Should Debt Disqualify a Missionary?

by Jerry Jones on October 20, 2017

I don’t usually start a blog post with an “I’m sorry” . . . but I’m not above it.

I offer my sincere and heartfelt apologies to anyone who clicked on this link looking for a solid, definitive answer. I don’t have one . . . but maybe you do so I would love to engage in the conversation.

Here’s the scenario:

Young couple. Just had a baby. Know that they know that they know (or at least think that they know) that God has called them to live and work overseas. They’re willing to do the due diligence. Hit the road. Raise support. “Develop partners”.

Everything lines up with the org they’re applying to. Good fit theologically. Passed the psych evaluation. References check out.

But.

They have debt.

And so . . . rejected.

Here’s the question:  

Should debt be an automatic disqualifier (or postponer) for missionary deployment?

I want to be careful here.

If you’re like me you probably have a visceral reaction. “Absolutely it should” or “No. Absolutely not” but I dare you to try to argue for the other side (whichever side you land on) if for no other reason than to see from a different perspective.

It’s a two handed issue.

On the one hand, you have qualified, clearly called, willing and able candidates who have been duped into a system that says, “we won’t send you unless you have a degree” and “we won’t give you a degree unless you pay us ridiculous amounts of money” and “the only way you can realistically get that money is to borrow it” and “now that you have borrowed it . . . we won’t send you.”

On the other hand, you have supporters giving hard earned money for the sake of the Kingdom. They want return on investment and frankly paying off someone else’s bad decisions doesn’t qualify.

On the one hand, saying, “get a job and pay down your debt first” may make it harder for people to quit that job five or ten years down the line once they have settled into a certain lifestyle. We might lose them.

On the other hand if they are really called . . .

On the one hand, debt is a heavy weight to carry when you’re adjusting to an already stressful, cross-cultural life.

On the other hand, so is a newborn baby or a new marriage, or a new language, or EVERYTHING ELSE IN YOUR WORLD.

On the one hand the Bible and Dave Ramsey say certain things about debt.

On the other hand do past choices make you ineligible for future service?

On the one hand I support you because I believe in you.

On the other hand I support you so I’ve earned an opinion in your finances.

On the one hand God is patient and His mission is timeless. We can wait.

On the other hand . . . last days and urgency. Hurry up.

On the one hand stewardship.

On the other hand respect.

On the one hand school debt. Like Bible college. Jesus degrees.

On the other hand credit cards. Car payments. Couldn’t afford pizza one night so . . .

 

It’s not an easy topic. There are multiple angles to consider.

So consider away.

What has been your experience?

Where do you land on the issue?

Can you see the other side?

Comment below . . . I look forward to learning something.

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About Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com
  • LandonandCourtney Shuman

    I’m also curious if this discussion would be applicable to preachers/church ministers in the States?

    • Jerry Jones

      Courtney — I’ve certainly heard this conversation in those circles. What do you think?

  • Prue Scott

    We have a home loan. It is being paid off by our renters. That house is our superannuation basically, because the amount of superannuation we get from our mission agency is the bare minimum. I don’t see how it can possibly be a bad thing that we have that as financial security.

    • Prue Scott

      As an addendum, we are not from the US, and we don’t have huge debts from our university education. It’s probably worth saying that. Is that the type of debt you are actually talking about? Or any debt at all?

      • Jerry Jones

        Great question — I think that’s all a part of the conversation. There are clearly different types of debt and some of those could be indicators of more systemic issues that might be legitimate concerns for welfare on the field. Should orgs have a complex system for determining what they will allow or is that just making it more convoluted?

  • Ashley Felder

    I have mixed feelings. Personally, we made it a goal to pay off our debt before we came to the field. We didn’t have a ton, just some undergrad loans, and we both worked full time before our first child was born to pay off those as well as my husband’s grad school fees as he went to school. However, since being on the field over the years, I’ve seen people carefully budget and clearly communicate with supporters that they need help paying off their debt. But I think there may need to be some sort of cap for the debt. I’ve also met people on the other end who don’t budget at all and have tens of thousands in debt. They take elaborate vacations and don’t even blink an eye at their debt. Of course, I think this has a ton to do with spiritual maturity and perhaps not a real calling to the field. So, in the end, no, I don’t think orgs need to make it such a clear-cut rule that if there is any debt, you can’t come. But I do think everyone should be considered on an individual basis. What is their financial history? Have they been working hard towards paying off their debt before applying? How do they continue to do so on the field? How can they show their supporters they are being wise with the money given? Lots to consider. 🙂

    • Jerry Jones

      Well said Ashley. It’s complex huh?

