Campus Crusade for Christ moved its East European headquarters from Kandern, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary, in 1994. The purpose was to better coordinate its activities in East Central Europe from a center in the region itself. Twenty office staff plus their families made the transition, first to the Budapest suburb of Diozd, and more recently to the suburb of Budaors.
Prior to the fall of communism Christian ministry offices for East Central Europe were located in the West, mainly in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, or Austria. Several mission organizations, such as the Evangelical Free Church Mission (EFCM), moved their offices to Budapest from West European bases. Other American ministries, such as the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting, established their Budapest centers directly from the U.S.
As the case of Campus Crusade suggests, Budapest has become one of the most popular cities for missions headquarters because of its central location. Hungary is roughly halfway between the Baltic and Adriatic Seas. Almost all of East Central Europe and the Balkans are within a day's drive. At the same time, Vienna, a major Western capital, is only three hours away by train or by toll road. At the same time, Budapest allows for easy access for ministries working in the war-torn areas of former Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo, without being located in the war theater itself. Christian and Missionary Alliance efforts in the Balkans, for example, are superintended from Budapest. In addition, some organizations have been attracted to the Hungarian capital because of the possibility of networking with missions already established there. King's Kids International, a ministry of Youth With A Mission, selected Budapest partly because YWAM already had a ministry in the city.
One of the major factors for missions relocating regional offices to Budapest has been the development of the International Christian School of Budapest, an accredited program (grades 1-12) with 150 students. Mission leaders involved in establishing the school chose the Budapest suburb of Diózd from three possible locations, the others being Warsaw and Prague.
Another decisive factor favoring Budapest has been a well-developed infrastructure that affords efficient working and living conditions. A new airport, superior rail and highway transportation, affordable Hungarian conference sites, and reliable communication services (mail, telephone, E-mail) all work in Budapest's favor. Ministries also appreciate the city's lower cost of living compared to the West and its reliable medical care. In this regard, ministries surveyed cited low operating and living expenses as Budapest's single most important advantage over West European locations. Quite a few missionaries and their ministries are purchasing homes and offices because property prices are quite attractive compared to rental rates.
Another significant advantage for many organizations, such as ACSI and Deaf Opportunity Out Reach (DOOR), is a reasonable tax system. While the value added tax (VAT) is higher in Hungary than in Britain or Germany, Hungarian income tax rates generally are lower than in Western Europe, depending on the tax bracket. While corruption is deep-seated, it is not as pervasive as in Bulgaria, Russia, or Ukraine. In addition, Hungary enjoys political and economic stability, accentuated by its recent acceptance into NATO, and a legal system amenable to the creation of non-profit organizations. Also, the country is relatively safe and Hungarians are genuinely friendly to foreigners.
From the outset, ACSI and Grace Ministries each started their work in Europe with headquarters in Budapest. In other cases, Western ministries expanded a Hungarian office in Budapest to serve as an East Central European regional office. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention currently has a small representation in Budapest but is considering the Hungarian capital as the location for a regional office to replace its current one in Wiesbaden, Germany. Other groups with Budapest headquarters include the Association of Baptists for World Evangelization; Mission to Eastern Europe and its affiliated Christian Institute for Study and Training; Services, Helps, and Alternative Resources in Education (SHARE); the Free Methodist Church; Pioneers; Greater Europe Mission (Southeast Europe office); and United World Mission. It also should be noted that the Budapest-based Protestant Institute for Mission Studies, while increasingly an indigenous effort of the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, was founded and still is led by a Dutch Christian, Dr. Anne Marie Kool.
Some Budapest headquarters oversee efforts in the former Soviet Union as well as East Central Europe. This is true for the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting. Similarly, the Hungarian office of Campus Crusade covers not only East Central Europe, but also Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia.
But Could the Trend Be Reversed?
The Central Europe Team (CET) of Operation Mobilization moved its office from Austria to Budapest, only to return to Austria after two years. In addition, Greater Europe Mission recently moved its Northeast Europe regional office from Budapest to Kandern, Germany, in the Black Forest. These transfers raise the question: Could Budapest lose its allure for Christian ministries if costs of doing business continue to rise and if residence permits become more restrictive for U.S. and West European citizens? The Hungarian language, one of the most difficult in the world to master, also could be a factor in reversing the trend towards Budapest as a missions headquarters. Finally, missions have learned that idiosyncrasies in the Hungarian accounting and reporting systems are much more difficult than in the European Union or the U.S.
Editor's note: The East-West Church & Ministry Report wishes to thank Steve Goodwin (Christian and Missionary Alliance) and Jay Weaver (Alliance for Saturation Church Planting) for valuable critiques of the present article.
Barbara Kertai, a native of Budapest, Hungary, earned a B.A. in journalism and religion from Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report