My grandparents were missionaries in Brazil for over 40 years. They trained with New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360) in the 1940s and as far as I understand served for a short time with the organization before switching organizations to serve in an area of Brazil that NTM was not already serving in. I remember hearing how early on they travelled to and from Brazil via ship. I also remember hearing about how they lived on very little and saw the Lord faithfully provide for their entire ministry.
Supporting missionaries is a great way to participate in the Great Commission. Today lives are being impacted all over the globe because missionaries are being sent out and supported by a team of faithful partners with the shared vision of reaching the unreached for Christ.
However, today’s missionaries are asking for a lot more money than our grandparents did. This begs the question:
How much money do missionaries REALLY need today?
In this blog, I hope to explain how missionaries are supported, what makes up a missionary’s monthly financial needs, the large one-time start up costs missionaries often have, what gets cut when a missionary is under-supported and some other things to consider about missionary finances.
I wanted to write this blog to help shed some light in an area of missionary life that has the potential to be misunderstood. We have experienced misunderstanding as a family and know that others have as well. Let’s be honest: tackling money issues is a touchy subject! We hope that this blog will be a help to you and the missionaries you support, and we want it to be a helpful resource to our own team of faithful supporters who work and sacrifice so that we can be down here in Mexico!
In consideration of all missionaries working worldwide, I will not be sharing dollar amounts. For more information on your missionaries personal budget, you will have to contact them directly.
First, before I get into the breakdown, I want to begin by highlighting the varied types of missionaries and ministries, and then how these missionaries are usually supported.
How Missionaries Are Supported
There are many different kinds of missionaries. Some serve in the United States, while some serve in a foreign country. Some people work where learning a completely new language is not necessary (say an American working in Canada or a Mexican working in Columbia), while some work where they have to learn the language (and often two languages) of the people they hope to reach (an American working in Thailand or a Mexican in Papua New Guinea). Some serve in an evangelistic or teaching capacity, while some serve in more of a helps capacity, such as in a finance office, on a maintenance team, or government representation. Some work with an organization (like Ethnos360), while others work independently. Some missionaries receive a salary if they work for a specific denomination, while most others rely on monthly financial support of individuals, families, small groups and churches.
While some types of ministries seem more glamorous, all missionaries are on the same team of seeing disciples made around the globe regardless of what part they play. This is easy to understand because of how God has arranged the body of Christ!
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” -1 Corinthians 12:14–20
An organization’s tax department accountant in the States is just as crucial as the evangelist in the remote tribe; missions is a team endeavor. All missionaries, like all people, need the finances to live, work, save and one day retire.
Like us, all Ethnos360 members (as well as in many other organizations) are required to raise 100% of the costs needed to move, live and maintain their lives wherever God has called them to serve. Support is made up of individuals, couples, families, small groups, churches, even sometimes businesses.
People typically give:
- special one-time gifts
A lot of giving is done over the internet via debit or credit card, or by setting up and Electronic Funds Transfer. Some people send in a check each month, and some make donations over the phone.
Missionaries are supported by friends, families and churches who want to partner in what God is doing around the globe. Ultimately, they are giving to the Lord!
“Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce…” -Proverbs 3.9
Monthly Support Levels & How They are Determined
But how are missionary recommended support levels determined? What goes into how the money is used each month, in general?
In our case, the organization we work for, Ethnos360, determines our recommended monthly support based on the field we are serving in and family size. The organization sets contextualized support levels based on information provided from each country to ensure that the missionary and their supporters know how much it is going to cost. Each country will vary, and each individual or family is required to raise close to that amount before they can launch out into their ministries. Having that said, many missionaries live under-supported.
Again, the individual missionary or missionary family working with an organization does not arbitrarily determine what their recommended support level is, the mission organization does. This is important to remember when a missionary serving with an organization approaches you for support. If it seems to high to you, it is important not to blame the missionary. (Yes, this happens) He or she should be able to explain how the level breaks down, but they are not in charge of setting the amount they are asking. Often you can even access more information from the organization itself as to why the level is where it is.
70 years ago when my grandparents began as missionaries, the support level they needed was of course much, much lower than it is today. Why? For obvious reasons, economic factors have changed, but also todays mission organizations typically require more by way of insurances and retirement than before.
How It All Breaks Down
Now I am going to share with you specifically where our monthly support level goes each month. Again, I cannot share dollar amounts with you for safety reasons, but the following is a breakdown of what our support typically goes towards each month.
