This is the third post in a three-part series addressing some of the common myths and misconceptions we experience most regularly serving with Mennonite Mission Network in Barcelona. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
We believe spiritual poverty is real and spreading and the church is entering a time of transformation in Europe. Anabaptist-minded communities have the potential to be on the vanguard of realizing what the next iterations of Christian community may look like.
That’s what we’re about. But when you talk about how that looks practically, it gets a bit rough. We’re not doing this in a vacuum -- we live and serve in an actual faith community in Barcelona -- so being present in our physical home is crucial. But we also are committed to the folks in North America who have sent and support our ministry.
One of our colleagues recently picked up on this:
—It weighs on you guys a lot, doesn’t it?
—Keeping one foot in the United States and the other here. That must be hard.
Here’s the simple version of how our ministry works: we’re partnering with one such Anabaptist-minded community in Barcelona — a location we’ve felt specifically called to — building relationships with the goal of seeing the church body become a beacon for people who thirst for wholeness, liberation and spiritual peace.
For this to be possible, we receive a salary (which is a pretty common thing). It is paid to us by Mennonite Mission Network and is the product of a part of our jobs we’re less excited about: fundraising. To clarify, we do enjoy sharing about what God is doing in the world and how we are trying to be God’s agents of change…but not asking people for financial support.
In other words, we are funded largely by wonderful, faithful individual supporters and churches. The struggle is that often when people give you money, it creates this sense that you work for them.
“Show me how your ministry is being successful. We’d like to see a little more on your end.”
I understand why people would say this -- ministry accountability is really important and we know those who support us are often making some sort of financial sacrifice. But we receive the above type of statements in a way that probably isn’t what the speaker intends. Aside from creating expectations with how we spend our money, folks want to know what they get for their “investment” in us. On one hand, that makes sense — people want to be a part of something positive and know their support isn’t being wasted. On the other hand, missions aren’t supposed to be oriented towards the supporters.
Having talked to numerous pastors and missionaries, I know this tension is relatable to just about everyone in ministry as funding sustainability becomes increasingly elusive throughout the institutional church. In fact, during this series we’ve received several comments from others serving in postmodern, first-world missions expressing gratitude for articulating these misconceptions with which they also struggle.
What’s changed? In the past, mission agencies raised the funds to support their workers, freeing them to focus on the tasks at hand until it was time to return to the U.S. and share at churches every 3-4 years. As of now, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) still does this but most agencies, including ours, can’t survive on this funding model anymore for several reasons. This means the responsibility of raising funds has shifted to the workers — a reality that always looms.
When we worked at LCC International University in Lithuania, we USAmerican staff and faculty always half-jokingly said fundraising was everyone’s part-time job. However, what we didn’t realize at the time was that it is much easier to quantify a highly structured, project-based ministry like what we had at the university than the foundation-building phase of an organic, relationship-based ministry like what we’ve been sent to engage in Barcelona.
We’ve never been about tally marks of the number of people that are “saved” and baptized because of our work — such things are always the result of many points of light in someone’s journey and the work of the Holy Spirit. But sharing about the number of student leaders we mentored and the growth in chapel attendance was easy.
The content of what we share isn’t the issue, though, because there’s a lot going on and we’re slowly learning how to articulate it. The issues are the time commitment and the constant shifting of attention. Blog posts, ministry updates, holiday cards, video calls — these are all things we value as tools for staying connected with our family and ministry partners. They’re also all things that inevitably take up time and energy we could direct towards the Barcelona community we’ve been sent to serve. That’s not to say we don’t want to do these things and, often, these points of connection are precious and encouraging for us.
That illustrates another tension: Alisha loves making personalized greeting cards for the folks at Trinity Mennonite Church in Arizona, for example, but currently there’s not time to also make them for the folks at Comunidad Evengélica Menonita in Barcelona. We’ve been living with this tension for nearly seven years now and have come to accept it as part of the landscape of the work we do. The issue begins when a dynamic develops that expects more energy be put into these connections.
