Missionaries serving around the world today are the focus designated for this year’s World Mission Sunday in the Episcopal Church, which occurs, as established by the 1997 General Convention, on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, this year on March 6. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that this emphasis highlights just how few missionaries the Episcopal Church has and how poorly they are supported.
First the good news: The focus on missionaries is appropriate in view of their role of embodying the home church’s companionship with peoples and churches in other parts of the world. “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” Peter’s comment to Jesus at the Transfiguration, is the theme verse highlighted for World Mission Sunday. It is indeed good that missionaries are where they are. In addition to the good work they do in congregations, diocesan offices, healthcare and education, they live as windows into the life of another people and, for their hosts, as windows into the life of the Episcopal Church.
The bulletin insert available at the 2011 World Mission Sunday website has a good geographical and age range in the four missionaries who are pictured: South Africa, Qatar, Sudan and Ecuador; three appointed missionaries and one Young Adult Service Corps missionary. A boilerplate description of the missionary program appears in both the bulletin insert and Mission Personnel Director David Copley’s letter about World Mission Sunday:
There are currently over 60 Episcopal missionaries in 25 countries around the world serving as teachers, medical professionals, clergy, and in other important capacities. They are recent college graduates and established professionals who have answered God’s call to go and be in the midst of their brothers and sisters in another part of God’s world.
Now for the bad news: What the “over 60” figure does not go on to explain is that the Episcopal Church’s investment in international missionaries is tiny. The current 62 is down from over 100 just five years ago, and that represented an increase from low numbers in the 80s and 90s that were similar to today’s. Our current missionary number means that Episcopalians have just one missionary for almost every 35,500 members.
The Episcopal story stands out even among the historic mainline denominations, all of which have far fewer missionaries than they did in, say, the 1950s. Yet today the Presbyterian Church (USA) has the same membership total as the Episcopal Church – about 2.2 million, maybe even fewer – but they field 3.5 times as many missionaries: 217 serving in over 50 countries. That works out to one missionary for about every 10,150 members – still not good, but a lot better than 1:35,500.
Moreover, missionaries of other churches are financially much better supported than are Episcopal missionaries. Declining Episcopal support over the years has meant that the General Convention budget offers only travel, health insurance, pension premiums and $500 a month (sometimes less) for a missionary. Other denominations such as the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed churches offer a realistic stipend that bears some resemblance to a stateside salary and a number of other benefits. Thus, compared with that of other churches, the Episcopal Church’s investment in missionaries is even smaller than the differential in missionary numbers would suggest.
A couple of yes-buts are predictable:
– Yes, but missionaries are not the only way the church pursues international mission: Yes, of course, there are grants, training programs, and many initiatives in disaster relief and so-called development. But incarnational missionary presence now receives disproportionately little support, even though it is disproportionately important.
– Yes, but there are many short-term teams going out from congregations and dioceses: Yes, there are, but their short engagement, which often has no follow-up, is no substitute for committed longer-term engagement in which the missioner develops deep relationships in the context of knowing and becoming a part of local culture.
Given the low support, it’s ironic but nevertheless encouraging to see that missionaries are the focus of this year’s World Mission Sunday. (Last year’s focus, by the way, was mission in relation to the environment, so it’s not automatic that missionaries are emphasized.)
The takeaway for Episcopalians:
• Your missionaries serve sacrificially – Whether as young adults, mid-career professionals or retirees, Episcopal missionaries receive very little support from your church. They are serving because they feel called. In doing so, they give up a lot in terms of security and rest-of-life planning. They give up more than they should have to. The notion, in fact, that an international missionary should receive miserly compensation relative to counterparts at home is an odd fallacy that betrays the church’s real attitude, that incarnational global engagement is a peripheral add-on to the church’s real work.
• Your missionaries have considerable ego strength – Sometimes Episcopal missionaries receive good publicity, especially when the countries where they serve suffer natural disasters or paroxysms of civil unrest (think Haiti and Egypt), and that’s good. Most of the time they are unsung and unrecognized, and the church’s low level of support for them individually and for the program as a whole conveys to them a poor message about whether and how they are valued. They really have to believe in what they’re doing in order to carry on.
• Local support for missionaries is crucial – Given the paltry support from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, it is crucial for congregations, dioceses and freestanding societies to raise support for missionaries and, if necessary, field them on their own. Such democratization of mission initiative is the current wave across the mainline denominations anyway, as I point out in Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference. So seize the moment!
• Lobby for churchwide support for missionaries – At virtually every General Convention there is a resolution calling for increases in churchwide support for missionaries from the churchwide budget, but it is rarely provided. In the budget cuts that followed the 2009 General Convention, missionary support at least held steady, which was good. Episcopalians concerned about missionaries should be crafting resolutions to be presented by your deputies at the 2012 General Convention, both to increase the number of missionaries overall and to increase substantially the level at which they are supported.
Looking at the overall picture from this perspective can give an extra edge or bite to your observance of World Mission Sunday.
[See also the news release from Episcopal News Service about World Mission Sunday.]