On Being Fund-Raisers

The two of us have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, first as college-aged and post-college singles seeking support for one-week trips, summer internships, and then one- and two-year terms in Berlin, where we met. I was probably especially bad at it, a combination of my innate laziness, shortcomings in time-management skills, an introvert’s native fear and loathing toward phone calls (especially cold calls), shyness exacerbated by feeling foolish asking people to fund some dumb kid’s post-collegiate foray into longer-term mission work, and battles with loneliness and depression.

Our next time around, we had some advantages: we were married, I was working toward ordination, our first child was born—we were, by at least a few generally accepted measures, Real Grown-Ups. Moreover, we were returning to a city where we’d served before, so the things we’d learned and experienced were relevant to our new call; for that matter, we were both veteran fundraisers, with a better idea of how to budget our time and focus our energy, two pools of previous supporters and contacts to combine, and, very importantly, two complementary sets of gifts and skills to apply to the task.

As of this writing, we’re trying to finish up a third round of fundraising, not starting from zero as we had in the past, but still needing to pick up several thousand dollars in monthly support in order to be cleared for departure. In these many years of doing this work, we’ve often been struck by how difficult it is to communicate some of the basics of what it means (and doesn’t mean) for us to live on support and we need and are asking for when we make our appeals.

In what follows, I’d like to offer a little overview of how it all works—not a FAQ, exactly, but an intro to what living on the support we raise means for missionaries in our organization (I can’t speak to other agencies’ policies, though a lot of what’s true for us may well be applicable to other missionaries you might know). We usually don’t have time to lay all this out, so I hope this can help folks make sense of what some of the jargon means and what we’re trying to get across in our communications.


The Widow's Mite
The first basic thing to understand is that we are salaried employees of our agency, MTW. That might seem obvious, but I suspect it’s not always really clear to everybody. Being employed by the agency means that they’re the “company” that pays our salary, benefits, and work expenses, and it also means that when you support us, you are more fundamentally supporting MTW. The money you send in belongs to them, and under all normal circumstances, they allocate it in accordance with your wishes—specifically, it’s earmarked for the account out of which we get paid.

This also means that the amount of our compensation is set by the agency: our pay doesn’t vary depending on how much support comes in any given month, since the donations aren’t going directly into our pocket. If a big supporter drops us, forgets to send a check, or whatever, that doesn’t (necessarily) mean we can’t pay rent and buy groceries that month, so we enjoy a measure of real stability. On the other hand, this is the reason we spend so much time talking about the percentage of our support need we’ve raised—because our employer commits to compensating us at a certain level, we need to be able to show that the support that will come in over the course of a four-year term will be enough to maintain that level of compensation while keeping our account in the black.

On that note, it’s important to realize that we are responsible to raise every dollar of our support. Some agencies, especially denominational ones like ours, partially or fully subsidize their missionaries’ support out of their general fund, but that’s not how our denomination does it. (There are various reasons for this, but I’m more concerned here to make sure the facts are clear than to discuss the whys and wherefores.) You could say we’re “listener supported,” and just like public and nonprofit broadcasters, we need to do “pledge drives” every so often to meet our budget.

There’s a key difference between us and public broadcasting, of course: the broadcasters are always here, always providing their service to their supporters, always doing some measure of advertising, and always picking up new listeners and viewers. Their regular pledge drives only need to run for short periods in order to bring in enough gifts and new memberships to cover the annual budget. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time out of the country, and while we do our best to communicate well with our supporters, we don’t have many chances to find new ones, except about every four or five years when we’re on home assignment.

For that reason, we tend to talk about our monthly far more than our annual budget (let alone the cost of an entire term on the field). Some of that is a matter of sticker shock; a nonprofit broadcaster trying to raise half a million dollars or more for its operating budget for the next six months to a year probably doesn’t raise eyebrows, but it’s pretty daunting to talk about that level of funding for one missionary family, even when it’s spread over four years. And the fact is that raising that amount of money in the form of one-time gifts would take an awfully long time for most missionaries—and then we’d have to do it all over again before every term.

