Supporting Missions Well: Where the Money Goes

We’re well into our series now. If you want to catch up you can read the previous posts by clicking the following links:

Calling, Grief and Defining Home  ~ Raising Support and “Going”  ~ Being a Good Support

Care & Expectations

I hope these posts are informative at the very least. There’s so much involved in this missionary life that we lead, just like any other kind of life. I think that not always being present means that it can be hard to delve in to any major degree and the questions that often come up might not have opportunity to be answered.

Today I want to talk about all of this support we’ve been focusing on. In particular, the financial side of things. More specifically, where does the money go?

Missionaries raise financial support, but where does it go exactly? What are the real life expenses of a missionary? I think sometimes we might be afraid to ask because money tends to be a taboo subject, but I think a lot of missionaries would like for you to ask simply because the knowledge lets you better know what their needs are and how their life is so different than if they were in the home country, and yet not.

Ready? Okay, here we go!

Housing:

In some cases housing is provided by the organization either as part of a stipend, or because the organization has facilities available. If they do provide housing there may still be some cost to the missionary in the form of a monthly contribution to the organization to help offset some of the costs of maintenance and utilities. Our organization provides on site housing, but any newer volunteers have to pay a monthly staff fee that contributes towards housing. We paid this for many years, but our board waived this fee after several years as a sort of stipend for us because of our long term commitment to the organization. Missionaries that don’t have housing provided will have to take care of this expense themselves, and let me tell you, it can be a big expense. The reason it can be big is that in many situations there isn’t the option to pay rent on a monthly basis. This means the missionary will have to have an entire years rent available at once. Think of how this would affect you even back in North America. If your rent is as low as $700/month, that’s still $8400 due in one fell swoop. Ouch! Depending on where the missionary is living, rent can be on par with what they would pay back home, or it might be quite a bit higher or lower. This may also vary depending on what part of any given country they’re working in and how much they want to negotiate, if negotiation is an option.

Utilities:

There will most likely be some utilities expenses, whether it’s just basic services that you pay for monthly, like water and power, or whether the missionary is fully responsible for providing these things. In some countries there is infrastructure and these services are provided by the city. In Haiti, while there is country power in many places, it’s irregular and can’t be counted on, so we have to have a means to generate our own power. This means having a generator and/or solar system (usually both because there will be times when solar doesn’t charge enough), a bank of batteries and an inverter to take the power from the generator or solar system and convert the power to be useable. Depending on power needs, this can set a missionary in Haiti back by $5-15,000 or more. The low end set up would provide enough power to use a fridge, lights (with energy efficient bulbs), a fan or two and a few electronic devices like a laptop. Water? If there isn’t a system provided, again there will need to be something put in place by the missionary that usually involves pumping water from a storage system (either a reservoir on property or a well) into storage tanks that can gravity feed water into the home for use. The water pump will need to be powered – enter the generator or solar system… And, I would love to say that this is a one time investment, but it’s not. Batteries have a life span, and depending on the type used, they need to be replaced from time to time. There’s also equipment repairs on things like the generator and inverters, as well as regular maintenance on batteries. Obviously I’m talking about what I know, but it’s not so far off for a lot of people serving in off the grid places.

Phone and Internet:

Depending on country this may be expensive or it may be cheap. There may be a variety of services available and the quality might be good or really poor. In Haiti we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the past 5-6 years in this department. When I first arrived cell service was patchy, and there were no land lines. “Home phones” were actually phones connected to a booster that ran off cell towers. There were several companies providing coverage and we would have to take two different phones with us every time we left the house because the coverage would change just minutes down the road. It was expensive. Now we have a few new companies, the coverage is country wide, phones are cheap and so is the phone time, meaning almost everyone has a phone now. It’s less expensive for us to phone internationally than it is for our families to phone us – more than a dollar cheaper. But, we can do it for free too because those same phone companies also have data service for smart phones that we can use to hotspot and get our internet access from. We can call on Skype and other free services whenever we want. The cost? $50/month will get you 15GB data. In this department, we get a better deal than you do! But, that’s Haiti and it will be very different for each missionary.

Transportation:

Vehicles abroad can be really expensive, especially used vehicles. Buying a used, basic model vehicle in Haiti can be more expensive than buying a compact car back home. Models sold abroad are often not North American models because they’re built for rougher terrain, so parts are only available in country and can get expensive because there may be few resources, which gives business owners the opportunity to price gouge. Here, some people choose to ship vehicles in but that may cause higher parts expenses down the road, as well as down time, when the vehicle breaks down and they can’t get parts in country because the model isn’t sold here. In Haiti we pay insurance, but it doesn’t really benefit us because the times where it actually pays out are few and far between, and when it does it doesn’t get anywhere near covering the damage. Breakdowns and accident repairs are paid out of pocket because warranties are rarely offered past the first year, if at all, and that’s only when you buy from a dealership. If a vehicle isn’t available then a missionary is reliant on public transit, so that needs to get factored in to things.

