DON’T GEORGE MUELLER ME! A missionary pleads for understanding.
INTRODUCTION: George Mueller (1805-1898) is a model of faith for many. Moving from Prussia to Bristol, England in 1832, Mueller ministered as a pastor, started schools and orphanages, and sacrificed unceasingly for others. Many of the sins of his early life were associated with money. After conversion, however, a marked change occurred, and Mueller developed several strong convictions about his own use of funds.
Some of Mueller’s convictions were (1) to never have a fixed income, (2) to never appeal for funds, (3) to never have any savings, but to spend all extra on the poor, and (4) to owe no man anything. Mueller never made an appeal for funds, but prayed to God for the means to support the orphans under his care. And, the funds came in! His lifestyle greatly impacted missions and Hudson Taylor of China and C.T. Studd, among other missionaries, adopted his principles as well. Today, as missionaries train and prepare to go out into the missionary harvest fields, many of them become acquainted with George Mueller’s name.
A MISSIONARY ASKS FOR UNDERSTANDING:
I love and admire George Mueller, but I have this to say: Please, don’t George Mueller me!
Some well-meaning church-folk admire Mueller to the point of exhorting all missionaries to live by his private standards. Some are not aware of all the details regarding Mueller’s convictions but merely want their missionaries to model the faith of Mueller. Fair enough. Others believe, however, that his methodologies and convictions ought to be made normative for all, or at least, for those who really trust the Lord.
PRODUCING FALSE DICHOTOMIES IN THE NAME OF RELYING ON GOD:
I have no doubt that many folks are very well-intentioned in taking a Mueller-like stand in their ministries or urging others to do so. However, in advocating their stance to others, these false dichotomies often abound:
• We are not going to raise support; we are going to go on faith!
• We are not trusting in the means of man, we are trusting in God who gives us our daily bread.
• God is enough; we are not relying on men.
• When we receive unsolicited funds we give God all the glory.
• We should seek God alone in financing this ministry.
• We do not make our appeals to men; we trust in God alone.
So, let me get this straight? Somehow planning and trying to budget for a sustainable yearly schedule is not relying on God, is not going in faith, and is not believing in the sufficiency of God? Those who receive funds through God’s people do not give God all the glory and are not trusting in God alone?
THE SPECIFIC CALLING OF ONE SHOULD NOT BE MADE NORMATIVE FOR ALL
George Mueller's calling was a specific one. We should not, therefore, make it into a normative pattern for every missionary. While Mueller’s faith is to be greatly admired, his methodologies should be examined carefully before being adopted or suggested to others. To hide one’s needs is not necessarily an extra measure of holiness. Going by faith doesn't mean that a missionary does not or should not budget and plan and let supporters know of his or her needs. There is no greater holiness in suffering due to poor planning.
NOT SOLICITING FUNDS CAN BECOME PRETTY CONSPICOUS AT TIMES:
I know several ministers who make much of the fact that they never solicit supporters for funds. And they remind you of it. Often. In fact, they do this so frequently that it almost becomes a sort of solicitation in itself. I believe in very clear and direct reporting of missions news and needs, and have no hesitancy to ask supporters to pray about meeting true needs which arise, but I mention money much less than many who hold these strong Mueller-esque convictions about never mentioning money. In fact, some mention not mentioning money more than I ever have… (mentioned money, that is)!
HAVING YOUR OWN STORE OF CASH MAKES YOU LESS OF A NUISANCE, AND IS MORE STRATEGIC:
Four examples below illustrate why a fixed missionary “salary” coupled with wise savings and the practice of clearly communicating needs is preferred:
First: One pastor told me that he at first admired those following Mueller’s methodology of never asking for funds. At least until this pastor took a short vacation with a follower of Mueller’s methodology. At every stop which cost money, this follower of George Mueller lacked the funds and often mentioned something to the effect of, “If the Lord wants me to go [to this park, event, etc.] he will provide the means.” His travelling buddies ended up being this man’s “means” at every stop. The pastor remarked to me later that, “I would have much preferred that this man receive a set salary that was sufficient and enabled him to pay his own way instead of constantly needing to remind us, ‘if the Lord wills for me to go, he will provide a way’ at every stop.”
Second: Many missionary families I know have suffered severe illnesses which come on quickly. If a missionary family on the mission field suffers a medical emergency, I would much prefer that they communicate this need immediately and, even better, have an ample supply of ready cash stowed away for just such an occasion.
Third: One missionary family I know with Mueller-esque leanings spent most of an entire term (4 years) chronically under-supported and short of funds. This frayed their nerves, their marriage was strained, and the missionary was distressed because he saw so many opportunities for service and yet did not feel the freedom to “advertise” or “solicit” funds to meet these needs and exploit the open doors that the Lord appeared to be opening to him. At the end of their term, this missionary family went home exhausted. When they explained their convictions about finances to several churches, they were approached several times afterwards and were told, “Why did you suffer all that, we would have been only too glad to help?” or, “We were waiting for clear information on just how best to help you. Why didn’t you communicate more clearly with us?”
