Friday, October 10, 2008

Missionary work

When I teach countable and non-countable nouns to my ESL students, I often use “work” and “job” as an example. Work is something you do; a job is something you have. You can do work without having a job. As a missionary, it’s very confusing when people ask me if I’ve “worked” on a particular day. I don’t necessarily differentiate between work, ministry, and the rest of life. In the past, people would be surprised if I was busy and said that I was working. “What, you have a job now?” Would you ask a wife and mother whether or not she works?

Because of this confusion, I am going to talk about missionaries and jobs in this post. That is, I will talk about missionaries holding paid positions other than church-based ministry funded by their home churches.

So should missionaries have jobs or not? What about this model of missionaries doing fund-raising, finding regular sponsors, and then going out into the field, fully supported by people back home? Is it Biblical? Is it effective? To some, it seems like the holiest thing to do: deny a regular salary and rely completely on the Lord. To others, it seems lazy to not do anything "with one’s own hands."

I am not going to talk about what is “right” or “wrong,” but I have some ideas about why people do things the way they do. Note that my observations are mainly of American missionaries.

Some reasons why American missionaries often prefer a “support-based” ministry lifestyle:

1) Spiritual reasons: it’s a step of faith. Have you ever read in a missionary biography how God took care of everything right down to the last penny, at exactly the right time? God takes care of those who are serving him. Paul even says that they have a right to be paid for their labor for the Lord, and I see nothing wrong with this if it is approached with the right attitude. 13Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Cor.9)

2) Cultural work background: It can be difficult to develop competitive skills to work in an everyday job in another culture. In order to have marketable skills, a missionary must a) have superior skills in a trade AND speak the language, or b) be able to do something that the natives aren’t. Note that I’m talking about working legally, not simply joining a construction site or starting one’s own business without proper documentation.

In general the “job search” is taken fairly seriously in the U.S. People receive educations that will help them in a job, but people do not usually learn a trade in order to do business. For example, I’m trained in art and music, but I don't know how to make a living off either one. Skills are not as easily transferable across cultures as at the time of the first missionaries. You can't just arrive and do things the way you have always done them.

3) Time commitment: A missionary’s job description can vary, but in general his/her ministry is considered a full-time job, and he/she is being held accountable by the sending organization to be completely devoted to the tasks that he/she was commissioned to do.

4) Effectiveness: Missionaries are often less effective and have less energy doing a job than indigenous people, because it takes so much energy performing everyday tasks in another culture. This is true at least for the early stages, and may change if/when assimilation occurs.

5) The nature of the task: Missionaries are often called to tasks for which they do not expect to be paid by the people whom they serve. This includes medical work, church planting, and translation work, to name a few. To take on another job would mean a doctor would treat less people in a day, or that the translation would take longer. Receiving financial support means that the missionaries’ appointed tasks can receive their full attention. It also means that they can serve people who aren’t able to pay and otherwise would miss out on such services.

6) Legal reasons: It can be difficult for missionaries to get work permits in other countries. The American attitude is fairly strict towards the paying of taxes and other business ethics (in my opinion), so to take on a paid position is not a light matter, and the difference in legal status that a job offers has to be considered. A lot of Russian organizations simply do not have the right registration to be able to hire a foreigner under the right legal covering. Therefore, choices are limited.

And here are some reasons I’ve seen as to why it can be beneficial for a missionary to have a job:

1) Witness: How the missionary is perceived in the indigenous culture. Charity work is not always interpreted positively. In the U.S., non-profit work is perfectly acceptable even among non-Christians. But abroad it is not always recognized as a legitimate form of work. It’s great if you help someone in your free time, but people can be suspicious if you do it all time and receive money from mysterious “sponsors” in another country. People can sometimes relate better if you have a job that is similar to theirs.

2) Financial needs: Although I don’t think it costs that much to support a missionary, there are plenty of reasons why missionaries have financial problems. Therefore it sometimes is wise to have a steady source of income, especially if a person has a family or a team of people who are dependent on him.

3) Spiritual reasons: Living on the same salary as indigenous people can be as much a step of faith as counting on money from sponsors back home. In addition, a person may feel convicted to not be a burden to anyone. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting him or her to not receive financial help, in order to keep motives pure, as Paul experienced. 17If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it. (1 Cor.9)

4) Having a job can help a person to avoid sloth and other vices. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, but a missionary’s schedule can be very loose, and for some it may cause bad stewardship of time and other resources. I don’t believe that keeping a child busy is the best approach to discipline. He should be taught how to make decisions, including what to do with free time. In the same way, having every minute of one’s day planned may not be the best way to discipline oneself, but having a job can add a needed measure of structure for someone easily distracted.

In my experience, the decision was made for me. The Russian authorities passed a law, and a charity visa would no longer allow me to live in Russia full-time. So I got a job.

I used to feel guilty sometimes about having “spare time.” Although my days were fairly full, there was a lot of time spent simply in fellowship with people, and this was different from having a “9-5” job. If I had a day off, I felt that I was being inadequate. On the other hand, I remember having time to do things like pray more, read, study various topics, play musical instruments, cook dinner for guests, etc. It wasn’t that time was wasted, it was just hard to measure what I had accomplished.

Now, I can’t see people as often. Lately, I have heard myself saying “I can’t, I have to work.” I can count my hours and follow my schedule, but is it as fulfilling as what I did before?

I feel at peace about where I am right now. It’s a new phase. I have a job which gives me legal status, but I’m also able to continue visiting orphanages and church meetings. God has really answered my prayers in that regard, and I am content with that.


  1. I see both sides too of the coin of support and work. I think each missionary must do what God puts on his or her heart to do.
    Great post topic!

  2. What a beautifully thought-out post! This could be an article for a magazine. I'd never thought about it before. I sense that your a ambivalent. Or are you just feeling that experiencing both sides, so to speak, was God's will for you?

  3. Лиза, я рад, что знаю такого миссионера, как ты! Думаю, твое служение - большой пример для многих.

  4. Спасибо, Андрей. А без друзьей как ты, я бы наверное давно уехала!

    Annie, I was trying to be neutral on purpose and address all possible situations. I don't have all the answers, but I think it is important for a missionary's witness that he be transparent about certain things; therefore it's important to anticipate these kinds of questions and have an answer ready. Otherwise, God can use it to cause division.

  5. Bravo on a well thought out post! I'm glad it has worked out for you to stay and continue doing what you feel led to do with your life.


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