Questions 7: Why Is Missionary Support So Expensive?

In the popular imagination, missionaries are people who give up everything to go and serve God in faraway places. However, in the real world, when missionaries come to raise funds for their work, they often have budgets which dwarf the salaries of the people they are trying to get to support them.

In the popular imagination, missionaries (whatever they are) are people who give up everything to go and serve God in faraway places. However, in the real world, when missionaries come to raise funds for their work, they often have budgets which dwarf the salaries of the people they are trying to get to support them. So, why does it cost so much to keep missionaries on the field?

Well, as in many of these questions, there isn’t a simple answer. Different mission agencies do things in different ways and expect different things from their missionaries. What I’ll try to do in this post is set out the essential costs of keeping a missionary on the “field”. Some agencies will expect their staff to raise all of this themselves, others will pool support or find another way to meet the overall costs. However it is done, this gives an idea of what needs to be covered. In no particular order:

Salary: Missionaries need an income to pay for the same stuff that anyone at home needs. In some places, food and rent are relatively cheap, but in others, they are far more expensive than they would be in the UK.  Most mission agencies calculate the income according to what people actually need, rather than on the basis of a universal salary plan that applies to all of the workers.

Holidays: Some missionaries live in places where they can visit amazing and cheap holiday destinations for next to nothing – we had that privilege. However, others are in immensely stressful situations and may have to travel long distances to expensive destinations in order to get some well deserved R&R.  When you live in a tough, dangerous situation, a good holiday can literally be a lifesaver – but to the observer (or donor) in the UK, it can look like a luxury.

Medical Treatment: Most missionaries need to have medical insurance and this doesn’t always come cheap. Let’s face it, people who go skiing for a week tend to take out good medical cover, so why would people who are living permanently in other countries not do the same?

Travel:  Missionaries have to get to and fro from the place they work. They may only make the journey once every four years or so, but if you are flying a family out to a lesser-known destination this can be a substantial cost, even if it is spread over a number of years.

Set-Up Costs: When you arrive in a new country for the first time, you have two options; either ship your belongings from home or buy new furniture, a car and everything else that you need when you arrive. Neither option comes cheap. Cars, in particular, can be a real problem; in some countries, governments whack something like 100% import duty on vehicles. Even buying a second-hand reject shipped in from Europe can be a very costly business.

Ministry Costs: some agencies cover the actual costs involved in “doing mission”, others don’t and expect the missionary to raise those funds, too. In either case, the money has to come from somewhere. We had to find money to pay our co-workers and to cover the costs of printing books locally as well as buying computers for work and so on.

Retirement: In the UK, unless you are self-employed, your pension payments are deducted from your salary. These include payments for the state pension and for any private pension that you might have access too. Not only that, but your employer has to pay a cut towards your pension, too. Typically, missionaries have to make all of these payments (including for state pension in the UK) themselves. Some well-meaning people say that missionaries shouldn’t pay pension contributions, they should rely on God to provide for them when they retire. However, what this means in practice is that they should rely on churches and others to support them in retirement, using up funds which could go to supporting younger missionaries still on the field.

Education: Very often, missionaries will need to pay to send their kids to school; either boarding school or day school. They may be able to use local schools which are free or cheap, but these schools will not always prepare children for life back in the UK and the quirks of the British education system.

The list could go on. Sometimes missionary support quotes look outrageous, but when you break them down, the missionaries may well only be receiving a very modest salary. All of the other costs are things which are necessary to keep them on the field, but which don’t amount to a life of luxury. It is very instructive to compare the way that missionary support is calculated compared to the salary and benefits received by many expat workers in industry or government service in similar locations. Chalk and cheese springs to mind.

Other Posts in This Series:

  1. What Is Mission?
  2. Why Bother With World Mission When the Needs in the UK are So Great?
  3. So You Want To Be A Missionary?
  4. What About Short Term Mission Trips?
  5. Mission Strategy
  6. What on Earth is a Missionary?

3 replies on “Questions 7: Why Is Missionary Support So Expensive?”

Some perceive missionary work today as a lifestyle choice . For some they really are better off both financially and in relation to daily stress of holding down a job. Some missionaries have property class in their home country & hold a better retirement plan that a lot of Christians at home. Some missionaries deserve all of the above and some at just lazy and fall into the east life “ that it can be “ in the third world

as one of those who didnt look for a mish org, and refused to pay 200 quid per month and get nothing for it from SIM, and we have not asked for any church or foundation etc to support us, our budget is less than 400 quid a month, we never ever considered health insurance as we see that at totally inconguant for the locals we serve under, we do fly about once every 18 months to see family, so add about 75 quid to do that NZ is a long way from West Africa; i challenge much of the underlying theology in the article, it smells of so last Century thinking, and woe unto those who think the retirement word is even inferred in the scriptures?? like really?? 🙂

God has provided time and time again, and we have continued to think in terms of owning no money so that the bank account is def not ours despite our names being on it.

And Mark, if being mission workers is not stressful, then either they have got the yoke perfectly balanced with Jesus, as His is meant to be easy (somehow we def have not got it right, but we are only 5 years here) or they have a cushy number and are not yearning, pained by the zillions of lost souls around them??

Anyway, that my tupence worth

As always, there are positives and negatives to a lot of the issues surrounding support.
I did choose to serve (and continue to do so) with a mission organisation, and I am so grateful for them. I know the costs are higher but I have seen so much benefit from being part of a team, and don’t think I’d still be here after 13 years if it wasn’t for them. I am so grateful for the sending office team who sort out all my financial stuff, pension and taxes etc. I think it is responsible to plan ahead, but still try to not depend upon that but on God.
Yes, I do sometimes wonder about some of the benefits I have compared to those I serve (as mentioned in the previous comment). I have insurance that covered a robbery of many expensive items and I was able to replace them all. I can get medical care without worrying how to pay for it- but I am trying to use more local clinics and not the fanciest hospitals. I know I can serve better because of these things as it takes a weight off my shoulders.
I don’t know any easy answers. But I do know I am where God has put me and I am with those he has put me here with. I hope that’s enough!!

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