Does Deputation Deserve a Good Attitude?

I have a bad attitude about deputation. Not the kind of bad attitude that would break Paul’s command to “Rejoice at all times.” More like the frustrated discontent we conservatives have when we think about the bloated US federal government.

Missionaries who do not have a denomination paying for them commonly take 2, 3, and sometimes 4 years to raise their needed support for service in another culture. That’s 24-48 months of US living, English speaking, and dollar spending. For the sake of discussion, let’s put the average amount of time on deputation at 3 years—36 months or 1,095 days. Again for the sake of discussion, let’s put the average tenure of missionary service at 20 years though my personal experience and private conversations tell me that number is way too high. In my own field of ministry, I only know one missionary who has served for 20 or more trips around the sun. I know of three who returned to the US before 5 years were finished.

Yet for the sake of being gracious to the opposing view, let’s assume the average missionary will get two decades. If he spends 3 years on deputation, that is 15% of his overall missionary career. For those who serve for a decade that’s like a 30% tax on life and ministry. That is a significant enough number that it at least deserves sustained discussion. Wouldn’t we all like to gain a 15-30% discount on our next purchase? What entrepreneur would not want a few more years in the prime of his life?

First the positive side: maybe it is worth it. Maybe the benefits of deputation are so great that they overpower these few years and actually serve to make missionary activity better. After all, I have talked to mission board directors and even missionaries who have a Pollyanna, can-do optimism about raising support. Typically, the reasons I have heard fall into two categories: the spiritual benefits and the economic.

Deputation can be seen as spiritually beneficial.
Variations of this line include:
•    “We met so many wonderful and encouraging people.”
•    “Our prayer support base is so broad now.”
•    “I learned so much during that time. God taught us to trust Him.”
•    “I wasn’t ready to be a missionary before deputation, but now I am ready.”

Dealing with them in order, we start with the numerous friendships made. While we may meet many people by traveling around to scores of churches, what is the nature of those kinds of friendships? They may be encouraging in a sense, but they are also superficial. You can’t know each of those people. Even if one out of ten of them wanted to correspond with you on a semi-regular basis it would be overwhelming. Friendship with godly believers is a great blessing, but do we really need 3 years to do that?

The second entry in this category has to do with prayer support. Deputation provides so many prayer warriors for the new missionary. Really? With the average church having dozens of missionaries, what makes you think they will latch onto you and intercede for you, your family, and the spiritual battles in your culture? How many members of the supporting churches could even match up three factors for their missionaries: husband, wife, and country of service? My hunch is very few. I’m not berating those “wicked” American Christians, they’ve been given a superfluity of families that they have to keep straight. But I am raising the objection that it strains the credulity of the non-gullible to think that the average church member is consistently interceding for a missionary whom he only met on a brief deputation meeting.

Now, if you want to argue that you learned a lot on deputation, I would agree (at least I hope that is true). By traveling to churches for several years, a missionary could gain cart loads of wisdom on preaching, church ministry, counseling, people skills, family dynamics, communication, and walking in the Spirit. So why do I still have a bad attitude in the face of these spiritual riches? Because they come at too high a price when a shop down the road sells similar or higher quality goods at a cheaper price. Would you not learn all of those skills and more while serving in your country of service? If maintaining numerous meetings week after week builds patience, what will living in a culture that has very little common or special grace do for your chances to grow in the Spirit? And if deputation is so much better for you spiritually than living overseas, then why not stay on deputation even after your support is raised. Just tell pastors, “Its for our own spiritual good that we have been on deputation for 7 years.” If 3 is good, why not 6?

On the chance that someone says they were not ready for the mission field before deputation, the answer seems to be shouting: Why did your church agree that you should be missionaries if you did not yet meet the qualifications? If you did, then what further preparation did you need? Mental maturity and people skills still have their spiritual dimensions which if the leaders of your church thought you had, they should send you out. If they were concerned about your lack, they should have withheld their recommendation, not sent you out on deputation to “patch up a few weak spots.”

Deputation can be seen as economically safe.
A common response to the model being proposed is that modern deputation is safer than other options because if you lose one or two churches supporting you, at least 30 or 40 or more still remain. This argument rests on the superstructure of the tenets of modern deputation including high missionary salaries, many supporting churches at small amounts, short times at each church, and a low-level of intimacy between supporters and missionary.

