Many Vagabond Finances readers are members, leaders, or even planters of local Christian communities. Some of us are trained, fulltime Christian workers with years of study and preparation; others found a great gig working for an IT firm, teaching English, etc. overseas and wouldn’t miss the opportunity to also participate in a spiritual community in our host country.
Our love for our churches in our new host country should be deep and broad. It should extend into our hearts, into our relationships, into our time, and even into our wallets. Our local communities often offer vital ministries and touch needy people that we as US expats can’t touch, so our American dollars can help. We want to give. But what should that look like?
As we’ve written elsewhere, generosity comes in many shapes and sizes. We can be generous with our time as volunteers or fulltime workers, generous with our affection for the local church and those the church touches, and, of course, generous with our money. In fact, many of us tend to be more generous with our finances than the average Joe American. One of the reasons we moved abroad was our compassion for people who needed something: food, clean water, the Gospel, reading skills, English skills, and finances. We have generous hearts and, one would hope, generous wallets.
But what should our financial generosity look like in terms of dollars, yen, and dinars? Is it possible to be too generous? Yes, actually, it might be easy to do.
According to the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index, the USA is consistently one of the top two most charitable countries in the world. That’s a good thing!
What makes an American’s generosity sometimes a bit awkward is not the propensity to give but the amount of the giving. The US is currently ranked 10th among all countries for its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. That means unless you are living in countries like Luxembourg, Singapore, or Switzerland who rank higher than the US, your income is likely larger than most people’s income in your host country. As a consequence, your gift of 5, 10 or 20% of your income will likely be a larger sum than that same 5, 10 or 20% a local could give. The generosity is the same but the dollar amount can be vastly and uncomfortably different.
Your generosity could very well be over-the-top as compared to your fellow-congregants. Your giving may (or may not) be well-received, but the negative consequences may last well beyond your sojourn abroad.
Give what I gave back home
A lot of well-meaning expats simply reason that if they gave $300 per month to their local church in the USA, they should just keep giving $300 per month to their local church in Namibia, Ukraine, Samoa or some other host country which is listed much lower on the list of GDP per capita.
It does make budgeting easier, but does it make sense? Let’s do the math for Ukraine, for example. The average American earns 7 times what the average Ukrainian currently earns. Your gift of $300 per month to a local Ukrainian church would feel to them more like $2,100 per month (actually it would probably feel like much more, but we’ll stick to the math). That’s a lot of money being given by a US expat who just showed up at their church one day last month or last year.
It feels generous or maybe even just normal to you, but it seems out of place in many countries of the world.
Give with cultural sensitivity
The interesting thing about this generosity problem is that many of us are highly trained cultural experts. We’ve studied how to come into a host country with a respectful, learner’s attitude. We’re committed to not starting churches that are “too American.” We love the local music, the local worship styles, and the local sense of community.
While we’d never dream of adding a hymnal of 500 classic American hymns to our local congregation’s 80-page collection of choruses, we somehow think nothing of adding $500 to our local congregation’s weekly offering of $80. Are outside dollars less culturally charged than outside songs?
Let’s not close our cultural sensitivity just because we open our wallets.
Give without creating dependency
Missionaries and active participants in host country congregations who are thinking long-term will be mindful that their time in the congregation will almost certainly come to an end. Some of us develop creative strategies to make sure that the church we start, the group we lead, or the congregation we attend will outlive our 10-month or 10-year ministry.
In short, we give a lot of thought to how not to allow a sense of dependency to creep into our local congregations. For their own good and for the long-range good of the ministry, we don’t want our brothers and sisters abroad to depend on our leadership, technology they can’t afford, or structures they can’t replicate. But we don’t always give that same degree of reflection to our patterns of giving.
The financial means represented by a generous American in a less wealthy host country can easily create just this kind of dependency. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the results yourself. Vagabond Finances authors have personally seen several disconcerting examples of financial dependency. One mission agency built a church building with foreign dollars. When they eventually turned over the ministry to local believers, the congregation struggled to even pay the utility bills. Expensive ministries like cafes, 24-hour hotlines, and such which were started with an expat’s funding, suddenly shut down when the expat leaves. Congregations who once did quite well with lay leaders, suddenly decide they need full-time, paid personnel because that’s what the missionary is. When they try to hire a local pastor they struggle under the financial weight of that decision. Some churches and denominations see that generous foreigners are able to help churches grow and reproduce, so they decide that they need to have foreign funds to grow and reproduce as well. Perhaps they raise money from US sources or perhaps they just stop trying to grow and reproduce because they think it’s impossible without an America congregant with a capacity for out-sized giving.
On more than one occasion a local believer has said to me regarding my talents and missionary status, “Now that you are here, we can finally grow this church!” You’d recoil at the idea, right? You’d explain to them that you are not the Savior and that God has gifted every believer. What will never be said out loud is another dangerous affirmation: “Now that you are here, we can finally afford to grow this church!” We should recoil at that idea too, right? American money is not the Savior and God has given His resources to do whatever work He wishes to accomplish.
Give what a generous local would give
While there are no one-size-fits-all answers, there is a principle that I’ve developed in ministering to several churches in a couple of different countries. When working in a country in which people have a significantly lower capacity for giving, I try to determine what a generous local believer would give to a church and model my giving after that.
In some congregations, it’s pretty simple to determine what “generosity” looks like to them. I saw a church report just last month where the local leaders reported exactly what the average committed member gives. Now that’s detailed (and maybe nosy!) budgeting.
It’s usually not quite that easy to find out what generous givers are giving. However, a host country leader will often be able to provide similar information if you ask directly or, perhaps, a bit less directly. You likely want to know what the town doctor or mayor or businessperson gives and use that as a starting point.
Not every situation is this clear cut, of course. Let cultural norms be your guardrails, but let God be your guide.
So am I doomed to give less generously than I’d like?
While we don’t want to create financial dependency in our local spiritual family, nobody is saying we can’t give the same percentage or same dollar amount that God has placed on our heart to give. It might, however, be wise to give a small or even substantial portion of our charitable giving to recipients other than the local church.
It is always an option to give to our former church in the USA, to support other charity workers from the States or elsewhere, or to support other local ministries. (With this latter, some of the same concerns about dependency need to be considered, of course.)
Whatever your strategy, we would never call for less generosity, but we would like to think that we can be wise in our generosity to have the greatest impact without creating damaging dependency.
So, how much should I give to my church abroad? Give whatever the Lord leads you to give, but don’t be surprised if He leads you to give what a generous local believer would give and then give the rest to His work in other corners of the globe.