At the same time we were boarding the plane in Dallas, pastors and administrators from 50 churches all over Uganda were packing their bags and boarding buses bound for Mukono, the home of Uganda Christian University. Some were representing large, well established churches. Others could fit their congregations inside a small house. Their destination would be the two-day “Mastering the Land” conference organized by Pastors Discipleship Network, an organization founded by Compassion Leadership Development Program graduate and Moody Bible Institute Scholar Richmond Wandera.
While our friends at Pastors Discipleship Network coordinated all of the logistics of identifying pastors and getting them to Mukono (It remains a mystery to me how they were able to accomplish this feat), our group was responsible for the vast majority of the content, which focused on teaching Biblical principles of financial stewardship and introducing simple budgeting and accounting systems.
We started the first day with worship and prayer, and then got right down to business with a wide-ranging survey of the pastors the gauge their beliefs about money and its place in their lives and in their churches. Baylor students wrote the survey questions in an effort to tailor the content to the areas that would be of greatest benefit to the pastors. The 2009 and 2010 groups also met with pastors and were surprised to learn that many pastors do not even own a complete Bible with all 63 books intact. They also learned of a general disdain for entrepreneurial activities in some congregations because it can be viewed as inconsistent Christianity. This year, the comprehensive surveys allowed us to see a more complete picture of the pastors’ beliefs, which in many areas we found to be largely consistent with the message the Bible gives us. In other areas, we observed some challenging cultural differences which we attempted to address during the two days.
We divided the pastors into seven groups, according to the level of sophistication of churches’ accounting systems. Members of our team joined each group and facilitated discussions among the pastors. I was drafted to join the group of pastors of churches that had kept accounting records for five years or longer. We started as a group of around 20, and late arrivers came in throughout the day to bring our total to around 35.
It didn’t take long for us to get into some pretty intense discussion about all sorts of financial issues the pastors were facing. Although this group was the most financially sophisticated, most of them did not have bank accounts for either themselves or for their churches. Most of the pastors don’t receive salaries, but instead commingle church and personal funds. In some ways, commingling is inevitable because the churches aren’t set up as separate legal entities. The cost of this is an often prohibitive $150. The typical Sunday collection for many of the churches amounts to $10 or $20, which starts to explain the salary issue. There’s a downward trend in offerings that reflects the deteriorating financial state of the average Ugandan family.
The worldwide economic crisis is most definitely impacting Uganda. Foreign aid has decreased as wealthier nations are using more of their resources to address their own problems. This fact alone is somewhat of a hardship, but it is compounded by the impact on currency exchange rates. The reduction of inflows of foreign money (denominated in other currencies) means there is reduced demand for the Ugandan shilling, resulting in a lower value as compared to other currencies. This causes higher prices for imported goods and services, like gasoline and construction materials, which then results in increased domestic food prices, for example, because the cost of transportation is higher. The average Ugandan’s disposable income, to the extent that there was any to begin with, is now quite a bit lower because the cost of living has increased so dramatically over the last year or so.
Church members in need are increasingly coming to their pastors with requests for assistance, and they feel obligated to issue loans either from church or personal funds. Sometimes they get repaid, and sometimes the borrowers mysteriously disappear before paying back their loans. Some say they move on to another church to borrow more. Just about every pastor also plays the role of creditor, two roles that are very different.
“The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender's slave,” Proverbs 22:7. There are lots of verses in the Bible that say we should be generous to those who come to us asking for help. We think that it would be better for the pastors to only give money when they’re in a position to expect nothing in return (Luke 6:35). That way it wouldn’t be a severe hardship when the money doesn’t come back in. By setting aside church funds in advance for what we would call benevolence, they can plan for situations that will inevitably arise and maintain the integrity of other areas of the church budget. This is an easy principle to understand, but we learned that it’s much harder to implement when resources are so extremely tight and when the needs of some families are so great. These pastors have such a selfless desire to help their congregations that really leave no margin at all for themselves. This is a level of sacrifice that is uncommon among the people that I know, especially myself.
Our suggestion to these pastors was to form separate legal entities for their churches since most of them have not already done so. The Pastors Discipleship Network has established a program to provide legal and financial assistance to enable them to do this. Once the church funds are set aside in their own entities, finance committees should be formed to oversee the churches’ budgets and spending. These budgets need to include salaries for the pastors. If the salaries are not large enough to fully support the pastors, then they might need to supplement their incomes with other activities.
On the second day, we talked about entrepreneurial activities that pastors could engage in, as well as teach to their congregations, to help improve the standard of living of the churches. We also taught them a little about debits and credits. I’ll write more about that in the next post.
Here is a link to everyone's pictures. To get a full size image, click on the picture, go to Actions, then View all Sizes. You can also order prints through Snapfish.
