Salary Caps for Missionaries

In the village in which I live, a Tsonga earning $300 (R3,000) per month would be taking home an enviable paycheck. When I originally set out to raise the funds for my departure, passage, and family back in 2004 I was pointed by some missionaries and mission board directors to raise $4,000-5,000 per month. No one counseled me to see how I could save money from what appeared to be the industry standard. Though we still sing “For Christ count everything but loss…,” over the last ten years the numbers seem to be marching on so that it is not uncommon to hear that missionaries need to raise $1,000 more per month than in 2004.

A few years ago, a friend in ministry emailed me about the financial scenario a single-woman missionary found herself in. She was heading to a central African country, but was told by her mission board to raise over $5,000 per month. This pastor wanted an opinion as to whether that salary was really necessary. Tonight, a pastor told me about a missionary raising $9,000 for service in Africa.

Studies vary depending on which sets of data are being examined, but in general, lists of the poorest countries in the world are dominated by African nations. With that as an introduction, the question deserves attention: What is a God-honoring, economically viable, appropriately commensurate salary for an African missionary? Or more crudely, but probably more memorable: Should missionaries have salary caps?

Foiled by Japan

When I have questioned the need for missionaries to receive so much monthly support, I have heard on more than one occasion about the rising costs of living in Japan. Other modern countries could be inserted there as well, but Japan’s a good one since last year the average salary was around $40,000 per year. If a missionary wants to go there, how could he live and minister with a paltry $2,500 per month? A friend of mine who plants churches in Cambodia surveyed over 2,500 cross-cultural church planters in 2007 and discovered a number of interesting facts not the least of which is that less than 2% of those missionaries were serving in Japan. (The survey is not online, but I can send it to you if you’d like it:

I would suggest therefore, that the question of missionary salaries is still valid for the great number of missionaries going to the developing countries of the world as well as—though possibly with a little less pinch—those going to the richer nations. Holland’s standard of living (for example) does not alleviate the responsibility that a missionary going to Zambia should feel.

Distinction between salary and ministry funds

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The next most ready response has to do with the expenses that missionaries incur which other professions do not. It will be argued that missionaries have to save for furlough, renting church facilities, printing, paying salaries of nationals, and other unique ministry expenses. These funds, the reasoning goes, are needed not only for salaries, but for the tools of the trade.

This objection encapsulates several different philosophical questions that deserve their own turn at the microphone. First, what makes a purchase a legitimate ministry expense? If the use of money could discourage personal responsibility, that potential line item in a budget takes on a decidedly moral flavor that should not be overlooked. In the context of the developing world, Western missionaries need to think very carefully about money’s power amidst those who so rarely wield it.

Second, if an expense is determined to be legitimate, are there ways to reduce those costs so as to cut the overall budget? Mission board fees, mailing hard copies of prayer letters, mandatory group healthcare policies, and travel costs that multiply due to year-long furloughs all could be examined by an efficiency expert to run a tighter ship.

Salaries as a means of staying missionary attrition

However, I suspect one of the reasons for missionary salaries being set as they are has to do with the fear mission boards have of losing their investment. It is rare to have this voiced explicitly, though I have participated in conversations where the door has been cracked open for this potential reason. More study needs to be done here to ascertain more clearly the rate of attrition during deputation, the first term of service, and the fifth year onward, but it didn’t take me long to think of four families who left their field of service before four years was over.

If a family is struggling financially while also adapting to a new culture, language, and form of ministry, the combined strain may be too great. Mission boards then set their expectations at a certain level so that at least that one category of concern, their standard of living, won’t cause them to come home early and thus lose the investment of years without anything to show for it.

Several years ago, Mission Frontiers posted excerpts from the book Too Valuable To Lose by William Taylor discussing the issue of missionary attrition. Though I haven’t read the book, the copyright is from 1997, so he is definitely writing in the modern era of missions when boards typically influence their missionaries’ levels of support. The recommended salaries may ultimately reflect boardroom discussions about how to get more return on their investment. But if that is so, is that a Biblical or even pragmatically effective way to increase missionary effectiveness?

A gospel-centered approach to missionary finances

Complex questions can rarely be answered wisely without nuanced responses self-consciously settled on the most rock solid presuppositions. Of course for the missionary, the gospel is one of his most basic beliefs and should inform every corner of his missiological philosophy.

So From the swirling discussion of each of these categories with all their complex minor premises, does a gospel-centered perspective have anything to offer this question? I think so. Missionaries, mission boards, and pastors need to acknowledge that a missionary’s money can have a direct impact on the way in which his audience receives the message. The gospel is at stake to the degree that our use of money has the ability to manipulate certain non-verbal assumptions within our hearers.

What I am arguing for, is for everyone involved to actively discuss, before choosing a salary for any missionary in a particular context, what kinds of effects may be produced in his target audience by the use of money. Let’s be willing to forego any use of money—any category in a budget—that may distract the hearers (or the preachers) from the gospel regardless of whether or not it is an assumed part of a contemporary American standard of living.

Practically what does that look like in the context of the developing world?

  1. Don’t buy the product just because you can. If a missionary sells his US house and with the money is able to buy a mansion overseas, he should think through the grid of the gospel rather than saying, “I can. Therefore, I should.” Many times we automatically do this like birds naturally take to the air, but we need to accustom ourselves to the pain of introspection.
  2. Scale your living to a median within the spectrum of those you are trying to reach. Make home improvements gradually like an average man in your village might have to if he had a job and saved carefully.
  3. Strive to save money on the invisible portion of your support. Consider if your local church could do the same things or near enough to the same things that your sending agency is doing for a significantly cheaper price. Use email rather than printing letters. Look at some diverse options for overseas healthcare.

Numerous other issues are vying for attention either directly or indirectly related to this topic, but if we will at least recognize that missionary salaries are sometimes dramatically higher than the salaries of the nationals, and if we will admit that the gospel is potentially affected by our use of money, then the already huge linguistic, cultural, and spiritual giants facing the missionary may not be joined by the massive juggernaut of the economic giant as well.

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5 Responses to Salary Caps for Missionaries

  1. Andy Bonikowsky says:

    Good article, Seth.

    The missions system and landscape is changing. In fact, the whole paradigm is shifting. Old processes, some of which were never efficient, are simply dying. Yes, there will be pockets of diehards, and much good has been done. But an incalculable fortune has also been wasted in the name of missions. Few things make my blood boil more than a missionary who leaves the field within the first year or two, after spending 100k X ??? in deputation, convincing everyone that it was God’s will….

    Keep up the good work. AB

    I’m sending this on to some family and friends.

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  3. Paul says:

    Very insightful post. Is it a good idea for churches to ask for the budget of prospective missionaries? Did any of your supporting churches do this for you? Should missionaries be offended by this?

    • Seth says:

      Churches should have a lot of involvement with their missionaries. They should know them well and help keep them accountable. The level of knowledge that each pastor or church may have would probably differ according to their differing relationships, but at the least, they should know the total amount of support the missionary is attempting to raise. I would also think it would be helpful to know how much money is going for overhead costs to the home office.

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