Money and Missionaries: Do You Have a Plan for Retirement?

by Amy Young on October 16, 2015

I start this off with a bit of fear. I want to talk about a topic that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I have little expertise when it comes to financial planning, but it is important so I’m going to push past my excuses.

Money and missionaries: do you have a plan for retirement?



Let me set this up with a bit of back ground information about me and what has both formed and informed me after working with hundreds of folks on the field. I’m going to make a list, because lists help me bring (some) structure and order to parts of life that feel large and chaotic.

  1. My personal financial history is that I come from a relatively stable, healthy family when it comes to money. Both of my parents are educated and successful. During my childhood my dad started a company that ended up not taking off and then had a serious disease and was unable to work for over a year. Before and after this period, he was employed as an engineer. They modeled and taught how to handle finances when you have a steady income and when curve balls get thrown.
  1. I had a strong sense at a young age I wasn’t going to live a “normal life” (whatever that is) and started saving for retirement at 16. Let it not be said that I don’t like to be prepared! I’ve been thinking about this subject for over thirty years.
  1. When I went to the field, it was after working in a public school where I had a job that included retirement benefits. At that time, I thought I was stepping out of the system for two years. I was still in my 20’s, so it didn’t seem like I was making a HUGE life decision or weighing much when it came to life decisions. I was simply, taking two years off at a time when two years wasn’t a big deal. That was 20 years ago.

Like me, you might be thinking this is only for a few years so you don’t need to factor in the idea of retirement. Or like me, your journey could evolve over time and “suddenly” it’s been nine years and you think, “Um, this might be a career. When did that happen?!” Or you might have entered the field thinking this was for the long haul.

You can see how any of those mind-sets could influence your approach to money and the long-term view.

  1. Coming from the west, money has been relegated to the “private” part of a person’s life. For Christians, two of the greatest areas of shame involve sex and money. We often have such shame about our finances and have no idea how to initiate talking about them, that we end up isolated and ignorant. Which, ironically, only feeds the shame. And then years pass and you might now be in an overwhelming situation.
  1. When it comes to missionaries, this discussion is complicated because instead of just the individual/family and an employer, there are often three parties involved.
  • The individual or family
  • The sending organization
  • The sending church (or churches, many churches)

Who, ultimately, is responsible for thinking about your retirement? And then let’s also throw into the discussion that there are many countries represented here at A Life Overseas. Meaning we have a myriad of philosophies and government programs when it comes to retirement.

  1. We are Christians who do live by faith and believe in a loving God who provides. Money is not to be our idol, source of security, or source of identify. (But I would also say, neither is ignorance to be our idol, that’s why I want to talk about this.)
  1. Though I could share many stories, I’ll share two here. I don’t want us to be so theoretical we miss that we are talking about real people. People like you or me.

First story involves a family of six. A surprise came up with their visa and they needed to pay an additional $50 for five of the family members. When I called to tell them, they freaked out. F.R.E.A.K.E.D. O.U.T. I get that money stuff can be stressful. As I brainstormed with them about the situation, it turns out they had $18 USD in their bank account.

And then it was my turn to F.R.E.A.K. out! Because we so rarely talk about finances, I assumed that others would have enough of a cushion in case of an emergency. Six people on the field with access to eighteen dollars. People, this is not good.

My second story involves a friend who is a mission’s pastor. Because the church had not historically had plans for retirement they have several people who need to retire now, but can’t afford to. One situation involves a man with dementia. I do not know him, so the picture in my head is purely of my own making. Can’t you see him? Doesn’t your heart go out to this man who has worked faithfully his whole life? But without much provision for this later state?


I am hoping this post is just the start of the conversation. I don’t want to stir up fear or undue concern, but to help bring this area a bit more into the light.

  1. When you think about preparing for retirement, do you have a plan?
  2. Who do you feel is ultimately responsible for your retirement plan? You, your organization, your sending churches, or your government? Have you talked with each of these players and asked their philosophy on their role?
  3. What is your organization doing well in this area? What is/are your sending church/churches doing well in this area?
  4. What do you wish your sending organization or church would do differently?
  5. How have you seen God provide for you thus far in your experience on the field? How does this foster hope when it comes to your finances long-term?
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About Amy Young

Free resource to help you add tools to your tool box. When Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle. She also works extensively with Velvet Ashes as content creator and curator, book club host, and connection group coordinator. She writes books to help you. Amy is the author of Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China and Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service. Looming Transitions also has two companion resources: 22 Activities for Families in Transitions and Looming Transitions Workbook. You can listen to it too.
  • Our sending organization has done a great job of helping us in this area. We are set up with a 401K, and they match our personal contributions up to 5%. So, total, we’re saving 10% of each paycheck in a 401K (5% ourselves + 5% from organization.) In addition, we contribute a small sum each month automatically from our bank account to a Roth IRA. I feel like this gets close to the 15% recommended by Dave Ramsey and other money people for retirement.

