Aspiring missionaries find they owe a debt to the gospel—and also to banks. What can free them up to serve?
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Paul Jackson took his first short-term mission trip during his junior year at California Baptist University. He came home convinced God had called him to life in the mission field. He and his girlfriend, Riley, spent the month of Ramadan praying over where God might eventually send them. They emerged with a heart and vision for the Muslim world. (Paul and Riley are pseudonyms: Publication of their names would jeopardize their safety and work in a Muslim country.)
In 2006 they graduated and married, but felt they needed more education to improve their vocational experience and give them a better platform for working in countries not open to traditional missionaries. Paul called it a “strategic decision,” even though they knew it would saddle them with some debt.
Four years later, Paul completed his certification in adapted physical education, enabling him to work with special needs students. Three years after that, Riley finished her master’s in nursing. They found a sending agency that wanted to work with them, with a caveat: They had to do something about their $45,000 in student loans. They moved in with Riley’s parents, worked full time, and began raising money in preparation for moving overseas. They paid $500 a month on their loans, hoping to cut the total in half. Riley called it a manageable goal, but they never raised 100 percent of what they needed to cover their living expenses and their loan payments.
About two-thirds of college students now graduate with some level of debt, the average rounding out at just over $30,000. The student debt crisis has hampered graduates’ ability (or inclination) to pass the milestones of adulthood: getting married, buying a house, starting a family. It’s also dampened enthusiasm for long-term missions.
Sending agencies began tracking a decline in applications for long-term missions at the start of the Great Recession. At the same time, they watched the amount of debt listed on applications skyrocket past what families could reasonably expect to repay on a missionary’s salary. While agencies have become more creative about how they send people overseas, a new fundraising effort aims to ease the student debt burden directly for traditional missionaries, freeing them to take the gospel where it’s needed most.
‘Nearly 3 billion people don’t have access to the gospel. Tens of thousands are dying daily. We don’t have time to wait for someone to pay their student loan debt.’ —Luke Womack
JOEL SUTTON BEGAN WORKING with the International Mission Board’s assessment and deployment team in 1999. Students had debt then too, but the average topped out at $17,000. Now, Sutton regularly talks to prospective missionaries who have between $60,000 and $100,000 in debt. “Those kinds of folks have really disqualified themselves for service,” Sutton said. “They’re living in the moment. They think they need the loan to get their education, but they don’t think about the ramifications down the road.”
Sutton and his Southern Baptist Convention colleagues urge college students to think about what they want to do with their lives before taking out loans. If students can’t avoid loans altogether, missionary recruiters urge them to take on as little debt as possible, get jobs to help pay some of their expenses, and even take a little longer to get their degree, if necessary.
That’s a hard sell, especially for students at Christian colleges, which rely on tuition payments to survive and have little incentive to encourage students to take on less debt. “We’ve found schools are not really talking to students about this,” Sutton said. “It’s a real conflict because schools are a business. Loans mean more payment out of students, so they don’t discourage them from doing the loans.”
Kendra Jeffreys, director of mission engagement with Mission to the World, echoed similar experiences with Christian colleges. She recalled talking to one young woman about to graduate with a Bible degree. She really wanted to go into missions, but she had $96,000 in debt. “That just broke my heart because she wanted to be a missionary, but unfortunately, with that amount of loans, she wouldn’t have been able to survive,” Jeffreys said.
Like the International Mission Board, Mission to the World has seen a drop in the number of recent graduates applying for long-term missions. Jeffreys doesn’t blame all of the decline on student debt, but she believes it’s a significant factor. Interest in short-term work hasn’t waned as much, in part because it’s easier for students to defer loan payments for a year or two while they work on a limited project. Jeffreys also has seen a rapid increase in the number of people interested in bivocational ministry, in which they work full time while also participating in missions projects. “There are lots of reasons for that, but some of it is needing to work to pay off loans,” she said.
