Dan Bray looks at the good, bad, and ugly sides of being a tent maker missionary in this multiple part series.
I have been asked many times to write about my experience with tent maker ministry. Every time I start to think of what I have learned, it quickly becomes overwhelming and is pushed to the back burner. I think to myself, “This needs a book, not a short blip among the pages of social media.” So, in an attempt to find something in between, I have decided to break it up over several blog posts.
What is tent maker ministry? As a white guy in the Philippines I get asked quite often, “What are you doing here?” When I first moved here I would declare “I am a tent maker missionary!” Most people looked at me and replied “You make tents?” While I can and I have, the answer is “No.” Tent maker ministry is term that was taken from a page in the Bible. The Apostle Paul was one of the first missionaries. He realized that having a skill while you traveled the world sharing the love of Jesus could keep you from going hungry. Paul used his skill as a tent maker to help support his ministry. Thus, the name refers to Paul and his side job of making tents. It is much the same as a bi-vocational pastor.
Tent maker missionaries do everything from selling small items to pay the water bill to running multinational corporations, all while juggling ministry. I fit in the middle with a small business manufacturing bags which we export. Your business can be directly related to your ministry or a separate entity. I believe that we are called to be the Light of Christ in all parts of our life, so even if your business is not a direct connection to your ministry, you should always be ready to share about Christ. I find that in business, God quite often puts people in our paths that need to hear the Good News. I run my company with a heavy ministry influence. It could be considered a ministry in itself, although I view it more as being a responsible business owner trying to conduct business with integrity. With over 50 percent of our staff being widows and single moms, we do what we can to accommodate employee needs.
The culture in the Philippines is completely fine with sharing your faith. Now it won’t be the same in every country, in fact being a TM allows you to fly under the radar in countries that aren’t so keen on Christians. A passport with a Missionary Visa can cause issues when traveling into certain countries, while having a Business Visa is less likely to draw attention.
Funding is always a big part of an missionaries life. If asked, almost every missionary will tell you it is the biggest hurdle they face. I have seen more missionaries leave the field for lack of funding than any other reason. This lack of funding also has devastating impacts on their ministry, marriage, family, and creates volumes of stress. After seeing this, I was certain that being a TM was be a better way to go. What I have since discovered is that you are just trading one stress for another. While I don’t stress about receiving the monthly giving to keep the lights on, I do stress about keeping business at a level to do so. While we have been able to maintain a level of business that allows us to pay the bills (most of the time), most of the time businesses are not a self sustaining cash cow churning out money for you to spend at will. It will take time out of your day and will pull from ministry time.
There are also frustrations that come with doing business overseas, such as government bureaucracy, standards that are lower than we are used to in more developed nations, and cultural considerations. It takes time to understand the environment you are trying to work in. While it all looks good when you research it online, it can take years to grasp and understand how different countries and cultures function. Moving into a new culture when funded by supporters is challenging in itself. But, starting a profitable business in an often corrupt system before your savings runs out is a whole other level of craziness! If you think you can do it in a month, count on a year. It can be done, just know that nothing is as easy as it sounds!
These are a few of the topics we will dive into in the coming posts. Feel free to contact us with any questions or experiences you have had…our next post will be about pre-move preparation: getting mentally, financially, and physically ready to take the leap.