Mission agencies need to adapt to survive into the future

(Photo: Unsplash/Adolfo Félix)

Recently, Christian Today published an excellent reflection by, Stephen Kneale entitled: What if we lost our charitable status?

In it, he considers what the implications would be for churches, if the government were to remove their right to exist as charities. In the article he makes six main points:

§ First, let's recognise that charitable status is a privilege, not a right.

§ Second, let's be clear that having such status removed does not amount to persecution.

§ Third, let's recognise that the mission of the church does not revolve around charitable status.

§ Fourth, it bears saying that if your church model does depend (and I use that word advisedly) on charitable status, I'm going to suggest your church model is probably flawed.

§ Fifth, whilst charitable status is certainly helpful and beneficial, it is not the principle means of supporting the ministry (and, for the record, nor should it be!)

§ Sixth, and here is the main point, where do we think our help actually comes from? Do we look to the Lord in these things or are we looking to the world?

What I'd like to do is to take this reflection on a bit further and to look at some of the implications of charitable status for mission agencies. However, before I do that, there are a couple of general observations that need to be made.

For the record, I think that it is very unlikely that the government will withdraw charitable status from churches and other religious bodies as such. However, charitable status depends on an organisation being willing and able to demonstrate that they fulfil one or more of a list of "charitable purposes".

One of these purposes is "the advancement of religion". In the current climate in the UK, I would not be surprised if this charitable purpose were to be removed or so modified as to make it useless. If this were the case, then churches and Christian charities would need to demonstrate that they fulfilled some other charitable purpose, such as the relief of poverty or education if they were to retain their status as charities. I suspect that some churches and charities might be reluctant to go down this route.

There is another concern that Stephen did not touch on, that is the administrative and regulatory burden imposed upon organisations which have charitable status. I looked into this question, specifically concerning mission agencies in my PhD thesis.

In practice, the duties of charity trustees involve a significant amount of monitoring and reporting on activities. The trustees need to be aware of what the charity is doing and have to ensure that it is complying with relevant laws. They must submit a comprehensive, annual report on their activities and finances and keep track of any risks that the charity faces and ensure that appropriate mitigation strategies are in place. This monitoring and reporting become more complex when the charity is involved in work overseas, potentially in hazardous situations.

The complexity of the legal and financial issues that trustees must deal with and the priority that they must give to this work mean that they will very often pay special attention to recruiting board members from a legal, financial or business background.

In the experience of the author, both as the CEO of a mission agency and as someone who has advised a number of agency boards these two factors — the responsibilities of the trustees and the composition of trustee boards —have an impact on the way in which agencies approach important questions regarding mission and the future.

Firstly, the time required to address the requirements of governance and compliance issues means that trustee boards, who generally do not meet frequently, do not have adequate opportunity to engage in missiological or theological reflection.

The second trend is that boards often lack the experience, expertise or desire to interact with questions arising from the changes in world mission which are occurring thanks to the growth of the global church..

The third trend is a combination of the other two; the limited time available and the pressing need to address regulatory issues combined with the interests and skills of board create a culture in which the compliance and business issues are given ever greater prominence because this is the ground where the board is most comfortable.

Martin Lee, the former director of Global Connections highlighted the problem that current patterns of charity governance pose for agencies in a 2016 blog post.

'The Charity Commission seems to be putting increasing burdens on trustees in the areas of compliance, financial accounting, risk assessment, policies of an ever-expanding nature – and I could go on. Sadly, it means that this can often dominate meetings and take up disproportionate amounts of time.

... However perhaps the most important role, often neglected, is thinking about the future. When was the last time your Board set aside substantive time to think about questions such as the changing external environment, what the future might bring, whether to merge or close, or just getting fresh perspectives? Too often an organisation just uses internal sources of information and focuses its discussions on the current or planned activities. Regularly asking people from outside to talk about trends and their experiences, even if they are competitors, is vital if a Board is really doing its job well.'

If British mission agencies are to remain relevant in the future, they will need to take their place within a growing multi-national mission movement which looks very different to the situation in which they were founded and developed.

This will involve some serious theological and missiological reflection with wide-ranging input. However, the pressures placed on them mean that mission agency boards often do not have the time and, perhaps, the skills needed to engage with the complex issues which they will need to deal with in the future. I don't think we are necessarily at that point yet, but I do think that British mission agencies will need to consider whether a registered charity is the best organisational vehicle for them to carry out their calling.

If you are interested, I explore more on the theme of Christian charities here.

Eddie Arthur has worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators since the mid 1980s. During that time, he was part of a translation team in Ivory Coast and served in a variety of training and leadership roles in Africa and Europe; including a stint as CEO of Wycliffe in the UK. He has a PhD in the theology and practices of Mission agencies and continues to study and write about mission. He blogs at Kouyanet where this article was first published. Printed with permission.