Setting Up a Household:

When a missionary goes into the field they’ll have some expenses in some way for setting up home. If their living accommodations aren’t furnished, they need to furnish them. That means beds, furniture, appliances etc. Everything you would need to establish any kind of living space. In Haiti appliances and furnishings are expensive, at least 50% more than what we would pay back home, if not more. Household items can also be expensive. An average place setting for four, of every day dishes that you could find at Walmart for example, might cost $75. A lot of missionaries choose to bring things in their luggage or ship them in when setting up house. Many go without certain things like a washing machine, simply because they’re so expensive, or the needed items (like power and water) can be expensive. (Don’t worry, our clothes still get washed, it just gets done by hand!)

Documents:

You can’t just go and live somewhere outside of your home country without some sort of documentation in most cases. There may be a grace period, but eventually you may need to get some sort of residency permit or visa. These processes and documents can be expensive to get in the first place, and often need to be renewed annually. This would also include things like drivers licenses, any paperwork for bank accounts, etc.To get these documents might also mean getting other documents. In Haiti, we have to pay income tax, even though we don’t have any kind of income here in Haiti and we pay our taxes back in Canada or the US. If we don’t pay our income tax we can’t renew certain other documents annually.

Schooling:

If your missionaries have families this may be one of their larger expenses. You see, public schooling is a luxury and the majority of countries don’t have that option. In many cases missionaries are serving either in remote places or in areas where the schooling options may be on a lower level than what their children would have access to back home. We all want to give our children the best opportunities for the future, and this includes making sure they get an education on par with what they would have back home. For many this means homeschooling their kids. While there are a lot of resources available, and people who can donate curriculum, not all curriculum is free and can get expensive if schooling multiple children of different levels. Maybe the parents don’t have the time or the gifting to be effective homeschoolers. I know that if I had to I could, but it’s not where my heart is at nor is it what I’m gifted in. In those situations it may be private school or even boarding schools, depending on what the options are. In our area we’re so thankful that we have an option that’s a pretty good one for our kids. We’ll still have to augment with some things because it’s an American curriculum, but that’s okay. We still have to pay for this though and between school fees, uniforms and transportation every day it’s a significant expense, and we only have one child in school at this point. (And she’s doing fabulously!)

Food:

Oh food. The majority of missionaries that I know say this is one of their greatest, unexpected expenses. I say unexpected because the areas that they’re serving in are what would be classified as developing nations, so the idea is that food, even local food, would be less expensive, but it’s not true. And while well intended, most missionaries find that trying to only eat the local diet, which can be less expensive, can lead to health issues. In Haiti, if we ate Haitian food exclusively we would be eating high amounts of MSG, oil and a lot of fried stuff, not to mention mounds and mounds of rice and few fresh, raw veggies. Those things are all okay in moderation, but not over the long term. Most people we know try to have a balance by using locally available ingredients and finding some middle ground between what is familiar and the food in their adopted culture. In many cases though we all need to buy certain items, whether household goods like dish soap or toilet paper and food items that we’re familiar with. Many of those things are imported and come with a price tag. Most of the people we know, and our family included, choose to forego certain items and splurge on others. In Haiti, cheese for example, is about $8-10/lb. We still buy it, but choose not to buy other things like ice cream and apples. We buy a certain amount each month, then it’s gone, and when possible we bring cheese in our luggage with us in vast quantities (10 lbs anyone???). We buy local produce, eggs and many staples like flour, sugar, coffee etc from the local market, and try to stick to local products as much as possible even if they are a bit more expensive simply because we want to promote the local economy. I meal plan to be more focused when shopping. That said, we still pay about double what we would back home, and this is normal for missionaries in Haiti, no matter how much they work at reducing their food expenses. It’s just the way it is. Food, will most likely be one of the larger ongoing expenses for many missionaries. And, it’s good to know that this doesn’t include eating out, just basic groceries and household items.

Medical & Dental:

Most of us don’t have great options for insurance when we live abroad for a long time, and many places don’t have the means to process insurance funding. That means that most medical expenses that might be covered under a group or government plan back home – aren’t. It’s all out of pocket. There may be medical insurance programs available for citizens, but not for residents, which would be where most missionaries find themselves. The level of healthcare and dental care available might be mediocre at best, so we hope and pray we don’t have medical emergencies, and take care of any routine check-ups while back home. But, even then – we’re no longer considered “residents” in our home countries so we’re not eligible for most medical or dental programs and have to pay those costs out of pocket. If you want to use your medical or dental skills in the mission field in a way that will help people and be VERY appreciated, be intentional about setting aside some time during a trip to minister to missionaries this way. Missionaries are often the ones coordinating medical and dental opportunities for the people we’re serving, but are also in need ourselves.

