Should You Pay for Your Own Mission Trip?

Mexico mission-trip
An estimated 2 million Americans go on mission trips each year. Should more of them cover their own costs? Photo by Mark Bickel

This is the first of a three-part series exploring self-funding short-term missions. In this post, we look at saving for a mission trip as a spiritual discipline. Read Part II.

In August, Eliza* got two pieces of good news: a nannying job, and the email she had been hoping for. It was an offer to participate in the School of Biblical Studies, a nine-month Bible training program offered through Youth With A Mission (YWAM).

As with most YWAM programs or any mission trip, participants generally raise support to cover their costs. But as Eliza considered fundraising, she peeked into her bank account and decided against it. If she worked for a just few months, she figured, she could pay for the whole thing herself.

She is in the minority.

In many church circles, fundraising for short-term missions has become about as common as taking the Eucharist. It generates a steady stream of support letters and spaghetti fundraisers. It has become such a fixture that, more often than not, missions leaders consider it a faith-building rite of passage.

Such fundraising is also the source of ire among detractors of short-term missions. It siphons much-needed funding away from long-term missions, they argue, and in the worst cases it effectively creates subsidized church vacations.

But there is another way. At TEAM and at ministries around the world, a small handful of short-term participants choose to foot all or most of their own bill. They may work overtime, or live frugally during a summer job and stash their earnings away for their mission trip. Some still raise a small amount of support to cover any shortfall in their savings, but others are able to completely — and consistently — self-finance their own service.

Self-funding is hardly a new idea. But wondering what leads some people to do it, we interviewed a sampling of short-term missionaries at TEAM and other missions organizations who chose to at least partially fund their own trips. None of them were wealthy enough to cover their trips out of their existing funds — all had to work and save. Their motivations for doing it were varied, some purely practical, others more principled.

But all of these missionaries’ experiences suggest there are some significant benefits to the approach, both as a spiritual discipline for the individual and as a way of making churches’ missions dollars go further.

Self-Funding as a Spiritual Discipline
For Eliza, who had to cover more than $7,000 for her time with YWAM, it’s not that self-funding was more noble than raising support. She sensed God leading her to do it. “I felt like he was specifically saying, ‘You could ask for support, but that’s not the way I’m going to be sufficient this time,’” she said. “He was saying, ‘You have to put your heart into working for it.’”

In fact, fundraising in many ways felt like the easier choice for Eliza, who grew up in an church culture that embraced fundraising for STMs. “Honestly, me paying for it was more of a step of faith than asking for money,” she said.

Like Eliza, most of the short-term missionaries interviewed shared the view that God can and often will provide work or extra income to fund a trip, and that the approach can be just as valid and formative as raising support.

“God gives us the tools we need to do the things he wants us to do,” said Chelsea Burdick, an artist and graphic designer in Los Angeles who worked odd jobs to earn more than $2,000 toward a TEAM short-term trip in Thailand. “Sometimes that means he gives us the patience to wait (for donations). And other times, it means he drops a summer camp counseling job, a design internship, and a ton of freelance gigs in your lap.”

To be sure, working to pay your own way is a sacrifice. After all, a traveler who raises funds for a trip gets to keep job earnings for himself. And for many, personal finances may be so tight it would take them years to work or save enough extra to fund a short-term trip.

But John* has made lifestyle choices a part of his decision to self-fund missions. A graduate student on the West Coast, he works seasonally as a firefighter to cover the cost of regular trips to serve with TEAM in a creative-access region. He’s not getting rich, but he makes it work by living simply. It has helped him keep his priorities in focus.

“To me, having a house and having all the nice amenities we have here in the States really isn’t all that important,” he said. “I’m not in the game to get a nice house and a nice car.”

Eliza had to make sacrifices as well, working well over 40 hours many weeks and living with her parents while saving up. The long grind of earning money she wouldn’t get to keep helped her understand what donors give up when they decide to support a missionary.