Fourth: A few missionaries and pastors I know have had many ideas for new projects, but no savings to initiate any of them. Their methodology of work was as follows: as they mentioned their plans to supporters (being careful, of course, not to make any solicitations) they then, sometimes, received particular funds for a particular project. This was then taken as God’s way of affirming which projects gained priority and which ones got set on the back-burner. If the Lord wills it, then the Lord will support it was one pastor’s favorite justification for this practice of prioritizing projects. However, I have observed that many less visible but seemingly more effective projects often got delayed or cancelled as more visible projects gained quicker support from supporting churches. Whereas the missionary ought to have been setting the priorities based on his knowledge of the local context and conditions, he, instead, prioritized based on designations from churches operating thousands of miles away. Not a strategic move.
A better way would be to prioritize, and then raise support and monies based on these prioritizations, or at least set aside undesignated savings for such projects. To limit one’s actions on the mission field to, first, never soliciting funds, and then, second, never betraying a designation (but never properly informing would-be supporters which designations should take priority) is to be a poor steward of time and funds.
A GOOD RELATIONSHIP MEANS FULL DISCLOSURE, INCLUDING NEEDS:
A missionary-supporter relationship should never be primarily about funds. But financial giving does play a part. Each partner has a role; the missionary goes and the sender sends. Therefore, to be sent well and to send well necessitates lots of communication that is direct, clear, frank, and frequent. Financial support and financial needs are topics which should not be hidden.
DISCLOSING NEEDS ALLOWS FULL AND INFORMED PARTICIPATION:
By hiding one’s needs or failing to fully disclose all aspects of one’s missionary labor (i.e., including funding and finances) a missionary is denying the blessing of full participation in the work of missions to many who could otherwise be included. After all, if it is more blessed to give than to receive then the missionary’s offering of an opportunity to give towards gospel work is an offer to bless folks by allowing them to give. Participation in the Great Commission is a blessing; and participation in missions for those who cannot go usually takes the form of prayer and financial support. Missionaries who admire Mueller, please listen! Disclosing needs allows full and informed participation by the larger Body of Christ in world evangelization.
If your attitude towards missionary-supporter relations is that the missionary is a beggar, then of course, you might gain a negative attitude about the relationship. But if your attitude is that the whole church engages in missions, and that some go and others send, and if that sending is done through prayer and support, then why should we deny missions-senders vital news about one major element of the work?
Yes, God’s work done God’s way will never lack God’s supply, but how does God bless and supply his workers? Through other believers, the Church. How are we to pray intelligently or use our resources smartly if the facts are not known? God does not ordinarily call or move folks without using information and knowledge; God moves others based on news and knowledge of the needs.
Bless your supporters by allowing them the privilege of participation in a work that really matters in this world. Many cannot go. Therefore, praying and supporting missionaries is the means by which they take an active role in world evangelization. Including them is not begging, but blessing them by giving them an active role. And an intelligently informed role is preferable to trying to act in the absence of clear information about needs.
MOST OF MUELLER’S PRACTICES ARE NOT REQUIRED BY SCRIPTURE
I simply see no prohibition in Scripture against “advertising” one’s needs. Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 15) comes to mind here: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.” In II Corinthians 8-9, Paul encourages the church there to give generously, and I Corinthians 16 contains instructions on how to gather these gifts. Paul is fairly direct about giving towards the poor saints in Jerusalem.
If a Christian is privately convicted with a specific burden to add extra measures of strictness to their own daily religious life, that is fine. If one’s sin largely occurred in the area of money, as in Mueller’s case, we can sympathize with such strong post-conversion convictions regarding finances. But to require extra measures of strictness for others which are not demanded in Scripture is usually unwarranted, and is not an evidence of a greater level of holiness or a greater legitimacy of their appointed work. I see nowhere in Mueller’s writings any indication that he expected his own private standards to become normative for all Christians everywhere.
THERE IS NO VIRTUE IN SUFFERING NEEDLESSLY
There are enough strains and stresses on the mission field without adding extra measures which may add to one’s challenges. We sympathize with missionaries who catch tropical diseases, but our sympathies would dwindle if that missionary was afforded the means of alleviating one’s danger and refused those legitimate means. In like manner, those who suffer needless want on the mission field and lack the means to care for their own families or initiate new projects due to extra-biblical convictions about not reporting their needs are not somehow more praiseworthy because they are suffering more, but their suffering can be linked, in part, to their needless convictions. Unless one is powerfully and specifically called otherwise, frequent communication about one’s missionary labors and all aspects of that labor (including finances) is the recommended action so that hardships are reduced to those that are absolutely essential to the spread of the Gospel.
