I was 20 years old and finishing up my sophomore year in college. Spring at UCSB was the most magical time of year. Being so close to the coast meant that for the majority of the year, a marine layer hung around for most of the day, hiding the infamous Santa Barbara sunshine. But not in the spring. It was nearly impossible to go to class. When the sun came out first thing in the morning, so did the wild little town of Isla Vista. Chairs and beach towels were quickly brought out to front lawns, guys on bikes carrying their surfboards were lining the streets, and the motivation to go to class was waning.
It was at this time that I was preparing to go on my first missions trip with Cru. We called it a summer project. I was heading to Rome, Italy a place that I had dreamed about since a child. In order to go, we were charged with the task of asking friends, family, and strangers to invest in our mission through financial support. It was the scariest and most guilt-ridden thing I had done at that point in my life. I remember going home one weekend and discussing this missions trip with my mother. I felt so guilty going to Rome as a “missions trip” when it was a place I always dreamed of. How can this possibly be serving the Lord? My mother encouraged me to see it as a gift, how gracious of God to let me serve him in the place of my dreams.
While the guilt continued over asking people to give money towards my dream trip, somewhere to the tune of $3,000, I approached a leader in the Cru movement. I explained that I was having a hard time asking people for money to fund a trip like this. Should people give their money to a more worthwhile cause, like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, taking care of orphans? We were going to start spiritual conversations with college students, was this the best investment? I was assured that this mission to share the gospel was of high value to God, the best use of our time and that people were honored and called to invest in such missions. Why, because they couldn’t go themselves.
And thus began a 15-year web of misunderstanding money.
My adventures in Rome and eight other international trips are for another time. I fell in love. I fell in love with adventure, travel, excitement, steps of faith, talking to people about their spiritual journeys, and the illusion of community while being on an important mission together. And although I hated every second of asking people to invest their money in these missions, I was told over and over again that it was a noble and a God-honoring thing to do.
I joined staff with Cru after four years being involved as a student, and two years living in Australia serving as an intern. It was the summer of 2006 and like every new staff member, we were shipped off to a six-week training. It was one of the loneliest experiences of my life. (Maybe that should have been a clue! I digress.) A huge part of this six-week training included intense support raising training.
Hours of sermons on the biblical basis of it, lessons on the right formula to do it correctly and the fear of God instilled in you at every turn. We were told to make 100s of phone calls every week and if we didn’t we would most likely fail. Our faith in God, our work, and his provision were so intricately connected and carefully woven together, we didn’t even notice what was happening, or that perhaps this might be a dangerous mindset. Hours a day we were drilled on our presentation until we got it just right. We had an answer for every anticipated question or concern, and we were taught that no matter what, you must ask the perspective supporter for “$100 a month or some other amount”.
It was taught that this was a completely normal and non-threatening amount, that it was completely realistic and middle-of-the-road for most people. Since most of us didn’t have careers at this stage in our lives, we all came right out of college to serve with Cru, we believed them. People not in vocational ministry had plenty of means to share, and they would give freely. We left that summer armed with all the tools needed to raise support. And it was hell for most of us afterward. There was constant guilt that we were not doing enough, not making enough phone calls, not praying enough, not taking enough steps of faith when it took longer for the money to come in.
Eventually, the money did all come in and for 10 years I lived in the rhythm of this dance. Ministry was dependent on support, my faith in God and daily necessities were intertwined together, and the never-ending machine of having to ask every single person in your life to give you money was exhausting. I remember hiding from my leaders that I joined a new church because I did not want to have to ask anyone there for support and money. I even had a date once where at the end of the date, the guy became a monthly supporter. Oh, the horror! My own dating life couldn’t be separate from the push to keep myself “fully funded”.
When support ran low, you were not paid, plain and simple. Yet on the flip side, those who had circles of supporters with more means and had “healthy” support accounts bought houses and paid for grad school all out of “the Lords gracious provision.” When married couples wanted to have a child, all they needed to do was pick up the phone and ask people to increase their giving and viola! They could afford to expand their family. Changing life stages, or pursuing grad school were all possible if enough people would give to that goal. Those of us who struggled to see full paychecks were just told to have more faith and make more phone calls. Most Cru staff believed that we were just making ends meet and that we were poor compared to our supporters.
Add to that confusion the Cru policies of married women and mothers. Both husbands and wives received a full paycheck, set at the amount each couple “needed” for their budget. Married women were only required to work four days a week because a wives-day allowed them to take care of the household. This did not affect their paycheck. Mothers were not required to work in ministry at all and were, you guessed it, given the same paycheck as their husband. I, as a single woman, was required to work well over 40 hours a week and often had a short paycheck. I watched my two-income married friends buy houses, designer jeans, pursue graduate degrees, and take nice vacations, all while I could barely afford my rent. And it was my fault because no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t have enough faith to raise more support. (It was also my fault because I was apparently not marriage material-again, another story.)
When I left Cru three years ago, one of the most shocking realizations has been how money works outside of the Christian ministry world. When you apply for a job you are asked how much you made at your previous job, which tells an employer that they only have to raise that a tiny bit to entice you, so you are stuck in a pay bracket that is hard to get out of. You work 8-5 and your pay is set. If I want to have a child, buy a house, attend grad school, I cannot just “raise more money.” My life decisions are a little bit stuck around the type of job I can find, and what my employer is willing to pay me.
When I think about the $100 a month ask to support missionaries, I am horrified. I now know how much of a paycheck that really is. Sure to some people $100 a month is nothing, but to many, many people that is a whole lot of money! Add to that, I see more and more the financial and job opportunities disparity between races in our country and I am more horrified that we were never taught to take some of those social realities into consideration. Raising support was a very white privileged thing to do.
So here I am, working hard and at the mercy of job opportunities, and what I can convince my boss to pay me because “I am worth it”. I cannot afford to adopt a child because as we all know, childcare is incredibly expensive. I am considering going to grad school and working out how to afford a student-loan, and if that is a financial risk worth taking. But I know that a graduate degree potentially opens up new job opportunities. Rent keeps going up, and if I were to apply to rent my apartment today, I would not be able to afford it. All of this has been a hard reality to face. I just cannot go and “raise” support to pursue my dreams. Like most of the world I am responsible to be a steward of my current financial reality, and that means, like most people, sacrificing some of those dreams while working hard to advance on the never-ending career ladder.
Life doesn’t work out the way I was taught in Cru, in many areas, but especially with money. Is God still considered gracious if he doesn’t give you the gift of buying a house, or a vacation? Is God still faithful when your dreams don’t come true? Is my faith too weak? I have so much more than most of the world, and I have privileges being a white woman many in our country do not have. Am I more “blessed” by God than others? Do I deserve more? Why? I drive to downtown Los Angeles every day for work and the poverty and wealth disparity is like a punch in the stomach. Every. Single. Day. What I was taught about faith and money and God’s provision doesn’t make sense out there. It just doesn’t.
Money has a lot to say about how we view the world and how we view God. I was taught some very destructive things through money. It is taking longer than I thought to unravel that worldview.