Question about Mission Agencies for missionaries:

"Why do some missionaries serve independent from an agency?"

"Because they find help in other ways that cost less in finances and time."

Answer from Jay, an independent missionary who has been working in Italy for five years.

I chose to go the independent route because I felt that I already had (or was able to find) all of the services of a missions agency from other sources at a fraction of the cost.

But there are several advantages for being associated with a missions agency, including the following:

  • Agencies provide a stamp of legitimacy to help with fund-raising.

  • Agencies provide practical help, such as finding health insurance, saving for retirement, receipting donations, setting up housing and transportation for furloughs, and mailing newsletters.

  • Agencies provide a structure to guide your ministry efforts, both in the general sense of choosing an assignment and in the short-term sense of month-to-month work.

  • Agencies may provide accountability so that you don't fall into sin or into nonproductive activities.

  • A team can offer encouragement and day-to-day practical help.

If you are fortunate to find a wonderful agency, you will get all of these benefits in some measure. If you are unfortunate, you'll receive very little, but will still have all the disadvantages of working under an agency, including these:

  • Financial cost. Many mission agencies support their home-office staff with a percentage of the funds raised by overseas missionaries (e.g., ten percent). In addition, your agency may require you to raise more funds than you think you need.

  • Time cost. Some missions agencies consume an inordinate amount of time with general conferences, field conferences, area meetings, and reporting requirements. I've heard stories of folks who lost an entire day each week just in meetings.

  • Relationship cost. If your agency has others working in your local area, you have to invest the effort to get along with those folks, even if they have incompatible visions or personalities. You can't choose with whom you work. Until you've been in this situation, you can't imagine how costly this can be in terms of time and emotional energy.

  • Vision cost. With an agency, you may have to go with the flow of what they are doing, even if the season for one type of ministry in your area is over and you feel led to do something different. In most cases, you will have to plug into the vision of your agency's founder or current head, or that of your local team leader, rather than going with the vision God gives you.

My feeling is that all of the benefits of a mission agency can be gained in a variety of ways for a fraction of the financial, time, relationship, and vision costs.

In my view, many missionaries are not very successful or productive for at least one of the following reasons:

  • They are not disciplined and self-motivated.

  • They don't have a clear vision of what God is calling them to do.

  • They are not committed to accountable relationships.

Without these traits, you will fail, either as an independent missionary or as an agency-affiliated missionary. Going with an agency will not make up for these shortcomings.

If you can't honestly say that you are disciplined, have a clear vision, and are committed to accountability, I'd suggest that you pray and fast, review your guidance into missions, and spend a year or two with an "open" agency that emphasizes training and formation of leaders, such as Operation Mobilization or Youth with a Mission. Only after you are certain you have some measure of these traits in your life should you even consider career missions.

Editor's note: The percentage of missionaries serving without the support of an agency seems to be growing. If that is your situation or one you are considering, check out Going It Alone from the UK-based Syzgy Missions Support Network.

"Because their church serves as a sending agency."

Answer from John who has served in Japan for five years.

I think that one should either choose a mission agency or have their church serve as a sending agency of sorts. In my relatively short time in Japan, most of those who are here as independents initially came with a mission, but quit when they had struggles with the leadership or couldn't raise their financial support. Independents often do not fare well under leadership and become poor partners with other missionaries or with national leadership. Bottom line: most people, especially those first starting out, need to be accountable to someone – either their home church or an agency.

"We went to Africa without a traditional sending agency."

Answer from Courtney, who serves through her church in a ministry focused on Sierra Leone.

When my family and I moved overseas to W. Africa we didn't go with a traditional sending agency. We went with the strong support of our church and the full welcome of the agency in-country, but we skipped the sending agency in the West very purposefully.

The biggest reason we didn't go through a sending agency was that we had spent ten years developing our vision for ministry and had a good relationship, and a formal contract, with the project overseas. Taking all of this and finding an agency that it fit with proved to be extremely difficult. And yet, we didn't want to get behind the philosophy of, or develop a relationship between an agency in the US and a project overseas simply to facilitate our move.

We knew what method of community development we believed in. We knew where we wanted to work and with what project. We had most of the pieces in place already. But we had to create some of them and we needed to have the gumption to do it.

