William Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name still smells the same, but not so international currencies. And when the value of the U.S. dollar sometimes stinks, no one feels that more acutely than American missionaries, or foreign nationals who depend on American dollars to sustain their work.
Despite a recent rally in the value of the U.S. dollar-due, ironically, to the problems of the U.S. financial markets spreading overseas-the dollar is generally trading below levels of two years ago, and major ministries are feeling the pinch.
David Steverson oversees a $300-million budget as vice president of finance for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Missions Board (IMB). He said weakness in the dollar means that "everything is more expensive. If renting a two-bedroom apartment in Western Europe cost $1,300 a month in 2007, we're paying $1,500 for that apartment today. When you multiply that increase by the hundreds of missionaries serving in Western Europe, you're talking about a lot of money," he said.
The IMB supports about 5,300 missionaries worldwide. Steverson said that despite the recent uptick in the dollar's value over the past six months, his office was planning on the U.S. dollar to be down 12 percent year-over-year, and he added that this has been a seven-year trend.
Wendy Norvelle, a spokesperson for the IMB, said that to account for currency fluctuations, missions organizations often adopt a strategy called "field parity." She explained, "We keep track of individual missionaries in a particular country, and we'll make adjustments to that missionary's income to protect his family, so the family doesn't face hardship. But there are limits to such adjustments, and we typically can't make adjustments to the ministry operating budget just based on currency fluctuations."
Another troubling reality of currency fluctuations is that the greatest needs are often in lesser developed countries, where currency values are particularly volatile. For example, one U.S. dollar had for years been worth about 45 Indian rupees. But as the Indian economy developed and the American economy weakened, the rupee strengthened against the dollar. It took only 39 rupees to buy a dollar in early 2008. But political unrest, including India's conflict with Pakistan and the Mumbai terrorist attacks, caused a so-called "flight to safety." The dollar quickly shot up to more than 50 rupees in December, and has stayed above historic levels since.
Gospel for Asia is a U.S.-based ministry that supports thousands of pastors in India. Spokesman Taun Cortado said, "A temporary spike in the value of the dollar doesn't make up for years of decline, and it makes planning more difficult." He said missions organizations would prefer not a strong dollar, but a steady dollar.
But even more important to missionary efforts than a steady dollar is steady giving. According to Jason Mandryk of Operation World, in 1900 almost 100 percent of missionaries came from the North America and Europe. Today, less than half do. More than 35 percent of all missionaries "on the field" are Asian-like those Indian national pastors trained by Gospel for Asia. But they still often depend on U.S. dollars and, according to John Ronsvalle, who co-authored a study for the group Empty Tomb, "It's difficult to avoid the label of 'lukewarm' when analyzing the church's level of response to Jesus' Great Commandment and Great Commission."
Ronsvalle admitted that evangelical Christians were more generous givers than non-religious people, and that Americans were among the most generous people in the world. But, his study found, "The total portion of per capita income given to churches in 2006 was lower than in the worst year of the Great Depression."
And to drive the point home, Ronsvalle put the Southern Baptist's $300 million missions budget in perspective: Americans spent $310 million on the video game Grand Theft Auto IV-on its first day of release.
And that, even the Bard of Avon might agree, stinketh.