Cutting the Apron Strings
Here's how churches can move from depending on mission agencies to relying on themselves -with some suggestions to minimize the pain.
(Reprinted with permission from the Evangelical Missions Quarterly - Jan. 1994, Box 794, Wheaton, Ill. 60189)
Several decades ago, Nicholas Bhengu, the leader of the Assemblies of God in South Africa, was in America seeking funds for his mainly poor, black denomination. His church, he said, was mainly women and children with very few men attending. While in the USA, the Lord gave him the following message: "Don't get the money for your church here. Go back home and get it from your own people. Teach them these four things: (1) how to care for their families, (2) how to bring their husbands to the Lord, (3) how to earn a living with their hands and (4) to give something back to God in thanksgiving--in other words, tithing."
Rev. Bhengu returned to South Africa to follow God's instructions. What happened? Two years ago, the church gathered for its annual assembly in Thaba Nchu. The collection that weekend came to 2 million South African Rand--more than US$700,000 at the time!
How did they give so much? Throughout the year, the women of the church are busy making things for Thaba Nchu. If they make ten grass mats, one is set aside for Thaba Nchu. If they weave twenty baskets, two are for the church. Thirty dresses? Three are for the work of the Lord. In other words the concept of stewardship is built into the earning process.
I have frequently met several people from this church. If you ask them if these things are true, their eyes light up with pride. "Yes," they say. "The story is true." That sparkle in the eye is priceless. One sees it among other churches, and Africa longs for and deserves to feel good about itself just like that.
As one who lived in Africa during most of the 1960s and who has returned there dozens of times, I feel I must add my voice to the many that have already been raised up about one of the most important issues facing the Christian movement in Africa and elsewhere--the problem of dependency and the need for genuine self-reliance among mission-established churches.
I encourage leaders in the Christian movement to make bold, prayerful plans so that mission-established churches can join the dynamic cross- cultural expansion of the Christian movement as the 20th century comes to a close.1 I will provide what I trust are practical suggestions for making the transition from dependency on foreign funding and decision-making to self-reliance in three areas: spiritual, structural, and financial
It is important to remember that self-reliance in this article and others I have written is not in contra-distinction to God-reliance, but rather to reliance on foreign funding and decision making.
- Begin with spiritual renewal. The more one examines successful transitions from dependency to self-reliance among mission- established churches, the more it becomes clear that at the heart there is usually a person (or persons) with charisma, wisdom, and Spirit-filled determination.1 Leaders in East Africa testify that spiritual renewal--the East African revival--made the change possible there. They say that when changes were proposed (and sometimes opposed), they often reminded each other that they were moving under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and that personal ambition had to be set aside. One minister to over 65 rural churches in eastern Zimbabwe announced a week-long conference twice a year with 500 of his church members attending. The first two days were given to prayer and fasting, the rest to teaching what the Bible says about discipleship, stewardship, and evangelism.
- Have leaders of integrity and determination. A church seeking to make the transition toward self-reliance needs leaders of integrity who will challenge their own people to become the Body of Christ on earth, doing what Jesus would do if he walked among us today. These leaders will always seek to live their lives above reproach. They will be especially careful in handling money entrusted to them by the Lord. To demonstrate their determination they will make self-reliance the topic of their sermons, Bible studies, and administrative meetings. They will arrange special days, weekends, or week-long conferences to pray about and discuss how their churches can stand on their own two feet.
- Call a meeting. Sometimes local leaders will need to gather under the direction of the Holy Spirit to determine whether they are ready to pay the price to take over the churches and other institutions that were begun in their midst. This kind of meeting would not need the permission of outsiders and could well be the first sign that they are ready to take ownership of their future, with complete local decision-making.
