Almost every missions mobilizer can tell this tale: They found the perfect would-be missionary, highly qualified and ready to ship all their belongings to the other side of the world, with one little problem. The candidate is drowning in debt.
Debt is one of the biggest challenges of our time for North American missions and has been called “the greatest enemy other than Satan himself” to sending missionaries. This may be a slight overstatement, but there’s no doubt that personal debt is a huge obstacle for many young people who want to serve overseas (or domestically).
Because missionaries tend to live on either relatively-low fixed incomes or on incomes that fluctuate with donations, the financial burden of paying off debt can make it nearly impossible to be one. For that reason, many missions agencies prohibit missionaries from having any personal debt, and others have caps on the amount or type of debt they will allow missionaries to carry. Some churches or supporters will not give toward missionaries who have personal debt, viewing it as bad stewardship to “donate to debt.”
In the evangelical church today, there sometimes seem to be two extreme camps when it comes to personal debt: those who have lots of it and just try not to think about it, and those who demonize it. When it comes to missions, there is good reason to take a more moderate approach.
At TEAM, we don’t require prospective missionaries to be free of personal debt such as a mortgage or education loans before heading to the field. We do, however, strongly encourage applicants to eliminate credit card and other consumer debt before becoming missionaries.
Student debt is probably the most common type that we encounter. There’s no hard-and-fast amount of student debt that we say is too much — it depends on each individual’s situation — but the number is often anything above $30,000.
Why do we allow missionaries to enter with this much student debt?
For one, missionary service nowadays tends to require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum and very often an advanced degree beyond that. We want skilled people, and we don’t want to penalize candidates for meeting our standards.
Secondly, service in closed and hard-to-enter countries today is increasingly open only to professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and so on. The “hard skills” for these jobs generally come with a degree and large education bills. We simply understand that.
Thirdly, we want to be fair. Like missionaries, pastors and most other ministry professionals are paid through the donations of Christ’s people, but we rarely prohibit them from having student loans.
That said, we do understand that debt takes a financial toll. Our staff work closely with missionary candidates to make sure they have a plan in place to address debt in a sustainable way that does not jeopardize their ministry. Payments on student loans should not unreasonably inflate a missionary’s monthly support needs.
Many people feel convicted that student debt is unacceptable for missionaries. And there are certainly situations where that conviction may be right. Maybe you changed your major five times and took six years to graduate college, went on to earn a master’s in American literature, only to decide that, now, you want to drill wells in Africa. You will have a fascinating resume, but you probably should not chalk up all your student debt as the cost of ministry preparation.
If you want to go into missions and have more than $30,000 in student debt — or if you’re committed to shedding all student debt before becoming a missionary — what can you do? Dave Ramsey has more to say about that than we ever could. If you went to a Christian college and haven’t checked into loan forgiveness programs they may have available for missionaries, it’s time to start. And there are a growing number of independent organizations such as The Go Fund and MedSend devoted to paying off student loans for missionaries.
If you are still in college or high school, you’re in a great spot: you can tackle student debt before it starts. If you are already planning to do missions abroad or locally, avoiding loans may be one of the greatest favors you could do for yourself. Beyond making the obvious choice to pursue grants and scholarships, talk with your parents and other counselors about strategies for keeping your loans to a minimum, such as taking your first year or two of courses at a community college.
And no matter where you are on your missionary journey — just beginning, shopping for a sending agency, or already on the field — get serious about budgeting and limiting your discretionary spending. Fiscal discipline, like fasting, is good for the soul and can draw us closer to God.
Read another view on personal debt and missions from Urbana. Special thanks to TEAM’s mobilization staff for their collaboration on this post.