This is why recurring gifts (what public broadcasters and similar organizations call “members”) are our fundraising lifeblood. Over the course of a 48-month term, someone who can give $50 or $100 each month without missing it has contributed $2,400 or $4,800 respectively, daunting sums for many of the same people if they were asked to give up front. The same logic applies to any recurring giving: if you’re giving $300 every quarter, $600 semiannually, or $1,200 once a year, then it’s the same (from our perspective) as if you were giving $100 every month—it adds up to $4,800 over the course of those four years. More than once, we’ve run up against the perception that anything other than a monthly pledge is “one-time,” but it’s really not. If you can pledge to give a lump sum every December, then you’ve knocked off 1/12 of that amount from our monthly need.

So where do genuine one-time gifts fit in? For us, they were most important when we were first starting out. There are several types of one-off expenses that roll around each term (things like plane fare to and from our field), so there needs to be “cash on hand” to cover those; we had to get a certain balance in our account along with having our full support need pledged before we could leave for Germany for the first time. One-time gifts (plus any surplus in monthly giving) add to the amount of “cash on hand,” which provides the buffer that makes up for any monthly shortfall. In our case, because we have a healthy balance in our account, once the one-off expenses for this term are accounted for, one-time gifts contribute to our monthly need at 1/48 of their total value.

Finally, I think it’s worth talking about what we mean (and don’t mean) by a “pledge.” It may be simplest to describe it this way: pledging support to us means writing us into your budget, planning to support us as part of the normal use to which you put your financial resources. It’s a plan, not a legal obligation or a sacred vow. I worry that we’ve over-spiritualized missionary (and other ministry) support, so that people feel like they can’t make commitments like this unless they have some extraordinary measure of faith, or unless they feel presumptuously certain about their future financial prospects. But the reality is that every item in your personal budget is a pledge to use what God has provided to you in a certain way.

We—and I do think we speak for most missionaries here—understand that none of us knows the future. Anyone who’s been on the field for any length of time has lost support, whether it’s because supporters lost jobs, had surprise quadruplets, were diagnosed with a serious illness, decided another ministry’s need was more urgent or important—or died. We know these things happen, and we don’t see anyone who stops giving because of them as having broken a promise (or as having been unwise to make the commitment in the first place). On the flip side, we have a number of supporters who genuinely don’t know how much money they’ll make any given month, such as those who work on commission. Some of these just give whenever they can; some even make a pledge for a minimum amount, then often go above that in their actual giving. The diversity of circumstances among our dozens of supporters is impressive, and it’s heartening.

I hope this is a helpful walk-through of how the whole support thing works for us. We’d be happy to hear any questions we haven’t addressed, and I may come back to edit, clarify, or add information as needed, so feel free to be in touch!

-Ben

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Mine

The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” …

“When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord‘s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” – Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16

At the climax of ten plagues, God struck the Egyptians a blow that loosened their grasp on their Hebrew slaves just long enough for them to flee by night and set out for Sinai. There was a poetic justice in it: the infanticidal oppressors paid for their king’s obstinacy with their firstborn, man and beast.

God made a crucial distinction that night: Israel’s firstborn, and theirs only, would be spared. It seems logical to those of us who grew up with Sunday School stories, intuitive as story-logic—since after all the Egyptians were the Bad Guys who had it coming. But Scripture prompts an uncomfortable question: what is the actual difference between the Israelites and Egyptians, when we get right down to it?

Yes, the oppression went in one direction. And yet we aren’t given the slightest hint that the Israelites are basically more pious or righteous than their oppressors; just look at the story of Moses’ first misadventure as a would-be liberator. The Hebrews are members of their masters’ household, and they have taken on a sort of family resemblance. They are devotees of their gods and participants (to whatever degree of willingness) in their corrupt social order. So where does God get off showing this sort of favoritism?

Amazingly, God’s own answer is not of the I am the potter and you are the clay sort, asserting His divine prerogative and telling the creatures to deal with it. Rather, He says, Israel is Mine. Israel is God’s firstborn son, His very own.

The claim is rooted in history, in God’s promises to Israel’s ancestors; the Lord is keeping His word to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But there’s a tension here between the place of God’s people in His plan and the reality on the ground, as there will be throughout Scripture: how can God treat these people differently, when they simply aren’t different?

This is where the Paschal lamb comes in, a provisional solution, a way for God to acknowledge the fact that He is differentiating between people who are not different in themselves and still carry out His purposes for those whose God He has promised to be. And from then on, in an ongoing way, Israel will acknowledge this tension as well, by setting aside all the firstborn as God’s exclusive property and leasing back those who may not be offered on His altar (unclean animals and sinful humans). God says of Israel, they are Mine; and to remind them of the judgment from which He has spared them, He says of their firstborn too, they are Mine.

