Watching Downton Abbey has become a worldwide phenomenon. Lots of diverse people have become invested in the fortunes of the Crawleys: upstairs and downstairs. It occurs to me that one of the fundamental story lines in that series has important parallels to the future of Christian Reformed World Missions.
Robert, Earl of Grantham, is deeply committed to his duties as Lord of the Manor. His status is not just a position of privilege, but of responsibility to all the tenants who live on the estate. That sense of responsibility makes him very reluctant to make major changes in how the estate is run which might discomfort those tenants. Widows occupying farms that are not being efficiently worked are under his benevolent care. He doesn't want to require them to move out of their homes (even to somewhere else on the estate) in the interests of efficiency. That sounds so middle class and heartless.
Meanwhile, in season 3, Matthew, his son-in-law and heir, took a hard look at the underlying finances of the estate and saw looming catastrophe. The estate has been losing money for years, even decades. The only way it has kept operating this long is because of the infusion of cash from Lady Grantham's fortune, which is now gone. It was on the verge of sale when Matthew got a large inheritance. He now sees that his money will disappear down the same hole as Cora's unless there is major change.
Deep attachment to historic ways of working and benevolent if autocratic relationships are on a collision course with changing times and financial realities which are sure to bring down the entire edifice unless major changes are undertaken. With Matthew's death at the end of season 3, the strongest advocate for a different future is off the scene. A key question in season 4 is whether Matthew's widow, Lady Mary, and Branson, her brother-in-law, will be able to get the Earl to see that holding onto the past is impossible. Change must come, and quickly, before it is too late.
What does this have to do with Christian Reformed World Missions? Everything. All of us who are connected to World Missions, board, missionaries, staff, and churches, have loved and prided ourselves on a certain way of funding missions. The benevolent role of the World Missions board toward its missionaries has been a touchstone of that relationship. Unlike in the parachurch mission world, our missionaries were not to be fund-raisers. They were to focus on their task overseas and let us know once in a while how it was going. This worked pretty well for a long time, just like the Grantham estate.
But it hasn't been working well for nearly a quarter century. Costs are rising rapidly. Ministry Share income is down slightly in nominal terms but down sharply in real terms. In fact, it now has half the purchasing power it did in 1990. This reality was covered up by continually shrinking the mission force, from 140 career positions down to 55. A close look at these trends and underlying financial realities makes clear that this problem cannot be solved by ignoring it.
The choice for Downton Abbey is clear, as we know well, being 90 years in their future: change or die. Revise your method of operation or bankruptcy and sale lie at the door. The choice for CRWM is also clear. If one and all do not embrace a new way of doing business, we will continue to have a shrinking mission force and a smaller impact on our world for Christ. Embracing change is difficult. And, of course, the most important things are unchanging, but our method of financing missions must change if we are to have a growing ministry in the future.