Three years ago, the International Mission Board partnered with so few bivocational missionaries it didn’t even track the numbers. Then the organization started to encourage potential missionaries to stay in a career track and try to get a job overseas, partnering with full-time missionaries on a more informal basis. The number of applications jumped. In the last few years, about 1,400 people have applied to work with the International Mission Board as a professional, retiree, or student. Sutton ties that increase directly to student loans. “If they’re going overseas on their own funding, we can advise them on debt issues, but because we’re not paying their salary, we don’t have a say on it,” he said, adding that extremely high levels of debt would still make it hard for someone working overseas. “But with moderate amounts, it’s a way for them to serve.”
LUKE WOMACK GRADUATED from California Baptist University with a business degree in 2011. He got a well-paid sales job and felt himself settling in to live the American dream. Then he listened to a John Piper sermon on the Great Commission: “He said to be an obedient Christian we must either go or send to the unreached, or disobey.” Womack wanted to go, but because of his degree and experience, he thought he might be better suited to sending. He started with an informal survey of about 100 of his former classmates. Had they ever considered missions work among unreached people groups?
“Most people said yes, but everyone said they couldn’t because of student loan debt,” Womack recalled. “That just hit me like a ton of bricks. My generation wanted to go to the mission field but wasn’t going because of student loan debt. Granted, there was probably a differing level of sincerity in their responses. But surely some really wanted to go, and felt God’s direction, but were still sitting on the couch.”
Womack knew missionaries raised their own financial support to cover living expenses. What if they had a way to do the same thing for their student loan payments? As a self-described pragmatist and fan of Dave Ramsey’s financial responsibility message, Womack had qualms about forgiving someone’s loans. But he believed finding a solution to the student loan crisis transcended debt forgiveness: “Nearly 3 billion people don’t have access to the gospel. Tens of thousands are dying daily. We don’t have time to wait for someone to pay their student loan debt.”
In 2013, Womack started the GO Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money to pay off student loans for long-term missionaries working among the unreached. He recruited board members and began raising money for his own salary so any funds he secured for missionaries would go directly to paying for their debts. The GO Fund launched a website in 2014 and invited prospective missionaries to apply. Nearly 50 did, including Paul and Riley Jackson.
The deal Womack offered sounded almost too good to be true. Each missionary family had to commit to stay in the field for 10 years. During that time, the GO Fund would pay off all their loans. If they decided to come home for any reason during that decade, the missionaries would resume making their own loan payments.
It took months to whittle the first batch of applicants to three finalists. In May 2015, the Jacksons and two others attended the GO Fund’s first fundraising dinner in Southern California to share their vision and plan for taking the gospel overseas. Donors pledged $92,000, guaranteeing that at least those three couples could begin their work without worrying about their student loans. The next year, donors pledged $137,000. Last year’s event netted $201,000.
The GO Fund now partners with 19 missionary families, 11 of which have already started their overseas work. Womack has an ambitious goal for growth: By 2020 he hopes to be making loan payments for 125 missionaries. Finding prospective missionary partners won’t be a problem: Womack gained 55 new applicants last year.
PAUL AND RILEY JACKSON arrived in West Asia with their four kids in March 2016. They’re working on mastering a foreign language and building relationships with their new neighbors. Paul has begun doing adaptive physical education consulting with local schools, which don’t offer athletic opportunities for special needs students. Through teacher training, curriculum development, and parent workshops, he’s gotten to know educators and families, as well as influential members of the wider community. Riley hopes soon to start working with expectant mothers to encourage better fitness and healthier pregnancies.
All of their efforts focus on young professionals, who could one day have significant influence over their country’s cultural and political future. None of what they’ve done so far would be possible without their education, Riley said.
“We’re taken seriously. People respect our opinions and what we have to say,” she told me. “That may not be fully from our education, but it’s something that allows us to gain respect and relate to them as they’re also trying to pursue careers. They’re a very driven people.”
Although they don’t describe themselves as missionaries to their new friends, they’re not shy about sharing why they moved their family halfway around the world, even if they don’t always talk about following Jesus. “Oftentimes we tell people we have peace for wanting to live and work here,” Paul said. “We also tell people this is where God wants us to be. We want to be obedient people to God.”
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