Several years ago, a good friend approached me about supporting his family in their missionary endeavor in a developing country. What I remember most about our discussion is looking at my friend’s financial budget. I did not look at the line items, but went straight for the bottom line. I was shocked, to say the least! His fundraising goal was far more than my salary. Questions began to race through my head:
“Aren’t you going to be living in a third world country?”
“Are you just taking your American dream over there?”
“Don’t people there live on a few dollars a day?”
“Isn’t everything cheaper in foreign countries?”
The list went on and on. In the end, I was so put off by his budget that I believed I could not support him in good conscience.
Some of these questions are good to ask, but I realize now that I was coming from a critical heart-attitude, thinking that I knew better than he how missionaries ought to live, how much it should cost to support a missionary, etc.
Counting the Costs
The question begs itself: “Why is it so expensive to send and support cross-cultural missionaries?”
Here are a few things to consider:
Preparation: Simply to arrive at the ministry destination, missionaries need funds for plane tickets, which, depending on the location, can easily tilt the scales between $1,000-$4,000 per person. So, you’re looking at between $4,000-$16,000 just in airfare for a normally sized American family. Many missionaries also need to ship crates of personal belongings, which usually start around $7,000. Throw on top the missionaries’ training costs – seminary, an orientation program, language school, and the like – and you can see that it’s pricey merely to arrive on the field.
Visas: Obtaining long-term visas is becoming more difficult and more expensive around the world – for Americans and especially for missionaries. This cost can vary dramatically between countries and can change significantly as new laws hit the books.
Procuring and Furnishing a Home: Missionaries do not live an extravagant lifestyle overseas. They live more or less like the people around them, perhaps with minor differences for sanity’s sake. Regardless, whether you’re living in the bush of Indonesia, on the frozen tundra of Northern Canada, or in a concrete jungle, it often takes a fair amount of money to get your home set up, even if you are buying all local items.
Food, Electronics and Everyday Items: In many foreign countries, food is expensive because so much of it has to be imported. Yes, items grown locally are typically inexpensive, but imported food can be double the price of what we pay in the U.S. The same is true for other electronic items, as well as everyday things such as cookware, appliances, etc. Missionaries are wise to pay more for items of higher quality, because skimping on certain things can make them pay in other, more unpleasant ways. Some missionaries try to live as much like the local people as possible, but their bodies cannot physically handle eating totally ‘native.’ Therefore, they incur have extra costs for food and other necessities.
Ministry: Missionaries typically have to raise all of their own ministry expenses. These costs could include evangelism and discipleship resources, materials for community projects, among many other things. Typically, one of the largest ministry expenses is travel. Many missionaries work in several different areas of a their region or country. Therefore, they may need to pay for gasoline, airfare, boat passage, truck rides, or bus tickets to get to their ministry destination.
Vehicle: Family vehicles are pretty expensive anywhere you go. However, they can be extraordinarily expensive when nearly 100% of the cars are imported. All the missionaries I know buy used cars, but they have make sure that they are buying high quality vehicles in order to serve well their family and ministry. In most countries around the world, there is no such thing as ‘lemon laws.’ If missionaries are not careful about buying a quality vehicle, they can find themselves driving a far greater curse than a blessing.
Healthcare: It seems that healthcare costs are expensive for everyone these days, but insurance premiums are often alleviated for many Americans through their employer. Missionaries often have no such luxury. They are not on an employer healthcare plan and thus often pay more for coverage that works outside the U.S.
Taxes: This is another area in which we often don’t realize how employers help. Employers pay portions of Social Security and Medicare taxes taken out of your paycheck. On the other hand, most missionaries pay the full amount – both the employee and employer shares.
Sending Agency: A good sending agency can be invaluable for a missionary, especially when it comes to navigating the visa process, giving direction in strategy, issuing counsel in tough times alongside the local church, handling donations and tax issues, raising support, etc. The sending agency has costs associated and can have administrative fees anywhere from 5%-25% received donations, depending on the agency (Reaching & Teaching’s is 7%).
Had I been remotely aware of all these things, I would have taken a different approach with my friend’s support budget. Thankfully, Betsy and I are blessed with a sending church and ministry partners that are not like I was. They are loving, caring and heavily invested in prayer, encouragement and finances.
If you’re like I was a few years ago, I hope you are starting to see the significant investment that it takes to send missionaries to the field. If given the chance, I trust you’ll support those who have “gone out for the sake of the name” in “a manner worthy of God,” becoming “fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 5-8).
Editor’s Note: To support a Reaching & Teaching missionary, go to reachingandteaching.org/missionaries.