Friday, September 23, 2011

How Do Churches Decide Which Missionaries to Support?

Which way is the wind blowing?
One of my big projects this week has been crunching the data from a survey I helped my mission agency design and conduct. The survey was sent to mission leaders in about 3000 churches that support field workers sent out through our agency. We were not trying to understand the American church at a whole, just trying to do a better job understanding the churches that partner with our agency in some way. We wanted to know what the global outreach in these churches really looks like, how they make decisions, what is important to them, what they want from mission agencies, and yes, what they think of us. 

We received 331 completed responses as well as another 50 or so partial responses. Since the survey was conducted over email and went out over a weekend - in the deadest month of the summer - I am actually surprised we got such a high rate. I think this data could be very helpful.   

My research consultant says we would need at least 500 responses to draw the strong correlations between the different bits of data that we were hoping for. But what we got is kind of a windsock, he said. After a second I realized he meant that they would show us which way the wind was blowing. Fair enough. I watched the data as it was coming in, and later responses largely echoed the initial ones. I think if we had twice as much data it would stack up along the same lines. Our data is good, as far as it goes, but it's not enough for statistically reliable correlations.

I have virtually no experience in this kind of data analysis, so I don't want to draw conclusions too quickly. I'm learning. If you are interested I can share the final report when it is done. Here's a glimpse, though. One of the questions we asked was about how churches decide which missionaries to support. I thought it might interest those of you who raise your own support. On average, each of these churches supported 24 missionary families/couples/individuals (though many supported fewer than ten and several supported more than 100).

What selection filters do you prefer or require for missionaries you support?

10 = Always …………….……………………………………… 1 = Never


10
9
8
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
Raised up from within
our church
70
50
63
37
21
32
2
11
8
19
Connected to someone in
our church
48
42
50
28
27
27
4
30
18
30
From within our tradition
or denomination
24
26
38
37
34
36
14
17
24
53
From other churches in
our community
4
7
8
25
34
41
25
44
35
76
Aligned with our strategic focus or values
144
70
45
11
17
12
2
7
4
10

I was not surprised at the high number of churches that placed a high value on supporting home-grown missionaries. Many churches are only really interested in supporting those they consider "their own people." This came up in an informal interview I had with a long-time leader in our agency while I was deciding what to put on the survey. I asked him if he'd noticed any big changes in how and where new workers are raising financial support. He told me it used to be common for a missionary to have 10-15 supporting churches, but now most did not have more than 2-3. 

Looking at this from the point of view of the person trying to raise their support, it might be a little discouraging. If being - or having been - an active member of a church is a requirement for support, trying to raise support from churches that "don't know you" is a pretty tough sell. If you grew up in one church and your parents are still there, and your spouse is from another church, and after college you were worship leader or youth pastor at a third, and then you moved to another city and became part of a church there - well, you might have a lot of church support. Otherwise, maybe not. Better to look to individuals. And maybe some of those individuals will help you foster a relationship with their churches... a relationship strong enough to get you the "connected to someone at our church" points.

I'm sorry if this all sounds a little greedy. I'm just trying to sort it out. And I do wear several hats: mission committee member, mission mobilizer, mission supporter, and support-raising missionary. So I've felt the tensions.

I was a little surprised to see community and denominational ties ranked so low on this survey. For the support-raiser, maybe that suggests that while referrals may be a good way to raise support from individuals they are not so useful when it comes to contacting churches. But that may reflect the culture of our agency's conservative-leaning support base. Many are independent Bible churches and my guess is that they are a bit hesitant to link arms with other churches. Since that's not really the sea I swim in, I'm not sure. I suspect my Presby pals would be more likely to see nearby churches as allies than competitors. Sure is nice for the missionary if they can have multiple supporting churches in the same community. But maybe that's not happening so much these days.

Of course the stand-out number in this dataset is the priority given to supporting mission efforts and missionaries who are aligned with the church's strategic focus or values. Really? Do that many churches have a strategic focus or articulated values? The church I'm part of has had trouble setting any kind of strategic focus. Feels too much like favoritism. We treat our support commitments more like marriage (a matter of loyalty) rather than business (a matter of strategy). Our support decisions say to our ministry partners, "Where you go, we'll go with you." We hate to say no, except to strangers; we hate to drop people, once we have a real relationship with them. 

But maybe other church mission leaders think more critically. To me, this result suggests that someone raising support would do well to look for support and other connections within churches that already show a high commitment to the kind of work they are doing. I mean, you could be your church's first, only, and most beloved missionary, but if that church falls apart or loses interest, you'll want to have some allies elsewhere. You may be able to find them among people who really dig (and support) your kind of ministry already.

There were some things we didn't ask, and maybe couldn't. Do you think mission committees and other gatekeepers really make decisions about money based on something else, like where you're going to be serving, the size of your family or budget, how cute your kids are, or if you can tell stories that make them laugh and cry?

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3 comments:

Paul Merrill said...

Kind of a tangential reflection - I think most of our supporters were supporting us and not the mission we were with. In other words, they believed in us and trusted what we were doing and wanted to be involved in kingdom work through us - and not necessarily believed greatly in our mission's mission.

Marti said...

I agree, Paul, many donors see the agency as just "where I send my check." There is much an agency can do to serve a local church but that doesn't mean there's a big demand for such services.

Maybe the best thing groups like my church partnerships team can do is to nurture and support the connection between the field worker and the sending church...

One of the top reasons church leaders will call our agency HQ, I understand, is to ask why they haven't heard from their worker. Hmmm. I wonder if there's a place for things like the newsletter policy we had at CProject? Everybody knew what was expected from them in terms of support maintenance and had some accountability and assistance in carrying it out (8 newsletters / year, read by two people before you send it out, bulk mail accounts, etc.) Communication world has changed - but for the better. For that reason and others I can't see that exact policy going over at my agency at this time. But there may be dynamic equivalents...

a life without walls said...

I stumbled upn you blog today looking for a Henri Nouwen quote(thanks). I really enjoyed reading this post. I'm suprised and not about the denominational and local community response. I wish it wasn't like that but I had this feeling it probably was. Thank you for higlighting...the continual need for me to pray for unity in my community and amongst the denominations to find common ground. In my short experience the missions orgs. were the only unifying factor in many cities and towns. I hope you don't mind me posting this and I shall enoy reading more of your insightful posts. I hope that becoming married has/is going well for you, I married later in life also. I pray it is a wonderful new adventure for you.