It was a cold morning in Wisconsin. Colder than most. The disc jockey’s voice invaded the early morning silence, “Hey all you sleepy heads! The KQXT thermometer says five below zero. Cold enough for all you early-risers out there? Stay tuned; we’ve got news coming up in - CLICK”.

Jeff pushed himself up, swung his legs over the side of the bed and let his feet touch the floor. The cold crept through him. It had been a hard winter for Jeff. After graduating a year ago, he’d decided to wait to become a missionary. Actually, that had been decided for him the day he took his second (or was it third?) school loan.

Last fall, he chose to take a job as a teacher to pay off those loans as quickly as possible—all $13,900 of them. Otherwise, the mission agency he wanted to go overseas through wouldn’t let him go.

A few states away, Mike and Linda Fish were planning a party. They were talking about inviting friends to share a toast of 7-Up and an evening of celebration as soon as their house sold.

As recently-married missions enthusiasts, Mike and Linda plan to go overseas one day. Before they married, they decided to pay off their debts quickly. Together, they owed more than $85,000 for Linda’s education, their house and other personal loans. For months, they worked part time and cut their living costs. Now that the other debts were paid, the house was the last to go.

Why the celebration? Linda says, “Even the little bit of bondage I felt from my smaller personal debts made me say ‘I’ve got to get out of debt.’ It’ll be great to be free.”

Debt: The Status Symbol

Jeff, Mike and Linda all possess a bizarre status symbol. In spite of the emotional bondage it brings, debt has become acceptable, even fashionable. Loans so large they’re virtually impossible to repay are the rich man’s proof of his worth. Credit cards are advertised by our nation’s wealthiest and most respected elite. “So worldly. So welcome.”

Mike and Linda have been successfully repaying their debts in order to go overseas. In our culture, that’s not easy. Jeff is struggling to make it. Others have failed.

“Debt is obviously keeping people from going out. People have incurred tremendous debts because our culture tells us to live for the moment,” says Gindy Miley, Operation Mobilization’s U.S. personnel director.

This “live for the moment” lifestyle can tempt anyone to jump into buying new furniture or getting a new car. Inevitably, this attitude also influences students’ decisions about education.

Jeff took out his school loan because he wanted to finish his degree as quickly and easily as possible. It was easy to get the loan, but not easy to repay it.

“Going in to debt is a lot like gambling or drinking alcohol: you lose control,” says Greg Fritz, head of Caleb Project, an organization that specializes in helping Christians grow in mission vision. “You start out borrowing a little, then you figure you can handle more.

How Debt Hinders

“Debt is often the first thing to prevent people from missions,” Fritz says. “People can’t go overseas until they pay off their debts, but in the process, they get distracted by things like buying a car and a house. Before they know it, they can’t pay off any debt. If they hadn’t gotten into debt in the first place they wouldn’t have gotten tripped up.”

To avoid getting tripped up, and to help others do the same, Fritz and his wife bought a big blue house in a run-down neighborhood of Pasadena, CA, as an investment. They choose to live there with as many as 13 other people. By living in community, they cut costs as they work to improve the house. The community atmosphere also provides a training ground for potential missionaries: Who can live with 13 others without some change of character?

It’s impossible to estimate how many potential missionaries get sidetracked on their route overseas because of debt, but according to Jan Sims, who has worked with a missions’ hotline, “One of the big complaints (I hear) is ‘Help! I want to go overseas, but how can I when I’ve got thousands of dollars in school loans?’”

The personnel directors of denominational and independent mission agencies across the country say that in the past 5 years, more of their potential candidates have come to them with debt than they’ve ever seen before. Large debts like Jeff’s are also becoming more common.

School Debts

School loans hold back potential candidates more than any other kind of debt. Ben Sawatsky, associate personnel director of Evangelical Free Church Missions, says 95% or more of those who apply as potential candidates are paying off student loans.

More often than not, students decide to pay for their education through loans long before they realize the frustration debt can cause. Offers of easy loans from the government have made it that much easier for students to begin their spiral into a bottomless well of red ink.

Since many agencies and denominational boards require at least 30 credit hours of formal Bible training and some require training in special skills, potential missionaries are caught in a sort of a Catch-22: They can’t go overseas until they have more education; they can’t pay for their education without going into debt; if they go into debt they can’t go overseas.

Practically speaking, most agencies and boards consider unpaid loans as “debt” only when the money owed isn’t covered by some equity like a house. The potential missionary can sell such possessions to free himself from financial obligation.

Most agencies specify that candidates can’t begin active service until they have no financial obligations outstanding. There’s a practical reason for such policy which agencies set is large enough for living expenses but not large enough for the burden of heavy monthly payments. Sending agencies are also leery of those who have large credit card bills or other payments that indicate irresponsible spending.

