The usual disclaimer: though what I describe here is certainly true of a majority of the MKs I’ve known, it is not necessarily true of all of them. When it comes to “money,” experiences will vary according to location, mission organization, support structure, parental example and cultural opinion.
If you’re from Malaysia, money might grow on Malacca trees. If you’re from Mali, it may grow on Baobabs. If you’re from Germany, it may grow on a pine tree or in Venezuela, on Araguaney. If you’re an MK, the kind of tree doesn’t really matter! That those trees could be chopped down from one moment to the next does.
The missionary life is riddled with contradictions, but there’s one in particular that has far-reaching repercussions on both the missionaries and their children. In many cases–and certainly in mine–it can be summed up in these terms: financial entitlement vs. fear of poverty.
The first assumption (lie) is that money grows on trees. MKs sometimes develop this belief as a result of the outrageously wonderful generosity of friends and supporters. The most common scenario is this: a missionary or MK mentions in conversation that his/her laptop is acting up or the ministry car keeps breaking down or a recent surgery left them with a tall stack of bills. In the “real world,” such needs would require a careful look at family finances, then a decision that would either engender disappointment, a moratorium on frivolous spending, or a major shift in lifestyle. In the missionary world, in a lot of cases, churches and supporters might decide to contribute to the need, or meet it altogether, because it’s part of their commitment to their missionaries.
(Brief disclaimer: were it not for the kindness and generosity of donors, there would be no missionaries or MKs. Your gifts have encouraged and sustained my ministry in ways I find astonishing, and this blog entry in no way should be misconstrued as ingratitude or accusation for those of you who sacrifice for the sake of missions. YOU have been the tangible evidence of God’s provision and have shown Him to me in ways I wouldn’t have seen without you! Back to the topic…)
Children who grow up experiencing this amazing kindness can develop a sort of subconscious sense of entitlement, an EXPECTATION that if they really need something, someone somewhere will give it to them…particularly if that need is a big-ticket item. (Supporters don’t generally ask if an MK would like a movie ticket or a Happy Meal!) There’s something called, perhaps cynically, “Playing the System”: identify a need, mention it in a strategic place or to strategic people, watch someone graciously step forward to meet it. It’s not pretty (at all!), but it happens sometimes.
As a consequence, many MKs (not all of them) grow up with the impression that they shouldn’t really have to work for that new gaming console or guitar or college wardrobe. Someone should recognize the need and give it to them. “Should” implies obligation–as if the mere fact of being an MK means that people have to be generous with them. That in turn might imply that being an MK somehow exempts them from being financially responsible, as others will take up the slack. In also inhibits the kind of gratitude such generosity SHOULD (yup, should) inspire. As a result of so much kindness, the true value of objects (and the money that buys them) can be lost on some MKs. As you can imagine, this entitlement-thinking can have a significant impact on an MK’s attitude toward getting a job, living within his/her means, and saving for “the lean years.”
To be completely honest, even today, when someone offers to help me with some expense I’ve mentioned, I feel a pang of guilt. I wonder if I subconsciously (or, horrors, consciously!) brought up the topic in the hope that they’d help out, and I kick myself for mentioning it at all, because this grown-up MK doesn’t want to be the recipient of something I somehow cajoled or manipulated out of already generous friends. Sometimes, this very reasoning keeps me from having a normal, honest conversation, because I’m afraid that what I say might “force” this person into wanting to help. It’s a strange thing…one I’m still trying to unravel in my own life. I’m so honored by the gifts I receive, but many times I also feel undeserving and shamefully unworthy of such gestures of generosity.
The flip-side of the entitlement many MKs feel can best be summed up as “fear of bankruptcy.” This too is often a lie, but it is due to the very real notion that a missionary’s income, in most cases, is directly dependent on the generosity of supporters. As I mentioned in my previous post, if too much support “dries up,” an MK’s entire world will be turned upside down, yet there is nothing anyone can do to ensure that those who already give keep giving. Yes, we send out the prayer letters and keep in touch by email as much as we can, but with the depression striking on both sides of the ocean, we know that even the most willing of donors may not be able to keep giving for long. And when they stop, so does the life we know.
