My vision of becoming a tent maker missionary started in 2005, after a trip to Sri Lanka with Habitat for Humanity. At one point we passed a sewing factory with a line of people outside. After the tsunami brought devastation to the small island nation, people were on the hunt for jobs. Until this point, I had been a diehard “Made in USA” person. In one trip God changed that for me. I started to realize that there are good people all over the world looking for a new skill and a steady paycheck. At this point, I had not heard of others combining business and ministry in this way. So for God to put this on me felt a little overwhelming.
When it comes to making a move of this magnitude, you first must be certain this is God’s plan. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, it is easy to see opportunity and react. We took time to see if it was a fleeting thought or if it was something God had really put on us. In 2008 we had a chance to return to Asia with a missions trip to The Philippines. We saw this as an opportunity to test the water with the whole family. Adding an additional three weeks to the trip visiting Thailand and Sri Lanka put us in a foreign culture for 5 weeks. Expecting Sri Lanka to be our “this is it” country, we were a bit confused when God spoke to both Marlene and I when we landed. It was confirmed to us before we even go off the plane that this wasn’t it. When we landed back in the Philippines, both Marlene and I had confirmation that it was home. Now the real work began.
Next I’ll lay out just the business side of things. An extensive checklist will have to be gone through before you even look at the logistics of moving your family, life and ministry to another country. Be competent in the business you will be doing overseas. It has been done, but is unlikely you will survive learning a new trade while adjusting to culture, a new business environment, and new ministry. Many fail just trying to cope with the changes brought to the family and ministry. Don’t complicate the matter with starting a business in a field you aren’t skilled in.
In 2009, we returned to the Philippines strictly on a business fact finding mission. The purpose was to look at the viability of opening a business here. This trip is a must! We spent time locating suppliers, and finding out a little about the business environment. What I discovered is that while we learned a lot, we relied too much on the word of others and what was written on websites. Go get a trusted local. They can help with cultural barriers and be the skin color required to get correct information. Go directly to the source of the information needed. If it published on a website, odds are the way it works in the real world will be different. If you or a representative can’t go talk to the government official about current laws or regulations, you should question or clarify the legality of the type of business.
I would also highly suggest meeting a handful of people in your industry to talk with and learn from in the country you are going to. Spend some time learning the political and business climate if you can. We put a lot of trust in other missionaries in business who talked the talk but when it came down to it, were not fully ethical or legal in the business they where involved in. If it isn’t legal or ethical to do what you want, don’t do it.
Try and get a feel for how your business will impact the community you are in. If your business plan includes forcing others out of business or competing with the local market, please reconsider. I feel that as an outsider coming in, you should not be doing any business that would be a detriment to those in the community. For example, we make bags and backpacks. I export almost all of my goods. When I am asked to make product for the local market, I kindly refer them to a Filipino manufacturer. The only exception is when they are looking for a quality that would not be produced by local company and would force them to buy from overseas. The point is, I try to only bring things to the local industry, not take them away.
There are many different option in the realm of tentmaker ministries. Going into it knowing what you want out of it is a critical question. Is it to produce support for you and your ministry? Is it just me working by myself? Is it there to ministry to others? How bright of a light do you want to cast on the community with the business? These are all questions that do not have a right or wrong answer, but will help you define what you are trying to accomplish. For example, it is possible to have an online service related business that is just you working part time with the sole purpose of raising revenue while you do missions work. The other end is a large business that hires a large percentage of the local unemployed population, teaches them a new skill and provided them with a job that allows them to grow as a person. This has a large impact on the community and can be a ministry in itself.
These are a few thoughts that jump out at me as I reflect back. To sum it up I will say, the more ground work you can do before you move in country the easier it will be on you. However, remain flexible when you do make the move. It won’t look like you thought it would, but it’s OK! It’s just part of being flexible, and trusting in God.