Insurances/Taxes: We pay each month for health insurance and life insurance. When we served in Papua New Guinea we also paid for Emergency Evacuation Insurance. Our family is very thankful for the requirement of health insurance because in our case it has already saved us from financial ruin on three occasions. Iris’ delivery was very dangerous because Beth had a uterine rupture and it turned into a costly emergency. If we had not been insured we would have been thrust into massive debt and forced to leave the mission field because of it. Since then Iris has also had two eye surgeries which also would have put us into debt if not for insurance.
A common misconception is that missionaries who live outside of the United States do not pay U.S. taxes. This is false. Each year we have a tax liability that we are required to pay.
Food/Rent/Utilities/Gas: This is pretty much self-explanatory. We pay rent and utilities each month, such as water, electricity, propane, firewood for the winter, etc. We pay for groceries and gas for our minivan.
Fees: A small percentage of our monthly support goes towards Home Office (USA) mission fees, Field Fees (in our case Mexico), School fees for our kids, and even right now for us Language Program Fees.
Business Expenses: We also pay our own business expenses. For Beth & I right now, this includes paying language helpers. One friend working on Bible translation in a remote area of Mexico shared, “In the US, a receptionist doesn’t have to provide her own phone and computer for work. A manager doesn’t have to pay the salary of those working for him. But for me, I provide my own computer for work, any resources I need (software or books) are my responsibility, extra training whether from courses or workshops are my financial responsibility in both the travel and the cost of the training. And, I am responsible for the salaries of indigenous people who work on translation with me.”
Retirement/HSA/Savings: In our organization, and I assume many others, missionaries are required to put away some money into our organizationally provided retirement program. The minimum required is much lower than a financial planner would recommend, but each missionary determines what percentage will go towards their retirement. We designate an amount each month into our Health Savings Account, and if we can, we put money into savings.
Giving: This one may also come as a surprise to you, but as missionaries we also look at what we receive each month and designate a portion to give back to the Lord. In our case, we prioritize our home church, the poor, and like-minded evangelistic/discipleship ministres.
Misc: On any given month, this may or may not exist, but there are usually enough surprises each month to fork out cash for something and it comes from here, anything from surprise home maintenance and vehicle repairs to an unexpected, immediate need. For example, as I am writing this, our house water pump is having problems AND we have just had some unexpected vehicle repair costs. Also, this cost may include team purchases or business expenses related to their ministry. It may also include a date night with the wife. 😉
I want to point out one more thing regarding the above breakdown. For our family, 71% of our monthly support goes towards things that are typically automatically taken out on the U.S. side, so that in the end we really receive directly to us only 29% of what is given each month for things such as rent, gas, utilities and personal on-site expenses, including business expenses.
This specifically explains why there is often a vast difference between what your missionary is asking per month versus the cost of living in a specific country: It may not cost that much to live in say Columbia or Cambodia, compared to the United States, but the majority of our monthly support remains in the United States for needed services there: health insurance, life insurances, taxes, retirement, mission fees, health savings, and personal savings.
I hope you can see that a missionary’s monthly financial needs are based on normal life expenses, and are not needlessly excessive.
One-Time Start Up Costs
When a new missionary moves to start their new ministry, there is usually a large one-time start up cost need. For us moving to Mexico, this need included the following:
- a reliable vehicle
- visas for each family member (this is also a periodic recurring expense)
- Mexican car insurance
- foreign vehicle permit
- two months rent deposit for house
- refrigerator/freezer, washer/dryer, oven, beds/furniture, other needed household items.
In our organization a lot of missionaries make at least two large moves: one to the new country for national language and culture study, and then another move into an indigenous people group. This second move often requires the missionary to build a house, and so this would be a large, one-time expense that the missionary would have to raise support for.
2 Helpful Things to Understand
When thinking about a missionary you support there are two helpful things to understand.
1) As I mentioned above, most people support missionaries on a monthly basis, but some support quarterly and some do it yearly. There are times where a missionary is more likely to receive a special gift, say at the end of the tax year. There are times where people who normally give are unable to, for various reasons. There are high months and there are low months.
What does all of this mean? Even though the missionary has the same expenses each month, in terms of what comes in, every month varies. Each missionary anticipates what will come in and how to best budget the money. When we have a high-giving month, we know that down the road there will be a low-giving month, so we try to save what we can. Every once in a while there is a perfect storm of low-giving and high one-time expenses.
If you receive a support letter from your missionary during one of these times, it might be helpful to understand that the above perfect storm of low-giving/high-expenses has happened.
2) Most missionaries I know try to be transparent about their finances. However there is a line between being open and transparent with people and feeling the need to be accountable to everyone about where money has gone.
One time there was a missionary family raising funds who had a miscarriage and an expensive medical bill due to complications during the recovery process. The family was in the process of mourning their loss and paying medical bills when people began questioning them about their finances, and where some of their funds had gone, and the implication was that they had been poor stewards of the Lord’s money. The family was torn over how much they were required to share with people.