So we determined what important items we lacked: pre-field training, a church that was behind our vision and would not forget us, solid financial support, someone to manage our finances well, strong evacuation insurance, an accountability team with contracts and clearly stated responsibilities and a strong debriefing program. And we set off to create this for ourselves.

1. Our church. We could not have done well without them. They managed our finances, prayed for us, loved us, were our friends, and there was no chance they would forget us. Our very small church was deeply invested in us. We had lived life together for years. They loved us, truly. As the coming months would show, they would drop everything and help us when we needed it.

2. Our accountability team. My husband and I each chose a person to be accountable to during our time overseas and wrote up a contract with this person. It wasn't a contract of moral obligation but was one giving the person the right to speak into our lives and to ultimately pull us off the field if they deemed it necessary. It was a work contract. These were our leaders. And we submitted to them.

3. Pre-field training and debriefing. We paid the big bucks. We went with an outside company that specializes in training and debriefing for families and individuals moving overseas. They had programs for our kids and for us. Given my work history with sending agencies, it would have been easy for us to skip this step but we are so glad that we didn't. This training proved to be critical.

Sending agencies do their jobs very well. Prior to moving overseas, I worked in member care for four years. Agencies work diligently to meet the needs of their workers and they're worth their administrative fees. They have resources and networks when you're struggling and they have evacuation and emergency protocols that work. They are ready all the time, but especially for the things you don't ever think you'll need them for, the emergencies.

In going without a sending agency you need to have a certain personality. One that is ready to take charge, and find whatever resources are necessary in an emergency. You need to be able to make quick decisions when lives are on the line, even if it's yours. And you need to have someone in authority over you for when you cannot see straight. Because none of us want to prepare for the worst but living in a developing country increases our chance for disaster. If you go without a sending agency, you need to be able to handle that disaster without question.

You also need to be confident in the project you are joining. Are you a single person that loves being a part of team? If you're going without a sending agency, will your receiving project be able to provide that sense of team-ness for you or will you be an outsider for a while? Do you have a family and a spouse that will be left at home with the children and not feel connected to the work in country? Going without an agency can create isolation while you are getting used to the project. Know the community that you're going to and what resources are available for you there. This may be the biggest factor in your longevity on the field.

Sending agencies do their jobs well and if this is your first exposure into international work I would strongly suggest going with one. But if you are considering going overseas without an agency, as a contract worker, do not be flippant about it. Be wise. Seek advice from those who have been involved in missions for years. Do not skip the items that will cost you money like insurance, training, and scheduled return trips to your home. You are sidestepping some of the infrastructure and you'll need to create it yourself. If that feels possible to you, then maybe it's for you. If it seems like you're in over your head, you may want to consider a sending agency. Both have their place.

"Serving outside traditional agency structures may have some benefits."

Answer from Greg, who has served in mission for more than thirty years and currently serves with Anda Leadership, an affiliate of Allegro Organizational Solutions.

I am a fan and active supporter of traditional sending agencies. I served on the board of one in their early days and was part of another for nine years. It is surprising to me that I have not joined a traditional sending agency. This has been more by accident than by design. But this path has had some benefits, including more autonomy, neutrality, and flexibility.

1. Autonomy. My first "assignment" was actually with two agencies, both excited by the vision of entering the country "most antagonistic towards Christianity," but neither ready to be fully responsible for it. The risk was too great. So, our team received resources from both organizations and sufficient autonomy to attempt something others might consider fool-hearty.

2. Neutrality. The organization I led for nearly three decades worked to promote the cause and to link people with roles appropriate for them, often with traditional agencies. Early on we decided that our organizational agenda required a structure that was clearly distinct from the agencies we hoped to serve. We were often seen as neutral.

3. Flexibility. Two years ago my daughter and I discussed how we could best invest our experience, contacts, and vision to glorify God. We concluded that equipping emerging market entrepreneurs was the way for us to best leverage our personal resources for the kingdom, but when we considered how we could effectively do that, we concluded that aligning with a traditional agency could be awkward for the agency and for us. Our approach does not fit the traditional agency model. So, even if an agency accepted us, we would have to address a certain amount of dissonance. We concluded it would be better to strike out on our own than to attempt to conform to even the most flexible organizational bureaucracy.

If your vision requires that kind of autonomy, neutrality, and flexibility, you might find a better fit outside the traditional sending agency. Keep in mind, though, you will still need support, accountability, and guidance.

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