Travel:

We have to plan for travel. Depending on where we are from and how often we go on home visits this may be a high expense. For our family of four, with all four of us now being on full fare tickets, one trip home per year – just the airfare – is is equivalent to about 1/5th of our annual support raised. Add any needed hotel stays, gas and other expenses that arise with moving a family around for a month or more, and it adds up.

Emergencies, Savings, and Retirement:

What do we do in emergencies where we might have to pay medical or travel expenses that weren’t planned for? What about putting something away in savings for these times? And, what about retirement? This is one that some people get a bit funny about. They feel uncomfortable with, and that is fine, but I will admit that I don’t understand it. Walk with me here…

If we were working back home in ANY kind of job, after we took care of bills, responsibilities and any tithing that we felt led to do, it would be considered responsible for us to put some sort of savings away either just into a savings account, or to put towards our retirement fund – or both. Not doing so would be considered irresponsible. I even had a retirement plan that I contributed to when I worked at the church. As in, I was saving for retirement while working in ministry. Now, we remove North America from the picture and provide “income” in the form of donations and all of the sudden it is no longer okay for an individual to put away funding into savings or a retirement plan, even though that’s where my income was coming from when I was working at the church – from donations to the church to cover it’s operating expenses. As missionaries, we work very hard at being good stewards of what we’re given, trying to make that go as far as possible, including thinking about emergencies and caring for our future after we know our time of service is finished.

If a missionary isn’t supposed to use their financial support to plan for retirement, what are they supposed to live off of when they do finally retire? Did you know that while we pay taxes as citizens of our home countries on any donations and gifts received, as it’s our main source of income, we may or may not be allowed to pay into retirement services provided by our governments? Our family has two citizenships represented. Chris files taxes in the US on income received there, and we’re obligated to pay into Social Security, yet we may or may not benefit from that one day. I pay taxes on our Canadian income – but because we are not in residence full time in Canada we are literally not allowed to pay into the Canada Pension Plan. Because we both moved to the mission field in our 20’s we don’t exactly have a lot stocked away in those contributions. So, what do we do?

Again, if we go back to the principle of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, wouldn’t we want for our missionaries what we want for ourselves? In the same way that we would want to know that there were emergency funds available to help cover expenses, especially if we didn’t have medical insurance or other resources available and had to literally pay out of pocket at the time, shouldn’t we want that for our missionaries? In the same way that we want to be wise and put away for retirement when we’re able, shouldn’t we want the same thing for our missionaries? We, personally, are so incredibly grateful for supporters who approached us and asked what our plans were in this department, and who have earmarked their donations very specifically for these needs. So thankful.

Rest and Respite:

This one is a hard one for most missionaries, but so very needed. And I think it can be a touchy one to talk about because we all come from different income brackets, and we all have different ideas about what is considered a “valid” expense in this area. Perhaps your family lives on a tight budget but you make an effort to give to missions because you believe it’s something God wants you to be doing, but you learn that the missionary your supporting took their family to the beach for the day when a vacation might not be a financial expense you can afford right now. How do you feel about that?

Let’s unpack this a bit.

I want to start by letting you know that the majority of missionaries we know do not make those decisions lightly. We are all VERY aware of the costs, as well as the perception and we think about all of it and in no way want to offend anyone. That said, we also believe that sometimes God provides to meet some very specific needs.

The need is not that one might need to go to the beach. The need is that the missionary or missionary family needs respite and rest.

Back in North America we have different social boundaries and cultural expectations. We have a different understanding of what personal space looks like, the things that are appropriate to ask for help with, when to do that, etc. When a missionary is in a cross-cultural setting those things look very different. The culture may be very communal so there is a completely different understanding of what privacy looks like, and a whole set of expectations to go with it. In Haiti, everyone always knows what’s going on. If something happens at the mission, the whole community will know. Personal space… we have unspoken boundaries in North America. When those are different it means that everywhere you go people are rubbing and bumping against you and people fill any space available within a confined area because there might be room for just one more. Often these cultures, while having some beautiful benefits, can also be very intense. In Haiti, because of some of the social things, as well as the heat, people can be very verbally aggressive and you have to get used to participating in that or you get nothing done. Add to all of this the expectations and needs of ministry. When people arrive in the field they have to go through a process of finding a balance with how they use their time, as well as what they will participate in. When you’re surrounded by real, deep, physical needs all the time it can be very difficult to say no even if you know that is the right thing in any particular situation. There’s not only a physical separation but also an emotional one that needs to happen, and when you know you’re called there to “help” there can be a lot of stuff you have to work through while you figure out what the best way to do that is. It is anything but simple.