  • This is such a hard topic for me. Before I got married I was planning to go teach with a friend in a new organization he’d started in Tanzania (that is totally thriving 12 years later), but I had debt. It was a small student loan debt, but the organization he was then umbrella under had a hard and fast no debt rule. So I got married. And we started a family. And our combined student loan debt was more than our total take home income for an entire year. After 5 years we bought a house (because housing costs are just out of control in our area) so we now have a mortgage too (but that’s cheaper than rent on a comparable place). Other than that, we have no other debts. (and we could sell it in a heartbeat here)
    Should we have been smarter about where we chose to go to college? Maybe? But you can’t teach without major schooling like you can some other fields. So this is where we are. We still want to go and teach in Tanzania, but I have my doubts that we will ever get there. It’s been 12 years, my oldest is going to middle school next year and my dad who we live near has major health problems.
    I sometimes wonder “what if” we had been able to go, even with our debt back then.
    I do think that there are some categories of debt that shouldn’t be accepted, specifically credit card debt unless there was some extenuating circumstance. But student loans, even with perspective now I don’t see how I could have gotten through school at all without some, and then to be disqualified just seems harsh. I think organizations going forward are going to find their willing pool significantly limited if they don’t make some changes to this rule.

    • Jerry Jones

      Good points Krista. To me it makes sense for an org to provide financial accountability for the people that they send but that could come in a lot of different forms. Maybe saying that raising funds specifically for paying off debt is not a good thing (from a stewardship perspective) but also giving room for reasonable salaries to be budgeted as the missionaries deem wise (just like anyone else with a salary). There is a whole other rabbit trail about how different we treat missionaries than we do anyone else.

      • Yes, very much a rabbit trail. That comes with a lot of judgement. Anytime we “give” money to someone we seem to have a lot of strings attached. I know accountability is good, but if we aren’t living to the exact same standards ourselves…
        I think a salary would be a great idea, I’ve never really thought about that before. Because even if you try to budget for every last little thing there will always be unexpected expenses and having the flexibility to use your own money wisely would be a pretty great thing.
        I do love the idea of paying off debt being considered an investment in training, especially if the job on the mission field is very tied to the debt (like teaching would be).

  • DMM

    My husband and I (+kids) have been on the field for over 5 years. We both have undergrad loans from attending a private Christian college, where we met and prepared for being in full-time ministry. Without a doubt, we would not be serving where/how we are without this education. We’ve been transparent with our organization and ministry partners who’ve asked, and we pay the monthly zero-interest bill out of our paycheck (not out of our support account- yes, the paycheck comes from that account, but we don’t control it). Someone once told us they look at it as investing in us as workers, and in the ministry that we now do, retro-actively. They think of it as helping cover our training. Make sense to me. Credit card and/or car debt seem like perhaps a different category. Not sure.

    • Jerry Jones

      Love that DMM. Retroactive investment is something I could get on board with as a supporter.

  • brooke franklin

    I’m a missionary overseas with school debt. It’s deferred because I am not with an organization and live on donations. I moved because, well Jesus said. It is a constant question. Do I go back and pay it off? But, in my heart, I just trust him. It’s simple to me. He called me. He provides. He knows the debt is there. We step out in faith and he extravagantly answers. He’s just good. Maybe we’ll never know the answer because there really isn’t one? I believe we let money dictate too much of our lives. We let it speak on behalf of our dreams, callings, heart cries, etc. For me, in a question like this…I just trust him and say, yes.

    • Jerry Jones

      Good words Brooke. I wonder if some of your supporters would see helping you pay your debt as an investment into your longevity on the field (see DMM’s comment above). We know that debt keeps us chained up so maybe there is a way for you to break free from that even while you serve. Just thinking out loud . . . you are certainly not alone though.

      • brooke franklin

        Oh man, I really love what you said. Investment into longevity, that’s really amazing! It’s been interesting living in the tension of serving with debt.

  • Sunshine Williams

    When we moved to our first foreign country, God miraculously sent a car accident (yes! He can take something meant for evil and use it for good!), which the settlement for was the exact amount to pay off the rest of our mortgage and school loan $32,000 US). When we felt called to come to China, we were offered a teaching job in March and here by July. We ended up putting half of our annual salary (in China) on a credit card to pay for air fare. We used a credit card check…you know, 0 interest for 18 months… It added some stress, but God provided and it was paid off with no interest.

    Debt should not disqualify a person IF there is a manageable plan for repayment. If the missionary can budget it in, it should be considered. If debt is extreme or consumer debt, it may disqualify someone because paying high interest rates are poor stewardship and because we are people of integrity who cannot default on a loan.

