Missionaries Quitting Because of Money

We all know colleagues who have left their field of service. Sometimes it is to embrace a new opportunity in the US or elsewhere, sometimes it is God’s leading, but sometimes they leave in tears, brokenhearted. That makes their departure even more gut-wrenching for those who stay behind.

Why do missionaries leave?

There are theories, hunches, and even a little research as to the top reasons humanitarian workers and missionaries leave the field basically against their wishes. I think I’d probably rank them something like this:

1. Aging Parents and Emerging Adult Children

2. Conflict on the Team

3. Visas or other documents

And then there is a strong candidate for the fourth position. As the music industry used to say, “Rising on the charts with a bullet (i.e. quickly) is…

4. Financial Problems

Leaving over financial issues

An organization sent a family that I know overseas with an amount of monthly support that put them below the poverty line. I tried to warn them that their budget was too low to survive where they were going, but no one wants to accept that kind of news. Within just two years, they packed up their bags and returned to the States heartbroken and nearly destitute.

Good-bye

We all know those who had to raise their own support, but just couldn’t keep enough money coming in every month, so the dream was shattered. Many of us know workers who mistakenly paid their income taxes in the USA instead of in their country of service. I know several. One of them got a bill for about $150,000, put it in his pocket, flew back to the USA, and is working hard to pay it off. Finances drove him home.

What about the single guy who says, “First, I’ll make some good money in the States and then I’ll go overseas,” or, as one guy once told me, “I’ll give four years to overseas nonprofit work, but then I need to have a normal job with a normal wage.” I feel like I’ve seen it all.

The veil of silence

Of course, many of our colleagues don’t speak willingly of financial problems or missteps. We may reach a point when we suddenly realize that we’d neglected to build the Mercy Mound (my term for the funds we’ve set aside for giving to charity, paying off our debts and taxes, saving for an inexpensive college and a simple retirement and, God willing, perhaps even self-funded ministry). As a consequence, we can’t afford to stay on the field any longer.

It sounds pretty unspiritual for a missionary to admit she didn’t pay her taxes as she was supposed to or for a nonprofit worker to admit he just couldn’t make a go of it on such a low income, so it goes unsaid. Perhaps we just make up some positive-sounding excuse for leaving, but our heart is breaking.

Scandal

What’s more, our silence may prevent others from learning from our mistakes. Newbies arrive on the field and are not told about foreign taxation or the need to save aggressively for future costs, retirement, and giving. Our silence may cause others to stumble.

Where to turn?

Remember our proposed list of the top four reasons missionaries leave the field?

1. Aging Parents and Emerging Adult Children

2. Conflict on the Team

3. Visas or other documents

4. Financial Problems

The first three have something in common. There is help and understanding for these issues. There are books, support groups, and such for the first. Local churches might lend a hand, colleges offer MK and TCK programs, and so on. The second is the theme of many a book on team building and interpersonal conflicts. It may be unseemly to talk about (like finances), but not a single missionary would be surprised to hear about this, our mission agencies often offer member care, and there are a few outside mission agencies that specialize in counseling and conflicts. The visa and document issue is a little harder. Veteran missionaries might help, legal experts may assist, and so on. Still, when a country tells us to leave, we usually have little recourse but to do so. A difference in this is probably that supporters and colleagues can know exactly why we left and will have compassion on us. Everyone feels for the missionary compelled to go “home.”

But what about those private, ugly, unspeakable financial problems? Who will comfort you for not paying your taxes? Who will warn you not to invest in an IRA (except in unusual circumstances)? Who will tell you which simple, inexpensive stock funds are most suited to your situation?

Supporters will probably be more understanding than you might think, but care should be given when discussing financial problems with donors. And the truth is that most of those same colleagues and supporters plus the average financial advisor, tax preparer, and even missions organization, cannot grasp the intricacies and complications faced by US expats.

That’s why Vagabond Finances is here. I, Mark, have grown tired of walking the Vagabond Path on my own without much advice or understanding. I’ve grown even more tired and discouraged as I watch colleague after colleague leave the field over financial issues. As we gather together financial advisors, tax experts, expat financial gurus, and tons and tons of trial and error experience of our own, we hope that Vagabond Finances (and our Facebook page) will become a place of encouragement and camaraderie that will keep more missionaries on the field.

We recognize that most of our users won’t comment below or on Facebook and will not get in touch through our contact form. We’ve seen the positive numbers, we know how many visitors we are getting, but we also know that talking about finances “out loud” isn’t for everyone.

Still, don’t leave the field, don’t go this alone, and don’t assume that finances are unspiritual. Some have suggested that money is mentioned in the Bible over 2,000 times compared to a mere 500 mentions of prayer. Whether those numbers matter or not, there is certainly ample evidence that God loves His people and cares how they handle their money. Shouldn’t we do the same? Shouldn’t we love God’s people enough to share our counsel and our challenges and shouldn’t we care how our colleagues handle their money and offer them some help?

Vagabond Finances is here for you. Will you be there for others?

Mark Mason

Missions is my calling. Finances is my hobby. Helping you is my pleasure. "Mark" is my ultra-ego.

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