Missions & Money

Financial support of Indigenous ministers and missionaries in South Africa

Gastblog door Arjan de Visser, hoogleraar aan the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton (sinds 2004), daarvoor zendingspredikant in Soshanguve (1989-2004)

The Free Reformed Churches in South Africa have been doing mission work in the African suburbs around Pretoria for many years. From the 1960s till the 1980s they had one missionary working in one of those areas, Mamelodi. In 1988 they called a second missionary (myself) to open up a new area on the other side of town, Soshanguve. They also acquired the services of an African brother who was appointed as evangelist in Mamelodi. He was mandated to preach the gospel but not to administer the sacraments. He received a full salary plus remuneration for the use of his car.

but isn’t that … ?

Halfway during the 1990s the mission project went through some personnel changes. The missionary in Mamelodi was replaced by a new one. The evangelist also left and was replaced by a new one. A second evangelist was added to the team. In both areas (Mamelodi and Soshanguve) there was now a missionary and an evangelist. The Lord blessed the work in both places and additional preaching points were established. By the late 1990s a third missionary was called to start a new preaching point in Soshanguve-South.

indigenous evangelist

In the meantime several young men from the mission churches went to Mukhanyo Theological College in order to be trained for the ministry of the gospel. These students received financial assistance from the Mission Board. During weekends the students helped out with work in the mission congregations and with preaching on Sundays. By 2004 (the year I left for Canada), there were two mission congregations in Mamelodi (one of which was instituted and had its own consistory), and four congregations in Soshanguve (one of which was instituted) – six places in total where the gospel was preached. In recent years the expansion has continued: There are now eight mission congregations, two instituted, six not instituted yet.

Mamelodi instituted church

By 2003 the first two students finished their studies and became available to serve. One student was called by the instituted church in Mamelodi and ordained as minister of the Word. The other one was called and ordained in the instituted church of Soshanguve-North. In both cases, these churches were not able to provide their own ministers with a full salary. Arrangements were made with the Mission Board in Pretoria. About 25 % or less of the salary came from the congregation, the rest from the Mission Board. The hope was that the congregations would eventually take full responsibility for paying the salary of their own minister. This has not materialized yet.

Soon afterwards three more students finished their studies at seminary and became available for call. There were enough places where they could start working but the congregations in those places were not instituted yet. In order to solve this problem, it was agreed that they would be called by the sending church in Pretoria and employed as missionaries to their own people. For the practice of the work this did not make much of a difference. Whether the brother was a minister or a missionary, they did the same work: preaching, teaching, doing home visits, etc. The main difference was that the indigenous minister worked under the supervision of the instituted church on the mission field while the indigenous missionary worked under the supervision of the mission board in Pretoria.

indigenous minister

Efforts were made to ensure that the indigenous ministers and missionaries would receive the same kind of salaries and the same benefits (everyone received a car allowance, health insurance, pension fund, etc.). This has worked reasonably well, although it must be said that the indigenous missionaries were generally better off than the indigenous ministers because their salary and benefits came from the Mission Board. Although there have been some frictions as a result, it appears that the difficulties have been resolved in a brotherly way.

indigenous missionary

The Mission Board pays the missionaries that are on its payroll according to a system of ‘building blocks.’ Building blocks are things like: food needed for the family, transport, education for the children, medical insurance and expenses, housing, years in service, pension plan, etc. The experience so far has been that everyone is quite happy with approach. Even though there are differences in salary, such differences can be explained reasonably. (Note: This system of ‘building blocks’ has also enabled the churches to accommodate the needs of the white missionaries who live in the city of Pretoria and who have higher living costs than their African colleagues.)

By 2010 there were 8 brothers serving on the mission field: six missionaries (three Dutch/Afrikaans, three African) and two ministers (African). There was more than enough work for them all. In fact, there was and still is an urgent need for more workers in the field. Thankfully, two more students finished their studies at seminary. But now a new problem emerged: The Mission Board had reached the limits of its budget. Financial support from Holland was still coming in, but the declining value of the Euro had a negative impact on the budget. As a result, the Mission Board struggled to maintain all the missionaries who were on the payroll. There was certainly no room to employ additional workers. Too bad for the two students who were ready to enter the ministry! One of them is still waiting for a call. The other one has found a different job for the time being.

waiting for a call since March 2011

Clearly, this situation is not ideal and cried out for significant measures to be taken. Options that have been considered are the following:

–          Option 1: Try to increase the budget. This could be done by trying to get more financial support from churches in Holland or elsewhere. The argument is: If there is more money in the budget, the Mission Board will be able to employ more ministers/ missionaries.  This approach might temporarily solve the problem but it is not a permanent solution. With more money in the budget, the Mission Board could perhaps employ one or two extra people, but what about the students who are presently studying at Theological College and who will be hoping to enter the ministry in 2015 or 2016? In other words, if you totally depend on money from outside, there will always a limit to what you can do, and this is going to impede further growth of the church.

theological student – is there a future in the ministry?

