His van was totaled in a wreck and just as he and his wife were considering what it would take to finance a new vehicle, someone they know offered them a Volvo.
This past Sunday, he spoke with awe in his voice about the miraculous provision for his family. Then he emphasized that the car was well above their means and added, “I don’t want anyone to see the car and think, ‘Wow, my pastor can afford a Volvo?!’”
I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “I hate that he had to say that.” Then I remembered how often I’ve done something similar.
I’ve noticed the syndrome before—I’ve lived it. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the world of missions. Even among MKs, I see it embodied every day, inherited from parents who might not have realized the lessons they were teaching.
Condition in which guilt overwhelms gratitude—most commonly observed in those who are dependent on charitable giving, aggravated by fear of judgment, often resulting in calculated communication and/or conscience-stricken self-restriction.
CONFESSIONS OF A GUILTITUDER:
When I moved back to the States from Europe, I found my elation over God’s provision of my townhouse tempered by strong feelings of guilt. Though I could document every miracle that had paved the way to my new home, I still struggled with the guilt of “having” when I lived in the ministry-universe of “sacrificing.”
I wondered if guests would see my flea-market European antiques, bought for $50 but worth hundreds in the US, and question whether they’re appropriate for a missionary’s home. I found myself wanting to explain things by saying “This was given to me by a friend” and “I bought this for next-to-nothing at a charity store in Alsace” as I gave tours of my two-story miracle.
Even today, nearly eight years later, as I look around this home and see the items contributed by the outrageous generosity of friends, I am assailed again by that uncomfortable combination of paralyzing guilt and galvanizing gratitude.
I live in the land of Guiltitude.
Guiltitude is not a uniquely Phoenix notion either. Though it doesn’t afflict all missionaries, it impacts enough of them to warrant some attention. Its symptoms are wide-ranging:
- Missionary to Germany relinquishes the old, beat-up Mercedes he was given (for free!) by members of his local church and invests his own funds in buying a less “brand-y” car to avoid looking ostentatious.
- Missionary to Switzerland, while interacting with his supporting church, avoids speaking of the recent purchase of expensive editing software, though much of his ministry relies on producing music and videos.
- Missionary family scores $25 plane tickets to fly to Monaco for spring break. They post only a handful of pictures taken in the wealthy Principality, but are sure to thank the discount airline and the person who offered them cheap housing when they do. You know…just in case.
When I lived overseas, I vividly remember talking with a friend who had, for a year, bought virtually no furniture for her home. I asked her if she planned on getting a couch and kitchen table at some point, and she said, “My supporters send me money for ministry, and getting furniture is not ministry!”
Like so many others, she’d bought into something I call donor demand. There’s an old-school component to it:
We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to the minister’s status and to the giver’s sacrifice.
You might be amazed at the rigid (and sometimes irrelevant) standards by which the validity of a missionary’s work has been judged. Owning a Mercedes and living in a beautiful location are just two of the numerous reasons for which devoted financial partners have been known to rethink (and sometimes cancel) their crucial donations.
Guiltitude can be hard to diagnose, as it often masquerades as responsibility or humility. Its most obvious symptoms are:
- Fear of having (because true ministers, by some accounts, must live in squalor)
- Fear of doing (because some activities may be misunderstood as frivolous)
- Fear of full reporting (because some supporters may misread the value and purpose of what is owned and done)
I’ve seen all three reach irrational levels in MKs who grew up in an environment where financial guilt of some sort prevailed. Even their adult relationship to money and ownership can be irreversibly skewed by the toxic influence of Guiltitude.
[Note: it goes without saying that there are instances in which missionaries truly have lived in excessive or dishonorable ways and been rightfully removed from their ministry positions.]
In my own life, I’ve found how easy it is for guilt to sneak into a spirit of gratitude. I am so grateful for God’s provision of my every practical, physical and spiritual need since I began in ministry in 1991—and for the donors whose gifts have kept me serving for these twenty-eight years!
That gratitude pushes me every day to be worthy of their sacrifice…but it also contributes to a creeping sense of guilt. How can I invest the funds I receive from supporters (who give sacrificially) on things that are less than essential? Why should I buy a thrift store buffet or the used car of my dreams when others can make do with cardboard furniture and a 16-year old beater?