Are you feeling worn out yet? Welcome to life as a missionary. Basically, it feels like you’re always “on” and in many cases, there can be few outlets for rest where a missionary or their family can truly step away for a little while – even a day. But, that one day might mean another few months of effective ministry. In Haiti there are very few things to do for entertainment or rest value. Going some place, even for a hike, to try and get a bit of peace often results in having a trail of children and onlookers following you, and that isn’t restful. So, in Haiti, many people bite the expense and occasionally take a day at one of the local resorts because it’s one of the few places where they can just go and not have people needing them or in their space. No one knocking at their gate, no one getting in their face, being able to spend time with their family and not having any responsibilities. Maybe it’s a nice dinner out for a couple who finally gets to take a “date” night for the first time in 6 months. Or, a weekend away to celebrate a milestone birthday or anniversary, or simply because they’re just trying to push through and know that if they don’t take the time something is going to crack.

When we’re in these places of making the decision to spend the generously donated funding we have on a day or weekend away in country it can be hard. We feel guilty and we often have to go through the cycle of reminding ourselves that Jesus set the example of taking time away to regroup. He spent specific time with just his disciples away from the crowds so they could rest. He went away on his own to sleep and pray and I think, to just step back a bit. He did that because it was needed in the midst of ministering. Anyone that work in full time ministry knows the drains along with the blessings, and missionaries are right there. Aside from being okay with your missionaries using funding for respite days or treats like a meal out, I would ask you to encourage them to do so. Let them know it’s okay and that you see it as a health issue – mentally, physically and spiritually.

This list of expenses isn’t exhaustive, and as I mentioned before, will be different for each missionary depending on the organization that they’re working with, the type of ministry they’re involved in and where they’re serving. Some organizations require a set amount of funds raised before a missionary can even go into the field, and they help take care of some of these expenses and assist the missionary with a lot of planning and processing of documents, insurance etc, so there may be fees that the missionary is required to pay to their organization for those expenses, or a percentage of their overall funds raised is directed to the organization for this purpose. In most cases, just ask what the picture looks like and I bet you’ll find people that are happy to share because they want you to give confidently, knowing what your donations are helping them to do.

One thing that I want to take a second to address too, is looking at supporting missions financially as an investment. Many times we grab on to a cause and we want to support the organization, which is great and needed. But, when you can commit to regularly supporting a missionary that works with the organization you’re also investing in the organization, and this is why…

Because most missions organizations are relying on staff that raise their own support the terms that a missionary serves in the field might be varied if they don’t have consistent, reliable financial assistance. Aside from it being difficult for the missionary to plan for expenses in the same way it would be for you to know that your power, rent and phone bills were covered without a consistent income source, it can also lead to instability and a lot of changeover in staff for organizations themselves. I’m sure we can all think of a time where we were either part of a staff who went through a significant staff change over or know of situations where that’s happened, and can think of the effects of that on the work that was being done. Many missionaries serve in key leadership roles, so having regular staffing change overs can mean a disruption in what the organization is able to do and a completely different direction if the new staff leader thinks it necessary. It can be hard for an organization to be really effective over the long term if they have frequent staffing changes. When you choose to invest in the long term by supporting a missionary, you are actually investing in the life of the organization. We are so grateful for the people that see this with our financial support. They know that by helping to support us they are helping to support the overall work and ministry of Clean Water for Haiti. The consistency that our organization has experienced because our leadership has been consistent has helped us to accomplish a lot more than if we had experienced frequent staff change overs, resulting in more Haitian families having access to clean water in their homes.

I think a lot of people also feel that if they can’t make a larger regular donation that there is no point, but we’ve had donors that have given $10/month for years. Looking at it as a stand alone donation it doesn’t seem like much, but add that up over the years and that one donor gives $120/year. That’s adds up to more than a one time $50 donation. Most missionaries we know would love to have a bunch of small donations committed each month, because it becomes reliable income. We know it will be there and we can plan our budgeting with that. Don’t get me wrong, we love one time donations too, but I think you understand what I’m saying – there’s a place for both, but consistency is a huge gift!

I hope this has been informative, at the very least, and helpful in some degree. If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments!

Prayer:

  • Ask God to show you how you can be actively supporting a missionary or missions in general if you aren’t already.
  • Pray for missionaries and the organizations they work with, that they would have strong, long term leadership teams that enable to organization to be incredibly effective.

~Leslie

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