I love teaching adults their shapes. They really think they know them.
“What’s this?” I ask, drawing a shape on the whiteboard.
“Duh—a circle,” they reply.
“Yes—but what if,” I posit, “to a person in another culture, that’s the sun?”
For a moment you can hear the grinding of mental gears. Then a fun conversation ensues about the differences between literate and oral cultures. To literate Westerners, it’s natural to think that literacy (learning based on the written word) is superior to orality (learning based on the spoken word).
The reality is, however, that most of the world is (and has been, and will be) oral learners. As one of my former professors said, “In a world of oral learners, we literates are the ones with the learning curve.” Therefore, my shape-teaching thesis is always this: literacy is actually not superior to orality. Both are unique. And God is in them both.
What could this possibly have to do with being a fully funded or support-raised missionary? Well, here are the basic parallels:
Premise: To Westerners, it’s natural to think that being fully funded is superior to being support-raised.
Reality: Most of the world’s missionaries, however, are (and have been, and will be) support-raised.
Thesis: Being fully funded is not superior to being support-raised. Both are unique. And God is in them both.
Being fully funded is not superior to being support-raised. Both are unique. And God is in them both.
Ok, there’s all you need to know to understand the gist of this article. But if you’d like to learn some shapes together, then keep reading.
Fully Funded Missionaries
I have been a fully funded missionary. It’s pretty awesome. I like to refer to it as “the Land Cruiser'' because it seems to have all the bells and whistles. Here are some of the benefits of being fully funded, along with a few unpleasant surprises.
First, the obvious: as a fully funded missionary, money is not a primary concern. You do not have to take years to raise support. Within a few months of being “approved,” you can be on the field. You usually don’t have to cover your health insurance. Or training. Or flights. Or housing. Or vehicle. Or visas. Or overhead. Or furlough. You typically never have to worry about changes to your income or your primary needs going unmet. In certain contexts, you may even be able to accrue and save substantially. You are free pre-field, on-field, and post-field to focus entirely on the objectives of the organization.
I made that last statement intentionally. The financial security provided by a fully funding organization also binds you to focus on the objectives of your organization rather than solely your own objectives. This is certainly a blessing if you desire closely managed parameters and hold to the same strategic values as the organization. Even though they will likely take into account your sense of calling, gifting, and experience, they will also likely determine where and how you will serve. That means if you desire more freedom in your ministry and find yourself drifting outside the organization’s values and objectives, you may become at odds with your conscience and your organization.
If, for instance, you find that a different strategy would be more effective in a particular context, you must either 1) convince your organizational leaders, 2) pursue the strategy without approval, or 3) abandon it altogether. In such a scenario, you may be faced with prioritizing your organizational commitment for the sake of financial security. And that is a tricky place to be.
Because everyone within a fully funding organization usually walks through the same application procedure, interview process, pre-field training, and financial regulations, there is a strong sense of internal collective identity. You have a shared language and commitment. The financial and structural independence then creates a culture where you naturally identify with organizational colleagues. You’re part of something much bigger.
However, this also tends to create dissonance between you and missionaries outside your organization (as well as with national partners). Insider language and experience can further increase the divide. This often makes it difficult for you to relate and partner well—or even see that as a detriment.
Although the language of fully funded organizations rarely reflects it, as one of their missionaries, you function in many ways as an employee. This is by necessity. If thousands of dollars are going to be invested in you, then there must be strategic selectivity. That means the application, interview, assessment, and “appointment” processes must function on some level as a hiring process. That also means the processes of ongoing evaluation and accountability must be guided by the organization’s values and objectives, which ultimately determines your ongoing funding (i.e., your employment).
As a fully funded missionary, you risk seeing your rare experience as the standard . . . and it’s frighteningly easy to develop a sense of unconscious entitlement.
This creates some measure of clamoring to get into and stay inside the Land Cruiser, which can lead to approaching interviews with a secular employment mindset. As a result, you may end up seeking to prove yourself as the most worthy candidate rather than honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses. It can also lead to a “performance” mindset on the field: in order to justify and maintain your employment, you must satisfactorily produce. Producing, performing, and proving yourself are normative and central to employment, but they are not central to the gospel. The lines can easily get blurred here.
In a world where most missionaries are (and have been, and will be) support-raised, fully funded missionaries are the ones with the learning curve. Having all your needs automatically met is a vastly different experience than being a support-raised missionary. But if you’ve never been a support-raised missionary, you likely don’t have a clear understanding of the differences between the two approaches. Thus, it’s easy to assume superiority.
Fully funded missionaries, it is said, are free to focus on the “main things.” That opens the door for the assumption that support-raised missionaries labor in “lesser things”—and because of the emphasis on strategic performance, may themselves be "lesser missionaries." In other words, as a fully funded missionary, you risk seeing your rare experience as the standard. And because your experience is defined by having all your needs automatically met, it’s frighteningly easy to develop a sense of unconscious entitlement.
Ironically, I wasn’t aware of this until I transitioned from fully funded to support-raised. When I stepped out of the Land Cruiser, the Spirit used my newfound neediness to give me a new perspective on my prior grumblings about lack of salary increase, unapproved budget expenses, limited vacation allowance, partially funded ministries, and unsatisfactory furlough allotment. I had no idea that entitlement had been gutting my gratitude. Beware.
Finally, being a fully funded missionary often means your relationships with partner churches are broad and shallow. Many churches, almost all of them completely unknown to you, have given money to your organization to fund you. There is certainly beauty and benefit to such cooperation. The inevitable result, however, is that you have no ongoing, reciprocal relationships with nearly all of those churches.
What interaction you do have, then, has to be leveraged largely to bolster giving to the organization. And even among the small number of churches with whom you do have relationships, those relationships are usually characterized more by optional partnership than deep dependence. In terms of the daily function and needs of your life and ministry, you simply don’t feel your need for them like a support-raised missionary would.
From a pragmatic perspective, that’s freeing. From a New Testament perspective, that’s broken. Paul, even when working to supply his own needs so as not to be a burden to local churches (or to be bound by them), still maintained deep, ongoing, reciprocal relationships with them. Fully funded missionaries can certainly cultivate such relationships as well. But in doing so, they’ll be swimming upstream.
So, there is a brief overview of the Land Cruiser. In the spirit of Harry Boer’s words about missions organizations, fully funded missions is “an abnormality. But it is a blessed abnormality.” It is a unique way to engage in God’s global mission, though we should be honest about its pros and cons. How, then, does it compare to support-raised missions? Stay tuned for more shape-learning in part two.
 Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Missions: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 202-08.
Bradley is a missiologist, pastor, and trainer. He has been at Upstream since 2014, producing blog and social media content, authoring The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning "Home" and How Churches Can Help, and serving as a board member. He is also the lead pastor at Antioch Church. As a former global Sent One, Bradley reflects on missions and formation at Broken Missiology.