"because im so innocent on the outside but on the inside im a killer"
Our first full day in Uganda as a complete team was spent on the UCU campus. I still remember the last time I was here, during my first trip in 2008. I now recognize that time as a pivotal moment when everything changed. In 2008, Erin and I were travelling with a group of 32 Compassion sponsors as we toured around the country learning about each of Compassion's programs in Uganda. Our UCU visit was toward the end of the trip, the day before we got to meet Ronnie, the child we sponsor. We were so excited about the day that was to come, that we didn't put much thought into what we were about to experience on campus. We had already been overwhelmed by the people we had met, and were inspired by the hope and generosity we saw in the the children and families participating in Compaassion's programs. By this time we were just ready to meet Ronnie.
I was surprised to be greeted by more than 20 students, each with a level of motivation, enthusiasm, and sense of purpose far exceeding anything I usually see in college students in the United States. A few of them were selected to share the stories of how they emerged from lives of absolute poverty to become strong Christian leaders and ultimately selected to be part of Compassion's Leadership Development Program. I was moved by each of these stories, and even more so when I took the opportunity to speak with some of them individually afterwards over tea. It didn't take long to realize that there was a real opportunity for Baylor students to connect with the UCU business students and strengthen each other as they prepare to be business leaders in their communities.
A few weeks before the trip I had been thinking about how two of Baylor’s 2012 Imperatives (XI – Emphasize global education and VI – Guide all Baylor students through academic and student life programming to understand life as a stewardship and work as a vocation) were very similar to Ernst & Young’s global priorities of emphasizing international work experiences and corporate responsibility. I had also recently learned about BU Missions and its discipline-specific approach. My international experience at Ernst & Young, the relationships I had developed with Baylor faculty, and my experience with these LDP students in Uganda all came together to form an idea for a mission trip designed specifically for accountants. Seven months later, after lots of hard work on the part of Baylor faculty and Compassion staff, a phenomenal group of 14 students, along with representatives from Compassion and Ernst & Young, left for Uganda to conduct a conference for local pastors, moderate a panel discussion on the global economic crisis, and consult with local small businesses, among many other activities.
Fast forward to 2011. I've been waiting for 3 1/2 years to return to Uganda. In 2009, I stayed home to fulfill some responsibilities at work. In 2010, I was lined up to go until Erin and I learned that our unborn child died at 11 weeks just days before I was scheduled to leave. So after years of waiting, I'm back at UCU touring the campus with a group of Baylor students and faculty who have put in hundreds of hours preparing for this moment. Kaila and Tori are ready to kick off the week by teacahing presentation skills to about 75 UCU business students. Meanwhile, Wyatt, Blake, Taylor, and Scott Orsak were putting the finishing touches on their entrepreneurship session.
I was so impressed by the quality of these presentations and by the attentiveness of the audience, even if some of the class participation was incentivized by bags of Skittles. Kaila and Tori introduced some new PowerPoint techniques, the concept of the "open face," and professional presence. Afterwards we brainstormed about ways this session could be expanded in future years, and some UCU faculty expressed interest in participating in the future.
The entrepreneurship team explained the elements of a business plan and Scott Orsak gave a quick but powerful lesson on how to prepare a break-even analysis. The session included a case study where participants divded into groups to discuss ideas on how a shoe store would go to market in Uganda. They ended their presentation with a call for groups to submit business plans by the end of the week. Winning business plans would be awarded grants of start-up capital. The UCU students quickly began collaborating in their groups and within a few days, put together a number of interesting business plans for consideration.
One of the really interesting aspects of this trip is that the faculty leaders were not telling the students exactly what they needed to do or where they needed to be. Most of the agenda was student-led, with students calling all the shots, and taking full ownership over their sessions. It was fun to see the Baylor and UCU students interacting together and sharing ideas with each other. They were beginning to realize that God has given them valuable skills that they can use to encourage fellow Christians who grew up in a different education system.
While students from two universities learned from each other, I reflected on the past few years and thanked God for the unexpected opportunity to be back on the UCU campus in partnership with Baylor University and Compassion Internataional, and the circumstances that brought about this connection. I thought about all of the hard work and sacrifices that so many people made for this experience to be possible, and I prayed that the coming days would be perspective-changing for everyone involved and above all else, bring glory to God.
Last fall shortly after I decided to travel to Uganda, I signed up for a credit card. This is not surprising to those who know that I inherited from my father a passion for paying as little as possible for just about everything. The particular offer I signed up for this time around seemed too good to be true, even by my standards. But the 75,000 miles they offerred me was too tempting to pass up. Especially since this is exactly the miles I needed to get a free flight to Uganda. Fortunately for me, I got my 75,000 miles a few weeks after getting the card, and then immediately booked my flight before the fuel surcharges got out of hand.