“It’s given me the perspective of what I’m really asking a supporter to do when I ask for money in other circumstances,” she said. “I’ve actually invested what I’ve earned in my life.”

*Last names omitted to protect identities.

Do you want a way to give back to your supporters? Check out this article post to find out how you can bless your sending church through your mission trip!

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About the author

Andy Olsen

Andy Olsen is a former senior writer and editor at TEAM. He is especially interested in exploring and sharing the metrics and best practices of great missions. Before joining TEAM, Andy served as Director of Communications for Latin America Mission. He has worked as a writer, photographer and videographer for NGOs in Haiti and for newspapers and magazines across the country.


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  • Great piece! Thoughtful and very relevant. We are constantly dealing with the difficulties and surprises in regard to funding short-term mission teams. I’ll be sharing this with our whole staff and look forward to future installments!

  • Excellent article! I had never thought of it that way, that is, that one gets to see what it is they are asking people to give up when they themselves work to provide for their own trip. And, that fundraising for STMs takes away from LTMs. Thanks for the insight!

  • If students do raise support, I think they need better training on how to communicate with their supporters. Often I feel like I am only supporting a vacation and trip to a new destination for many youth. It would be nice for them to learn to be professional (which can be lacking sometimes in ministry. Sorry. But it simply is true. Ministry vocations could take some lessons from the business world — another topic). Young people should be trained to communicate on social media while they are on mission and talk about their ministry, service and outreach to the people. Instead I see way too many pictures around pretty fountains and well-known sites of the country, etc. and very little if nothing about how they are actually making an impact for Christ. This behavior shouldn’t sway me from supporting other youth and their STM, but sadly it does.

    • Great points, Margie! It’s so important for missionaries – short-termers included – to share their stories, updates and ministry work with their supporters. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Hi, and thank you for this artical. I found it when I googled ( pay for ywam.) As a mother I am looking into how to raise funds for my daughter to go to ywam. When my daughter first brought up the program I personnely was excited and proud. While my daughter went on two seperate mission trips with our church. As soon as she got back from one night Mexico at a orphanage, she was so happy and wanted to go back as soon as possible. But as time passed she was not going or involved in our church youth group but wanted to go too ywam. So a part of me knows she wanted partly the vacation aspect but I have faith and a hope that Jesus is going to change this little girl and make her a Godly young lady. And after this artical I am going to teach her to take 10% of her paycheck and add it to the money we are raising. She is also going to go to restraunts, and our exstended family’s and friends churches to sing and ask for prayer to raise her way there. So please keep ywam in your prayers that the young people that are entering into these missions have life changing effects on thier hearts and out in the missionary field. Thank you.

    • Stacy, it sounds like you really want God’s best for your daughter — keep encouraging her to follow His leading! Glad this article could be an inspiration for you. God bless!

  • I have a little different perspective on fundraising and the viewpoints of self funding vs fundraising. My family began doing STM when I was only 9 years old. We always fundraised by sending letters to supporters. After a while, we were going so often that my parents split their letters into an “A” category and a “B” category to alternate sending letters. One particular trip, an older gentleman in our church who was about 90 years old or so asked them why he did not receive a letter for the most recent trip. My parents explained that they did not want to tax or annoy people by always asking them for money. He became a little angry and told them, “It is not your responsibility to decide who is going to give and who is not. Just as it is not my responsibility to decide what you do with it once I give. You have ROBBED me of a blessing. I cannot physically go but I do get to be a part of what He is doing through you.” Ouch. Lesson learned. So, I ask. I let God decide who is supposed to be involved and who is not. I have raised enough to help multiple people on my team to go. I have received zero money from others and been supplied the finances elsewhere. If I get letters, I almost ALWAYS give something because I know the experience, even when it looks from the outside like a vacation, is changing that travelers life. They are being exposed to people who live differently, think differently, eat differently, etc. That alone is worth the investment because they are being challenged. It shaped my life and I now have a career as a tour guide leading groups in travel.