So where should the discussion begin? Previously, I have argued for missionary salary caps, and now I would like to muster the troops against the idea that missionaries need many churches. Why would we think a missionary needs many supporting churches? Because a few churches can’t afford to give him all the money he needs. Because the relationship between most churches and most missionaries might prove so volatile that the missionary would be afraid to go down into the hole if only a few untrustworthy promises held him up. Because the missionary wants more prayer support.

Treating the last argument first, we’ve dealt with this above. Greater prayer support comes with a stronger relational bond. Those bonds cannot be built over 30+ churches. A spider must manage one web—what world would have him manager of 30 at the same time? Find a way to make close friends with your supporters and they will carry your name to the Throne of Grace. Even if that inner circle is just three, better to have them in consistent knowledgeable prayer than 300 general prayers from a Wednesday night list. Many churches do not necessarily mean more prayer anymore than many Twitter followers represent deep relationships.

Moving more toward the heart of this concern is the pragmatic tentativeness that missionaries often feel toward churches. In the wake of hyper-separatism that draws lines in the sand over whether or not you have a mission board, whether or not you preached at a church with a tie to the SBC, whether or not you have ministered with a man who holds to the mid-tribulation position, whether or not you use the KJV, and whether or not you believe that God alone determines who will be in Heaven, people whose paycheck depends on congregations who may have a stated position different from theirs are afraid. They are afraid that if their real beliefs come out, they will be axed. Although this is real (I’ve felt the cold blade myself more than once), I don’t have much sympathy for doctrinal chameleons. And especially not the leaders of mission boards who counsel missionaries to keep quiet about personal convictions.

Now no one is arguing that we should force our conclusions on others, try to make tension as a mark of spiritual boldness, or parade our beliefs for the prideful pleasure of looking more educated (or liberated) than some pastor or church. Neither should we intentionally hide our positions on the great doctrines of the faith or the battle grounds of the present. A man who has an open relationship with his supporters so that—whether they agree or not—they all know what each other believes will be in a much better position for friendship with them. How can a satisfying relationship be built on ignorance? And if they know each other, then they can decide to rationally overlook some differences for the sake of the gospel. If they know up front, they are highly unlikely to drop the man’s support.

So to summarize, the great fear of being cut will be largely alleviated by open communication, and something like David-and-Jonathan friendships between the missionary and the supporters.

One Goliath still stands between David and Jonathan. How could a few churches support a single missionary? I’ll toil in this soil longer at another time, but here I only want to say one thing. It would be nice if that was possible. We can discuss if it is possible, but let us all set our affections on this option as the best. If a missionary could be supported by 3, 5, or 10 churches representing a total 1,000-2,000 members, that would be much better for forming relationships, accountability, keeping furloughs short, and restructuring furlough. If we may see this as the best option, we can overcome the relatively minor logistical concern about how to actually raise the funds.

“There is no other way.”
Possibly this whisper could be heard from the heart of many faithful servants of God. Since no other option is known other than the status quo of 3 years confinement to a minivan, we might as well put a brave face on it. After all, the Bible says, “In everything give thanks.” Christians must thank God for all His good gifts, for grace seen even in the midst of sin. But nowhere do I read in the Bible that Christians must be grateful for the presence of sinful practices and foolish traditions. And that is just what is under question here: Is modern deputation a foolish tradition or a valid application of the Word of God to contemporary life?

Even if a missionary thought there were no other options, he may still have a justified and holy discontent as he covets earnestly the best methods. Without a holy dissatisfaction, how would we ever advance? It is not spiritual to be satisfied with silliness.

The way out is however a complex system as has been referred to earlier. All the spokes have to be in place in order for the machine to work, and choosing which spoke to discuss first is cause for pause.
1.    Missionary salaries
2.    Missionary willingness to serve and form friendships
3.    Missionary preparation and qualifications
4.    Pastoral mindset toward support amounts
5.    Pastoral mindset toward missionary accountability
6.    Pastoral mindset toward helping the missionary
7.    Purpose and length of furloughs
8.    Moving forward

Over the next few months, I aim to work through some of these issues, or at least to raise them for discussion. You are welcome to follow along if you are not already put off by my bad attitude.

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