Keeping mission vision alive and growing A quarterly publication of Mission Data International

What about debt and missions?

by Paul Nielsen

In college a friend of mine participated in a mission trip to Peru. He returned very excited about the ministry and the people in Peru, and after returning he volunteered at length with them. He also spoke about going overseas long-term.

But he had debt, lots of debt. Most of the borrowed money paid for classes, and after changing his major at least twice at that point he owed around $50,000. This was with roughly two years left to finish a degree.

After realizing how difficult it would be to serve long-term with such debt he quickly changed his lifestyle. He sold his new jeep, took the bus and stopped eating out so much. Despite this pretty radical lifestyle adjustment the debt remained oppressive — and not just financially. He emailed me after some time talking about how discouraged he was, feeling God leading him to serve in ministry full-time, but not being able to follow that call.

This is not unusual, as the interview accompanying this article attests to. In the United States borrowing from the bank is second nature for us. My college friend once shared with me how his father borrowed to pay for books bought online.

70% of U.S. missionaries raise personal support in order to serve. Many sending organizations don’t let missionary candidates raise support to pay for debt — especially money owed on credit cards. Financial supporters want their donations to go towards ministry. There are exceptions from time to time, especially with respect to student loans. A recent ELIC brochure clearly stated that they accept candidates with student loans.

My wife and I presently serve stateside in a mobilizing role. When we began this venture, I was just out of college and owed $15,000 in student loans. Our plan was for her to continue working after I began drawing a salary at M-DAT until the loans were paid off. It was a good idea (Although it ended up not working exactly as we hoped.) but one that probably won’t work overseas.

I still remember being a college student and realize how trivial the idea of borrowing to pay for school seemed at the time. There are people like my beautiful wife who get some absurdly high score on their ACT (I think hers was 7,900,000 when rounded down) and have to keep Ivy League scholarship offers at bay with a broom. And then there are the rest of us — the most of us — who understand we’ll probably need to borrow money just to make it through a public university.

After you graduate reality sets in. Debt ties you down. Avoid it at all costs, and I mean that literally. And if you’re already strapped with loans, pay them off as quickly as possible. Forgo the lattés, the new technology and the new car. After all, you’ll be living on a missionary’s salary soon enough anyway — and driving is overrated. Walk or take the bus.


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