- Anticipate spiritual opposition. An efficient, well-run, effective church, joyfully carrying out the Great Commission, is not what Satan wants. He will attempt to bring discouragement and create obstacles. Some may feel that they must oppose the process publicly. At this point it is good to remember that the battle is spiritual (Ephesians 6:12)
- Make unity and spiritual healing a high priority. Perhaps not all controversy can be avoided, but everyone should be prepared to deal with it in brotherly love and kindness. If necessary, appoint several individuals to be spiritual trouble-shooters, ready to go to points of friction and administer the oil of the Holy Spirit or the balm of healing. Hurts and bruises should be cared for before more serious injury results. Our Lord will not be honored by a bitter, open battle that divides the Body of Christ
- Remember that spiritual renewal is not the only dimension involved. Without it, however, there is little hope for the best-laid plans of church leaders, including missiologists, and the kind of suggestions made in articles like this one.
Changing from a long-standing non-indigenous system to one that is truly locally owned and operated can sometimes be difficult. Many old presuppositions will have to be altered, if not replaced. If mission churches have inherited an expensive, unmanageable structure from the past, restructuring must be done. Indeed, survival may depend on it.
Practical Suggestions For Church Leaders
- Distinguish between what is the work of the Body of Christ (and should continue) and what was created for some other reason, such as a church-run business to compensate for low church giving. Admittedly, many times those who began such businesses did not foresee their long-term effects. But without courage and spiritual wisdom church leaders may feel obligated to carry on money-losing projects, perhaps out of respect for the outsiders who began them in the first place.
- If business projects are to be kept going, separate them from the parish or congregational structure of the church. Put them in the hands of business people in the church or community so that church leaders are not encumbered (see Acts 6). Leaders should recognize how much of their time is being diverted to projects that would be better handled in the community.2 This should involve a review of personal spiritual responsibility by every sincere leader. The Lord of the harvest will hold each of us accountable regarding the ripe fields around us (Luke 10:2). And those fields are not normally found on church or mission-owned farms!
- Think the plans through and write them down. This will help clarify church leaders' objectives. With prayerful determination, leaders can place these written plans on the table for consideration by their own members or those outsiders whose funding has created or perpetuated the dependency. Early on, see if there is sufficient agreement to proceed. If not, it may be that the appropriate psychological moment for the transfer of ownership has not arrived.3 However, when that critical point is passed, it will be a landmark in church/mission relations. From that point on, decisions can be locally based and enacted. It is the time to stop asking, "What will outsiders think." Being free of outside funding means that such questions will no longer dominate.
- Do not allow outsiders to derail the move toward independence. Local leaders should be suspicious of offers of outside funding that could influence decision-making. After all, one reason for the move toward independence is to be free of outside manipulation.
- Be careful about accepting responsibility for a project which local church members cannot afford to operate. Avoid receiving such projects, particularly for reasons of status. In some cases it may be necessary to receive a project and close it down later. Otherwise, an unhealthy foreign presence is maintained in the midst of an otherwise independent church.
- Learn all you can from examples of successful transitions. This applies not only to church leaders, but also to missionaries and mission executives. While every situation is different, there is little value in trying to reinvent the wheel.
- Gather information throughout the transition period in order to find creative solutions to problems. Local solutions exist for nearly every problem. Discovering local solutions and making them work will inspire church members to get involved. For example, if stewardship teaching accompanies land reform, job creation, or community development, the church is the logical beneficiary.4 That thought should inspire all forward-thinking church and mission leaders.
- If there are enormous, unmanageable properties and programs, get outside assistance. One church leader, frustrated by constant internal review, admitted that no further self-analysis would improve the situation. "Unless we get outside review and counsel," he said, "we will never get out of the endless cycle of dependency our church faces." But outside review and analysis cost money. Thus, a church already running deficits and not meeting salaries may be reluctant to ask for help. Yet if the decision to ask for help is made, the resources can usually be found. In fact, it is in the best interest of those providing subsidy to help fund that part of the move toward self-sufficiency.5
- Rewrite the local church's constitution. One African church leader said that this was their most important step in the process. Church leaders who are serious about standing on their own usually cannot do so with a constitution written by outsiders many years before.
Practical Suggestions For Missionaries And Mission Executives
- Acknowledge that what was established in many places was far from indigenous and represents substantial administrative overhead for today's church leaders. Being defensive about this can block the path to renewal and a resolution of the problem. Remember, hanging on to inappropriate projects prolongs the burden church leaders must carry.