    I think it’s our responsibility as individuals. But, I think there are people who would love to plan for retirement, but they feel trapped by low support, an organization or sending church that doesn’t support this, etc.

    In general, we’ve tried to follow Dave Ramsey’s principles for money management. At first I was resistant, feeling like we should give more and not save so much. But, I feel like for our U.S. culture, that’s what we have to do. When I have tried living more freely with donating and giving money away, I feel like it’s ended up trapping us with poor money management and feeling like we have less to give.

    We do donate 10% to churches and other non-profits, and designate an additional 5% for “nice things for other people,” which may be a donation, may be money to someone who asks for it, hosting someone for a meal, etc.

    I know that people serving in cultures with different money management principles probably feel very trapped stuck between the two worlds of our Western money mindset and the mindset of their host culture.

    Tough issue! Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Kelly, you’ve touched on so many important points! And why this topic can be so complicated. The number of variables alone can make a person want to just take pictures of the food they each and post lots of emojis. I’m pleased to hear your organization is thinking about and fostering these kinds of plans. My hope is there is a shift in churches and a value for seeing more long term provision so this doesn’t feel so hush-hush and shame laced at times.

  • Thank you for bringing up tough issues. Some will not like this, maybe even accuse you of not trusting God. I’ve seen far too many missionaries make no plan and then suffer. Then the “burden” falls back on churches and family. Planning for the future is a godly thing. More churches would do well to include this into the discussing of sending young missionaries out. Keep asking tough questions!

    • Chris, what I love about your comment is the shared nature and the reflection of the body. Because we are woven together, what we do doesn’t just effect (and affect) us.

  • God is my provider. He’s been taking great care of me for many years. He said if I would seek Him and His kingdom, He would add everything else. He alone is true.

    Those who preach the gospel should live and get their maintenance by the gospel (not by people they used to know, or they see once a year, to ask for money). The apostle Paul said, “If I give you spiritual things, it’s only right that I receive from your material goods”.

    Point being, we are suppose to minister to the Lord and the people to whom He takes us. In turn, He will move on their hearts and they will be the source of His provision.

    Retirement? What Christian retires? I intend to get so caught up in the glory preaching the goodness of my God, that I just step on over into eternity! I set my mind on things above and He takes care of the rest.

    As long as this world’s system is your safety net, you’ll never know the awesome joy of living a supernatural life.

    • Hi Kimberly, I’m not sure what you mean by “the world’s system.” I agree that the word “retirement” is open to many interpretations. I’m thinking, in part, of the person serving in a country that has visa restrictions and after a certain age, they simply won’t be allowed to continue living and serving in that country. If they haven’t been thinking about what life (and financial) provision might look like, they have added stress to a situation that’s already stressful. I think you and I are not as far away from each other as it may appear. God ministers though many channels 🙂 … and planning is one of them.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    This is so good and so important. My parents were missionaries for 35 years and modeled this really well, and as a result it has enabled the next generation to live all over the world without worrying about them financially. These conversations are so important, and too often it’s assumed that a life of faith means no planning – but it’s a balance.

    • YES! Somehow The Accuser of our souls has changed this conversation into being about one thing OR the other (faith OR finances), where this is not the type of conversation that I think Jesus would foster. They are not pitted against each other, but invited to enhance the beauty of mystery of each other.

  • Thanks for this, Amy. We were part of a big old organization that required a retirement plan as part of the support package. That policy developed over time, I think, as people aged, probably having intended to die with their boots on, but finding that wasn’t actually a reality most of the time, and finding that supporting churches wanted to support people who were “doing something” besides needing care. Sadly.

    • Kay, I”m hoping (dreaming?! Delusional?!) that more churches will have a long-term view of people and we won’t only value “doing something.” And I know some are! But not enough, so we’ll keep talking about these kind of mindsets and values.

      • I just added “retirement” to the list of case studies for my next book project. Working title: “Dear Church, Here’s What You Don’t Know, and It’s Killing Us Out Here.”

        • Love this title! And this is such an important topic for a case study. It’s kind of funny the things that make me inordinately happy, today, this upcoming case study is one of them!

