The first year I was on staff at UBA, I was paid—not by the churches of the association—but by 20 families who had pledged their “support" of me as a “missionary to the city.” There’s a longer backstory that will have to wait for another time, but essentially, some work that I had done a year before had unearthed a tremendous need for continued work and UBA simply didn’t have the bandwidth at the time to bring me on staff.
The families that contributed those funds surely did so out of some level of personal affection for me, but they also took the opportunity to invest in kingdom work that might not otherwise get done. In this case, that year of work resulted in the discovery and awareness of almost 180 different ethnolinguistic people groups across the city of Houston.
Has “giving freely” gone too far?
Historically, a variety of Christian denominations have used words like “giving” and “support” to describe the funds they contribute to missions-related endeavors locally and globally. Those terms certainly have their place. After all, giving and giving freely is a biblical concept (Prov. 11:24; 2 Cor. 9:7). But we currently live in a time that questions whether we have taken the concept of “giving freely” too far. Meaning, have we become too lax in how our giving is used to make deep and lasting differences? I believe this is a worthwhile question and has proved useful regarding empowerment versus enabling, but it also may have produced some unintended consequences.
Collaborative giving to collaborative missions is a pillar of many denominations in the U.S. Realistically, there used to be no better option to deploy missionaries abroad than to work together to pool resources into a common fund. As technology increased and the world became flat allowing individual churches the capacity and opportunity to deploy their own missionaries to the field, an extreme reaction to the “giving freely” question was churches choosing to give only to causes that could be known intimately. The justifications for the move were defensible: “We’re putting money into people we know personally” or “We don’t have a lot, so we’re putting our limited gifts into a few things that can make the biggest difference.” But here’s where we can learn a lesson from our friends in the financial planning world: beware of risk.
Diversify your investments
Where’s the risk in a strategy of closely monitored investments you ask? I’m not speaking about profit. The risk is in lost work and results because our focus is too narrow.
I’m a sociology major, so I shouldn’t be trusted with anyone’s retirement account. But my friends in the world of finance are always talking about diversification. Portfolio managers will tell you that you want to have a blend of different kinds of investments because each carries different expectations of returns along with different burdens of risk. Stocks require more knowledge on the part of the investor of the inner workings of a company, but the risk and returns are usually higher than a fund. Funds require less knowledge of the companies in the fund but more trust in the fund manager who allocates your investment on your behalf. So what does this have to do with missions?
Diversification requires a strategy
The task before every Christian is laid out in Jesus’s command to his disciples, the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 18-20). Jesus followed that with a helpful framework of strategy later in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In essence, when you think of the mission, think strategically about local initiatives and global initiatives, and apply that to your missions portfolio.
Consider all the places and people to whom you or your church contribute money. Now think of each of those things as potentials for investments. The people and places that you know well, whose business you feel tied to, the efforts that arouse a passion in you: those are your stocks.
Among the 20 families who supported me for that one year were my grandparents. My grandfather summed it up like this: “I support my church as it supports missionaries. And I support you, because you’re my missionary.” To my grandfather, I was a stock in his missions portfolio.
There are certainly other organizations and people doing great work that you might not be intimately familiar with. You can’t name their staff off the top of your head, and you might not have ever attended an event they produced. But the work is important. And the work might be so vast that it would be virtually impossible to quickly sum up all that they do in a sentence. But you trust them to do the work: those are your mutual funds.
Portfolios take the pressure off
Warren Buffet once said, ”If you don't find a way to make money while you sleep, you will work until you die." Of course, Buffet’s point is that unless you find a way to multiply your money in times when you aren’t on the clock making the money, you will always have to be on the clock. But when we apply this logic to missions, it underscores the importance of having a missions portfolio that is always working on the task even when you are not directly controlling the activity.
Here’s an easy example in Houston. If your church offers only English in your worship services, you’re missing 48% of the people in the city. Now, you may be in an area that doesn’t have a lot of Spanish speakers, so your wisest use of resources is not to start a service targeting a population that isn’t there. But shouldn’t you support an organization that does help churches that work with not just Spanish speakers, but is also concerned with getting churches started for the more than 350 different ethnolinguistic people groups in Houston that speak more than 220 different languages?
Read the fine print
I’m a little biased, but I encourage you to consider UBA as part of your mission portfolio because we can be a stock or a mutual fund. Certain churches in our association are heavily invested in particular things that we do because it’s their stock of choice. Many churches don’t have a Hispanic ministry of their own, but they know that UBA supports and trains more Hispanic churches and leaders than any other organization in Houston. For other churches who know us well, they invest in us like they would in a fund: we have earned their trust to do a wide array of important work throughout the city on their behalf. And that work yields results.
You might be suspecting this is a commercial for the Cooperative Program. And while the Cooperative Program is a great way for Baptists to work together to fund a vast array of incredibly important ministries, local associations like UBA are not funded through the Cooperative Program. We have two state conventions in Texas, and only one contributes funds to local associations. UBA receives less than 10% of its receipts from the BGCT, but even then it is not Cooperative Program funds that go to associations, but mostly funds from the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions.
UBA is an alliance of churches, and those churches are what provide the vast majority of funding for its ministries. Regardless of the amount you choose to invest, I truly hope that you begin to view all your giving as investments. I hope that someday, someone is thinking of you when they talk about 20 families that invested in them to do work that was groundbreaking, experimental, and results-oriented. We need you. We are better together.
Josh Ellis is Executive Director of Union Baptist Association. He has a PhD in Leadership Studies and has served on the UBA staff since 2005. With both practical and scholarly knowledge, he leads the association into innovative collaboration for the sake of gospel advancement.