For example, this blog is read mostly by North American supporters. While I would love to post on it every week or two, these posts are the product of a lot of energy and reflection that happens in a very narrow slot of time between when our language courses end (20+ hours a week) and we get Asher from school. That slot of time is also when I’m studying, planning youth worship rehearsals, preparing teachings and worship leading for the church, organizing committee meetings, doing handyman stuff around the house, eating lunch, and running errands. Alisha spends that time doing a plethora of other important things.
When external voices start adding one-off requests to that list, we choose what area do we need to let slide on the local side a bit. That’s totally fine and we pivot when needed. When the voice seeks to add something recurring to that list, we are faced with an even more challenging decision: what do we drop? If it’s not ministry time, it’s often family time.
We want (and need) to include our USAmerican partners in our work here as much as possible but, as a result, we struggle with feeling fully present and committed to our current community. So please keep connecting with us as it’s vital we stay connected, but also consider what and how you’re asking: maintaining balance can be hard and exhausting.
Question to reflect on:
What’s the best way to straddle two continents, being present and engaged in both?
What do you expect in return from nonprofit individuals and groups you support financially?
Confronting misconceptions and, thus, this series can come off as rather abrasive. While I stand by the content, the last thing we want is for the incredible folks who’ve walked with and supported us on this journey to feel unappreciated or attacked. In the case of our sending church, Trinity Mennonite (Ariz.), that’s a journey of nearly 15 years! If you’ve found you’ve held any of these misconceptions, know that we’re speaking to a much wider-spread issue in global missions than towards specific individuals.
We shoulder the blame as well. After all, many misconceptions come about due to fractures in the communication process, which involves both receivers (i.e. our North American supporters) and senders (us). What we’re realizing is the extent to which communicating has become intensely difficult in an era where we’re constantly inundated by messages from all kinds of senders vying for our attention.
This has unique implications for the type of work we do, as was impressed upon me during a recent conversation: In the not-to-distant past, information from the mission field would trickle to supporters in the form of a newsletter via snail mail — usually a few times a year. Now there is an unspoken expectation that information flows regularly, regardless of the size of the operation.
Groups like Mission Network can keep up with that on an organizational level but, at our level, it feels daunting. Play the game and we risk burnout and the arrested development of our ministry. Avoid it and we risk funding being a barrier for sustainability and being replaced by another worthy cause — the consequence of being “out of sight, out of mind.”
Where things currently sit, I feel bad whenever I need to spend money, I’m afraid to use social media normally, and I’m doubly afraid to show money being spent via social media. I struggle to feel 100 percent present where I live and dwell on things like how our son would be impacted if he missed school due to an extended fundraising season in the U.S. next time around.
Ultimately, Jesus teaches us not to allow our lives to be dictated by worry. However, I’m convinced that doesn’t mean ignore the obstacles we face. We created a Worthwhile Adventures Facebook page as a way to communicate the ministry we’re doing in Barcelona while maintaining personal pages to serve as a space to communicate all the other stuff that happens to a young family trying to thrive in a new, dynamic environment. However, that’s not been enough. Between having far more connections on our personal pages than our ministry page and Facebook’s algorithms being very strategic in deciding what people do and do not see in their feeds, our ministry experiences are often not successfully communicated. Add to the mix the unorthodox nature of the type of work we do and it’s easy to see how myths and misconceptions develop.
Now we’re trying to adapt.
As we traveled and visited supporters this summer during our two-month furlough in the United States, we did quite a bit of soul searching and learned some ways we can do a better job communicating. It’ll take some time to get to where we need to be as we’re still in classes 20+ hours a week this next year, but I’m hopeful.
For starters, we realize this series may have focused more on what we’re not about than we are about and, in retrospect, that’s rarely a good way to define something. While you can paint a picture of something by describing the negative space around it, we’re going to fill in the full picture. The first paragraph of this post is a fair starting point.
In the meantime, we ask for grace and understanding as we figure out how to navigate this thing.