About seven or eight years ago I had a good friend approach me about supporting him and his family as they would soon be leaving to be missionaries in a third world country. Perhaps what I remember most about our discussion was looking at the budget he showed me. Of course, I did not look at the line items, rather I went straight for the bottom line.
I was shocked to say the least. His budget was for far more than I was making. Thousands of questions raced 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 thought I could not, in good conscience, support him.
Now some of these can be good questions to ask but I can say that personally I was coming from a critical heart-attitude, an idea that I knew how missionaries should live, how much it should cost to support a missionary, etc.
Had I ever been a cross-cultural missionary? No. Did I take the time to humbly ask him to walk me through his budget? No. Did have even the slightest idea of what anything costed in the area he was going to? No. Did I take into account that he had a family of five whereas Betsy and I had just had our first child? No. Did I ask myself if this was New Testament ministry that was needed in that area? No. Did I ask myself if he had proved himself faithful with money in the past? No. I could list several more examples of how I really was making a snap judgment without really knowing what I certainly thought I did.
Even realizing all of that, the question still begs itself, “Why is it so expensive to send and support cross-cultural missionaries?” Below are a few major or ongoing expenses that I have discovered that many of us do not think about:
It is expensive to get to the field: Just to arrive at the location the missionary intends to serve, the missionary needs funds for plane tickets which depending on the location can easily tilt the scales between $1,000-$4,000 per person. So, if it is a “normal” size American family you’re looking at between $4,000-$16,000 just in airfare. Many missionaries also need to ship crates of personal belongings which usually start around $7,000. Throw some training costs on top of that (seminary, if required, or a training program, language school, etc) along with various other costs and that can make it pretty pricey to send a missionary to the field.
Visas: Obtaining long-term visas is becoming more difficult and more expensive around the world, especially for Americans and especially for missionaries. This cost can vary dramatically between countries and can change significantly due to new laws once it is time to renew.
Building and/or furnishing a home: Most (perhaps all) missionaries I know are not living extravagant lives over sees. They are living more or less like the people around them with perhaps a few differences mainly for the sake of keeping sane. Either way, whether your living in the bush of Indonesia, on the frozen taundra of Northern Canada or in a more urban environment 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 other everyday items: In many foreign countries food is very expensive because so much of it has to be imported. Yes, items that grow locally are typically very inexpensive but a lot of food can be double the price of what we pay in the US. The same is true for other things such as computers and other electronics as well as other everyday items such as cookware, appliances, etc. In most foreign countries you will need to pay for quality because going cheap on the wrong items can make you pay in other, more unpleasant ways. Missionaries we know try to live as much like the local people as possible but their bodies could not physically handle going totally “native.” Therefore, they do have extra cost for food and other necessities but they work hard at being good stewards so they pay more for quality when it is needed and buy local every place they can.
Ministry expenses: Missionaries typically have to raise all of their own ministry expenses. This could include resources they are using with those the are discipling or evangelizing, materials for projects they may be doing to help the community, among many other things.However, one of the largest expenses is typically travel. Many missionaries work in several different areas of a region or country. Therefore they may need to pay for airfare, boat rides, truck rides, bus rides, etc to get to the various places they are working.
Vehicle: Family vehicles are usually pretty expensive anywhere you go. However, they can be extraordinarily expensive when nearly 100% of the cars are imported. Again, all the missionaries we know buy used but they have to be really careful that they are buying good quality which can increase the cost even more. In most countries around the world there is no such thing as “lemon laws” so if you are not careful about buying good quality you can find yourself with a vehicle that is a far greater curse than it is a blessing.
Healthcare costs: These are expensive for anybody these days but monthly premium costs can be greatly alleviated when an employer is paying into them as is the case for many Americans. Missionaries often have no such luxury. They are not on an employer healthcare plan and thus often pay more on a monthly basis for coverage that works outside the US.
Taxes: This is another area where we often don’t realize that employers help out as well. 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 Administrative Fees: A good sending agency can be invaluable for a missionary especially when it comes to navigating the visa process, giving direction in strategy, encouragement or counsel in tough times (alongside the local church), handling donations and tax issues, raising support, etc. To do all this the sending agency has costs associated and can have administrative fees anywhere from 5%-25% of the donations that come in depending on the agency.
Had I been remotely aware of all these things I probably would have still been a little surprised by my friend’s budget but I would have taken a different approach. 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. We praise God for those who are here in the US laboring alongside us wherever we are. The Lord continues to use them powerfully in our lives.