It is no accident that Christ died at Passover, and it is no coincidence that Christ is in so many places called “firstborn” (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), and especially “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). In the fullness of time, God claims what is His.

How will God make a distinction between His redeemed people and the house of slavery His world has become? The stroke of judgment will fall on the firstborn of all creation itself (Col 1:15). He is the Firstborn, of Judah, of Israel, of the ends of the earth, and God has called in their debt and accepted him in payment, not provisionally but definitively.

Yet this firstborn is different in himself from the creation in its alienation from and rebellion against its Maker. And so God raises him up, this sinless one become sin, this immortal one engulfed by the grave, and in so doing deprives death itself of its firstborn (Col 1:18), striking the blow that looses the grip of sin and death on the people of God. Jesus Christ the firstborn opened the womb of Mary, then the womb of the earth itself, and thus God says of him, he is Mine.

How, then, do we find it said of us: they are Mine? This is what faith does; it’s not just a vague notion that things will work out for the best, not even just the unverifiable assertion that it really did happen this way, but the offering up of this one to God as our firstborn, one we do not lose when God receives him. His death and his resurrection sever us from the household of slavery into which we were born and in which we were raised.

And so God has laid claim to His Firstborn, to our Firstborn, and through him, on us—so that all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Because he is risen, though our lives are forfeit to God, they are also indestructible, imperishable, waiting to be revealed and lived to ages of ages.

He is risen indeed!

Strengthen Me Only This Once

Oh, Samson.

If ever there were a time to blame the victim—at least in part—this is probably it. The man’s predilection for a certain kind of woman has caught up with him hard. The Worst Nazirite Ever is reaping the harvest of lifelong carelessness about his calling. He made his bed; now he’ll lie in it.

And yet… and yet he has actually struck a series of blows against his people’s oppressors, sowing some much-needed disruption in the fallow field of an Israel far too content to be slaves in their own land. He has done the Lord’s work, and he has paid the price of being savior to a people unwilling to be saved. Delilah handed him over for a princely sum of silver; the men of Judah had been willing to do it for free.

512px-064.The_Death_of_Samson.jpgNow Samson embodies his nation fully. Darkness has fallen on a man named Sun (in Hebrew, he’s Shimshon, from shemesh, “sun”), called to be a light. He’s been enslaved, the penalty for his own faithlessness. He’s become a spectacle to the nations. He is Godforsaken, desecrated, weak. His enemies’ attitude is summed up in one detail: they don’t bother with haircuts for their prisoner. Surely, they think, having broken the Nazirite code so definitively, he has forfeited all help from his god.

Yet they have failed, fatally, to reckon either with Yahweh’s power or with His mercy.

They have taken what is the Lord’s: the hair of the Nazirite’s sacred head, God’s due, to be laid upon the fire of the peace offering at the completion of his vow (Num 6:18). Samson is at fault too, but in the end it was Delilah’s crony, in the Philistine lords’ pay, who took what was holy to Yahweh, incurring His jealous wrath. Then, too, they have not reckoned with this God’s single-minded devotion to His purpose to make this people of His the instrument of His judgment and mercy.

And so Samson calls upon the name of the Lord, asking to be remembered and strengthened, to avenge himself upon his enemies. His prayer granted, he brings the judgment of God down upon himself and them together, in his death achieving a greater victory than any he had gained in life.

Behold the man: the greatest and worst of the Judges, his enemies reveling in victory and finding themselves deceived in the end.

Behold the man: the Judge of all the earth, his enemies reveling in victory and finding themselves deceived in the end.

Christ hangs there, having done the Lord’s work and nothing else, paying the price of coming to save a people who do not want his salvation. He has been betrayed for a slave’s price in silver, handed over to the Romans for nothing. He is a spectacle, a brutally effective one, the Gentiles reveling as they humiliate Judah’s king, the Jews satisfied that this pretender, this blasphemer, has forfeited all claim on God’s help.

Yet they, the cronies of the powers of sin and death, have taken what belongs to the Lord, a most sacred head—recall that Jesus swore off the “fruit of the vine” on the eve of his betrayal (Luke 22:18)—incurring God’s jealous wrath. The Christ calls upon the name of the Lord, and with the last of his strength pulls down the judgment of God upon himself and his enemies.

