Short-term anxiety

Missions | Summer missionaries face rising costs, a falling dollar, and a steady flow of need

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

Just a few weeks before a fresh crop of short-term missions teams were scheduled to begin arriving at his church for summer work projects, New Orleans pastor Jerry Kramer described his mood: "tired, a bit fussy, but exceedingly blessed and privileged."

If Kramer is tired or a bit fussy, it's largely because he's spent nearly three years "living on the run and then the edge" after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed his home and his Episcopal church in New Orleans' low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood in 2005.

Since then, Church of the Annunciation has been a constant relief outpost and a driving force in the revitalization of a neighborhood with 2,000 homes still severely damaged (see "Bottom up," Sept. 15, 2007).

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If Kramer is exceedingly blessed, it's partly because his church has hosted thousands of volunteers from churches around the country that have donated some 150,000 hours of labor over the last two-and-a-half years. The pastor estimates those volunteers have contributed some $3 million worth of services to the city.

Kramer expects the church will host hundreds more volunteers this summer and recently told supporters "how far we've come by God's grace and your support."

As scores of other churches and missions organizations prepare for summer projects this year, they're facing down obstacles of their own and focusing on how to maximize their usefulness with limited resources.

A sluggish economy and rising fuel costs represent one of the steepest challenges facing missionaries around the world. Some missions groups say that higher airfares and a weaker dollar aren't keeping short-term workers from the field so far, but they are affecting the long-term missionaries who coordinate the projects for volunteers.

As the dollar's value has fallen overseas, so has purchasing power for American missionaries who depend on U.S. dollars even while overseas. Last year, some missionaries found their dollars worth 8 percent to 12 percent less than they expected, according to the U.S. Center for World Mission.

For missionaries like Phil Davis, that means the money he raised for working abroad isn't enough anymore. Davis and his family have served with World Harvest Mission in Prague for three years, and they have watched the dollar lose more than 30 percent of its value against the Czech crown since they arrived on the field.

Rent has gone up $664 a month, and items like a gallon of milk have jumped from $3.25 to $4.75 in a year. Davis recently told his hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, that the family faces a $7,000 deficit and needs an additional $2,500 a month to make up for the exchange rate. "It's kind of like the frog in the kettle thing," Davis said. "It just creeps up on you."

Mission to the World, the foreign missions agency of the Presbyterian Church in America, recently lowered the amount of support their missionaries must raise by lowering administrative fees and health-care costs for long-term workers. But the organization warned those gains will be lost if the dollar's value continues to fall and called the economic downturn for missionaries "unprecedented."

For the International Mission Board (IMB), the missions arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the burden falls on the organization itself. IMB spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle told WORLD that the group's missionaries are fully funded by the IMB, but that "our missionaries are definitely feeling the pinch."

Norvelle said IMB tracks the dollar's value in the countries where missionaries serve, and the organization makes adjustments to missionary salaries to keep up with the cost of living. "But ministry dollars don't get adjusted," said Norvelle. That means if the cost goes up for budgeted ministry expenses like buying Bibles or organizing outreach projects, "the missionaries have to make a decision," she said.

While the dollar's value falls, the cost of vital resources like fuel continues to soar around the world. Missions agencies that depend on piston-engine aircraft that run on aviation fuel (instead of much cheaper jet fuel) have made drastic adjustments to cover the bloated costs.

Missionary pilot Dennis Freeland fills up his plane in Cameroon, West Africa, from a 55-gallon drum of aviation gasoline shipped from JAARS missions agency in Waxhaw, N.C. JAARS spokesman Arthur Lightbody told WORLD that the nearest place Freeland could buy aviation fuel in the region is more than 500 miles away-and costs at least $9 a gallon.

So every six months JAARS-which provides aviation and technical support to missionaries for Wycliffe Bible Translators-ships a 20-foot container full of 55-gallon fuel barrels to Cameroon. "And that's still cheaper than buying it in a neighboring country," said Lightbody.


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