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As dollar falls, so does missionaries’ buying power

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The steep decline of the U.S. dollar’s value abroad may be helping American exports and trade deficits, but it’s also increasing the cost of doing international missions.

The once-mighty dollar long dominated global currency and financial markets. But it has dropped in value against most major foreign currencies from Western Europe to East Asia because of low U.S. interest rates on foreign investments, among other factors. The fall is particularly drastic in Europe, where the dollar has lost 35 percent of its value against the euro since early 2002.

More than 20 percent of the decline has come in the past year — and the dollar is expected to lose another 10 to 20 percent in value against the euro in 2004.

How does that affect missions? The lower the dollar goes, the more it costs missionaries to live, work and fund ministries in nations where the exchange values of local currencies go up.

“It definitely decreases the buying power of our missionaries overseas and their ability to do their work,” said David Steverson, vice president for finance at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Cost-of-living adjustments from the mission board help missionaries pay basic family bills as exchange rates rise and fall. That “somewhat protects” IMB missionaries from the impact of steep dollar declines, Steverson said. “But mission operating budgets don’t have that protection.”

Operating budgets provide the funds missionaries use to carry out their ministries day to day. Last year saw slight operating budget increases, but an overall per-missionary decrease resulted from the influx of new personnel. This year, work fund decreases are a given, due to a tight overall IMB budget.

“When you throw in the loss of value of the dollar, it really hurts,” Steverson said.

And evangelism usually gets hurt first.

“It’s caused us to ask whether something is a strategic need or whether it’s an essential strategic need,” reported Ed Cox, IMB regional leader for Western Europe. “What is being impacted is evangelism funding, Bible distribution, ‘JESUS’ film distribution and so forth. When you have fixed obligations such as rent, evangelism funds get cut every time.”

On the bright side, the budget squeeze has compelled missionaries to work even more closely with local Baptists and other Great Commission groups to leverage every dollar for maximum ministry impact.

Whenever possible, missionaries now use “indigenous strategies that don’t call on outside support,” Cox said. “We’ve had national Baptist partners step up. In that way it’s been positive.”

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  • Erich Bridges