    My obedience is to ask and to give when the opportunity presents itself. God handles the rest, I do not get to attach the strings.

    • Such a good perspective, Tara! Yes, we often assume we’re “bothering” people, when in reality, people love to give — and God blesses them through their generosity.

  • Help me understand costs for STM. Do you just mean travel, meals, and lodging? We went on one and had to PAY to help. Is that the norm?

    • Kathy, yes, most short-term mission trips (with any organization) will ask you to raise funds (or pay your own way) for the cost of the trip. That generally includes travel, food, lodging — any costs associated with the trip. Some organizations will also ask you to bring donated items to the field. The reason for this is that ministries generally have to raise all their operating funds from donors. And the most effective way to raise funds for short-term mission trips is through the short-term missionaries themselves.

      TEAM works with short-term missionaries to prepare a budget that considers all these needs and provide coaching for raising support.

  • I am looking to go help on a mission. Was wondering how I could help, and the approx. cost. Please contact me. I am a Christian……

    • Hi, Karen! Thank you so much for your interest. We have a wide variety of opportunities in many places. You can check them out here. If you want more detail, like approximate cost, I would suggest talking to a missions coach (just fill out the form on this page). How much a trip cost really depends on where, how and how long you’ll be serving, so it’s hard to give a general estimate.

      I hope this helps!

  • I am the founder of Story-One: Worship-Focused Support Raising, and getting support raising right is my passion. I actually mentor missionaries on the support-raising journey. Thank you for this article. I definitely believe that those who choose to go on a short-term mission trip should definitely cover the cost themselves. The general Christian public is experiencing donor fatigue. We get requests in our inboxes for short-term mission trips, go-fund-me pages, give to this charity, donate to this person. They can all be good, but it takes away from those who are giving their lives to be missionaries on the field. By the time they present their requests, why would anyone want to give monthly to a long-term missionary, when they can throw a one-time gift at someone and call it good. Western Christians have become entitled. No one should have to pay for your trip. 40 years ago and beyond, being a missionary was a calling. You didn’t get the chance to jaunt over to Africa and try it on for size or have a feel-good experience with the natives while watching elephants. If you want that, please save up for it. Thanks again for the article.

    • As a long term short term full time missionary — yes all of those are possible to combine — I’ve been in 79 nations over 30 years and now I travel full time (gone to usually two or three nations a month) leading teams internationally on short term trips. It is with that perspective that I share having done both — working for funding and fundraising. I can tell you that fundraising is much more work than just working. As a teenager, sometimes my parents paid the whole trip, sometimes I got a job and paid it, sometimes my church or other family/friend donors gave. The best was when donors partnered honestly because I had more prayer support and interest in them also being activated to missions work when they participated. As an adult, I knew my call as a full time missionary was different than everyone else moving to the field and so I started out working as an entrepreneur to own my schedule and make enough income to support the trips. When I married, my spouse paid most of my trips and we just lived very frugally to afford the missions lifestyle. When the kids were getting older, we saw that it was not just mom’s traveling ministry but our whole family God called to go — husband quit his job and we used all our savings from inheritances and selling the house etc. and funded our own trips until we gave away millions of dollars and had nothing left. Then, we learned that we could go back to tentmaking — yet then we didn’t have enough vacation days to go very often so now we are back to raising support for our salary replacement and our trip costs and structuring the short term trips with a business plan financially to make it sustainable with raised support. Paul only was a tent maker occasionally, giving and receiving is the Biblical norm for the people in ministry. My point — I’ve done the self supporting work version and I’ve done the support raising and while it is harder to raise support, it is the only sustainable one if short term missions is to be a life time call. If you are only going to one nation one time or one or two trips at most a year, sure work and save is easier, but neglects the opportunity for others to participate.

      • Thank you for sharing your perspective, Marie! It’s neat to see how many ways it can be done, but also to get your perspective on each way’s pros and cons.

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