastors after the session what they thought his main point was, one said, “[The speaker] is smart.”

Another session was not quite equally as dry, but certainly dry. He also had a lengthy, single-spaced handout with bibliography. This is not your father’s fundamentalism.

And the big surprises? As I hinted, they all called themselves fundamentalists and explicitly on more than one occasion pledged allegiance to classic dispensationalism. One speaker winsomely stated that he has wanted to “sew Alva McClain’s Greatness of the Kingdom into the back of my Bible.” Another one put in print that Jesus was offering the millennium throughout the gospels, not NT salvation. I had 5 small, smooth questions perfectly written out for the question answer time, but they didn’t open the floor for questions!

So, a lot of good points and a few weird ones. But I am grateful that some pastors were introduced to Reformed soteriology, and I’m grateful that some fundies are trying to write and think. Even if they don’t have the wisdom to realize that you shouldn’t speak that way at a pastor’s conference.

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How Powerful is Common Grace?

A friend wrote to me recently:

We’ve spoken of this often, but I still struggle with the teaching of Total Depravity whereby, it is asserted, sin affects everything, including the mind on spiritual and earthly matters. Practically speaking, I am not satisfied with the answers I receive concerning some of the most rank pagans producing work far superior to Christians. How is it that self-indulging men like Wagner can produce  Ride of the Valkyries and a homosexual like Tchaikovsky can produce The Nutcracker and his First Piano Concerto? If we say that common grace can lift them to such intellectual heights, then aren’t we practically saying the same thing as those who say that man’s mind is not completely corrupt?

The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5.

The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond.

So practically, what is the difference? Prevenient grace or common grace takes us to a 5 and beyond.  

That question is so thoughtful, that I wanted to post it with a portion of my reply:

You present a tricky dilemma, but isn’t the difficulty removed by an appeal to the gospel? In the gospel though they can do many wonderful things because of common grace, sinful men can never savingly seek God without special grace. And though Tchaikovsky did some wonderful things because of common grace, he never savingly sought God.

In expanded form, special grace is that power to seek God savingly. Common grace is that power to image the beauty of God implicitly regardless of the sinner’s humility, repentance, conformity to Christ, or lack of these Christian graces. Saving grace has an effect on the mind, but it is not the only way for the mind to be improved. The epistemic damage done by sin can be reversed or at least alleviated in many ways, which is one reason why careful thought about art, beauty, and enduring forms is essential.

I think your argument could be recast with just two clarifications:

“The Arminian says that because of sin, man is a 5 in terms of his moral ability.

The Calvinist says that because of sin, man is a 0, but common grace can take us to a 5 and beyond in terms of skill and beauty that don’t explicitly require the sinner to humble himself and submit to Christ’s Lordship.”



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Pop Music is Seeping

“[Pop music] has seeped into our sensibilities in such a way that nothing that antedates it really sounds like music to us. … To dismiss the cultural effects of music as insignificant or merely a matter of taste, is like dismissing the study of sociology itself as merely a matter of taste.”

David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

The whole book is readable, insightful, and often quotable.

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Extra-biblical Ethics

Sometimes Sola Scriptura is turned on its head to mean we are only required to do what can be explicitly proof-texted from the Bible. The argument seems to be: without a specific statement from Scripture, then we are free to do whatever we want.

Here’s a list of 10 (and it could have been longer) obviously inappropriate actions that aren’t directly forbidden in Scripture.

  1. Preaching in your underwear.
  2. Disciplining newborns.
  3. Calling the president by his first name in a face-to-face meeting.
  4. Arriving at church late.
  5. Talking about your intimate experiences publicly.
  6. Using crude words in conversation with your wife.
  7. Coming to a public gathering with body odor.
  8. Children calling their parents by their first name.
  9. Playing heavy metal at a funeral.
  10. A groom wearing shorts and a t-shirt to the altar.

Of course, admitting this list exists and seriously discussing why each item is on the list may force an unwitting post-modern to admit that culture is not neutral. Thus, standards of beauty must be carefully extrapolated from Scripture and life rather than the more common cavalier attitude, “I like it, and there’s no verse that says I can’t.”

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Getting Back on Track

Due to furlough traveling and busyness, I’ve been absent for about a month from posting, but hopefully that we be corrected now as I’ve got a better connection, and some of the busy work is done now.

Thanks for your patience, eager reader.

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