If you know me personally, then you know what I do for my day job. I work for the International Mission Board, (IMB) where I talk to people who want to become missionaries. It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. Their passion for world missions is tangible and contagious. So often, I leave those conversations encouraged. However, there is a dark side to my conversations. And that dark side revolves around student loans and missionary service.
A Few Facts About Student Loans in America
As you are no doubt aware, we have a massive student loan epidemic in America. Here are a few facts and figures to help you get a grasp of the situations:
- The average amount of student loan debt is $32,731.
- On average, borrowers pay $383 per month.
- The total amount of student loan debt is now $1.6 trillion.
Sadly, Christians are not exempt from these statistics. As a financial coach, I’ve talked to quite a few couples who have outrageous amounts of student loan debt. Indeed, I spoke with two couples recently who both went to Christian universities. In both cases, they came out with over $100,000 in student loan debt.
Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for me to speak with missionary candidates who have $20,000, $40,000, or even $80,000 in student loan debt. I know, it’s totally nuts! But how do student loans affect missionary service?
How Student Loans Affect Missionary Service
A little known fact is that many missionary-sending agencies have debt limits. In other words, they will not approve candidates who have a large amount of debt. For the most part, agencies focus on a candidate’s unsecured debt, which includes things like credit cards and student loans. But why? Because the candidate can’t rid themselves of the debt by selling something. Mortgages and car loans are different because they have a security attached to them. You can resolve the loan by simply selling the security, i.e. the house or the car. That’s not the case with student loans.
As you can imagine, this discussion also applies to those with lots of other consumer debt. However, I rarely talk to candidates who have lots of credit card debt. Student loan debt seems to be the biggest culprit. But why impose these restrictions on those called by God to serve as missionaries? There are a few reasons, which I’ll hash out below.
1. Having a lot of student loan debt makes it difficult to survive on a missionary salary
A few months back, I spoke with a candidate who was very excited to start the application process. He told me his story, his reasons for wanting to go, and his passion for the nations. It was awesome! Until I asked him about his student loans. He casually said that he would have $80,000 in student loans when he graduated. Well, this is awkward. “Um…do you know how much missionaries make?” I asked. When I told him the number, he still believed he could go. Then he went on to chastise me, saying, “Who are you to keep me from fulfilling God’s call?”
It’s no secret that missionaries don’t make very much money. In fact, a missionary’s salary is normally below the US federal poverty line. And missionaries definitely don’t go for the money. They go because they desire for all to come to saving knowledge of Christ. However, having a ton of student loan debt can hinder you from serving effectively. Why? Because you’ll spend a lot of time wondering how you can feed your family!
It doesn’t matter if it cost less to live and work in another country. When a large portion of your salary is going to a US-based lender, you’ll have trouble making ends meet.
“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” – 1 Timothy 5:8
2. The missions agency can interpret having student loans as poor stewardship
I spoke recently with a couple who had more than $100,000 in student loan debt. How did they get in this position? They went to a private university in a small town. Furthermore, neither of them were from the area. They went there because of the affiliation the university had with their faith. Moreover, neither of them finished their degrees and they lived on only $2,000 a month. Yet they wanted to be missionaries. Do you think they were good stewards of their resources? Would you hire them as missionaries? Somehow, I don’t think so.
Having a large amount of student loans can be an indicator of poor stewardship. How so? Because here’s the reality: you didn’t have to take out all those student loans. You may think you did. But you really didn’t. There are lots of ways to pay for college without student loans. Truthfully, you chose to go to a school you couldn’t afford and borrowed a large amount of money to finish.
We expect missionaries to be good stewards of the resources we give to them. Not only are they responsible for their own finances, but also for the resources that the church gives to them. If you come across tough times and your inclination is to go into debt, that’s a sign you may not steward the resources well.
Of course, I’m talking to those who have $30-$100,000 in student loan debt. For most missions agencies, if you have $20-$25,000 or less in student loans, they’ll generally accept you. Even then, I still recommend you pay them off quickly.
3. Student loans tether you to another master
“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.” – Proverbs 22:7
A few years ago, I served overseas as a missionary with the IMB. While going through the process, I found out about their debt limits. I was able to get a forbearance while I served on the field. However, that debt was always on my mind. I continuously thought about how my debt continued to grow at 5.25%. By the end of my two-year term, I found myself in more debt.
Proverbs 22:7 is a verse I want you to memorize. When you have debt to anyone, you are their slave in some capacity. This is especially true of student loans. It doesn’t matter what amount you owe, they have some claim on your life and money. And they will get their money one way or another.
Fortunately, my story ends with me working frantically to pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t end that way for everyone. It’s a burden many people carry with them for many years. And it doesn’t work to carry this burden to the mission field.
What Can I Do if I Have Student Loans and Want to Be a Missionary?
Here’s another truth about student loans and missionary service: student loans don’t have to keep you from the mission field forever. However, because you chose to take out student loans, you have some work to do. So here’s a step-by-step plan for knocking out your debt before going to the field.
1. Realize that having student loans does not mean you’re not called
This is an important one. You’re calling does not change even if you have student loans. However, your student loan situation might delay your calling. Why? Because you chose to tie yourself to another master. You must free yourself of that master so you can go serve unhindered and without reservation!
So, let your desire to serve the Lord overseas be the motivation for knocking out your debt! Kill your student loans so you can eagerly shout, “Here am I! Send me!”
2. Start budgeting now
One of the biggest keys to financial success is making a budget. And no, it doesn’t matter how little you make or even if you live on an irregular income. If you want to succeed, you need to know where your money is going.
3. Make a plan to get out of debt
Of course, the best plan is to not go into debt in the first place. If so, check out my article on how to pay for college without student loans. Otherwise, you need a plan to get out of debt and stay there.
For more on that, check out The Best Way to Pay Off Student Loans.
4. Serve wherever you are and prepare to go
Don’t let paying off your debt be an excuse to not do ministry. Yes, God called you to serve overseas. But he also called you to minister wherever you are right now. During assessment, missions agencies will also want to know what you’re doing at this moment. If you’re not doing ministry now, you won’t be doing it overseas.
Therefore, go and make disciples wherever you are! When the time is right and if God wills it, he will send you overseas.
Student Loans and Missionary Service Don’t Work Well Together
In conclusion, student loans and missionary service don’t go hand-in-hand. Having a large amount of student loans can delay serving overseas significantly. If you don’t do anything about your student loans, it delays going indefinitely. Therefore, I encourage you to work to put together a plan to get rid of your student loans. I say this not to keep you from the mission field, but to ensure you can stay there as long as God has you there.
There are two resources I recommend for those struggling with student loan debt.
The first is The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. His 7 Baby Step plan is the one I use personally. I love it and it has done wonders for me and my family!
The second is Destroy Your Student Loan Debt by Anthony ONeal. This is a step-by-step guide to knocking out your student loans.
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