Should Missionary Donations Go to Retirement?

I give to support missionaries, but do I want my donations going to their 401(k)?

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Should Missionary Donations Go to Retirement?

Heidi Dean | Feb 20, 2014, 15:41 PM

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I give to support missionaries, but do I want my donations going to their 401(k)?

I love those Christmas charitable giving catalogs — you know, the ones where $14 can provide an impoverished family with baby chicks, that will one day give the family hundreds of eggs. The ones where you can give $6 to provide thick blankets to families living in huts, or $25 to send fifty Gospel booklets to children. It’s inspiring to think of how the money that you could have blown in 2 minutes at Target was instead used to give someone food, warmth and spiritual growth.

If anything can get you excited about giving to God’s kingdom work, it’s knowing where your donor dollars are going—and how much good that money is doing. 

If you scrutinize the items in a missionary’s budget, it seems like a fair amount of overhead

But what about supporting a missionary or church planter? It’s vastly more expensive than sending $25 for fifty Gospel booklets. Is it really a good use of funds? If you scrutinize the items in a missionary’s budget, it seems like a fair amount of overhead: Insurance, reimbursements, travel, retirement… Retirement? Really? Is that even an appropriate use of donated funds? I don’t know how I feel about someone asking others for financial support, only to then put some of those dollars into their personal retirement plan.  

I’ve heard a lot about the ‘good old days’ of missions back in the 50’s and 60’s, having grown up with parents who served with Operation Mobilization. Talk about frugal. George Verwer, the founder, lived on only the basic essentials, pouring everything into world evangelization, and the agency he founded had some similarly radical policies. Let’s just say there were no IRA’s and 401(k)’s. Those missionaries were trusting God!

Some today still follow those principles. At Ask a, one missionary said, “Trust God to provide at retirement age.” Another said, “I subscribe to Jesus' plan: ‘Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven’ [while God provides on earth]. My retirement fund is looking good in heaven.” And one organization said,

"We allow missionaries a variety of retirement packages, ranging from nothing at all to whatever they can afford. Some are concerned that if we allow a missionary to serve with little or no financial provision for the future, they may not have a future. [But] history is on our side… We have had a multitude of missionaries retire and no retiree has ever been destitute, because God has always provided. Some have gone to retirement centers built specifically for missionaries. Some have had houses given to them. Some have gone to live with siblings or children.”

So I spoke with other mission agencies to hear how they respond to this issue of funding a missionary’s personal retirement with donor dollars. Dave McNeill, the director of staff benefits at Wycliffe Bible Translators, provided some helpful history. “Policies on retirement have been changing because the face of missions has changed,” he said. “Many missions organizations started in the 1950-60s were youth-oriented and had a philosophy that ‘The Lord’s coming back soon! We’re going to finish this job and Jesus will come back, so why prepare for the future?’”

The problem came when those missionaries got older… and the Lord had not returned. Wycliffe realized by the mid-80’s that they needed to institute retirement planning, but it was already too late for some. Barb Michaels, a missionary who served in Papua New Guinea, says, “Wycliffe was having people retire with no income.  And then their churches didn't want to support them, because churches like to support active missionaries but not necessarily retired missionaries.” Dave McNeill added, “It’s not good for anyone when a missionary comes back to a supporting church and says they’re going to starve because they only have Social Security.” 

How much do we value these Gospel workers?

It puts everyone in an awkward position. Especially the missionary, who doesn’t want to be a burden on others.

The historical reality is that many missionaries have experienced lack in their final years of life. God has not always dropped a last-minute home or major gift in the lap of the faithful. And though some may think that, being missionaries and all, these good folks are ok with ‘making do on less,’ or with being dependent on reluctant family members… we can all see the neglect there, under that cloak of spirituality.