    I recommend tithing, increasing your giving to God, and asking Him for “Windows of heaven to be opened” (See Malachi 3)

    **If God gives the vision, He will give the provision. He always pays for what he orders. *

  • agapetos11

    In regard to debt for education specifically, it really is a systemic and cultural issue, at least in the US. In almost all other jobs requiring college degrees, the expectation is that you probably need to take out loans but in the end you’ll get a good paying job and work hard to pay it off in that field. For ministry positions, a higher level of education is still required that often means acquiring debt just like in many other careers, but the field the person has trained for sometimes seems to accuse or punish those who would like to work in it rather than providing a job opportunity by which to pay back the education. And if the person with a ministry degree can’t get a job (or be sent out) in their field, what good-paying job does that hard earned degree qualify them for, exactly? It’s important to look at the bigger system in addition to the financial practices of individuals

    • Vanessa Marie Jencks

      Yes, like how about US churches do the hard work of equipping and training pastors instead of requiring an institution to do this? I know Seminaries are helpful…. but they’re big business these days.

  • Kim Atkinson

    Ahhh, this is interesting timing. We are overseas and carrying the debt from a tax bill we did not see coming. It has been difficult to step out in obedience and feel unfaithful and irresponsible. We are communicating with supporters but feel that we have failed them in so many ways.This might be one of our biggest faith challenges…I can believe and trust and communicate about plane tickets, ministry expenses etc…..but for taxes….way more complex. It is shaking everything we believe about God as provider. We are struggling along and seeking to be faithful in the midst of looming numbers. I know God is not daunted by these numbers, but I worry we have missed Him along the way as the time to pay has come and gone….now what? We are not from the US.

  • Amy Olson

    There are two types of debt: bad debt and good debt. I know Dave Ramsey people will roll their eyes at that statement. But really, good debt is an investment in your future and can contribute towards multiplication of your money. I think of the parables Jesus told in the Bible about money, one of them being an owner who gave his servants money (a loan) and some of them invested it wisely and received returns, and others buried it in the ground until he returned and were scolded for not multiplying it.
    My husband and I have been on the field for over a year now, and we have a small loan from his graduate studies, and a mortgage on a house in Canada. The mortgage and loan payment are fully covered by the rental income we receive from our house. We have a lot of equity in our home, and this will serve us well when we return from the field one day.
    The bad debt I am thinking of is consumer debt. We have always worked hard and have never had consumer debt. We pay off credit cards in full every month. Where I cringe is when I hear people carrying credit card debt. As a missionary, you need to be able to live within, or below, your means. Consumer debt to me is a sign that a person has not learned to live within or below their means. I do believe that in order to effectively live on support, you need to show an ability to live on a budget and manage your monthly living expenses. This can be proven while living in your home country and bringing home a regular salary. This kind of discipline can lead to success on the mission field.
    Thus, I don’t think it is fair for missions agencies to consider all debt as the same, or have a blanket policy for debt. I think there is wisdom in recognizing the type of debt people have accumulated, and if they can prove that they know how to manage money on a daily basis and budget their lives. We have tracked our expenses for the last 12 years, and know each month what our money has been spent on. This knowledge was essential in building our budget when moving overseas to serve, as we had an idea of what it costs for our family of 5 to live. Of course, we are operating in a new country, but understanding where we spend our money, where we can cut back, and that we had the discipline to live within this means was helpful.
    The Lord has continued to bless us – we support raised for slightly more than we actually needed, and have been able to use this towards paying down our good debt by half while we have been here for the year. And God has allowed us to build up a large contingency while living here, in case of emergency, or even as savings when we move back to our home country for that adjustment period.
    That being said, we live modestly, only eat out once a month, and do not take extravagant, expensive vacations. Thanks for this blog post, it was very interesting and a great dialogue for us all to have!

  • jesse mattix

    Right out of the bull pen, I would say no debt as you go out on the mission field. However a lot of good points have been brought up and it certainly is complex as Jerry points out. But let me give some of the reasons for my initial thinking anyway.
    No debt: The possibility of debt becoming a lifestyle is very bothersome. Pretty soon you lose the freedom to serve the Lord because you MUST take care of Money (the other lord). So the slavery issue, as brought up in scripture becomes real even on the mission field.
    We are not told that debt is sinful in scripture it just comes with consequences. So there is room for balance. One piece of advice in bible college from my missions profesor was “don’t buy a house if you plan to go on the mission field”. His point was debt so you could expand the comment. However that gets complex because 15 years later on the mission field… I want to buy a house in the US or overseas, is that ok for a missionary? Debt now? How about setting up a home for my kids in the US or retirement?
    Age has a way of giving perspective too. Older people have a way of getting into debt in a balanced thoughtful way where some young high school grad gets his first credit card and wants to max it all out on the principle that he is old enough to do it now. Pretty thoughtless but the consequences are the same.
    On balance of the above I would say anyone wanting to be a missionary should aim for no debt and mission organizations should take thinks on a case by case.