However, as the attitudes and policies of agencies and boards change slowly, more and more are allowing candidates to join them with more and more debt. For instance, mostly because the cost of education is increasing, Campus Crusade recently changed its acceptance policy, doubling the maximum level of debt new staff are allowed to have from $5,000 to $10,000. Such agencies allow new staff who are in debt to join them actively as long as that debt is below a certain limit and can be paid off by raising extra monthly support.

Many agencies, however, don’t allow their candidates to raise support to repay debts. Often, financial supporters would rather not contribute to pay for a missionary’s debts because they feel that they should only invest in present ministry, not in a missionary’s past endeavors - even if those past endeavors include education for the ministry itself.

John Kyle, director of Mission to the World, says local churches need to take initiative in solving the debt problem early on in the life of potential missionaries. He would like to see more churches counseling parents and young people about education and how to pay for it. He also thinks churches should make a concerted effort to help with tuition costs of their college-aged members who are preparing for full-time Christian work.

Debt Affects Sending

Finally, debt causes yet another dilemma - perhaps just as stifling to the mission movement as its effect on potential missionaries. Many Christians become so strapped with huge monthly payments that they can’t support mission work. “Most evangelical families are so terribly in debt that there’s no possibility they will change their pattern of consumption in any significant way,” says Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission.

One thing Mike and Linda realized was that even if they could pay off all their other debts, they could never pay the $700 monthly mortgage on their house and also offer support to other missionaries. “I’d rather not be giving money to a financial institution when I could be giving it to the Lord,” Mike says.

Mike and Linda have learned about the danger of debt the hard way. Jeff is still learning.

Today another potential missionary is signing loan papers, unaware of the affect that loan may have on his future. It could delay him for two or three years, or - as it delays’so many, forever.

Maybe he won't fall into debt very deeply. Maybe some financial seminar will help him make wise decisions that won't jeopardize his future. Maybe his church will offer to pay for his education.

More than likely he'll never get help, and he'll never make it overseas.

Debt Destroyers

Until the church finds better long-term solutions for the debt dilemma, you can do a lot to make wise decisions and to fight off your own loan woes.

According to Greg Fritz of the Caleb Project, the best way to get out of debt and stay out is to "exercise extreme self discipline." One of the best ways to exercise discipline is to first decide to take steps of action and then to make short- and long-term goals.

Once you have defined your goals, strive to be content with what you have and without what God asks you to give up. Attack your situation by understanding the balance between your need for an all out effort and your need to trust God and allow Him to provide in His own creative and sometimes miraculous ways.

"God honored the fact that we sought to get out of debt, by blessing us with peace of mind as soon as we took initial steps to do it. He's patient and helpful. He's on our side to help us get out," says Mike Fish.

The following questions will give you a start in making such goals and taking action:

  • What specific plans and goals do I need to fulfill in order to reach my expectations?
  • What must I sacrifice in order to fulfill my plans and goals? What will I gain?
  • Where do I expect to be financially, educationally and professionally in 6 months, a year, 5 years?
  • Who will keep me accountable to these goals and to my call to be in full time Christian work?
  • What practical steps will I take to live more economically and simply?

Spend Less-Pay Back More

Here are a few suggestions for trimming your spending down to a minimum. Underlying all these suggestions is the understanding that any effort to save money will take extra time and discipline - especially as you are tempted by our society’s “live for the moment” values.

Live on a Missionary Budget

Find out the living allowance of a missionary and live on that budget. Or set the highest possible amount you can pay each month toward your debt or save for your future education. Make it BIG. When you get a pay check, first give the tithe, then pull out the money to save or to pay for the debt. Then live off what is left.

Increase Your Income

Extra part-time jobs can make a big difference. You may also try hunting for a full-time job that will yield a higher income.

Avoid Expensive Pastimes

We’re not just talking about yacht-racing, going to movies, on long trips (especially if they’re shopping trips), and out to dinner can deplete your income quickly. Entertain yourself creatively. Often you can have more fun that way anyway.

Buy Used Instead of New

Contrary to popular opinion, items you buy at thrift shops, consignment stores, garage sales and auctions aren’t always “semi-garbage”. Be careful to buy only what you need and only if the item you find is fixable or in good repair.

Sell Unnecessary Belongings

Why keep that old toaster oven or typewriter you rarely use?

What to Do While You Repay

If you want to go overseas but have to wait until you pay your debts, Bill Goheen, IVM’s associate director, has an encouraging word for you. In a letter he wrote to frustrated debtors, he listed some of the following ways to make your delay an opportunity, not an obstacle:

Get Involved in a Local Church

Mission agencies look for people who have committed themselves to serving in the local church. The possibilities for involvement are endless: bookkeeping, teaching, discipleship, missions awareness, evangelism.

Use Your Job as a Training Ground

The job is a perfect place to interact with non-Christians, learn humility, patience and sensitivity, and develop a skill to use overseas.

Get Further Training

Take a course (provided it doesn’t dig you into debt), read books and magazines, or get involved in ministry to internationals.