–          Option 2: Try tentmaking-ministry. This means that indigenous ministers would be expected to find (part-time) jobs and so maintain their families. That would save the Mission Board a lot of money. That money could then be used to employ new mission workers. This approach is attractive from a budget perspective but it is probably not going to be a popular solution among indigenous ministers. They would lose their financial security. In addition, it needs to be mentioned that tentmaking-ministry has disadvantages. If a minister is expected to maintain himself financially, he will have less time available for sermon preparation, teaching Catechism, doing home visits, etc. Tentmaker-ministers tend to become weekend-only-ministers.

–          Option 3: Local congregations should pay for their own ministers. This would obviously be the ideal solution. If the local congregations on the mission field took their responsibility seriously and if the members in those congregations tripled or quadrupled their financial contributions, the problem would be solved. It would free up money in the budget of the Mission Board to employ new workers for new areas and the work could continue to grow and to flourish.  But is it possible? This leads to the question: What is the real problem in the mission congregations? Are the brothers and sisters not able to support their ministers? Or are they not willing to do it? Are they perhaps counting on the Mission Board to maintain their ministers forever? If this is the case, we have a spiritual problem than can only be solved with spiritual means: repentance will be needed.

local minister supported by church federation

Some reflections:

First of all, it is important for any ‘young’ mission project to reflect on these things before any major decisions are taken. Is the Mission Board going to employ indigenous workers? If so, are they going to receive a full salary? Are they perhaps expected to earn a part of their own salary? And is there going to be a time limit to the financial support (e.g. that the indigenous workers would receive a kind of contract for a set number of years)? Various factors need to be taken into account in this regard, including the general level of income and prosperity in a certain area.

Second, the Biblical rule is that preachers of the gospel should receive their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14). This means that a local congregation should support the minister or evangelist who is preaching the gospel in that congregation. But there can be exceptional situations. Perhaps the congregation is just being established and still small in size. Or perhaps there is a situation of real poverty. In such cases the Mission Board or the churches elsewhere can and should step in to support the local church and its preacher financially. But this situation should not continue for too long. As soon as the local congregation is able to take its responsibility seriously, it should do so.

Third, in some societies in the developing world the concept of making financial contributions is totally new and foreign. In some societies even the concept of paying taxes to the government is new. It will take time for people in such an environment to get used to paying tithes. In addition, if a congregation has been receiving financial support from outside, it is often difficult to understand why ‘all of a sudden’ they need to start making financial contributions themselves. To some extent this is a spiritual problem, so it is needs to be addressed with spiritual means: The Word of God needs to speak to this situation, and the Holy Spirit needs to work a spirit in the hearts that is willing to make sacrifices for the work of the Lord.

Fourth, tentmaking-ministry has its drawbacks indeed. At the same time, it is an option that is mentioned in the Bible (Acts 18:3). The apostle Paul considered it an honour to maintain himself financially although, at times, he did receive gifts from the churches (Phil. 4:14-18). But then he did not have a wife and children to maintain, so we cannot simply take his situation as prescriptive. Tentmaking-ministry may not be the ideal solution, but in my opinion it deserves to be considered as a solution that would hopefully be temporary.

first local minister, now missionary


Coming back to the practical side of things: An approach that is sometimes followed, is that the Western partner agrees to sponsor the salaries of indigenous ministers in the developing world for so-called extras. The Dutch churches, for example (Reformed Churches Liberated) have agreed to support indigenous ministers at Papua with subsidy for extra expenses (education of their children, medical care, part of the pension plan, expenses for travelling to classis meetings, etc.). The basic salary, however (food, clothing, housing), needs to be arranged by the local churches themselves. I do not know what would happen if a local congregation failed to do so, but I imagine that the minister might have no other option than to start looking for a (part-time) job.

It is interesting that the South African churches have recently adopted similar guidelines for the support of needy churches. I understand that the Synod of 2011 made a decision (1) that every local church is responsible to take care of the basic needs of its own minister (food, clothing, housing), and (2) that it is only for extra needs (computer, car, etc.) that a local church may apply for financial support from the General Fund. This decision is clearly meant to stimulate local churches to take responsibility for the financial support of their own ministers.


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