So he dies, and the Light of the world, the Sun of Righteousness, is darkened.

But in this moment, the foes of the living God and of His people find their temple crashing in upon their own heads, because not only have they committed this sacrilege, this theft of what is holy to the Lord, but they have called Good evil—they have slandered the Holy One of Israel, rejoicing in the destruction of one truly righteous and imagining this one to be rejected by God whom God must deliver from the grave.

This is no defeat.

They Beheld God, and Ate and Drank

Three verses in Exodus contain one of the more astonishing moments in the entire Bible.

Moses has come down off the mountain. He reports God’s requirements of His people, and they vow to meet them. He builds an altar, and the congregation worships, as God had promised. They ratify their vow, and Moses marks them with the blood of the covenant, the blood of their offerings that has given them such access as they have to the terrifying God who has come down in fire and cloud onto the mountain.

moses-and-aaron-with-the-elders-1966.jpg

And then seventy-four men go up to where they can see God (Exod 24:9-10). They see where His feet rest on a celestial pavement (v. 10), and the Lord holds back His hand, allowing them shockingly near to Him, hosting a meal so they can eat and drink while experiencing a vision that by rights ought to be fatal.

Of these seventy-four, not one will eat and drink the yield of Canaan. Aaron’s sons will fall first, disregarding the Lord’s command in their service at the new tabernacle at Sinai. Aaron himself and the seventy elders will fall in the wilderness; Moses will see his people’s homeland only from a distance. In a matter of days, Aaron will go from seeing God to making a golden calf for his people to worship (no doubt with their elders’ at least tacit approval), so they can claim to have seen the Lord too.

So it seems to go with these suppers. God invites traitors and cowards to His table and feeds them on the eve of their craven acts of treachery.

Yet all those centuries later, the Lord who hosts the supper will be one with the new Moses who will stand in the breach and intercede for his people when they corrupt themselves definitively. They have seen Jesus and so have seen the Father; they will none of them stand on the Lord’s side when the hour comes. And yet their Lord will tell them, do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. This will not be the last Supper, but the first of many myriad.

The seventy-four saw the Lord, and ate and drank. The Twelve saw the Lord, and ate and drank. But none of them had yet seen the Lord glorified as he would be the next day at noon, thirsting and dying. We have seen this, we who have the eyes of faith. We know that we are in no position to say all that the Lord has spoken we will do; it is all that the Lord has spoken, His Christ has done. So we behold the Lord, and eat and drink.

A King from Among Your Brothers

I love to preach.

I’m not entirely sure how good at it I am – the general consensus seems to be that you need to preach about 100 times before you figure out your own approach, find your voice, and so forth. In my particular situation, though, the opportunities aren’t all that frequent; between seminary classes, my internship as an ordination candidate, occasional chances to fill the pulpit while raising support, and my actual work on the field, I’d estimate that I’m somewhere in the low to mid-20s by now (two-thirds of those sermons having been prepared and preached in German).

On a recent trip to participate in a multi-church missions conference, I was invited to preach at a partner church the Sunday before the conference started, then again the following Sunday as part of the conference itself. I’m fairly sure that was the first time I’ve preached on consecutive Sundays since I was ordained.

My first delivery of the sermon I used has been posted online here, so I thought I’d share. Again, I don’t put myself forward as a homiletic black belt or anything (and I suspect that the following week’s delivery of the same sermon was probably improved by the tweaks I was able to make during the week), but the subject matter really is near and dear to my heart.

josiah

Shaphan the scribe reads the newly discovered book of the Law to King Josiah

The disciples’ befuddlement at Jesus’ predicting his sufferings – not to mention, of course, his actual suffering and death – show that they had an entirely mistaken notion about what sort of king he was sent to be. That’s a fairly familiar reading of passages like Peter’s “Get behind me, Satan” moment, and it’s an accurate one. But it’s often accompanied by the implicit sense that when Jesus says, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man,” what he means is: “You are not setting your mind on the things of the New Testament, but on the things of the Old.”