It is this same “fear of famine” that prompts missionaries to take heroic measures in being good stewards of their funds. No one exemplifies this better than my own mother, who is known to keep the loose salt at the bottom of a bag of pretzels, because that tablespoon of slightly crumby sodium might spell the difference between solvency and bankruptcy! (You know I had to mention it, Mom…but at least I didn’t mention buttering HALF the frying pan and reusing Ziploc bags until they become zippered oil slicks!) Missionaries, in general, live extremely frugally, because they know that steady income is far from guaranteed.
MKs who are raised with the certainty that any decrease in giving will result in the end of their life in ministry are painfully aware of the precarity of their income. They live in trepidation. And if they have a father like mine, whose most anxious and short-fused “episodes” always came on those days he spent pouring over the family’s budget, they’re all the more convinced that everything they have now (culturally and relationally) will not be theirs for long. They live in expectation of imminent poverty.
Can you see how the contradiction between entitlement and fear of destitution can lead to a sort of schizophrenic approach to finances? On the one hand, if you need a new computer, mention it in a prayer letter and ta-da! You own a Dell. But if another supporter drops their $25 per month, you’re going to have to pack that Dell up and head back to the States on the next plane. Not surprisingly, this dichotomy sends MKs to either extremity of the “money continuum” when they become adults. Some will spend every dollar they earn because, for the first time, they actually have money to spend. And some will save just about every dollar they earn, because they’re so aware that their situation could turn on a dime. I’ve seen some MKs spend themselves into bankruptcy buying things they could never afford as a child–and long before they could really afford them as an adult. And I’ve seen others living so frugally, even while making a solid income, that they seemed to deprive themselves of simple, affordable joys.
(To complicate matters, a majority of MKs haven’t had the kind of small jobs American teens often have in the summer. They haven’t managed paychecks or learned about credit cards! They’re ripe for scams and early-onset over-extension!)
As MKs, it is from our missionary parents that we derive our attitudes toward finances. Therefore, the onus of responsibility once again falls on them to fill in the gaps between what we experience and what we perceive. How? To begin with, we MKs need to see in our parents’ words and reactions that our Miracle Dell is not just a nice gesture. It’s worth real money–a lot of real money. Parents would do well to point out just what that amount of money could buy and how incredible it is that someone wanted to spend it for us. Encourage knowledgeable gratitude. Instill in your children a new version of the old-fashioned tradition of “Thank you” cards. Today, of course, they might take different forms, but the effort of thanking someone for their donation reenforces the idea that something of value was given by a real person…and graciously received.
A more accurate perspective on missionary income might be helpful too. Many MKs aren’t aware that the amount their family receives sometimes far exceeds what a North American family would need for living expenses. This is due to the higher cost of living in some countries, to travel expenses and ministry expenditures. Those who support us aren’t always wealthier than we are, but we somehow assume they are. In fact, it’s been my experience that some of my most faithful supporters truly give sacrificially, living humble lives in order to invest in missions. MKs should be made aware of this reality.
Even in countries where young people don’t usually have jobs, parents can find a way of allowing their kids to EARN income. Have them save toward a specific goal–to purchase things they really want. If they invest time and effort in earning enough money to cover those costs, it will begin to establish in them a sense of their possessions’ worth.
As for those pesky fears of bankruptcy, parents might want to be careful how they speak of the family’s finances. A sardonic “We’re just about broke” from an adult’s mouth might sound like orders to pack everything up and grab your passport to a worried child’s mind. To the adult, it may just mean that it’s time to cut out some frivolous spending and buckle down on support-raising efforts. Be sure that your children know if you’re truly in dire straights, if you’re merely a little strapped, or if things are holding steady. Also let them know what you’re doing to remedy the problem and include them in praying for a solution. If things are looking bleak, have an honest conversation about what will happen when the money runs out–this will assuage their visions of imminent personal Armageddon!
Yes, money does sometimes grow on condemned sequoias, flowing out of the generosity of friends and churches whose continued giving is not guaranteed. In the midst of so much blessing and uncertainty, a humble spirit of dependence on The Provider is what we all–missionaries and non-missionaries alike–would do well to strive for.