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So, you want to become a missionary with the International Mission Board (IMB). That’s awesome! Without a doubt, you know that the world still has more than 7,000 unreached people groups. 3,000 of those classify as unreached and unengaged. This means that billions have little to no access to the good news of Jesus Christ. However, there’s the possibility you might have the dark cloud of student loan debt hanging over your head. If so, there are some things you need to learn about student debt and world missions.

No doubt, missionary service is one of the greatest ways to serve the Lord. Indeed, cross-cultural service presents itself as a challenging and fun way to take the gospel to the nations. But many fail to stop and think about the impact heavy debt might have on their ability to serve.

In this article, I will lay out what you need to know about student debt and world missions. Since I work for the IMB, I’ll specifically address the debt limits of the IMB and what you can do if you have student debt.

Student Debt and World Missions: Why Do Missions Agencies Have Debt Limits?

I still remember the fear that overwhelmed me when I learned about the IMB’s debt limits. I had just finished college and I had a pretty large student loan balance. What on earth was I going to do? Would student loans keep me from fulfilling God’s call? Why would they limit me? All these questions flooded my mind.

This might shock you, but the IMB is not the only agency with debt limits. Almost every missions agency limits the amount of debt their candidates can carry. But why?

In case you didn’t know, missionaries don’t make a whole lot of money. Most missions agencies require their missionaries to raise a certain amount of support, with the amount allowing for modest living. Fortunately, the IMB does not require missionaries to raise support, thanks to the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

Even though the IMB provides a sufficient salary, don’t count on it making you rich. You’ll really only make enough to eat, to keep the lights on, and to travel a little bit. Therefore, having a large amount of student loan debt could hinder your ability to live overseas.

Furthermore, the amount of debt you carry says something about the ability to properly manage your resources. Churches in the United States entrust their missionaries with the resources they need to succeed. Moreover, missionaries also face unique challenges. If your first inclination is to go into debt during a tough time, it could be a sign of poor stewardship.

Therefore, the debt limit has two faces to it. The first is whether or not the amount of debt will hinder your ability to live. The second is a measure of good stewardship.

What are the IMB’s Debt Limits?

Recently, the IMB revamped its guidelines regarding the debt limit. Previously, the IMB limited candidates to an extremely small amount of debt in order to serve with them. Now the limits focus mostly on the monthly payment:

  • Journeyman (2-year term for those aged 21-30): $235 per month for singles or $394 per month for married couples.
  • Mid-term missionaries (2-4-year term, various service pathways): $275 per month for singles or $459 per month for married couples.
  • Long-term missionaries (IMB’s Apprentice and Career pathway): $344 per month for singles or $574 per month for married couples

There you have it! If you can limit your monthly payments to the amounts above or lower, you stand a chance of serving with the IMB!

However, I still want to point out that the IMB still cares about your overall debt. Bearing the burden of tens of thousands of dollars can still limit your effectiveness in serving overseas.

What Can I Do if My Payments Are Above the Debt Limit?

Not too long ago, I spoke over the phone with someone who’s debt well exceeded the IMB’s limits. The amount? Over $200,000. This guy owed more on his education than most owe on their homes! Still, he had a valid question. What can I do if I’m over the debt limit? I recommend taking a look at a few possibilities. Keep in mind that these only work for Journeyman or Mid-term candidates:

1. Contact your loan company and see if they can temporarily lower the payments

Most lenders will allow you to temporarily lower your monthly payment while based on your income. Trust me, you will almost certainly make a lower income as a Mid-term missionary.

I personally took this option when I served as a Journeyman several years ago. All I had to do was login and request a lower payment. Easy as pie!

2. Request a forbearance

A forbearance allows you to forgo student loan payments for a couple of years. Often, lenders will allow you to do this when you take a job with a lower salary. However, your loan will still accrue interest during the forbearance period.

Even though you can take this option, I wholeheartedly do not recommend it. Student debt compounds over time. That means that your loan balance will grow a few thousand dollars while you serve.

3. Someone else can make your payments

Now, I don’t advocate that you beg your friends and family to make your payments for you. However, I have known a few Journeymen whose parents showed them a lot of grace. They made regular payments on their behalf while they served overseas. When the Journeyman missionaries returned, they took up the responsibility of their loans.

4. You can work for a while and pay off your loans before you can go

Honestly, this is my favorite option. Here’s why: you agreed to pay your student loans when you took them. Therefore, you bear the responsibility to pay them back. Yes, God might have called you to serve overseas. But there is a reason the Bible says, “The borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). That means you have the moral obligation resolve your debt.

No matter how you look at it, your debt chains you to someone. Therefore, you have two options when it comes to your student debt and world missions. You can either delay setting yourself free from debt or you can knuckle down and knock it out.

Student Debt and World Missions: Not a Match Made in Heaven

Indeed, student loans restrict many people from serving overseas. However, while I believe debt is a thief, there are some things debt cannot steal from you.

For one, debt does not mean God did not call you. Calling first and foremost comes from God. Now, your circumstances might temporarily keep you from going overseas. However, if God has given you the unique gifting and desire to serve as a missionary, you’ll get there eventually. “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” – 1 Corinthians 7:17

Second, debt does not steal your effectiveness here and now. In fact, even if you have zero debt, you should continue to seek ways to share the gospel. You won’t find anywhere that says you shouldn’t share the gospel at home after God calls you overseas. Wherever God has you, you need to be all there. “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” – Proverbs 16:3

And finally, debt cannot steal your hope. Our ultimate hope is not in where we live, what we do, or in our circumstances. Hope is found in what Christ has done for us. And you know what? Nothing can separate us from that. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

Making a Plan

First, I recommend making a budget. This is something you can do even if you have an irregular income, or even in the midst of a crisis.

Next, you’ll want to start working a plan. I found that Dave Ramsey’s 7 Baby Step plan works extraordinarily well. Dave Ramsey highlights this in his book, The Total Money Makeover. If you click the image above, it will take you straight to Amazon where you can purchase his book.

If you’re about to graduate high school and want to avoid student loans, then I highly recommend Debt Free Degree by Anthony ONeal. This will lay out a step-by-step plan to help you obtain your degree without student loans.

Finally, be careful when it comes to student loans. Increase your awareness of the dangers and educate future generations so they don’t fall into the same traps. Create a plan, stick to it, and free yourself from the burden of debt! That way, you can increase your generosity and serve the Lord without restriction or hesitation!

*This article contains affiliate marketing links. For more information, please read my disclaimer.

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