One of the great blessings for us in spending winters in Louisville has been the opportunity to get to know people who work in our denomination’s head office. What a wonderful group of dedicated, faith-filled Christians they are! The ones I have come to know and appreciate the most are folks who, before working here in the headquarters, spent extended time living out their faith in the mission field. They worked as teachers, evangelists and health workers, often in some of the most difficult and challenging places in the world: in South Sudan and South-western Ethiopia, in the Congo and in Peru. They understand from personal experience what it means to be missionaries and now are engaged in empowering others to do that work. We have also come to know many of the mission workers themselves. Talk about Faith at Work! They do live their faith. Last year, we met eight new workers, individuals and families. After going through orientation and commissioning, they are now all hard at work in the field. Some are excited and exciting young people, including three now in Eastern Niger, learning the language and culture and finding their way working with a vibrant and growing church on the front lines of some serious regional and inter-religious conflicts. Kate Taber is doing wonderful things as our denomination’s representative in Jerusalem, working with people seeking to build peace across religious and cultural lines there. Luta and Jeremy Garbat-Welch spoke in our church last fall and are now settled in Malawi. Jeremy will share his skills as a trained hospital chaplain with Presbyterian clergy there, while Luta is engaged in a program of Community Health Evangelism, an approach which joins approaches of community organizing, health training, and Christian discipleship in a number of desperately poor locations across the region. We have also followed with great interest the work of Steve and Brenda Stelle. Steve is helping train new pastors, while Brenda is teaching at the school in Western Ethiopia where Carol and I did volunteer work two years ago. St. Andrews provided funding for scholarships at that school last year and anticipates giving more support for the school this year. We try to keep up with news from these and other missionaries through their regular newsletters and by reading the Mission Yearbook of Prayer, which we continue to find to be one of our denomination’s most important publications. The number of mission co-workers supported by our denomination has been declining for years. There were a number of reasons for that. In part, it is a positive thing, reflecting the success of earlier work leading to the growth of strong local churches and the training of nationals to take over tasks previously done by missionaries. Yet our overseas partners are still urgently asking for continuing help, particularly in supplying specific skills not yet available among nationals in particular locations. Our ability to respond to those requests has been severely constrained by lack of funds, as giving to support new missionaries has declined. In a recent message, Rev. Hunter Farrell, Director of World Mission for our denomination, wrote: “Our efforts in funds development in 2014 did not generate the funding needed to support all of our mission workers, and point towards a stark reality of a lack of sufficient funds to keep the current number of mission workers in service with global partners around the world. Unless the church responds by giving in an extraordinary way, budget shortfalls could result in World Mission not replacing four retiring mission co-workers and will require us to prematurely end the service of five mission workers in 2016 and forty more in 2017 – or to find other cost reductions to make up the gap.” In 1965, just fifty years ago, the denominations that later joined together to form the PC(USA) had 1,670 missionaries in the field. Today, we are supporting only 162 mission workers; Hunter’s message tells us that, based on current trends, that figure would be reduced by more than a quarter over the coming two years. That is really sobering news. As we think about the ways in which Faith Matters, it is expressed in the faithful service of those serving Christ in the mission work of our denomination. The extent to which we as a denomination continue that work depends on the faith of those of us in the pews, as we decide as individuals how much to give to support the work of our church, and as we decide as congregations how our budget will be divided between the many competing, worth-while and important needs. We at St. Andrews have always been a faith-filled, mission-oriented congregation, committed to looking for ways of responding to needs in our local area at the same time that we support the ways in which the broader Church responds together to Christ’s call across our nation and across the world. So how is it that Faith Matters? What does it mean to be faithful, where we must make choices between important goals, each of which can be seen as a way of responding to Christ’s call to us? The continuing support of our overseas mission program is not something to be left at the feet of a handful of wealthy donors, but is well within the reach of the 1.9 million faithful members of our denomination – including the more than 5,000 in our Presbytery, the 200 members of St. Andrews, and the two in my family! May it be so.
Don Mead, Author