I’m afraid I don’t know that there’s a permanent cure for Guiltitude. Something tells me it’s a recurrent disease that lurks in subconscious places. Perhaps a good start is for both sides (the servers and the donors) to acknowledge its existence, then treat its symptoms with a healthy dose of truthful assessment when they arise. It may not cure those who suffer from Guiltitude, but it just may mitigate its damage.
In an attempt to begin the conversation, may I offer a few suggestions? Please add yours in the comments below!
- Remind yourselves that you are called to live and serve. For most humans, living well requires rest, some level of comfort and the occasional escape. It’s okay to enjoy places, things and activities that are financially responsible. You are not supported just to do a job, and there is growing evidence that self-care leads to greater longevity on the field in which you serve.
- Report clearly and intentionally, not out of guilt, but out of a desire to accurately inform those who follow your ministry.
- Surround yourself with a smaller, understanding group of friends with whom you can share parts of your life that you don’t reveal on social media or in letters. This will keep you from feeling like you’re being deceptive. You’re just being selective.
- Counter irrational disapproval with facts and assert truths that contradict the flawed rationales.
Supporters and onlookers:
- Understand that the occasional treat (activity, trip, unnecessary object) may actually enhance the missionary’s ministry, because it contributes to emotional and physical wellness.
- Don’t apply to your missionaries restrictions you wouldn’t apply to yourself.
- A poor, burned out or suffering missionary is not more godly than a comfortable, healthy and happy missionary.
- Remember that the pictures you see only tell part of the story.
- If you must speak with a missionary about what you think you’re seeing, begin by gently asking honest questions and truly listening with a compassionate heart.
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Good article Michele. Though we had little I never felt we were going without. When extra money came in my Dad saw no reason to hold back and use some for fun. I am thankful for that, and remember special times like when he handed me as a teen 1000 franks which was about $5, a lot of money to me when someone had sent in a special gift.
But now when I am not in ministry I have seen missionaries who spend in many ways on things their supporters never dream of having. Often these giving are people who on the other side feel they should not enjoy good things either but must give all to God’s work. They too suffer from Guiltitude. The often taught theology that we must sacrifice at all time to please God. When are all of us going to learn to enjoy the gifts we receive and live without Guiltitude.
I haven’t seen an article on this that is so right on and so clear! This is totally something I struggled with overseas. As a family we saw the value in taking breaks often… and we even had to stay in a hotel to shop in another town about once every couple months. Sometimes we would go for longer breaks and stay in nice hotels- (which were a fraction of the cost of hotels in the USA…) It was always so refreshing and fun and we went home ready to work again- but I always felt that twinge of guilt and that people wouldn’t understand. Being an overseas missionary is hard… and guarding your emotional energy is imperative. It’s too bad there is this weight we attach to taking care of ourselves. Although I will say- some people would send us gifts and tell us to do something special with it! So there are those who support that. But I was always worried about what I posted or mentioned for fear of what other supporters might think.
I was a missionary for 25 years in Haiti where Guiltitude runs rampant. Often it is other missionaries judging other missionaries. I am now the president of our agency, RMI. Our philosopy as an agency is that I want my missionaries to THRIVE, not just SURVIVE. We make sure they go down well equipped for ministry, to set-up a comfortable household, and have some of the things they will need for relaxation, etc. Yes, they get judged by other missionaries, but then those missionaries are always coming over to “use” or “enjoy” the items they complain about. I learned a long time ago that the vast majority of my supporters and churches were happy to see or hear of us “Thriving”. I do not believe in the “martyr” syndrome that so many missionaries have. Often it is the result of not wanting to put in the hard work of raising the funds for a good vehicle, or decent furniture or the right appliances, etc.
Often we take one or maybe 2 comments and assume all our donors feel this way. I have found this is not true. Most are happy that we are well equipped for ministry or life. Focus on making sure you are the comfortable, healthy and happy missionary described above as then you will be effective, have good ministry in the lives of others, and endure long-term.
My experience has been that it is in only extremely rare circumstances that living at the level of the people in a third-world country will endear you to them. They actually are much more comfortable with you living at a level nearer to your normal in the US. What will endear you to them is your demonstrated love, care, and respect for them.
Of course there is balance, but most missionaries place too much emphasis on the guilt side of things. Work Hard, Minister Hard, Play Hard! Enjoy life.