While missionaries should have some accountability and transparency with their finances to their supporters and supporting churches, there is a line in how much they should be expected to share publicly with people.
What Goes Out the Window When a Missionary Is Under-Supported
Practically speaking I have seen two things that immediately go out the window when a missionary is under-supported: savings and retirement.
This is problematic because when it comes to savings, the missionary will be unprepared for emergency expenses, or even unprepared for the eventual low-months.
We all know about unplanned expenses. The transmission goes bad in your vehicle, your laptop crashes, you need a root canal or your roof is leaking and you find yourself needing to fork out some serious cash. Each time something major happens, the missionary who is unable to save needs to either ignore the problem (bad idea in the case of the root canal, am I right?), go in debt via a credit card or family member, or make a financial plea in their update. When this starts happening each month it becomes not only a stressor on the missionary family, but also on the recipients of their updates.
When it comes to retirement, the old mentality was that for a missionary to put money into retirement was essentially “storing up for yourselves treasures on earth” and that since the rapture is coming so soon, it is poor financial stewardship. For one thing, there is a difference between hoarding money and wise planning for retirement. Secondly, we don’t know when the rapture is happening. My grandparents and many in their generation truly hoped for the rapture to happen in their lifetime. What happens when we can no longer work but the Lord hasn’t returned yet? It is not poor financial stewardship or a waste of money for a missionary to think and plan for their retirement one day.
Is the Missionary Life a Vow of Poverty?
When we were initially raising support to head overseas, I remember being afraid to lay out the actual dollar amount needed per month that the organization was asking me to raise to move overseas. Oftentimes the amount was met with raised eyebrows and almost disbelief. I remember one time my grandmother, who had been a missionary herself, contacted her brother who had served with and retired from our organization to verify if we really needed the amount we were asking for. It can be startling. Hopefully the above information has helped you see where the money goes and hopefully you can understand that life itself is expensive, regardless of where you work and who you work for.
The missionary life is not a vow of poverty. Life is simply different in 2017 than it was in the 1940s, or even in the first century of the early church. Vastly different. Each missionary senses the responsibility of the stewardship that the Lord has given them in living off of the support of others in the culture, economy, and overall day and age that we find ourselves in. We also sense the responsibility to “manage our households well.” This means ensuring that we have the means necessary to live, to ensure that our kids are taken care of, that they are clothed and fed, that we have a plan for when we are no longer able to work.
If we believe that the missionary life is a vow of poverty, we are doing a huge disservice to the families who are living and sacrificing for the Gospel. Missionaries of all people in the global church should have what they need to do the task they are called to do.
I do not mean to suggest that the missionary should be rich and live a lavish lifestyle where money is squandered without any thought to the sacrifices others are making. I know of no missionaries who live with that mentality. As I mention above, every missionary lives with the mindset that they live on the sacrifices of others. It is a humbling stewardship and privilege to have.
Practical Advice on Relating with Your Missionary & Their Finances
Before I close this blog out I want to give some simple advice on how to understand and relate to your missionary about their finances. First, if you have questions about how their finances break down, ask them. If you have any concerns, tell them. Try not to be critical of your missionary until you talk to your missionary. Second, trust them. They wouldn’t be on the road of sacrificing their lives for the Gospel if they weren’t trying to be obedient disciples under the Lordship of Christ in all areas of their lives, including their finances. Third, understand that they usually do not like making public financial appeals, but that it is sometimes necessary to continue in the work.
Your missionary is grateful for your sacrifice to their ministry! Your sacrifice is why they can pay their rent each month, why their children can get the surgeries they need, why they can pay for gas and groceries to feed their family each month. Your gift isn’t just going into a black hole somewhere, it is meeting real needs in their lives and you are a crucial part of their team!
Final Thoughts- “Where God Guides, He Provides.”
I hope this blog has been insightful and helpful to you. As I close, I want to share with you some final thoughts.
One of our favorite reminders comes in the form of a quote: “Where God guides, He provides.” We have seen this time and time again. He has never failed to meet our needs and we can always trust in His continued provision.
As I shared at the beginning, supporting missionaries is a great way to participate in the Great Commission. Today lives are being impacted all over the globe because missionaries are being sent out and supported by a team of faithful partners with the shared vision of reaching the unreached for Christ. If you do not currently support a missionary, I would challenge you to partner with someone. It is truly a rewarding experience to be a part of the Gospel going out, and it is an eternal investment in the lives of people who will be eternally grateful!
The Lord has provided Beth & I with a great group of wonderful supporters in our ministry. If you’re a financial supporter of ours reading this, we hope you know how crucial you are to our ministry and how appreciated you are by our family!