How Do Financial Factors Impact Missionary Attrition?

by Andrea Sears

Life on the mission field includes unique financial stressors. Many cross-cultural workers raise their own salary and expenses. Inviting others to join in the work of the Great Commission through financial contributions is a blessing, and helps to grow us in humility and trust in God’s provision. But it can also be uncomfortable and stressful when we don’t know when or if our next paycheck will arrive.

In addition to the pressures of fundraising, life overseas is subject to other financial wild cards such as fluctuating exchange rates, inflation, immigration fees, unexpected expenses, and even increased risk of financial loss due to robberies. Workers may find that what they raised is suddenly not sufficient for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

No one becomes a missionary thinking that they will get materially rich. In fact, many of us leave more lucrative positions in our home country to become missionaries despite the cut in pay. The missionary life is definitely not about making money, nor should it be.

But even with the right motivations for mission work, ongoing stress about finances can take its toll. In our survey, we measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be financial factors:

  • I felt uncomfortable raising money.
  • My financial support was low.
  • I struggled to adjust to my missions salary.
  • I struggled with financial discipline and budgeting.
  • The cost of living (or inflation) in my host country was higher than expected.
  • I was unable to pay immigration fees and costs for residency in my host country.
  • Local currency exchange rates made my support level insufficient.
  • I was unable to meet debt obligations.
  • I was unable to save money.
  • I was unable to pay for children’s schooling.
  • I was unable to plan for retirement.

Quantitative Results

The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field,
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor that said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect, and
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision.

Discussion of Quantitative Results

The majority of returning missionaries felt some degree of discomfort with raising money (67%) and experienced low financial support (53%). Both affected their return decision to some degree at least half of the time. The strength factors (0.93 and 0.95, respectively) were the largest for this section, but they were moderate when compared to other factors in the survey.

The next tier of financial concerns included cost-of-living or inflation surprises (strength factor 0.73) and being unable to save money (0.75) or plan for retirement (0.80). While many missionaries are able to raise support for their normal monthly expenses, it is less common to raise enough for future financial planning through savings and investment. While this may not be a problem for short-term assignments, long-term missionaries may find themselves financially vulnerable later in life because they have sacrificed their highest earning years in the work force to missions.

38% of missionaries struggled to adjust to their missions salary, but it affected the return decision of only 1/3 of those and not to a large degree (0.53). It seems that most missionaries are prepared to buckle down and manage their budget very carefully. As a result, the remaining items surveyed were either experienced by few or were of low concern to those experiencing them.

Funding Status at Departure to Mission Field

In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we asked each participant if they went to the mission field fully funded. If they did not, we asked them to supply a percent of support raised relative to their goal.

75% of participants in this study went fully funded to the field. The remaining 25% went with varying degrees of funds raised relative to their goal, as indicated in the chart above. Individuals who went to the field before reaching full funding went at an average of 63% of their goal and a median of 70%.

When we divide the sample into subgroups of fully-funded and not-fully-funded, we see that the not-fully-funded experienced significantly higher levels of financial distress on all factors. First, we can see that the percent that experienced each stressor was higher for all measured statements.

Next, we can see that in nearly all cases, the percent of not-fully-funded respondents who felt that the factor affected their return decision was also higher.

Finally, when comparing strength factors, we can see that nearly all of the financial factors were more heavily weighted in the return decision for the not-fully-funded group.

This analysis shows that there is a demonstrable correlation between going to the field without full funding and experiencing higher levels of financial distress.

Matthew 6:19-20 exhorts us to pursue that which is eternal, rather than that which is temporal. But the Bible also teaches us to plan ahead (Proverbs 13:16), save diligently (Proverbs 21:20, I Corinthians 16:2), and be prepared for emergencies (Genesis 41:34-36, Ecclesiastes 11:2). Missionaries are not exempt from these teachings – all Christians are responsible to be wise administrators in caring for our families and others.

Given that so many missionaries experience discomfort with raising money, we have some options before us to help manage the financial stress that comes with the missionary life:

  • comprehensive training and preparation on the theology of fundraising
  • consulting on strategy and event planning
  • accountability for meeting planned goals
  • investigation of other models for missionary support (for example, tentmaking, business as mission, or church/denomination salaries for missionaries)
  • mission policy balancing “stepping out in faith” with required thresholds for funding before departure
  • provision of “safety nets” for temporary low support while on the field
  • flexibility in furlough policy that allows balancing of family and fundraising needs
  • insurance coverage that helps missionaries avoid high unexpected medical or mental health care costs
  • required savings and retirement contributions

Does your agency offer these types of support? Are there other innovative ways of helping missionaries with finances that you have seen?

There is sometimes a sense in missions that “people are donating money for the direct impact that I will have on the mission field, not for me to have insurance or savings or be able to plan for my future.” We rightly feel a tremendous burden to be good stewards of the money that we have raised. But that does not mean we must neglect our own needs.

Expecting missionaries to be paupers can actually cause them to stumble and become proud and competitive about how frugal and unworldly they are. This sin of pride in frugality is no less sinful than the blatant idolatry of riches.

Financial safeguards are an important part of giving the missionary a sense of some minimum level of security at a vulnerable time when most of the security they have known is stripped away. The missionary should not put their faith in that security instead of in God, but this does not mean that they should not have it at all.

Providing for missionaries’ financial needs within reason will free them to be the healthy workers that we need to keep on the mission field. Surely we can do this in balance, providing for the emotional and physical well-being of our workers while still being careful stewards of God’s resources (which include not just the money, but the missionaries themselves). It is well worth the investment of donors’ money and should be seen as a necessary part of ensuring a missionary’s health and resilience, thereby extending their longevity.

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Andrea Sears and her husband, Seth, spent 13 years working in the largest immigrant squatter settlement in Central America (in Costa Rica) and founded the Christian community development ministry giveDIGNITY. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Johnson University. She currently lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, directs the ministry’s local team from afar, and enjoys living near family and being a new grandmother.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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