Thoughts on Deputation, from a Missions Prof – Article 1

December 17, 2008 – 10:14 am

A few weeks back I asked a couple of missions professors to comment on the current practice of deputation among fundamental Baptist/Bible churches. Specifically, I asked them to respond to the following issues:

The normal practice in Fundamental Baptist/Bible churches is for prospective missionaries to travel to dozens of churches raising support. If the missionaries are supported by a church they visit, it is often for a somewhat minuscule amount ($50-100 a month), due to either the large number of missionaries that the church supports or other ministries of the church that draw funds away, or various other factors. This model of deputation is a 2-3 year process, on average.

What are the pros and cons of this method? What does this method reflect about the contemporary church? What alternative method(s) of raising support would you advocate, if any? What are some helpful ideas concerning deputation that churches and missionaries should consider in their evaluation of the deputation process?

Neal Dean*, a missions professor at a Bible college in the north, has written the first article in our two part series “Thoughts on Deputation, from a Missions Prof.”

Thoughts on Deputation

Although I believe that the best means of supporting missions is the one that we presently have-semi-autonomous missionaries seeking support from autonomous churches-the system is clearly broken, and in need of repair. To see potential missionaries spend three, four, or five years on the road in one, two, or three hundred churches is painful to all of us. The old adage that said that this process is good because it “weeds out” the bad missionaries is patently cruel. When deputation lasted six to nine months in the 1960′s, this thinking was acceptable; but no longer.

Some churches have formed semi-cooperative arrangements for the sake of streamlining the deputation process. Others have taken on a large percentage of the support of their missionaries, thereby drastically reducing the time for raising support. The idea that large percentage support is somehow risky is rarely believed by anyone today; it is true that such a church could encounter financial difficulty, but it is infrequent for churches to cut their missionaries’ support.

The problem with the missionary support structure of independent Baptist churches (and others that maintain a similar polity) is that churches have not kept up with inflation. The American median family income in 1966 was $7,400. In 1986 it rose to $29,958. By 2006, it amounted to $48,201. In 1966 it was not unusual for a church to give $50 to a missionary family, which amounted to 8% of the total support for that family.1 Thus, it took about 12 churches at that rate to support the missionary. By 1986, perhaps that church doubled its support level, believing that it was keeping up with the need. Unfortunately, at the new rate ($100), it now only provided 4% of the support; and now it took 25 churches instead of 12. By 2006, perhaps the church raised the level of support to $150. At this level, the church only gave 3.3% of the missionary’s income. Unfortunately, the average level of support today seems to be around $90 for a family. With the average support needs topping $5000 per month2, the percentage has dipped to 1.8%. This means that it takes 56 churches in 2008 to provide the needed support that was once carried by 12 churches in 1966.

It will not be easy to raise support levels across the board, but churches must be convinced that this is the only viable solution. The $50 of 1966 is the $350 of 2008. Perhaps missions agencies can pursue creative ways of cutting costs in some instances, for example, in creative access nations. But ultimately, the only way that deputation can be “fixed” is for churches to support at much higher levels. One might recommend that a worthy goal for local churches who find themselves in this support dilemma is to set a goal of doubling their missionary support in the next five years. This will take both vision and hard work, especially in the wake of a falling economy, but it is probably more doable than we might think.

1This was generally true above the Mason-Dixon line. Steve Fulks (Baptist Mid-Missions) confirms that the number of churches needed for support in the south was generally thirty to fifty percent greater due to smaller support levels (personal email, November 11, 2008).

2Ibid. This number represents roughly a 27.3% increase per year since 1965. Fulks notes that college tuition roughly grew at 28-29% yearly, while health care rose at 215%!!! per year during the same time. Health insurance accounts for 25% of missionary support today. Thus, the costs for missions have been commensurate with inflation.

Neal Dean* teaches missions at a Bible college in the north. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he organizes and leads several teams of college students to creative access countries.
*Neal’s identity and place of tenure has been vaguely described due to the nature of his role in organizing ministry trips to creative access countries. We would appreciate your cooperation in not disclosing further information regarding his identity should you post this article on a blog, Facebook page, or other such media. Thank you.

  1. 4 Responses to “Thoughts on Deputation, from a Missions Prof – Article 1”

  2. As a missionary on deputation I would think it would be great if churches would do what this prof suggest. However, what I have found is that there are a good number of churches doing that and they have not been able to take on missionaries for the last two years since they are trying to raise the support level of their missionaries. It is hard situation to be in. I wish churches would have realized earlier and taken action. But they haven’t so now they have to do something drastic.

    By Daniel Darling on Dec 17, 2008

  3. RE: [From 1966 til now]: “The problem with the missionary support structure of independent Baptist churches (and others that maintain a similar polity) is that churches have not kept up with inflation.”

    Much has changed in 43 years of for Baptists:

    Today most of our young people go off to private colleges at a cost of $ 20,000 per year. Parents assume debt (or the students do with the parents cosigning)

    Many young people go to Christian day schools at a cost of $ 3-5K per student per year.

    Church staffs have grown substantially. A church of 400 43 years ago might be a Pastor, an Assistant and a secretary. Now a church that same size might have a staff of 10 or more.

    Visits overseas: Many students in Christian colleges spend one or two summers (or more) abroad. Pastors frequently (it seem) make 2 or three week missions trips. 43 years ago that was rare. Missions money went to career missionaries.

    My thesis is that less is available for missions because of these kinds of changes (for the better or worse) in fundamentalism.

    By Jim Peet on Dec 18, 2008

  4. Dear Jim,
    You make some great points on the economic shift that we have experienced in our churches over the past 43 years. Also, I think that it can be generally said that less money (percentage) is being allocated to foreign missions (career) today than it was 43 years ago.

    As a result, I am encountering potential missionaries who are looking for creative ways of financing their missionary work. Sadly, most of the plans that I have seen seem doomed to failure.

    I would like to hear some suggestions about what churches could do to fix this mess that we are in. Of course, if we are convinced that deputation is not broken, then we are not likely to do anything.


    By Neal Dean on Dec 20, 2008

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