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The Golden Rule

March 28, 2014

The recent dust-up over the World Vision decision/reversal concerning same sex married employees brings back memories.  Before anyone gets their hackles up I hasten to add that these memories are not about same sex marriage but about the trials of non-denominational nonprofit organizations.  I worked for one for twenty years that included fifteen great years on the mission field and five tortuous ones in “mission administration.”  It was primarily in these last five years that I learned the golden rule of non-denominational Christian organizations.  It went like this:

“He who has the gold, rules.”

Put another way, the desires and theological views of the key donors group heavily influences, and sometimes even directly controls, mission decisions even if mission leaders don’t agree with those views or consider them less effective in reaching people.

What stuns me about the World Vision mess is neither the decision nor the reversal but the fact that they didn’t see the controversy coming.  How could they not know that same sex marriage is a huge hot-button issue among evangelicals?  That battle, and the clear evidence that the majority of older evangelicals (read: donors who have a lot of money) are lined upon the “no” side should have been obvious.

Here are the facts:

–          Most missions tend to be silent on controversial issues.  If they raise funds across the Christian denominational perspective you will rarely see positions on issues like charismatic gifts, Calvinism, end times prophecy, alcohol, etc.  They simply duck these issues using language, like World Vision did, when they tried to say “we leave such things to the local church.”

–          More decisions than you will ever know are shaped, or even fail to see the light of day, based on the assessment that donors would not like them.  For example, the mission I was in used some secular rock music in an outreach to teens.  The songs were carefully chosen and always were a basis for commentary on how the song does, or does not, reflect godly values.  We had to stop it because several donors were sure that rock, no matter how used, was evil to the core.

–          Some of the most effective missionaries I know conduct some of their best ministry in secret because they know that, if they told their donors how they actually reach people for Christ, they would be made to stop or lose funding.  Hiding, or even lying about, ministry tactics is common.

–          A big portion of fundraising budgets goes to strategizing what will most appeal to donors, particularly big donors.  Most missions do this with integrity but even so discussions on what to say, and what not to say, to donors go on all the time.

–          The things that mission leaders feel are the best often take second place to less effective things that appeal to donors.  Donor interest varies so that when something big hits the news, like an earthquake or tsunami, you will find mission suddenly pointing out what they are doing to respond, or even what they were already doing, to capitalize on shifting donor interest.

Donors have the right to support what they want, nobody disputes that.  But the influence they have ranges from the ridiculous (I was once asked if we used the KJV translation in all our 162 language outreaches.) to insightful, focused passion.  I also appreciate dedicated and thoughtful fundraising staff; people who are often viewed less then favorably.

This issue bothers me for one key reason.  The American church is the source of the overwhelming percentage of missions giving, for which we are all grateful.  But the issues that are important to folks here are often meaningless to the rest of the world.  What is more, the “correct theological answers” we spout are often heartless and impractical in the wider world.  Take, for example, the stay-at-home mom.  Many Christians view this as the ideal, or even the only biblical model for women.  It is ridiculously impossible in the vast portions of the world where the struggle to survive is a daily battle.

The painfully laughable thing about the World Vision story is that in much of the world there is simply no controversy in the church on same sex marriage.  WV, which gives full hiring autonomy to its local branches, knew very well that almost no such couples would be hired.  But I suspect that they have learned a painful and damaging lesson. So be it.  But it does irk me that there are some Christians who delivered that lesson with glee.


From → Christianity

  1. pdolwick permalink

    Great blog as always, Tom. Makes one wonder if … in the future .. the churches that would pull money from efforts to bring bring food to the hungry … solely because of narrow same-sex marriage debates … will seem as anachronistic as the anti-rock-n’-roll crowd of yesteryear seems today.

    I hope so.

  2. This all makes me very sad.

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