For more than two decades, I was privileged to serve as Senior Pastor of a large church that was able to give an amazing 25% of its budget to overseas missions. Most of the 25 missionaries we supported had some connection to us, so I was reading about 25 different missionary letters regularly. Most of them were good and as time passed, their skills at adding photos and other creative elements increased along with software development.
However, some of the letters did make me groan and shake my head – so please don’t take this as criticism but rather as vital feedback to make your letter effective.
How NOT to Write A Missionary Support Letter
The opening sentence would so often read like this: “Oh goodness, it is already July and we have been so busy we have not written since March!” Well, that may sound like a friendly opening to the sender, but to the receiver it sounds like this:
“We hate writing these things and so we have put it off as long as we could.”
Had they not mentioned that they skipped a couple of months, no one would notice!
Here’s a better plan:
- Likely you write this in the first draft, as you are not sure how to get the thing going.. no problem. But this is why you review and EDIT. Good editing means cutting out “empty sentences” that actually say nothing.
- Why not a punchy opening – like a bible verse – “I will Bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” This month, we are delighted to report to our faithful support team, both praises and thanksgiving, and also a few challenges. (then jump into the lead story)
The lead story has nothing to do with the ministry or any work or event. Rather, the lead story is a detailed report on the vacation we took down to the nearby beach. And to be sure, I am TOTALLY on board with missionaries taking time off — it’s called a Sabbath rest! (In the Old Testament, they took one day a week, one week of seven, and one YEAR every seven years, yeah!) So no problem with vacation, but this should not be the lead story to your supporters; it would be better as an ending.
Down at the bottom of one letter, written as a ‘PS,’ was this account:”
Last week we held the annual pastor training seminar, and were blessed to have some new pastors come. Older pastors gave encouraging stories and prayed over the younger ones whose churches are struggling. Everyone had a wonderful fellowship and we could see they were headed home feeling refreshed and recharged. Many remarked that the Holy Spirit was blessing our network and was strengthening us for the days ahead.
Excellent report, don’t you agree? Truthful, not boastful, and giving glory to God.
BUT… what was this doing down in the PS??? Journalists call this error “Burying the Lead,” meaning this should have been at the Top, the Headline, the First story! Again, the mistake here was a failure to revise – in the first draft, the story popped out at the end. No worries- during the “re-write,” you’ll know to cut and paste that baby up at the top. The reader will then be drawn in and will follow you through to the end.
The entire letter feels like they wrote it with “grandma” as the intended reader. NO! Maybe you need to write two letters – one to “family” and the other to “supporters.” We really don’t need to know that little Johnny won the math contest or that Sissy made the volleyball team. Those are okay to share, but they should not be the bulk of the letter (and I regret to say, many times these were the bulk of the letter.)
(I recall thinking once, “Are these people still doing missionary work?”)
Ask yourself a question: “What do you need from your support team?”
Answer: That’s easy, we need faithful giving and serious prayer support.
Okay, question two: “What do your donors and supporters need from you?”
I have asked this question many times… sometimes people just look at me wide-eyed,
They want to say, “they need nothing from me,” but intuitively they know that’s wrong.
Answer: They need to hear about what God is doing with the money and the prayer that they are sending — they want to know, “What’s Going On with the Work?”
Your missionaries all send those reports to your headquarters, right? But those reports often include a lot of data, statistics, and they can be as dry as dust. Those are a different animal than support letters.
Give your support letter a title, like the “Thompson Times” or the “Newton Shamba.” Please do not attach it as “newsletter.doc” You can do better than that! This communication is vital—you want people to look forward to reading through it.
Do not think of it as a monthly “Christmas Letter” NO – but as sharing with the team what’s going on in the work. And be honest- it’s never just “victory after victory,” so major on the good, but mention the struggles, too. Just keep the tone upbeat.
Get the Most out of Your Missionary Support Letter
When the letters tell real stories about real people. here’s why: “statistics tell, but stories sell.” Look at what Jesus did—parable after parable. Here’s an example from my own life this month:
I’m walking home with the mail when I see an African-American man drop a box on a neighbor’s porch and head back towards his truck. “Good Afternoon, Sir,” I called out.
“Oh hello to you, sir” he called out with a bit of an accent, and flashed that great smile that most Africans can quick-draw on you.
“May I ask you, where are you from?” I said, and he answered, “Oh the Congo.” I hit hm with a few lines of Swahili (which is all I had to hit him with…) and he said, ‘How do you know that?” I explained I was a pastor and he responded, “Oh I am a believer and a pastor also.” We chatted and I asked if he had a good English bible. “No, he said, only a King James…”
“Well, that’s a great Bible but I happen to have some English Standard Versions that are easier to read- let me give you some – and also here are some Spanish New Testaments.” Oh, he loved it and I gave him my business card also… I hope to see him again and can perhaps find out more about what his church here is like.
No name in the story, but a little dialogue, and a little plot. Not even an exciting story, but a more day-to-day kind of encounter that tells of a divine appointment.
When the letter has photographs. Facebook gurus say, “if you do a facebook post without a graphic, it fails to catch people’s attention.”
Great photos show some kind of action (and not just posed photos). Three photos that I have used successfully are below: (a) an evangelist in action; (b) a Nepalese lady carrying cement up to a church under construction; (c) just a photo of a lady in a hat, but wow…
The problem with the Evangelist photo is he’s too far from the camera. The solution: Find one that is close enough to show expressions (and hands up in the air).
The lady carrying cement – that photo needs some textual explanation, maybe just a caption, that says, “Nepalese women will haul cement in order to have a chapel.”
But this colorful “hat” and a smile is a winner.
Also, if you can show a photo of a problem, you can call attention and motivate a solution. The first person show saw this photo (below) of people holding worship in a chapel that floods every spring (Philippines) wrote a large check to put a second floor on this church. Here is proof that a picture is worth 1,000 words (in this case, $ 7,000).
You have a cell phone in your pocket most days- be quick to pull it out! Show, not tell, your donors what GOD is doing, what the problems are, and how they can help. Shoot pictures of the good, the bad, and the ugly. But don’t manipulate (e.g., photos designed to make you feel horrible, to motivate you to give.)
Let us Close this out with Prayer Requests – usually a part of every support letter – and the best ones are BRIEF. We don’t need a long list of “pray for our neighbor’s boss’s wife’s cousin…” (who?) as we all have those. Be like Paul: ask for prayer for the mission, prayer for strength, and prayer for an upcoming event. Three is good. And do NOT repeat the same “generic” prayer requests every month, such as, “pray for our financial support to increase.” Those become invisible if there all the time.
THERE YOU GO — a few tricks of the trade – things to avoid, things to include.
PS: Want to see a great book on newsletters, by Amy Young (who is a wonderful person and a clever writer- with 20 years of writing newsletters from faraway places).
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