There are many types of missions organizations—some are known for being very diverse in the kind of work they do, whereas others are known for a particular niche, such as translation, missionary aviation, or church planting. Sometimes even these more specialized organizations necessarily (or, perhaps I should say, crucially) branch out into broader areas of service, as well. Several times now I have seen an old article on a fairly widely-read business website where the author criticizes a well-known missions organization because, based on his perusal of some of their old tax forms, the organization brings in much more money than it should need for its very particular goal (in this case, translation of the Word). He concludes that their work must be a big moneymaker since they couldn’t possibly need all the donations they receive to do they work they claim they’re doing. Based on his conclusions, I thought this was a good opportunity to comment on the support chain, or “infrastructure”, or missions.
When I lived on a military base in Korea, the large number of troops there was supported by a substantial footprint of support services. This included cafeteria workers, gas station attendants, department store employees, chaplain services, substance abuse treatment personnel, car mechanics, teachers, domestic violence case managers, hotel employees, postal workers, radio station personnel, road repairmen, an entire hospital building and staff, and even a nearby military prison. While the necessity of some positions could be debated, it was widely understood that support staff was necessary for the success of the service members assigned to that base. Someone might not be able to do their job (or at least not as effectively) if they had no on-base school for their children or a readily accessible grocery store, for example.
Christian ministry organizations are able to run with a much leaner staff since they rely heavily on local people for most services, yet they, too, require support personnel. Contrary to what the article cynically assumes about all the money to be had in missions, I know many people who have left much more lucrative jobs in the private sector in order to serve in a critical support role with a missions organization. In some cases, the larger Christian organizations also have the ability to branch out and provide needed support not only to their own personnel but also to other organizations.
For example, I am part of a linguistic organization but I am working as a physician mental health provider to combat burnout amongst cross-cultural workers. My organization also provides some teachers to the local school which teaches missionary children, freeing up parents to focus on their ministry assignment responsibilities. The financial partners for my family, or for those teachers, know that the person they are supporting is in a support role, not only helping people focus on important linguistic assignments (which our organization is known for) but also aiding those working in other areas. Last year the clinic where I work provided mental health care for Christian workers from a few dozen home countries and representing over 180 organizations. Because our sending organization is a bit larger than some others, we have the ability to mobilize staff which supports not only our own organizational mission but also people from other organizations and denominations, working in different focus areas than our own.
It is important for organizations to be financially accountable, such as by submitting to outside audits and financial oversight. But at the end of the day, the numbers on an organization’s balance sheet are inadequate for drawing conclusions about “efficiency” if you don’t know all the different work they are doing. Indeed, if we only had staff doing linguistic projects, we’d have a lower budget, but we also wouldn’t be supporting our own people adequately nor our co-laborers in the field all over this part of the world. The body of Christ is “nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, [growing] with a growth that is from God” (Col 2:19), so that’s why we’re here.
We gratefully thank God that we have many teammates as we work for the Lord of the harvest (Matt 9:38). We appreciate our partners’ love, prayers, and generosity. “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for His name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb 6:10). The infrastructure of missions is not always glamorous or exciting to outsiders, but I’m certainly glad it exists.