Debt, in general, and school debt specifically is a huge issue facing the emerging missionary force. My oldest daughter, now 34, is still finishing paying off school loans for her BA and MA in Education, juggling family and job commitments. Many college and university graduates today carry debts in the 10s of thousands of dollars with them with payments ranging up to $300 and $400, or more, a month.
As you can imagine (or are experiencing), debt is crippling on many levels. The missionary enterprise is no exception. It seems that nearly every candidate I talk with asks me about how to handle their school loans in light of a God-given passion to engage the world for the kingdom. Here are some of the answers I give them.
While your in school
If you are on the front end of the higher education process, try to limit the amount of debt you incur. That sounds cliché but I have found that many students make their choices of where to go and how to fund their education without thinking about how the incurred debt will affect their future. The desired experience of the “now” trumps the realities of the “later.” I could probably devote an entire article on this topic alone…but for now, try to keep your school debt as low as you can and in choosing loans, limit your choices to federally sponsored ones, if possible.
The reality of debt
Many agencies still will not allow you to go anywhere, longer term anyway, until you are debt free (usually with the exception of a mortgage). Your choices, if you are pursuing one of those agencies, are limited but not singular. Working to pay off the debt is the obvious answer, but that could take a decade. Another option is looking for debt forgiveness possibilities. This government site is a great place to begin, but there are other options as well. Be careful as you navigate these because there are some scam artists out there. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are other debt forgiveness programs, often related to your school, you could check out. One example would be the Billy Graham scholarship which forgives one quarter of your school loans for each year you serve with an approved agency overseas. Don’t count out the miraculous too quickly, either. A former student of mine felt God leading him to teach MKs overseas and God also lead a family friend to completely pay off his school debt! Oh, that we all had friends like that, right??
Some agencies will allow you to serve with them as long as your debt is manageable and will not impact your commitment to ministry. If you are in this boat you have a couple other oars to use to get you where you are going. On the shorter term, payments on most federal loans (and some private ones) are deferrable for a variety of reasons; the most common of which is an economic deferment. Trust me; the amount of money most missionaries make would qualify them for this program! Some deferments are based on the type of work, like working for the Peace Corp or some other recognized charitable organization. There are options besides deferments, during which interest continues to accrue. GoCorps, is one example of an organization that will pay at least a portion of your student loan payments for up to two years if you meet their qualifications. Some universities have similar programs, Azusa Pacific for example, where loan payments are paid while serving overseas for up to two years. Still another way loan payments get paid is by supporters or family members. As a ministry to you, and the kingdom, a financial partner may choose to pay your school loan payments as a way to help you get where God is leading you.
There are still other options (see, the future is not so bleak!) you may consider. If your agency sees you as a self-employed worker, you may be able to build your loan payments into the financial support you are trying to raise. If you join an employer agency, like ours, the IRS will not allow us to include extra money in your support requirement to pay for loans, but our salary levels are usually high enough to accommodate for reasonable loan payments. Maybe God has led you to consider a paying job/ministry overseas, like teaching English or working at a hospital. Though some support development may still be necessary, the income from those jobs may be sufficient to help pay for some of your school loans.
Business as Missions
Many ask me about starting and operating a business to keep from raising support and paying loans. There are times this can work, but it is rare. I discuss what the reality of a “tentmaker” is in another Honest Answers. One example of how it can work is for those who build websites. It would be completely possible to have an income from doing that (or some other thing like that) in your spare time each month to pay for student loans.
Don’t let debt keep you from responding in obedience to God’s leading toward global impact. Your path may need to be different; but, the path is there. If you have questions about this, let me know.
Live life on mission! -Jeff