CONSISTENT AND RELIABLE FUNDING AS IT RELATES TO MISSIONARY ATTRITION:
Responsible budgeting, saving, and reporting keeps missionaries on the field. The ground-breaking REMAP I and II Studies on missionary attrition interviewed thousands of missionaries and numerous missionary agencies representing 40% of the Protestant world mission workforce. Their goal? Searching for the causes of unwanted missionary departure from the field. The books Worth Keeping and Too Valuable to Lose were published in order to make known these findings and determine those missionary practices which best serve to sustain the missionary harvest force.
One of the findings was that regular and consistent financial support is highly correlated with high rates of long-term missionary sustainability on the field. Therefore, one of the “best practices” suggested by the REMAP Studies was for missionaries to maintain consistent and sufficient levels of support. Quite simply, there are plenty of other things to worry about in missions without the added stress of going broke every month. Having a network of supporters giving consistent and sufficient funding allows a missionary to sustain present ministries, fix a monthly salary, plan for future steps, save for new initiatives, and to save one’s emotional turmoils for more important battles.
Missionaries who lack consistent funding go home early. Again, George Mueller’s individual and specific call to never solicit funds or have a “fixed income” is not a normative pattern for all Christian workers and may, in fact, be a destructive practice if it were to become a prescriptive practice among missionaries.
SOME SOLID PRINCIPLES WE CAN LEARN FROM MUELLER:
Mueller’s conviction was that he ought not to have a fixed salary, nor should he ever communicate his financial needs. My conviction is that missionaries, unless specifically and powerfully called otherwise, should strive for a predictable and relatively consistent rate of support and in all their correspondences with supporters should strive for clear, direct and frequent communications about all pertinent matters regarding their missionary labors (and one such relevant matter is, indeed, money and finances).
Despite my frustration at church-folks who tell me how I “should” be doing missions and my slight irritation at some of the publications of those who do follow Mueller’s methodology and remind readers of this fact, below are some of Mueller’s other principles concerning money that are very wise for any missionary:
For instance, Mueller scrupulously receipted funds and ensured that designated funds were only to be used according to their designations. While it would be hard to maintain a ministry if 100% of supporters designated that 100% of all their funds were only to be used for direct evangelism and not used for the other costs associated with missions-sending, such as food, clothes, housing for missionary families, mailing costs, etc., Mueller’s principles in this regard are solid. In fact, most evangelical missionary societies diligently honor designated funds and also scrupulously receipt those funds.
Also, Mueller diligently checked receipts and reviewed financial matters regularly using the highest standards possible in order to ensure the utmost honesty and transparency in the use of those funds given to him. Most missionary organizations do the same, employing outside auditors such as the ECFA (The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) to annually audit their funds and ensure solid stewardship.
Also, Mueller held that donors are to be thanked privately and not publically. While hospitals dedicate wards and benches to their donors, missionaries ought to love their supporters enough to guard them from any temptation of pride that may result from public exhibitions of charity. This seems a wise general practice.
Debt was to be strictly avoided. A book could be written on this principle. Many aspiring missionary candidates see missionary service put off by years as they attempt to pay down a debt ironically accrued through gaining an education that would presumably help them towards the field. While an occasional credit card expense may be justified, Mueller’s principle of avoiding debt is sound.
In all of the above matters, I give Mueller’s convictions a hearty amen.
THE REASON MUELLER IS ATTRACTIVE
The power of prayer shone bright in Mueller’s life. Who would not want to emulate that? Also, many ministries appear downright pushy, manipulative and even deceptive in their schemes to gain money. Many televangelists appear to live lavishly. All of these reasons make Mueller an inspiration to us and cause many to desire to either imitate him personally or desire the missionaries that they know to begin to become more like Mueller.
FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOW MUELLER’S SPECIFIC METHODOLOGIES:
If you are so convicted to follow George Mueller’s particular convictions and are led to make them your own, please bear with these following suggestions,
(1) Remember, again, that a private calling cannot be made normative for all Christians or all missionaries.
(2) If you say you follow Mueller, also seek to follow him in his fervency of prayer.
(3) A suggestion would also be to keep diligent accounts of how your needs were actually met and to publish those. If you are going to deny supporters information about your needs, at least bless them with retroactive notices of how your recent past needs were met. Mueller published large lists containing hundreds of prayer requests that were answered and the means by which they were answered. Good communication is a must as missionaries strive to bless those interested in their work. Adopting Mueller’s practices is no excuse for poor correspondence. In fact, if you follow Mueller’s specific convictions, then you must be even more diligent to communicate with supporters the blessed and specific ways in which God has blessed you through them, even without asking.
George Mueller is a faithful example of dependence and trust in God, a servant of God who followed an individual and specific calling that inspires us even today. As you encounter missionaries seeking to go out to plant the Gospel in other lands, introduce them to the wonderful story of George Mueller and urge them to follow the prayer life of this great man. But, please, please, don’t George Mueller them.