Missions & Money: Cultural Miscues (Part 1)

Jim Pool, Lead Pastor of the Renaissance Vineyard and Vineyard Missions Regional Coordinator for Sub-Saharan Africa, shares in a series on Missions & Money with the goal of helping us practice wisdom with money as we step out in faith in mission.

Jim Pool

Lead Pastor, Renaissance Vineyard Church, Ferndale, MI

Vineyard Missions

Equipping churches to participate in God's global mission.

This is Part 1 of an 8-part series on Missions & Money. Click here to read Part 2: Raising Money.

I remember one of my early mission trips to Ethiopia. We hit the ground running, and our small team of three people had experienced five full days of ministry: visiting several churches, facilitating a weekend pastors’ retreat where we talked through leadership topics and partnership issues, then returned to one of the larger churches in the city where we preached and ministered at a service in the morning and then hosted a well-attended prayer ministry training in the afternoon with plenty of spiritual activity. The next day we were scheduled to have a rest day with the pastor and one of his key leaders, and then a final few days’ push before heading home. But first, this pastor had invited us over to the home of one of his elders that evening for coffee and conversation.

We showed up after dinner, and all of us gathered snugly in the living room. It was Ethiopia, so of course we enjoyed popcorn and a few cups of coffee over some casual conversation as we reviewed the events of the day at their church. This was helpful, yet I could tell it wasn’t why we had come. Then, as the coffee ceremony was cleared, we got to the point. The pastor pulled out two packets of papers, one of which he had handed to me. It was a budget proposal. As I looked over the document, he began to outline an ambitious vision for church planting through his city. He was asking for our financial assistance in support of his church and this vision. The proposed budget was for close to one million dollars. I’ll grant that it was a thoroughly considered plan! But it was a million dollars! Have you ever found yourself in this kind of situation?

I quickly explained that this amount was well beyond the scope of our small church, or even our partnership of four churches. The pastor and his elders countered that any amount would be helpful and that we could choose, for now, to support one or more of the specific line items.

Patiently, I tried to remind them of what we had talked about just the night before, at the final session of the retreat, about how our partnership handles finances – that our general policy is to prefer to send our funds to the central partnership account, for the team to disburse according to an agreed upon budget, as opposed to sending support directly to individual local indigenous churches. Didn’t they remember me mentioning this? Then it occurred to me that only one of these elders had been there; the pastor and the rest of his team had left early to prepare for Sunday morning. Tired after a long weekend of talking, I asked one of my team members to take point in trying to help them understand our position. After a frustrating hour of difficult conversation, we weren’t making much progress in understanding or agreement, so I decided to say our goodbyes. I folded up the budget, put it in my pocket, and said, “I’ll pray about it.” A few days later we were on the plane home and I started reading one of the books I had brought for the trip, African Friends and Money Matters.

Six months later I was back in country for another trip. Our church had raised some additional funds to support some of the ongoing work. Half of that money we gave to the partnership leaders to keep in their account and disburse as they saw fit. The other half (about $500) we divided between two leaders, including the pastor with the million-dollar budget. Instead of grateful he seemed sullen. I found out later in the week, through a third party (that’s how it often works in Africa), that this pastor was very mad at me. I learned that he had spent $3500 on new corrugated metal for the roof of his large church building and he had expected me to cover that cost. “How could that be?” I asked, shocked.

As my friend and I dialogued, it became clear that this pastor had heard my “I’ll pray about it” as an indirect yes, while I had meant it as an indirect no. This is a common cultural issue. Turns out African Friends & Money Matters addresses this exact topic. I wish I had read that part before that trip!

I came home and spoke with the board of our church. Though my Ethiopian pastor friend had failed to understand my culture just as much as I had failed to understand his (and, yes, this kind of cultural engagement is a two-way street), I was in his neighborhood, in his culture, and the board and I both agreed that the onus was on me. In one of those situations only God can arrange, that exact week we had some kind of rebate on our rent that was within $50 of what our Ethiopian friend had been hoping for. We wired him the money, and learned some important lessons along the way.

Have you ever been in a situation like? Maybe wondered what to do when this comes up, or how to avoid it in the first place?

I once met with a pastor who was interested to engage the church he led in international mission. It was a healthy, dynamic, growing church. Lots of young people passionate to make a difference. The church was actively and fruitfully serving their city in many life-giving ways. This pastor was curious to connect his church to a mission partnership, yet they had heard so many challenging stories about money in missions that they were hesitant to get involved. They didn’t want to make a big mistake and perpetuate the problem. Nor did they want to get burned. So, they reached out to get some guidance on navigating a middle way.

Almost every pastor and church leader I’ve interacted with is eager to engage in some way with cross-cultural, international mission. We’ve heard Jesus’ commission to make disciples of Jesus from people of every tribe, tongue, people and nation. Our hearts have been moved by Jesus’ parable of the “sheep and the goats.” Perhaps we know that our DNA in the Vineyard is that our mission extends from our neighborhood to the nations. We want to help. We want to make a difference. The Apostle Paul mentions the Macedonian disciples in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4:

Now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

Our souls are stirred up reading this. Like them, we want to give of ourselves and our resources to help those in need. We know that money isn’t the only thing in mission. But we do realize it is something in missions. We know what Jesus taught in Luke 16:9-10: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” We want to be wise stewards of what God has entrusted to us, bending our finances toward kingdom purposes.

Yet we’ve all heard the stories. We’ve gone to conferences or sat around the dinner table and heard our friends tell us stories from their trips, feeling like they were taken advantage of by disingenuous locals in other lands. Or maybe we’ve met international friends in university, on a short-term trip, or read about it online, seeing and hearing how the insensitive actions of visiting “guests” with noble intent has done more harm than good. Maybe even we’ve contributed to these stories ourselves, and now we want to do better.

Our goal in this series is to help you practice wisdom with money as you step out in faith in mission.

This is Part 1 of an 8-part series on Missions & Money. Click here to read Part 2: Raising Money.


To learn more about Vineyard Missions, click here.