Life among the pagodas
Perhaps it is because I am from the west coast of the U.S. (a region that is not as “churched” and not defined by enthusiasm about the sort of work we do), that every time I share about our life in photos or words, I am conscious of the prevailing doubtfulness towards Christians; Christians in ministry work being particularly suspicious. I write this because I share that doubtfulness; I am under no illusions that Christians are very nice people. In fact, I think a number of Christians who end up working in ministry do so because they don’t want to have a regular job, because they are trying to escape problems, or because they have an ugly savior complex.
Jim and I have had various firsthand experiences being treated poorly by individuals and the organizations behind them. I have been told that I was a failure, that I was untrustworthy, that I was spawning discord among others. I have been frozen out and ridiculed, and in one instance, we chose to leave an organization rather than continue being subject to an abusive egomaniac.
(Stress due to conflict with an organization is awful. By way of comparison: I was hospitalized multiple times this fall before finally having to undergo an unexpected surgery. I would prefer to go through the pain of those health issues and recovery five times over rather than have to re-live the repeated personal attacks we experienced that led us to leave an organization.)
Some of the fallout is this:
– I get a sick feeling in my stomach when individuals tell me they are looking into joining a large organization, especially if they are women.
– It will probably take me years to trust professional counselors again after being treated poorly by some member care associates with our former organization.
– I am increasingly skeptical of glossy ministry presentations/videos, ministry and outreach strategies, and ministry recruitment plans and techniques. I want to run far away from anything that hints of bureaucracy and elaborate power structures. When Jim and I left our former organization, we felt in some ways like we were walking away from a pyramid scheme, where doing well meant recruiting other people so that you could be a leader yourself and start your own group/team/movement.
We share this with those of you who are not Christians so that you can know that we have no rose-colored glasses as regards churches and para-church organizations. We have firsthand experience: Christians can be really mean people. We’re not part of the church because it’s a fun club; it can be, but it is often a hard sort of group to be a part of—and we aren’t exactly prize packages either. We’re in this because we want to know and follow Christ, and part of knowing him is being part of a community of his followers, the frauds and the faithful alike. He’s got some curious folks in his church.
But mostly, we write this for those of you who support ministry work, financially or otherwise, because you need to be asking good questions, on an ongoing basis. Your responsibility doesn’t end with writing a check, it must continue into challenging those you send, for their sake, and even more for the sake of what they say they represent, and the people they could be helping or hurting by it.
Sometimes we are wont to believe that if God doesn’t want a person on the mission field or in ministry, especially if they are not a nice person, they won’t be able to raise the money. That is not the case. There are plenty of well-funded folks working overseas who are about as helpful as a blind man brandishing a hot poker in a crowded street. The world is not just, and God allows this, perhaps as a means of refining those who have to work around them.
Ask good questions. Challenge those you want to send, especially if you get any hint of patterns and norms that seem unhealthy. Jim has a rather dramatic story from his college days of having to hack into child sponsorship software he had created in order to notify donors that they were giving money to a pedophile. The senders thought they were giving to a Honduran orphanage, and they needed to know differently. (Unfortunately, this person has since relocated to another continent and restarted his “ministry” with a new set of supporters.)
It is really, really important for those who send not to throw money around blindly, but to ask good questions. Sometimes simply cutting off the support line is not enough. Sometimes it is appropriate and morally called for to report inappropriate behavior to organizational and/or civil authorities (or even hack into a database!).
If all they are reporting is about what other people on their team are doing, ask some more questions. If all they are reporting is numbers of converts or churches, don’t be immediately blinded by the good news, first ask some more questions. The ugly underbelly of ministry, especially overseas ministry, is that it is often a perfect hideout for con artists. Supporting people because they are faithful is far better than supporting people because they always have exciting news to share.
We say this not to sound cynical, but because it is just a common fact among those who join large para-church organizations: people often get hyped up and excited to go out and start the climb of ministry, and often it turns out that there aren’t many in the organization, if any, holding the rope. It is often more of a priority among para-church groups to recruit than it is to help members struggling at their ministry, or those who have had to leave due to trauma, health, conflict, etc. (This is not to pick on any organization in particular; it is a common theme we have noticed.)
If you support someone who seems to be struggling, or has had to leave their ministry for any reason, don’t assume that their organization is looking after them. As a supporter, it’s your job to, well, you know, support them! Read updates, look for warning signs and ask questions. You would be surprised how an unexpected email or even phone call can boost the spirits of someone working in a difficult place. Not only that, but a lot of folks need accountability, and aren’t always getting it from those around them. Be in touch.
If you are supporting person in ministry, it ought to be because you have joy in the gospel and you want to enable someone to share that joy with other people; if this is your motivation for giving, you ought to be deeply invested in the well being of the person you are commissioning.
* We want to note that we don’t see these as being issues exclusive to an overseas setting. These matters crop up everywhere within Christian communities and ministries, short-term volunteer positions, etc. We also want to note that we don’t think involvement in full-time ministry is only for “the worthy,” or for people who never make mistakes. We all fail in many ways and repeatedly. That being said, there are some folks with serious unaddressed issues who should not be serving in ministry, and we write with those situations in mind.
How do you feel about the leadership structure in your organization?
What is the system used to deal with conflict and grievances, and does it seek to be fair to all parties involved?
Is your team leader/boss/superior a safe person?
If you go through a struggle related to the organization, do you have an objective third party who you can talk to? This person must be an “outsider” to the organization, a friend who knows you, and not just a professional counselor.
How are singles treated by your organization, particularly, how are women treated?
How are you looking out for your children in this new setting/role?
What are the topics of interest to your group or organization right now? Do they hop on popular ministry bandwagons and encourage/push everyone in the group to try some new technique or strategy?
Have you talked to people who have been a part of this group long term, and what has been their experience? What sort of member care does your organization offer, and what do those with more experience have to say about it?
Outside of your organization, do you have close friends who can encourage you and give you counsel and accountability as you do your ministry work? If you don’t have solid friendships with people in your current circle, is it wise for you to be going into ministry?
If at some point you feel that you are not thriving in your life/ministry, what steps will you take to make a change, and who will you ask for help? What are some things that would compel you to leave your role?
How will you deal with personal failure and mistakes? How will you share about this with people you know, or—if appropriate—your larger circle of supporters?
When you meet with some sort of success or victory, will you share it, why and how?