What I mean is that we tend to assume that first-century Jews like Peter were basically right to see the promises of the Old Testament as pointing toward a king who would come and seize power by the sword and drive the Romans back into the sea, and that their only mistake was in not seeing that God was doing something completely new and different this time. But this just doesn’t hold up: Jesus was and is the Christ, which means the anointed king of Israel, the one the law of Deuteronomy 17:14-20 (my sermon text) is meant to regulate. To say that Jesus came to fulfill the Law for his people means that he came to do what God required of anyone who would be king over His people.

And if that’s the case, then we need to be digging deep into the Old Testament to see what exactly Jesus thought he was up to, going about being Israel’s king the way he did. I hope this sermon gives a little snapshot into how I try to do that in Germany, whether it’s in my seminary classes or from the pulpit. It is endlessly profitable to me, and I hope it’ll be of some benefit to some of you as well.

-Ben

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

A passion of ours, and a great need for the German church, is to see lyrically rich, Christ-centered, and singable hymns form the basis of the musical diet of German congregations. That’s one of the many reasons we’re excited to serve in the church plant we’re headed to in Munich — its pastor, Robin Dammer, shares this passion and has been hard at work on new translations of just such songs. Here’s a lyric video of his latest, a translation of “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand)”:

From Ancient Days

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
     who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
     one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
     from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
     when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
     to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
     in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
     to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:2-5a

How will these things be? How will it all be different in the latter days?

There will be a baby.

You, O Bethlehem, haven’t been Royal David’s City for three centuries, ever since your most famous son captured the stronghold of Zion and called it by his own name. And that means that this child, this Ruler who comes from you, will be David’s Son indeed – but he’ll be no Crown Prince of Judah. He will be born among the tattered remnants of his father’s kingdom, in a town that has lapsed once again into insignificance since the old days.

size1Nevertheless: he will be born with a kingly calling, born to be the Ruler David was on his better days, the morning-light-after-the-rain sort (2 Sam 23:3-4). He will bring the good old days back with him, and better: his coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Mic 5:2), which is to say, before Abraham was, he is (John 8:58). His “coming forth” is the sallying forth of the Serpent-Crusher, the riding out of the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to possess the gate of his enemies. Every seemingly forgotten promise is now due to be remembered, a day of reckoning for the God who appears to have so recklessly overcommitted Himself.

This is the real why of all the death, destruction, and horror; not that Yahweh flew off the handle after one too many improprieties from His people, but that He knew all along that the woes of His people’s overthrow were not to be the pangs of death but the pangs of childbirth, so as to bring this child into the world (Mic 5:3). When he has arrived, then the time of scattering will be past, the time of gathering begun. But the scattering must take place, if he is to come at all. The royal Son cannot be born royal; his Father will use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

What we get in return for all of the misery is a Good Shepherd. The very presence of God, and His being pleased to name us as His own (5:4), are the pasture we are starving for, and this one will take us there. We will “dwell secure” – literally, just “dwell” or “stay” – never removed from this presence and grace, because this Ruler will be great to the ends of the earth. Who would dare to try to take us away? Where would they take us to be out of reach of his power to deliver and protect?

He will be, quite simply, peace – not only because his greatness will protect them from harm, but because he will take away the cause for God’s coming in wrath against His people, and will therefore have no more need for Assyria or Babylon to be the rod of His anger (Isa 10:5). As long as he lives, it will be in truth not merely David but the Lord of Hosts Himself who reigns in, over, and for His Israel (4:7).

The baby born in Bethlehem, nearly 700 years after this word was spoken, was the sign (Luke 2:12) that it was all true, that payment was due on all God had promised. He was all that the prophet spoke and more: a just ruler and descendant of David according to the flesh, whose coming forth was from days far more ancient than David or Moses or Abraham or even Adam; the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep; himself our peace, the tearer-down of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, man and God.

When this baby was born, one could then safely say, there’s only one way this can turn out now. The kingdom must come; the Lord must reign and send His word out to every corner of the earth; there will be peace, because Peace is here.

That means real, heavyweight joy for us who believe that this is all true. It means defiant joy, sometimes angry joy, that refuses to abide anything that would darken the appearance of the light; the news is too good to be spoiled by foes without or fears within – these must be overthrown. It means thankful joy, joy that eats and drinks and is merry, joy that bathes in twinkly light reflected off red bulbs hung on spruce twigs. It means astonished joy, joy as of those who dream, for whom the Lord has done great things, because He has.

Take courage, friends, and merry Christmas.