History of Presbyterian Missions 1944-2007

This is a story of declining numbers of the kind that matter most: heartbeats and brainwaves. It is a cautionary tale of what happened when administrative control was wrested from the hands of Presbyterian missionaries and relocated to a “home office” in New York City. Robert Weingartner wrote, “Around 1960 the denomination increasing functioned more like a regulatory agency than a mission.”[1] The formulation of Presbyterian policy statements on the Middle East was largely carried out by administrators in the home office rather than by missionaries “closer to the action.”[2]

One missionary began his service in the Middle East in 1955 alongside 140 career Arabic-speaking Presbyterian missionaries; when he retired in 1995 only two remaining Presbyterian missionaries spoke Arabic.[3]

Here are the numbers[4]:

Another way to look at missionary decline during this period is to look at the mission coworker to home staff ratio. How did this ratio change over the years?

The PCUSA (New York) recorded 30 administrative staff supervising the work of its 1,160 overseas missionaries in 1944 (ratio of 39/1) and 34 administrative staff in 1955 working with about 1050 missionaries (31/1). In 1987, following the merger of the UPCUSA (northern church) and the PCUS (southern church), the Global Missionary Unit (GMU) was formed with an executive staff of 30 for 505 missionaries (ratio of 17/1). The staff numbers are not reported for subsequent years, but by 2000 there were over 100 executive and support positions in the Worldwide Ministries Division (WMD), but fewer than 300 mission personnel (3/1). In 2006 the total number of executive and support staff was still 89, with fewer than 250 missionaries (ratio of 3/1) After May the total was 64 (a ratio of 4 administrative staff for each missionary).[5]

Figure 2 Ratio of Presbyterian Missionaries to Home Staff

Ratio of workers to home staff table

Fraternal workers. The decision by administrators in New York City to change the term “missionaries” to “fraternal workers” was not received well. But Dr. Ralph Winter was actually cheered by the change in terms, as it reflected the fact that Presbyterians overseas could no longer take initiative; they had to take directions from the national churches. By 1964 the General Assembly report no longer listed “mission” “missionaries,” or even the new term “fraternal workers” in the index. The report lists meetings, consultations and ecumenical gatherings in which the church is engaged, but nothing is said of missionary work.[6] The ratio of field personnel to home staff declined to 3 to 1 from 39 to one; how shall administrators justify this overhead to the donors? When church administrators take the governing of the mission from the hands of missionaries, the end of mission is not far off.

What about the unevangelized peoples of the world? Take the country of Chile, where there were 8,000 Presbyterian Chilean members. The American missionaries there waited for the day when the Chilean church would send missionaries to the indigenous population. That day never came. What about overseas countries where American Presbyterians wanted to be missionaries? David Dawson writes:

This was going to be hard to do in countries where we had no partner church, and where our partner church or institutions were small, highly ethnic or very young. The ad interim committee of approximately twenty-five people that made this report consisted of diverse constituency, most of whom, however, were not conversant with the missiological discussions of this issue. Their cautious statement they issued seems to preclude even a dialogue on such an issue being initiated by the UPCUSA. Mutuality in mission was not mutual in initiatives. The issue and mission of reaching the “unreached” was restarted outside the church.[7]

Bob Blincoe: in 1986 I applied as a missionary to the Presbyterian Church, with a request to be sent to a Muslim country. My application was turned down; I was informed that there was no “partner church in the Middle East” who wanted to invite missionaries there. In the years since, the number of Presbyterian Church missionaries in the Middle East as reduced from 140 to zero.

Administrators of the Presbyterian church gave a bear hug to the mission of the church, but, unfortunately, held tight until the mission fainted dead away. What is needed in our day is to let go of home office control and validate the “field-governance” model, allowing missionaries to govern themselves. As Ralph Winter asserted, modalities and sodalities both have a role in God’s redemptive purpose. They need each other. How this pattern could be adopted among Presbyterians in the years ahead is far from obvious.

References Cited

[1] Robert Weingartner, “Missions within the Mission,” in A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007 (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008). p. 111-112

[2] Stanley H. Skreslet, “American Presbyterians in the Middle East,” in A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007, ed. Scott W. Sunquist and Caroline N. Becker (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008). p. 231

[3] Caroline N. Becker, “Missionaries Speak,” in A History of Presbyterian Missions 1944-2007 (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008). p. 149

[4] David G. Dawson, “Counting the Cost,” in A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007 (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008). p. 36

[5] Ibid. p. 40

[6] Scott Sunquist and Caroline Becker Long, A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007, 1st ed. (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008). p. 9

[7] Dawson, “Counting the Cost.” p. 45