- Develop a "release mentality" toward the work you have done. If a missionary's greatest contribution is now an obstacle for the church, recognize it and lay it before the Lord on the altar of sacrifice. This will not always be easy, but is many cases it may be the only way forward. 3. As independence approaches, both anticipate and precipitate change. To anticipate means to sincerely look forward to local people taking full responsibility. To precipitate means to consciously help make it happen. This can be done by making disciples, by preparing another person to take over your responsibility. We must all avoid creating a role which no local person can, or should have to fill.
- Avoid the temptation to serve in a position where a local leader could be well placed. Sometimes this may mean graciously declining to stand for a position which a local person can fill. Western missionaries are often offered such positions because they get their salaries from overseas or because they have access to a four-wheel- drive vehicle, or both. That hardly promotes local ownership.
- Remember that dependency is often found where there is a preoccupation with church development. C. Peter Wagner referred to it as the "syndrome of church development." Robert Speer, writing in 1910, felt that the shortage of funds for reaching the unreached was due to the misdirection of funds to places where the gospel had already been preached.6 Redirecting funding to the unreached is one way of dealing with prolonged dependency. Remember, however, not to repeat the dependency syndrome in new situations. Some find it impossible to avoid that temptation, despite all we know about the problem which foreign funding causes.
Obviously, many more suggestions could be made. But with so many cross-cultural training institutions in the West, one of the basic things cross-cultural workers should do is to get the training they need.
Not surprisinly, funding is at the heart of the move from dependency to self-reliance. It not only colors the decision-making process, it makes it lopsided, both raising and dashing expectations. Unfortunately, the reputations of many church leaders have risen or fallen over money issues--not always in the latter case because they were bad managers. A bad paradigm can make even a good manager look bad.
One of the great disappointments in stewardship teaching in mission- established churches is the failure to convey the joy of giving. There are at least two possible reasons. One is that there is not first the requisite psychological transfer of ownership. In other words, ownership must precede stewardship. Second, true spiritual fulfillment is not present, so giving (or tithing) will be out of a sense of duty, not from the joy of the Lord. Giving should overflow from a full heart, or what Alan Tippett has called "the inward dimension of mission."7
- One of the first steps is to shift the emphasis in biblical teaching from the "law of tithing" to the "joy of giving." Consider the building of the tabernacle in the time of Moses (Exodus 35-36). The people willingly and joyfully brought so many things forward that the builders asked Moses to stop them! When the temple was being built (I Chronicles 29), King David and other leaders set a positive example of giving for others to follow. David reminded the people that they were giving in response to what God had done for them. When rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem (Neh. 3), the people willingly donated their labor to get the job done. In 2 Corinthians 8 the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that the Macedonians gave joyfully out of their extreme poverty. He said they begged for the privilege to give. In these three Biblical illustrations people were not being forced to tithe, but were practicing the joy of giving.
- A publicly agreed upon treasurer, preferably more than one person, should reveal all sources of income, as well as how the money is spent. Suspicion about how much money is coming in--and where it is going--could well be the most important reason why local giving is often low. (Indeed, during the colonial period secrecy often characterized mission funding.) Church leaders who regularly return from overseas with undisclosed sums can not expect their people to invest generously in local church projects. However, resisting the temptation of getting outside funding is becoming more difficult, given the increasing desire among churches in North America and Europe to "get the most for their money" by investing in local evangelists rather than "expensive Western" missionaries. Those sincere Westerners may never know how their "generosity" is inhibiting local church giving over the long term.
- As mentioned above the integrity of those handling the church's income is of utmost importance. If there is the slightest hint of impropriety (and there are, unfortunately, many examples), people will be reluctant to give. One church in East Africa provided special training to prepare church treasurers for the enormous sums of money with which they were entrusted by the Lord.
