Much has been written about the idea of ‘dependency’ and the need to avoid it. The challenges of money in ministry are abundant, and dependency is just one factor. What is dependency? Should we avoid it? How can we avoid it? How crucial of a problem is it for disciple-making movements?

Some dictionary definitions are rather compelling in how they illustrate the problem of dependency:

  • Merriam-Webster says it is “(1) something that is dependent on something else; especially, a territorial unit under the jurisdiction of a nation, but not formally annexed to it; (2) a building (like a stable) that is an adjunct to a main dwelling.” It further defines dependence as ‘(1) the state of needing something or someone else for support, help, etc.; (2) reliance, trust; (3) one that is relied on; (4) the state of being addicted to an alcohol or a drug.”
  • Dictionary.com adds to these definitions: “(5) the state of being conditional or contingent on something, as through a natural or logical sequence; (6) the state of being psychologically or physiologically dependent on a drug; (7) subordination or subjection.”
  • The Cambridge Dictionary amplifies: “a state of needing something or someone to continue existing or operating.”

Should we avoid dependency at all costs? Some kinds of dependency are good. We are all dependent on Christ. Further, we are all to be dependent on each other for prayer, encouragement, accountability, charity and the like--we often call this interdependency. But, obviously, there are some bad results from kinds of dependency that are interdependent.

The first and most obvious form is where a ministry is mostly funded by foreign money, and cannot be sustained if the outside money goes away. The root of this problem is a poor church structure. The end result: if any circumstance leads to a cut in the funding, the work will either go through a painful transition into a sustainable model, or fizzle (and in most cases, they fizzle).

A second, and frequent, form: those with money can view themselves as having the power to do great good­—but while the programs they start may be expensive and lavish and have the appearance of great initial effectiveness, they may not be reproduceable and scalable to the whole of the population. In the end, having money and using it as the answer to problems may actually lead to solutions that only work for some, not all­­—and thus succeed for some, but fail for more.

Third, more dangerously: ministries can be ‘addicted’ to money, particularly when the funding is at a level that can’t be achieved locally. Like a drug, people will do what they must to get it, and keep it. All kinds of corruptions can result: exaggerations, deceptions, avoiding problems, changes in mission, even the creation of new sorts of ministries which do not reach people but which are attractive (‘a great story’) to outside donors.

Ministries with money can come to view those funded as a ‘subsidiary’ state or ministry­ under their control. Ministries with power can become ministries that dictate terms: sometimes out of pride, sometimes out of a misguided idea that, possessing more wealth, they are obviously more successful and knowledgeable than those who possess less.

What’s the answer? There are no simple answers. Even the common DMM refrain—“Don’t bring in money”—honestly doesn’t work in all situations. Money is required to buy things, like plane tickets, conference rooms, food, Bibles, etc. Real decisions must flow out of real relationships. However, there are a few ‘rules of thumb’ that those I know have found useful. (Not everyone agrees with all of these; some will have additional or others...)

First, we don’t pay salaries to nationals. Support for the work of the local church should come from the local situation. This may mean the church leadership is bi-vocational: not a bad thing.

We do, often, find funds for people to attend key meetings. Trainings and conferences, especially where a national can bring significant expertise to the benefit of the attendees (and that difference is important), can be very strategic. (And this isn’t restricted solely to people from ‘poorer nations’—I’ve had my way paid to conferences by people from ‘poorer places.’)

We do, occasionally, find funds for capital expenses. One-time expenses which can multiply the Gospel ought to be seriously considered. This has, in the past, included CD and DVD duplicators, printing presses, and the like; today it may include bulk purchases of SD cards or USB sticks or the production of a video or a print run of Bibles or what have you.

We, more rarely, find funds and people for ongoing joint projects. Some multinational projects involve website servers, personnel, media, etc. These have to be carefully undertaken. An example might be media programs with significant followup in the field.

We, very rarely, find funds for recurring expenses that enable communication, multiplication, and connectivity. In some rare instances, we’ve found sponsorships for tools, like Internet connections or cell phones, which have helped key leaders. This is not significantly different from finding the funding in-country, and while it’s sort of ‘on the edge,’ the person’s work is not made possible, only leveraged to many more people. This decision has to be made very carefully and with great consideration for the impact.

The point of all this: we should never be in a place to rule over others, but rather in a place where we serve each other and the cause we are dedicated to. Money and wealth are difficult tools—they can corrupt very easily—yet this doesn’t mean they should be ignored or abdicated entirely. While Scripture tells us the ‘love of money is the root of all evil,’ it also tells us to ‘honor the Lord with your wealth... and your barns will be overflowing, and your vats will brim over.’

God isn’t opposed to putting resources into the hands of those who will steward them well; but he is opposed to the use of his blessings to fuel pride, greed, ambition, and to ‘lord it over’ our brothers and sisters. Perhaps the best way to ‘avoid dependency’ is to simply ask the question: how can everything I am wealthy in (time, talent, treasure) be used to promote the ministry of someone, so that it continues, even better, when I am not here?