The one downside to booking my flight this way was that I was not able to travel with the rest of the group because I used a different airline. The flight schedule put me in Kampala at around 7:00 am, when the rest of the group would not arrive until 11:00 pm. With the prospect of spending 16 hours alone in a hotel room not looking too appealing, I got on the phone with my friends at Compassion Internataional and asked if I could use this time to travel to the home of Ronnie, my sponsored child. My wife, Erin, and I began sponsoring him in 2005 and had the privilege of meeting him during our first trip to Uganda in 2008. That time he came to see us at our hotel, and we didn't get to meet his family. This time I wanted to meet everyone. My friends at Compassion were eager to help me set this up, and within a few days all the plans were in place.
After landing in Kampala early Tuesday morning, I was greeted by Chris, who is one of 86 full-time Compassion employees in Kampala. He stays busy throughout the year facilitating visits like mine. We set off from the airport and drove 4 1/2 hours to the site of Ronnie's Compassion project, which is about 16 kilometers north of Uganda's border with Tanzania and just a few kilometers south of the location where the HIV virus was first discovered in 1982. As we were driving through the nearby towns along Masaka Road, Chris talked about the devastating impact HIV/AIDS has had on this area. It would be almost impossible to find a person living here who has not lost at least one family member to the disease. Child headed households are common because so many of them lost both of their parents before antiretroviral therapy became available. Communities in this area are now fortunate to have access to this life saving treatment.
We soon arrived at the site of Ronnie's project, which is on the property of the church that adminsters it. On this day, families were preparaing for the start of the new school term which would begin the following week. The church was handing out blankets, backpacks, and mosquito nets to the families of each of the 250+ children registered at the project. All of this was provided by Compassion sponsors, who contribute $38 per month for the well being of each child they sponsor.
I took a tour of the facility and saw the pigs that the children learn to care for. I saw the cows that are owned by the church and cared for by widows as means to earn a living. I saw the primary school that Ronnie recently graduated from, and the secondary school where he is currently studying physics, chemistry, biology, English, Swahili, math, and other subjects. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, and could not stop talking about it. He spoke to me in English, which he was not able to do with confidence when I visited him in 2008. Most children in Uganda don't make it past primary school because secondary school can be prohibitively expensive, and children are often needed to help the family earn income. I'm thankful to have the opportunity to help Ronnie receive an education that has made him fluent in English and that will prepare him well for a future as a doctor, or whatever else he may decide to do with his life.
After touring the site, we got in the van and drove a few kilometers down the road to the path leading to Ronnie's house. Our van got stuck in the mud so we walked about a quarter mile to the house. This is a moment I had been looking forward to since 2008, when Erin and I asked a represenative from his project what his family needed most. We learned that over half of his family's income was being used to pay rent on a small mud hut that he, his parents, 4 brothers, sister, and a cousin were living in. It didn't take us long to decide how to respond to this need. About six months after making a donation to Compassion that equates to less than the amount we would spend on cable in a year (we don't have it so I don't really know how much it costs), we received a letter from Ronnie, with a picture of his family standing in front of their new brick house. In his letter to us, Ronnie quoted Psalm 138:4, "All the kings in the world will praise you lord because they have heard your promises," and said "Dear friends, thank you so much for the gifts you sent us as a family. We were able to build a three roomed house and soon we are shifting to our new home. All of us don't have right words to express it. May God bless you for that great love."
Ronnie and I didn't get too far down that dirt path before his brothers and sister ran toward us and overwhelmed me with hugs. The boys were wearing matching taupe-colored shirts, and his sister was wearing a dress that seemed to be made from the same material. I was later reminded about one of the gifts we gave his family in 2008: a single bedsheet. His mother had used this piece of fabric to make clothes for her children. This just blew me away.
What blew me away even more was the fact that I did not recognize the house we were now standing in front of:
It did not match the picture that I received a few years ago. That's because as a result of his father's consistent employment and the additional disposable income that comes from not having to pay rent, the family has been able to save up and build an addition onto the house that we bought for them. The original three room house is behind the one shown in this picture. The addition shown here has five rooms and is almost complete. The family's life has been completely turned around as a result of the very small sacrifices we've made over the course of six years, and more importantly, as a result of the efforts of my friends at Compassion International and the church in his village that Compassion partners with. I can't think of an easier or a more effective way to share the resources God has entrusted to me than to partner with organizations like Compassion International who are saving lives and lifting families out of poverty day in and day out, all in the name of Jesus.
Every time I look over at those ugly "rabbit ears" towering over the old-fashioned square TV set in my living room, I just think of Ronnie's family and smile.