by Michèle Phoenix
My pastor got a car.
His van was totaled in a wreck and, just as he and his wife were considering what it would take to finance a new vehicle, someone they know offered them a Volvo.
This past Sunday, he spoke with awe in his voice about the miraculous provision for his family. Then he emphasized that the car was well above their means and added, “I don’t want anyone to see the car and think, ‘Wow, my pastor can afford a Volvo?!’”
I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “I hate that he had to say that.” Then I remembered how often I’ve done something similar.
I’ve noticed the syndrome before—I’ve lived it. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the world of missions. Even among the MKs I serve, I see it embodied every day, inherited from parents who might not have realized the lessons they were teaching.
Condition in which guilt overwhelms gratitude—most commonly observed in those who are dependent on charitable giving—aggravated by fear of judgment, often resulting in calculated communication and/or conscience-stricken self-restriction.
CONFESSIONS OF A GUILTITUDER
When I moved back to the States from Europe, I found my elation over God’s provision of my townhouse tempered by strong feelings of guilt.
Though I could document every miracle that had paved the way to my new home, I still struggled with the guilt of “having” when I lived in the ministry-universe of “sacrificing.”
I wondered if guests would see my flea-market European antiques, bought for $50 but worth hundreds in the US, and question whether they’re appropriate for a missionary’s home. I found myself wanting to explain things by saying, “This was given to me by a friend” and “I bought this for next-to-nothing at a charity store in Alsace” as I gave tours of my two-story miracle.
Even today, nearly ten years later, as I look around this home and see the items contributed by the outrageous generosity of friends, I am assailed again by that uncomfortable combination of paralyzing guilt and galvanizing gratitude.
I live in the land of Guiltitude.
Guiltitude is not a uniquely Phoenix notion either. Though it doesn’t afflict all missionaries, it impacts enough of them to warrant some attention. Its symptoms are wide-ranging:
- Missionary to Germany relinquishes the old, beat-up Mercedes he was given (for free!) by members of his local church and invests his own funds in buying a less “brand-y” car to avoid looking ostentatious.
- Missionary to Switzerland, while interacting with his supporting church, avoids speaking of the recent purchase of expensive editing software, though much of his ministry relies on producing music and videos.
- Missionary family scores $25 plane tickets to fly to Monaco for spring break. They post only a handful of pictures taken in the wealthy Principality, but are sure to thank the discount airline and the person who offered them cheap housing when they do. You know…just in case.
When I lived overseas, I vividly remember talking with a friend who had, for a year, bought virtually no furniture for her home. I asked her if she planned on getting a couch and kitchen table at some point, and she said, “My supporters send me money for ministry, and getting furniture is not ministry!”
Like so many others, she’d bought into something I call Donor Demand. There’s an old-school component to it. We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to the minister’s status and to the giver’s sacrifice.
You might be amazed at the rigid (and sometimes irrelevant) standards by which the validity of a missionary’s work has been judged. Owning a Mercedes and serving in a beautiful location are just two of the numerous reasons for which devoted financial partners have been known to rethink—and sometimes withdraw—their crucial donations.
Guiltitude can be hard to diagnose, as it often masquerades as responsibility or humility. Its most obvious symptoms are:
- Fear of having (because true ministers, by some accounts, must live in squalor)
- Fear of doing (because some activities may be misunderstood as frivolous)
- Fear of full reporting (because some ministry partners may misread the value and purpose of what is owned and done)
I’ve seen all three reach irrational levels in MKs who grew up in an environment where financial guilt of some sort prevailed. Even their adult relationship to money and ownership can be irreversibly skewed by the toxic influence of Guiltitude.
[Note: it goes without saying that there are instances in which missionaries truly have lived in excessive or dishonorable ways and been rightfully confronted about it.]
In my own life, I’ve found how easy it is for guilt to sneak into a spirit of gratitude. I am so grateful for God’s provision of my every practical, physical and spiritual need since I began in ministry in 1991—and for the donors whose gifts have kept me serving for these twenty-nine years!
That gratitude pushes me every day to be worthy of their sacrifice…but it also contributes to a creeping sense of guilt. How can I invest the funds I receive from supporters, who often give sacrificially, on things that are less than essential? Why should I buy a thrift store buffet or the used car of my dreams when others can make do with cardboard furniture and a 16-year old beater?
I’m afraid I don’t know whether there’s a permanent cure for Guiltitude. Something tells me it’s a chronic disease that lurks in subconscious places. Perhaps a good place to start is for both sides (the servers and the givers) to acknowledge its existence, then treat its symptoms with a healthy dose of truthful assessment. If nothing else, this may at least mitigate Guiltitude’s damage.
May I offer a few additional suggestions?
- Remind yourselves that you are called both to live and to serve. For most humans, living well requires rest, some level of comfort and the occasional escape. It’s okay to enjoy places, things, and activities that are financially responsible. You are not supported just to do a job, and there is growing evidence that self-care leads to greater longevity on the field of service.
- Report clearly and intentionally, not out of guilt, but out of a desire to accurately inform those who follow your ministry.
- Surround yourself with a smaller, understanding group of friends with whom you can share parts of your life that you don’t reveal on social media or in letters. This will keep you from feeling like you’re being deceptive. You’re just being selective.
- Counter irrational disapproval with facts and assert truths that contradict flawed rationales.
Supporters and onlookers:
- Understand that the occasional treat (activity, trip, unnecessary object) may actually enhance the missionary’s ministry, because it contributes to emotional and physical wellness.
- Don’t apply to your missionaries restrictions you wouldn’t apply to yourself.
- A poor, burned out, or suffering missionary is not more godly than a comfortable, healthy, and happy missionary.
- Remember that the pictures you see only tell part of the story.
- If you must speak with a missionary about what you think you’re seeing, begin by gently asking questions and truly listening with a compassionate heart.
As I sit today in my modest and comfortable home, surrounded by treasured bits and pieces of my years overseas, I am grateful for three decades of ministry rich in locations, accomplishments, and experiences. I am also aware of the challenges that come with the blessings. My commitment to myself, as I contemplate the opinions of others on what they see of my life, is to thoughtfully consider legitimate causes for concern, to adjust my choices (when appropriate) out of faithfulness to God, and to prayerfully let go of unfounded accusations—even those I inflict on myself.
Don’t miss the Pondering Purple podcast, available on all your streaming platforms. In each brief episode, Michèle highlights one of her most popular and helpful articles in a format you can consume on the go.
Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.