    • I’ve heard that “don’t buy a house” thing, too. From watching other people, though, I’ve seen that the opposite can be good. We’ve never had a house or anything big and valuable, and sometimes that has almost made me jealous of people who have gotten financially settled somewhere along the way. They can sell the house and start off well on the field. They have history and a financial identity in their passport country. However, we haven’t ever had to deal with debt, and I’m thankful for that.

      • Melissa Dougherty

        We bought a house before we left (when we knew we were called to go) and now the rental income provides almost entirely for our life as missionaries. Major benefit for us (however, we did pay cash for the home so we didnt go into debt to do so), its great to have a permanent residence in the US, etc… so owning a home in the US can be a wise decision for a missionary

  • Vanessa Marie Jencks

    We went and paid off our debt as going actually provided for us financially while staying put in the US didn’t. Agapetos11 makes a great point because my husband essentially couldn’t find a job with a “worthless” Christian Ministries degree and a partially finished Seminary degree. I could have found a job, but because I had a child, in our conservative faith family, that meant that I should stay at home at take care of that child regardless of if I can feed that child. And so, there we were, him working 60 hours with us still on welfare when we could have had everything provided for and some overseas with a teaching job. No brainer financially, and it’s been one of the best growing seasons of my faith.

  • Bettie Colson

    I have been on the field for 20 years now, and have seen many come and go for various reasons, finances often being a factor. I don’t believe that debt should be an automatic disqualifier, but sometimes organizations are not doing their missionaries a favor by permitting them to begin ministry with situations that can cause them hardship. We were out of debt shortly after arriving on the field, from the sale of our house which give us just enough profit to pay off the credit card debt. However, our organization permitted us to leave with less than the required amount of support raised. At the time it seemed like they were doing us a favor. It ended up causing us more difficulty than we would’ve imagined.
    The bottom line is that supporters come and go, but payments on a debt remain until they are finished. Yes, we live by faith, but we must discern between faith and presumption. The former is blessed, the latter is not.
    Pay off the loan before leaving? That is an option. Perhaps that will make it less likely that people will follow through with their decision to go. However, we considered our situation as temporary for the five years it took us to raise support, and if it had taken longer we still would not have settled in.
    I believe that one solution would be to avoid the debt by considering other forms of preparation. I am not against people having preparation from Bible schools or seminaries, but that is not a guarantee for success on the mission field. In the last 20 years I have seen well-educated missionaries have limited fruitfulness because of problems with adapting to the culture and forming relationships. However, others who have had other (less expensive) forms of preparation have flourished in their ministry. I work with a program called Live School. It is a comprehensive missionary training program developed for preparing nationals to go to unreached people groups in their area and beyond. It can be easily used in the US as well, for churches to prepare and send their missionaries. For more information see: http://worldmissioncentre.com/liveschool/

  • Shonda

    Jerry, I think you picked a great discussion topic!

    “God loves us more than the work that we do for Him.” Dr. Barney Davis

    What is my perspective? I believe every person can and should choose a debt free pathway. Many people including myself have fallen into the thinking pattern that if this thing ( a car, a house, a degree, a fill in the blank) will benefit someone else then I think it’s okay about saying yes to it. When I make a choice, I am responsible for that decision. If I choose to be in debt, I then become a slave to it. I honestly never believed I was a slave to it. I mean how can I be a slave to something that I don’t see?

    I’ve endured the journey of working off debt. I’ve said the painful “no’s” to many good things that I wanted. The journey to a debt free life is confusing. Hey, I’ve been stuck in confusion many times too. I was once a slave to debt, but now I am free. The choice to be free of debt will be one of the hardest decisions you will make. It’s hard because it’s a sacrifice. And it feels like you may be the only one choosing to say no to debt. As you journey down the road of saying no to debt, the burden will begin to lift. The sacrifice becomes a blessing. It sounds unreal, right? How can a sacrifice be a blessing? While I don’t have the exact words to answer that question, I do have the memories of my own personal experience. (And now I feel like this topic would be a good one to share on my blog. lol.)

    • Jerry Jones

      Shonda — Yes and “amen” from me. Debt free is clearly a better path. I’ve also been on both sides of it and can testify. I do believe that people can continue to serve whole-heartedly (and often cross-culturally) while they are making the hard decisions and working towards freedom. I hate that debt has that power . . . knock people out of effectiveness for long chunks of their lives. Thanks for commenting.

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