    • The mission we’re considering applying to does that. It makes the $$ number kind of scary, but it seems very wise. My husband’s grandparents retired after 30 years on the field in domestic missions, and had a retirement plan of some sort through their mission, plus Social Security retirement. But their kids, my in-laws, are with the same mission and will be for nearly as long if not longer when they hit retirement age in another decade or so, and will not be able to retire, probably ever. We have no idea what that’s going to mean for them, or for their kids and their families. It’s a scary thought! And it certainly makes us think, looking forward as 31 and 32 year olds.

  • We have had some back and forth about this.

    Personally, we would like to retire right where we are, or in another part of the same country. There are American expat retirees who are active online, and that has worked for them. (Not believers. Not retired missionaries. I don’t know any of them personally, but because of them, I know that it’s possible. 🙂 ) Assuming American Social Security keeps on going, that would be plenty for us.

    We’re not with an org, but one of our two sending churches did set up a retirement account for us. We think? It was a whole crazy, messy thing, and I honestly don’t know if we would be able to access it. We’re thankful for their kindness and concern, but it may be one of those “it’s the thought that counts” situations.

    God has provided for our needs so well and so constantly and so dramatically, that I know we look crazy to the American side of things. We have been like that family with $18, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we come to that again, but I KNOW that God will provide. He will when we get older, too.

    • Phyllis sorry it’s taken me a few days to get back with you! I’ve been on a retreat. I appreciate hearing a bit of your story because it helps to move these “theoretical” topics off the page and plants them in real lives. As you shared, there are going to be many scenarios — such as countries that allow expats to retire (and others that have almost impossible visa requirements) and family situations (where a person or couple don’t have to return to their home countries to care for aging parents and those who do). This isn’t a “one-size-fits all,” that for sure. But I’ve found too many people live in denial that they will age or have emergencies that could have been thought of ahead of time. I don’t ask this snakily at all (I know tone can be so hard in writing!). It seems you and your husband have thought about retirement—staying in your host country—I”m wondering what that might look like from a financial preparation point of view? You truly don’t have to answer! I ask only to keep learning and growing myself as I talk to others about this topic. Amy

      • I love that we can discuss this “unsnakily”! Maggi took my questions to her above so nicely, and I don’t mind yours at all.

        Financially, I think we would be fine. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what will come in the future, but for something closer to hard numbers, without actually using the figures: a few years ago someone in one of our two home churches was adamant that we needed life insurance. My husband and I prayed about about that and discussed it, and I actually almost started worrying about what if he does die and leave me with these children? Obviously, I can trust God, but what about the details? And then we got a statement from Social Security that showed that if my husband died right now, the benefits I would get would be right about the same as our average current income. Wow. So, that set my mind at ease about details of retirement money, too.

        Plus, there are those expat retirees online that I mentioned; they live on their Social Security money. Plus, I’ve even seen a article or two about living on Social Security in America!* Now I know that’s a stretch, and it’s not what we would want ideally, but I think it’s a challenge we could take on, if we had to. 🙂 Plus, maybe that elusive church retirement account will come to something?

        (By the way, life insurance: do most missionaries have it? From what we could find, we would have to have double our current income to start thinking about it! Other people we have talked to sometimes have something through their orgs.)

        *Like this one:

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    At first glance it seems selfish to use support $$ to save for your own retirement, but if you think about it just a bit longer, you realize that if you don’t use support $$ to save for retirement, then you have to ask churches to support you when you are no longer able to work (because that does in fact happen, with both mental and physical limitations). So I think it’s actually *less* selfish to invest some support $$ now that you can draw from later, which is basically what Chris and Kay were saying, too. 🙂

    SO GLAD you took on this topic!

    • Elizabeth, agreed! That being unable to stay on the field may be out of our hands and thinking through what that may look like (either due to physical or mental or emotional reasons) … so, this topic isn’t so much about retirement per se, as it is about talking about the big picture. Helpful summary of what Christ and Kay were saying!

  • Maggi

    We’ve found Dave Ramsey’s teaching on personal finances to be really helpful in helping us be more responsible with our finances – and also be more informed about what the US financial system is like. (You could suggest this resource to that family with the $18 in their bank account.) 🙂 I’m really glad you wrote about this, because I agree with you that it is super important and hard to talk about. It’s much easier to read about it here than to bring it up in person with anybody. 🙂 Thanks for putting in the effort of writing about it!