- When there have been decades of subsidy, one of the most effective solutions is for local people to declare that they don't want or need any more outside funding. This has happened in several cases. This approach is much preferred to Westerners deciding "it is time to indigenize" and then arbitrarily cutting off the funds. Unfortunately, in both cases there is potential for hurt feelings, particularly in the latter. Again, one can see the importance of the spiritual dimension. It is also good to remember that while either decision may cause hurt, to allow the problem to go unresolved, may be even more hurtful in the long run.
Remember that a sudden or drastic transition is not the only option. It may cost money--in some cases, a lot of money--for the church to extricate itself from severe dependency. Though by no means ideal, the mission agency could commit a fixed sum of reparation money to change the situation. This is preferred to pouring prolonged funding into subsidy and continuing the recipient's low self-esteem.
If reparations are chosen, then local leaders, without any outsiders present, should decide how the money will be used. It may be used to pay off loans or increase salaries. It may be invested and the interest used for various purposes. The important thing to remember is that when it is finished, it is finished. Otherwise, the dependency problem simply continues.
Of course, it is best if local leaders decide that they can make the transition without outside funding. After all, foreign money got them into the state of dependency in the first place and so local initiative regarding the cut-off of funds is by far the healthiest way to go.
Suppose for a moment that the entire financial subsidy - grants, church-run businesses, and foreign subsidy - were stopped, and the system crashed to the ground. (This could happen if there were an economic earthquake in Western societies.) In this case the only recourse might be for local believers to decide what they wanted to rebuild with their own labor and funds, however limited those might be. What they chose to rebuild would be truly locally owned and legitimately indigenous. What was not rebuilt was probably not a felt need of the church or community anyway. This scenario sounds harsh, but it is one path to true local ownership and self-reliance.
- Remember that buildings and programs aren't the church. People are the church. And if people are truly grounded in the Lord, they will stand forever (Matt. 16.18).
A Call For Fresh Thinking
We very much need fresh thinking about dependency and self-reliance in church-mission relationships. Church leaders and missiologists should publish many new articles to help those struggling with such issues. Articles should not just be descriptive, but prescriptive. They should include illustrations of how such successful transitions have been made and how church members discovered the joy and fulfillment that accompanies being able to stand on their own two feet.
We urgently need articles on the long-term psychological implications of dependency.8 Attention should be given to the fatalism that has grown up like unwanted weeds on both sides of the fence. There are church leaders who feel trapped in an endless cycle. "What's the use?" they say. "That's the way it is, and it will always be like that. We are poor, and things will never change." Such thinking provides an opportunity to point out many places in Scripture where things looked hopeless, yet God in his sovereignty intervened dramatically (I Kings 18, 2 Chron. 20, Dan. 3)
We also need to challenge Western fatalism. In a recent survey of church and mission leaders, several Westerners said the problem of dependency is so big and has gone on for so long that nothing can be done about it. One said, "Westerners won't stop giving into dependency situations, and non-Western leaders won't stop asking for subsidy. Therefore, it is not worth expending the effort trying to correct the problem." That's Western fatalism!
There is a much brighter side, however. Examples of joyful church members in churches that are no longer dependent give us reason to press on. Where there is vision, coupled with determination to lean on the Lord, there is reason for hope. The same Lord who provided food and water for thousands of his people in the wilderness reigns over his people today. Is anything too hard for the Lord? (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32: 17, 27)
Glenn Schwartz is currently founding Executive Director of World Mission Associates and frequently writes and lectures on the subject of dependency and self-reliance among mission-established institutions. He has produced a video/audio series which includes a 125-page study guide and is available at any of the following addresses:
WMA-USA, 825 Darby Lane, Lancaster, PA 17601 --Att: Larry Estepp (800) 230-5265
WMA-UK, Box 436, Reading, England RG1 6DH Att: Glenn Schwartz
WMA-East Africa Box 48629 Nairobi, Kenya --Att: Don Ertley
Christian Enterprises Box 240347 Ndola, Zambia --Att: Jonathan Zulu,
Baptist International Media Services, P.O. Box 872 Edenvale 1610, South Africa -- Att: Dave Clarke