J. R. Duren wanted to evangelize Europe. He felt God calling him to be a missionary. So he went to a state college, and then a Christian college, and then seminary, preparing for the work. He graduated in 2007, and finally he was ready. But when Duren sat down to apply with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), he realized he might have a problem.
In 11 years of higher education, Duren had amassed more than $75,000 in student loans.
“I thought . . . my faith was being tested,” Duren recalled. “The proverbial odds were stacked against me, and the only thing that was going to get me through was God’s promise and my faith. I was trusting that he was going to be able to make up for this gap that I couldn’t resolve on my own.”
Cru had a different response, tempered by long experience. Duren’s application was rejected.
“Maybe the Lord wants you to focus on paying off your debts as soon as you can, then go,” a Cru staff member wrote to Duren. “Or maybe there is another way you can go. I don’t know.”
Today, more than 10 years later, many would-be missionaries receive similar rejections. As student debt levels have rapidly increased, missionary organizations regularly see recruits who feel called to missions but are held back by loan payments.
According to the most recent data, the average college graduate in 2018 had about $29,000 of student debt. That number has plateaued a bit since 2010, after a decade of rapid growth of annual borrowing. But it’s also misleading: 55 percent of graduates owe less than $20,000, while 15 percent owe $40,000 to $80,000, and 10 percent owe more than $80,000. Missions agencies say massive debt is a frequent problem.
“It is in the top ten things that we ask people when we’re having preliminary discussions,” said Jake Moore, director of mobilization for Christian Missionary Fellowship International (CMFI). “Just in the last year, I’ve had conversations with some individuals who have debt upwards of $100,000.”
CMFI has decided to come up with plans for candidates who have between $40,000 and $60,000 in debt, according to Moore. Send International has set the limit at $30,000, but the agency assesses each situation. Wycliffe Bible Translators looks at monthly minimum payments, rejecting single people who have payments of $400 or more per month or couples who have payments of $700 or more. The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, which does not require most long-term missionaries to raise support, doesn’t list a specific amount but conducts a credit check and evaluates debt. Other organizations have set similar financial requirements.
The agencies are not trying to quash dreams or throw up random roadblocks, according to Michelle Atwell, US director of Send International. They have found debt can be a serious challenge for missionaries who have to raise their own funds and often live off small salaries.
“They have payments that are so unaffordable,” Atwelll said. “We want to send people well because we want that work to thrive and have that missionary be successful.”
Duren understands that. He doesn’t know what would have happened if he had moved to Europe with $75,000 in student loan debt. Cru was right, he said, for sticking to its financial standards.
In retrospect, he blames himself for getting caught up in “this glorious, noble struggle,” instead of facing reality. Today, he works as the editor of a news website that covers finance. “Ultimately, those financial decisions are my responsibility,” he said. But Duren also wishes his Christian mentors had encouraged him to be more financially prudent.
“You’ve left all these people chasing the exception. Because that’s what God was about, that’s what real faith was about. It was about doing all these crazy things, believing that the act of God was going to intervene and save you,” Duren said.
Matt Allison, senior director of operations at Serge (formerly World Harvest Missions), agrees that churches should do more to give prospective missionaries realistic expectations. “Any framing that we can do as a church along the way of the missionary reality is good—with the proviso that the reframing has to be no less Christ-centric,” he said.
At the same time, Allison noted, it’s actually young Christians’ concern for financial security that’s driving them to accept more college debt. Young people are more concerned about the value of their degrees and the earnings potential of their future careers, compared to the days when many missionaries were educated at unaccredited Bible colleges.
There’s some data to support this. A 2017 Barna Group survey reported that 69 percent of evangelicals say the main purpose of college education is increased financial opportunities, while only 19 percent said the primary purpose of college is self-discovery. Less than a third of evangelicals said the purpose should be learning how to make a difference in the world.
There are some programs to assist missionaries with student debt, such as the GO Fund, which has helped missionaries pay off $316,000 in student debt since 2012, and MedSend, which supports health care professionals who want to find a way to serve.
“The optimal time to pursue God’s call to missions has always been when candidates have had maximum freedom and flexibility in their lives,” said Seth Barnes, executive director of Adventures in Missions.
Missions agencies also often work with recruits to help them pay their loans, allowing a portion of their fundraising to go toward loan payments, giving them financial advice, and helping them find ways to cut costs elsewhere. A couple who wanted to serve with Send moved out of their apartment and into the home of a fellow church member, Atwell said. This allowed them to reallocate housing costs to loan payments, which ultimately allowed them to become missionaries.
It takes hard work and sacrifice to become a missionary. Escalating student loans with almost-out-of-reach monthly payments can be a test of faith for young people who feel called to serve God in mission work. That’s a lesson Duren learned the hard way.
“God does things that blow my mind all the time,” Duren said, “but that doesn’t mean that the day you graduate, God is going to swoop in with this cadre of angels, holding stacks of cash that go straight to the Department of Education to pay off your loans.”
Liam Adams is a reporter in Colorado.
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