This is the third post in a three-part series addressing some of the common myths and misconceptions we experience most regularly while serving with Mennonite Mission Network in Barcelona. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Missionary Myth #3: We work for you
We believe spiritual poverty is real and spreading, and the church is entering a time of transformation in Europe. Anabaptist-minded communities have potential to be pivotal shapers of what the next iterations of Christian community may look like.
That's what we're about. But practically speaking, we're not doing this in a vacuum—we live and serve in a faith community in Barcelona. Being present in our physical home is crucial. But we also are committed to North American supporters.
One of our colleagues recently picked up on this:
—It weighs on you guys a lot, doesn't it?
—Keeping one foot in the United States and the other here. That must be hard.
Here's the simple version of how our ministry works: We're partnering with one such Anabaptist-minded community in Barcelona where we've felt called. We're building relationships to foster the church body becoming a beacon for people thirsty for wholeness, liberation, and spiritual peace.
For this to be possible, we receive a salary. It is paid to us by Mennonite Mission Network and is the product of a part of our jobs we're less excited about: fundraising. We enjoy sharing about what God is doing in the world and how we're partnering with God to be agents of change. But we do not enjoy asking people for financial support.
We are funded largely by wonderful, faithful individual supporters and churches. But we struggle with how fundraising creates a sense that you work for your supporters.
"Show me how your ministry is being successful. We'd like to see a little more on your end."
I understand why people say this—ministry accountability is important. We know our supporters often make a financial sacrifice. But we receive the above-type statements in ways that probably aren't intended. Aside from creating expectations with how we spend our money, folks want to know what they get for their "investment." On one hand, that makes sense: People want to be a part of something positive and know their support isn't being wasted. On the other hand, missions aren't supposed to be oriented toward the supporters.
Having talked to many pastors and missionaries, I know this tension is relatable to just about everyone in ministry. Funding sustainability is becoming increasingly elusive throughout the institutional church. In fact, during this series, we've received several comments from others serving in post-modern, first-world missions. They've expressed gratitude for articulating these misconceptions with which they also struggle.
What's changed? In the past, mission agencies raised the financial support for their workers. That freed the workers to focus on the tasks at hand until time to return to the United States every three or four years to share at churches. Most agencies, including ours, can't survive on this funding model anymore for several reasons. So, the responsibility of raising funds has shifted to the workers — a reality that always looms.
When we worked at LCC International University in Lithuania, those of us who were American staff and faculty always half-jokingly said: Fundraising was everyone's part-time job. However, what we didn't realize then was that it is much easier to quantify a highly structured, project-based ministry like what we had at the university. It is much harder to quantify the foundation-building phase of an organic, relationship-based ministry like what we've been sent to engage in Barcelona.
We've never been about tally marks of the number of people that are "saved" and baptized because of our work. Such things are always the result of many points of light in someone's journey and the work of the Holy Spirit. But sharing about the number of student leaders we mentored and the growth in chapel attendance was easy.
The content of what we share isn't the only issue, though. Rather, our struggle is with the time commitment and constant shifting of attention that communication requires. Blog posts, ministry updates, holiday cards, video calls — we value these as tools for staying connected with family and ministry partners. Yet, they gobble up time and energy we could direct toward the Barcelona community we've been sent to serve. At the same time, this connection is precious and encouraging for us.
That illustrates another tension: Alisha loves making personalized greeting cards for the folks at Trinity Mennonite Church in Arizona. But currently, there's not time to also make them for folks at Comunidad Evengélica Menonita in Barcelona. We've lived with this tension for nearly seven years and accept it as part of the landscape of our work.
For example, this blog is read mostly by North American supporters. I would love to post on it every week or two. Yet, I create these posts in a narrow slot of time between when our language courses end (20+ hours a week) and when we get Asher from school. During that slot, I'm also studying, planning youth worship rehearsals, preparing teachings and worship leading for the church, organizing committee meetings, doing handyman stuff around the house, eating lunch, and running errands. In this time frame, Alisha does a plethora of other important things.
When external voices start adding one-off requests to that list, we choose what area we need to let slide on the local side a bit. That's totally fine and we pivot when needed. When the voice seeks to add something recurring to that list, we are faced with an even more challenging decision: What do we drop? If it's not ministry time, it's often family time.
We want (and need) to include our U.S. American partners in our work as much as possible. But we struggle with feeling fully present and committed to our current community. So please keep connecting with us: It's vital we stay connected. But also consider what and how you're asking: Maintaining balance can be hard and exhausting.
What's the best way to straddle two continents, being present and engaged in both?
What do you expect in return from nonprofit individuals and groups you support financially?
Confronting misconceptions can feel abrasive. While I stand by the content in this series, we don't want our supporters to feel unappreciated or attacked. In the case of our sending church, Trinity Mennonite in Phoenix, that's a journey of nearly 15 years! If you've found you've held any of these misconceptions, know that we're speaking to a much wider-spread issue in global missions than toward specific individuals.
We shoulder the blame, too. Many misconceptions evolve due to fractures in the communication process, which involves both receivers (i.e., our North American supporters) and senders (us). Communicating can become intensely difficult in an era where we're inundated by messages from all kinds of senders vying for our attention.
In the not-too-distant past, information from the mission field would trickle to supporters in the form of a newsletter via snail mail a few times a year. Now there is an unspoken expectation that information flows regularly.
Groups like Mission Network can keep up with that on an organizational level, but at our level, it feels daunting. Play the game and we risk burnout and the arrested development of our ministry. Avoid it and we risk funding being a barrier for sustainability and being replaced by another worthy cause — the consequence of being "out of sight, out of mind."
Jesus teaches us not to allow our lives to be dictated by worry. However, that doesn't mean we ignore our obstacles. We created a Worthwhile Adventures Facebook page to communicate the ministry we're doing in Barcelona. We are also maintaining personal pages to communicate other stuff that happens to a young family trying to thrive in a new, dynamic environment. However, that's not been enough. By having far more connections on our personal pages than our ministry page, our ministry experiences are often not successfully communicated. Add to the mix the unorthodox nature of the type of work we do and it's easy to see how myths and misconceptions develop.
Now we're trying to adapt.
As we traveled and visited supporters this summer during our two-month furlough in the United States, we did quite a bit of soul searching and learned some ways we can do a better job communicating.
For starters, we realize this series may have focused more on what we're not about than what we are about and, in retrospect, that's rarely a good way to define something. While you can paint a picture of something by describing the negative space around it, we're going to fill in the full picture. The first paragraph of this post is a fair starting point.
We ask for grace and understanding as we figure out how to navigate this thing.