What Donation Recipients Need to Keep in Mind
At least the Catholic and all Protestant churches of Russia are in international terms receiving churches. All of these receive more donations from foreign countries than they send to foreign countries. Generally, the relationships formed between Russian and Western congregations are labelled partnerships, yet it would be more honest to call them sponsorships. They will indeed remain sponsorships as long as the money is flowing in only one direction.
The Western world, one hears, has grown weary of giving for Eastern Europe. The Western donator after all is no great friend of continuity. He tends to donate there where destruction has most recently occurred: Beslan, 11 September, the Tsunami-catastrophe. Or where an Iron Curtain has suddenly fallen.
Matching funds. A Western group will donate $2 if the Russian recipient agrees to donate $1 more. Normally, the Russian project with then collect all $3. But if the smaller Russian contribution is given to a Western project, vestiges of true partnership may begin to appear. This could help Western churches overcome their strong reservations regarding “partnerships”.
Western support for small businesses in Russia. Economic development has long been acquainted with that vital saying: “If you give someone a fish, he will be hungry again tomorrow. But if you teach him to fish . . . .” A truly noble cause! Such Western projects have frequently met their doom when confronted with dishonest, East European “businessmen”. But the West dare not give up. Only through economic growth among Russian Christians will their congregations ever become financially independent.
Foreign donations are unevenly distributed. Probably all denominations are forced to deal with an income gap. The central Moscow offices of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists have departments which tend to be either richer or poorer. The departments for youth or mission are more attractive than legal or theological ones. There are also relatively wealthy and relatively poor congregations. Moscow congregations have more contacts in the West than do congregations in Chita (Siberia). That is quite understandable and logical – but also objectionable. If the Western visitor only gets to see the “wealthy”, then that will curtail his willingness to help. And the poorest suffer most from a decrease in giving.
There are church workers in Russia better-equipped with computers and electronics than their Western partners. And when a Western donor has a hunch that the donation recipient has a higher standard of living than he himself has, irritation is sure to result.
A modest standard of living. Those receiving more donations than they give are clearly called to live modestly. The issue is not one of how I can best keep my computers and vehicles out of view when donors arrive – I refuse to buy them in the first place. Our modesty is not simply paraded – we are in fact so. Among believers, there is no room for intentional deceit.
I need to care about cutting costs – more funds are then available for others. Even when others are paying for my flight, I search diligently to find the cheapest one. All of our donations stem from the same source – God. There are church representatives who tend to purchase their tickets two days before departure – precisely when air tickets are the most expensive. It frequently would have been possible to purchase tickets a month earlier.
When a person wealthier than I invites me to a restaurant, I don’t order from the top of the list (the most expensive meals).
Clear understandings between givers and receivers. An example: My expenses to attend a conference in the West are paid by the conference organiser. The Western conference guest needs to cover his own expenses. Because of the gratis trip, I can afford to take along my wife. Yet the spouse of the Western participant stays home – for financial reasons. The Eastern recipient regards the free flight as a price reduction making it possible to bring along the spouse. Yet the Western donor had believed the free flight was necessary for the Easterner to attend the conference at all. From the Western perspective it was therefore highly improper to bring along the spouse, even if her husband covered all expenses. Frequent irritations in this realm show the need for clear understandings between the giver and the receiver.
Transparency is required, so that trust might abound. Not all Western missions can serve as an example in this matter. Yet those who receive donations are called to demonstrate transparency – towards the giver as well as the sisters and brothers back home in Russia. Transparency should lead in time to a redistribution of income favouring the poorer.
Uncontrolled investing without sufficient consultation. This issue is related closely to Problem #2.
We had the best of intentions and wanted to prove our optimism and the extent of our faith – or also to impress the Orthodox. The result was – or will be - an oversized church building. Such structures guarantee dependence upon Western giving for decades. Perhaps several of these structures never will be completed.
Here a fundamental judgment is called for. What is more important to congregations: Impressive church structures or growing financial independence from the West? For the foreseeable future, both are not to be had simultaneously.
Seminaries or Bible schools have come into being without clearly verifiable need. Local church leadership was in favour of this and a willing donor was located in the West (or Korea). Or it may also have come about in precisely the opposite fashion: A willing Western donor was searching for a local church in Russia.
More authority for central church offices! For a decentralised church union organised from the bottom up, this is a truly frightening thought. Yet the injustices must be reduced and the congregational income gap lessened. The wise spending of donor money demands greater scrutiny and care. Weary donors in the West expect greater efficiency. Wide consultation and approval of new church structures is needed. No longer should theological schools be opened without the sanction of central offices.
Central offices need specialists with tried and proven expertise. The RUECB has created commissions of experts – a very good place to start! Central offices must shoulder the tasks at hand. The experts in central offices will then indeed know more and have a better overview than the local church leaders and their foreign partners. The goodwill and proven expertise of central offices need to convince the local congregation.
Of course, a gradual power shift away from the countryside demands a careful and sure instinct. Communication gifts are of utmost importance. Decisions can only be made after sufficient consultation with the local congregation. Central Moscow offices are known for their unpopularity elsewhere – also in the church realm. Insensitivity can lead to a congregation’s departure from the Union – the Western donor then becoming its primary point of outside contact. The Western donor will usually care most about his project – its effects on relations between that congregation and the national Union are secondary.
There are centrally-structured churches: the Roman Catholics, Methodists and Adventists for ex. Such pyramidal structures dampen personal initiative and creativity. Both configurations, be they organised from above or below, have strong and weak points. Baptists need to find their way somewhere down through the middle.
In Russia, it’s very expensive and inefficient to drop donations into the collection basket. State taxes can eat up 40% of the whole. This situation is not easily changed. A majority church usually does not want minority churches to enjoy the same rights it does. In such instances, the dependence of the small on foreign donations is intentional.
In Russia, a long-winded and broad struggle for political reforms benefiting humanitarian and religious organisations is indispensable. Well-intended Christians of Orthodox faith could help out – also secular persons supporting the need for freedom of conscience and religion. Donations for humanitarian, educational and religious causes must be tax-free! This has been the case in developed democracies for many decades.
The financial needs of Russia’s Christians remain clear. The hard question is: How can all of us better contribute to the elimination of serious need?
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 16 November 2007
This is not an official press release of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It expresses above all the opinion of its author. #07-46, 1.358 words