    • I’m glad it worked for you. For us, we found Dave Ramsey and standard American financial advice not to fit at all. Especially when we are in really tight situations! Or when you never know what money you’ll receive from month to month and what kinds of odd expenses you’ll have. Pay off debt? We don’t have any. House… what house? We were told (by Americans who love Dave Ramsey) “You just need to save” and “You need to set up an emergency fund.” With what?!?! When you have $18, you’re thinking about what to eat today, not long-term financial planning.

      Now I would like to hear how all that adapts to a life overseas! How did it work for you?

      • Maggi

        Thanks for your reply, Phyllis. I thought after posting the above comment that it lacks a bunch of nuances, so I’m glad for the chance to add them here. 🙂
        1. Dave Ramsey’s main goal is that we all become rich. That’s not my goal – as a missionary, or otherwise.
        2. It’s VERY American, and can be hard to adapt in other parts of the world.

        But what has worked for us? We mainly needed to learn to live within our means, and we’re still working on that. 🙂 The second thing we’ve found helpful is doing a monthly budget – or actually, making a budget whenever the money comes in. Because the money does get spent – and knowing how you plan to spend it is very helpful. Doing a budget has also been very helpful in our marriage which is a “one spending spouse – one saving spouse” type of marriage. (I hear it’s typical.) 🙂

        I actually do think even missionaries should have emergency funds. I think we should do long-term financial planning, but I have no burden about what the amounts should be for the various things. I think that if a missionary family is living on a faith basis (as in, funds come in irregularly as God moves on people’s hearts), my opinion is that it would be possible to pray and ask God if it’d be possible for Him to touch people’s hearts enough that it’d be possible to have some savings. What do you think about that?

        By the way, we’re out of debt and don’t own a house, either, so I just picked out what I needed to learn from Dave Ramsey, I guess, and left the rest. Hope this was clarifying.

        • Okay. Thank you again. I understand better now. And, yes, I also believe that it’s ideal to have some back up funds and to work on financial planning. (But we don’t live in an ideal world.) We’re saving now, as we can. But, when we had nothing, being told that we just needed to save didn’t help anything at all! We have always lived within our means, so we definitely agree on that, too.

          I spent many years begging God “to touch people’s hearts enough that it’d be possible to have some savings,” as you said. Mostly I think He said no on that. But then local currency dropped drastically, and we’ve had a reprieve for a while. It’s a strange and horrible blessing, but we’re trying to use it wisely.

          Anyway, everyone recommends Dave Ramsey, so it’s obvious that his ideas work for someone. 🙂

          • Maggi

            Thanks for your reply. As in most other areas of life – everybody’s specifics are just a little bit different from each other. I’m thankful that God is so good at relating to all of us where we’re at and in the situations we’re in – which I agree are FAR from ideal in this world. 🙂 In Heaven we won’t need to worry about savings. 🙂

          • I definitely hear you on “save what?!?!” when you’re spending every penny just getting by. I often hear, “Just a dollar a day, everyone can do that!” Well, that’s $30 a month, and that’s, what, toiletries and cleaners and toilet paper and maybe cat food, every month? If you don’t use much in the way of any of that, of course (people comment that I look so pretty with makeup and why don’t I wear it more – because it costs money). $30 a month can BREAK many of us, on or off the mission field, in or out of ministry. Of course we should all save – many of us just can’t. Or we can save $5 a month, and that’s so pitifully small we end up just using it for something small that makes our preschooler smile, or tack it onto the next month’s small budget.

  • Lindee

    whats retirement? or money for that matter. Last year our “sending church” of 25 yrs cut off all contact. When we finally got them to talk to us they told us they were “going a different direction”. When we tried to talk to our “church family” we were told they had been warned to not to talk to us. We have no idea why but it has left us destitute in a country far from home and really no way of going home. So to me its a silly question. One I can not even think about.

  • bessie

    Thanks for this point. I think it is hard for us to ask advice on this topic. I remember talking to an accountant I knew in a supporting church and he had some great advice for me on the topic.
    I have to point out that this isn’t just an issue for missionaries. Pastors also have a similar problem. Many cannot leave their church/pulpit because they have nothing. Especially that generation when they all lived in parsonages.
    The church needs to look at the bigger picture.

  • Thanks for touching on this topic. It´s one my husband and I have been discussing lately. Our sending church has been very open and realistic about planning for health emergencies so I think we are already in an easier position than most missionaries! We are definitely trying to figure out how to prepare for the years when we can no longer work. I´m interested in learning how other missionaries are preparing.

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