Spreading the Gospel on the cheap

By Lauren R. Stanley

Quick: How many missionaries does the Episcopal Church have serving full-time overseas?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, don’t worry: Most Episcopalians aren’t even aware that the Episcopal Church has full-time overseas missionaries. Not because they aren’t paying attention, but because, sad to say, we don’t tell the story well enough (and by “we,” I mean the entire Church, top to bottom).

The fact is, the Episcopal Church has 70 missionaries serving full-time around the world in more than 30 countries. Each missionary is sent forth by the Episcopal Church of the United States, and thus represents not just his or her sending diocese, but the entire church.

The issue is not how many missionaries we as a Church have; there are far too few laborers in this field. The issue is how they are supported, or not supported, by the very same Church that is sending them forth.

(Full disclosure: I am one of those 70 missionaries, serving in the Diocese of Renk in South Sudan. This is not a letter from an unbiased observer, but from one who is affected deeply by the issues here.)

Each missionary gets some financial support from the Episcopal Church. Appointed Missionaries, who are commissioned directly by the Presiding Bishop, receive more than others, including stipends (which are small), transportation, visa fees, language training, and full participation in the Pension Fund, which depends on whether that missionary is lay or ordained. Volunteers for Mission receive health benefits only. Any shortfalls in expenses are covered by the missionaries themselves, who have to raise the rest.

The brutal truth is this: The Episcopal Church, which says that mission is its heart and soul, and both proclaims and encourages mission constantly, does not provide enough funding for the missionaries it has.

No missionary gives up everything the United States has to offer – jobs, security, safety and job benefits, not to mention such niceties as clean, running water, decent food, health care that you can trust, etc. – to make money, to live high on the hog, or to pump up the résumé. Being a full-time missionary overseas means living closely with the people of God as one of them, often in circumstances that would appall most Americans.

It is not easy to be a missionary overseas. It means leaving behind family and friends and jobs and security and sometimes safety. It means brushing your teeth using bottled water because the water you have will kill you, or cooking over charcoal stoves, or having electricity at most just a few hours per day, or bathing out of buckets, and then washing your clothes in those same buckets. It means setting aside the taken-for-granted privileges of the Global North to live as the majority of people do in the Global South.

Admittedly, few missionaries live on less than $1 per day, which is the truth for so many Global Southerners, but all live on considerably less than they would in the United States, and many missionaries live very close to the bone financially.

And yet, while the Episcopal Church proclaims that mission is at the very heart of our ministry, that same Church is not supporting those willing to go the farthest for the longest period of time.

Once again, by “Church,” I do not mean the “national Church” or “those folks at 815 in New York.” I mean the whole Church, the 2 million-plus members of this portion of the Anglican Communion. I mean all of us.

Earlier this year, the Mission Personnel Office in New York, looking at the budget that was set for missionaries, tried to figure out a way to make the pay system more equitable. In an effort to ensure that lay missionaries had access to the Pension Fund, it proposed that henceforth, all missionaries would receive full benefits and Pension Fund benefits, and that’s it. No longer would there be a differentiation between Volunteers for Mission and Appointed Missionaries; all would be treated equally in the financial realm. All other money – for stipends, living expenses, travel, visas, language training, etc. – had to be raised by the missionaries themselves. In essence, the Mission Personnel Office was trying to make the best of a bad situation. That plan, thankfully, has been removed from the table. The Standing Commission on World Mission now is seeking a different way to fund the missionaries more fully.

The question is, why was the Mission Personnel Office put in that position in the first place? Why isn’t the Episcopal Church more willing to fully fund missionaries, so that they don’t have to raise money to go off and answer the call God has issued to them? The Church allocates less than $1million per year for these 70 people. To fully fund them all – so that missionaries would receive full health and pension benefits, a stipend (which hasn’t changed in years, despite the constantly rising costs in living expenses), support, travel, visa fees, language training, etc. – would cost approximately another $1.8 million per year.

That sounds like a lot of money, and in overall scheme of the Church’s budget, it is. But if instead of looking at the “Church” as just those folks in New York, we looked at the “Church” as all of us, it would mean, literally, pennies per year per person. Really. Raising that amount of money would mean asking each Episcopalian in this country to give eighty cents per year just for missionaries.

The theology for sending forth full-time missionaries to labor in the fields is sound: Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel.” That wasn’t a suggestion; it was a command. He also was clear that the laborers deserve to be paid. And he did say that there aren’t enough laborers to begin with.

In these days of such great difficulties in the Anglican Communion, where we don’t always understand our sisters and brothers in Christ overseas, and our brothers and sisters in Christ overseas don’t always understand us, we need these missionaries more than ever. They are, in most places, the very face of the Episcopal Church. They are the ones who not only build the relationships with people in the pews around the world, they transform those relationships, and in turn are transformed by them. People living overseas, who may have heard that Americans are arrogant, or who have been told that the American church is the embodiment of (fill in the blank to your own satisfaction), discover, upon not only meeting but living with missionaries, that Americans are the same as them: beloved children of God. And that Americans, and by extension the American church, care about them enough to come be with them, work with them, worship with them, and if necessary, suffer with them. You want to change how Anglicans around the world see us? Send a missionary. There are many who are willing to go, if only the support existed.

So here’s what we need to do:

First, we need to make it known to one and all that the Episcopal Church has missionaries, and they are doing good work in all the world. Jesus calls all of us to tell the story, so let’s start doing that.

Second, we need to put our money where our mouths are. If we are going to proclaim that mission is who and what we are, we need to pay for it. We missionaries aren’t asking for the world; we simply would like enough money to live on, and to have our basic expenses covered so that we don’t have to spend all our time acting like members of Congress, constantly raising money just so that we can continue to do that which the Lord has called us to do.

And third, we need to send more people. Is it too radical an idea to ask each diocese to support, financially, one missionary overseas, perhaps just paying the stipend and expenses, while the national Church paid the health care and pension benefits? (That would cost approximately $20,000 per diocese per year – a lot for some dioceses, I know, but then again, aren’t we supposed to be all about mission?) A commitment to that alone would put another 30 (thirty!) missionaries in the field! Each missionary would then be assigned to a diocese, either his or her sending one, or another one, and would be in close contact with the people of that diocese on a regular basis.

Our mission as Christians is to go into all the world to preach the Gospel, and if necessary, to use words. If we are going to live most fully into this mission, shouldn’t we at least be willing to pay for it?

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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