So as we consider the “efficiency” of our ministry dollars and scrutinize the benefits package of a missionary’s budget, let’s consider a couple questions. How much do we value these Gospel workers? Do we value them as instruments or as people? Are we supporting their whole person—their physical needs, their long-term stability? And how can we best show love—the kind of love we would want to receive—to these workers who are already taking on a number of sacrifices, including limited salary and personal comforts?

Questions like these—questions about the long-term well-being of Gospel workers—have led many of those youthful, hippie era agencies away from a stance of “throwing caution to the wind.” Even the most radical organizations speak of having gained perspective as they matured. George Verwer, for one, says, “I am not the same person I was in 1960. Yes, I am still eager to share the gospel, but we need balanced, consistent Christianity.”[1] His organization realized they had not balanced all of Scripture’s teachings on finances, nor maintained the correct balance between trusting God and taking action.[2]

It’s important to see that Scripture never says we should “trust God” in place of actively obeying Him by working. It tells us to trust God for provision while we take the steps He’s instructed: steps like earning an income (“The one who will not work shall not eat,” 2 Thess. 3:10) and living within our means.

Though it is true that God can provide for a missionary or for any of us in an unusual way—a generous relative, an unexpected major gift—the Bible indicates that our work and our planning is the normal way God provides. The book of Proverbs is particularly full of principles about preparing for future financial needs, like retirement. The proverb of the Diligent Ant (6:6-8) teaches us to set aside resources during the fertile season so we can have something to live off in the winter months when work is no longer possible. Setting aside resources is hard because it means frugality, discipline and restraint (Prov 5:23), as well as careful attention in managing finances (27:23-24).

Rob Ilderton, a missionary to England with Mission to the World, says that saving for retirement is hard work, especially as a missionary. “It's easy not to think about retirement until your 50's. In your 20's, 30's, and 40's you don't want to deal with the hassle of raising the extra amount each month. It's incredibly short-sighted on missionaries’ parts, but in our hearts we really aren't fund raisers, so if we can get away with cutting something from the budget we will.”

Dave McNeill echoed that sentiment. “God has called us to prepare intentionally for the future, and that’s always. Including in ministry. Throughout life we have to prayerfully plan and make measured preparations for things we need to accomplish. That includes retirement. It takes work to prepare: It takes extra months of support-raising, extra effort to build the team. And some of the work is holding back resources that we’d rather spend today. Where the rubber meets the road is putting it into practice. Saving sounds great right until you try to start paying the bills.”

So—for those of us donors—it sounds like what missionaries need from us is not to question their need for retirement benefits. They’re only too tempted to take that short-term perspective and drop it from the budget! Rather, what missionaries need is from us is encouragement to do what is in both their and our best interest: Start saving now.

Why is it in our best interest as donors that missionaries start saving for retirement now? Because missionaries who wait until later will have to use much more donor money to achieve the same effect, because they will have missed the returns produced in the market over time. There is an exponential benefit to investing early. 

Barb Seckler, Finance Manager at Great Commission Ministries, says, “When I educate missionaries about retirement planning, I try to keep it simple -- Invest early and keep investing. Those are the factors that make the biggest impact on how much money will be available at retirement.”

Dave McNeill says, “Wycliffe previously said that missionaries under 30 didn’t have to contribute to retirement, but then we realized how the early years make all the difference in where you’ll be at 65. Since you can never save a lot as a missionary, it’s going to be a long process to save enough. And there are no ‘high earning years’ as there are in other fields, so without the multiplier effect of investment, you won’t get the right effect.” 

As donors, we play the best role when...

As donors, we play the best role when we understand the hardships of support-based ministry and when we encourage our missionaries to persevere in making sure their support needs get covered. Concluding support-raising prematurely to “get out in the field” may be a shortcut that produces difficulty later (Prov 21:5). Barb Seckler says, “It’s already a sacrifice to live a life of faith based on support. But we’re hoping missionaries will take that additional step of faith to give to retirement and trust God to still meet their needs today.”  

You know, it’s true that supporting a missionary is more costly than your average product in a Christmas catalog. Its more costly, less tangible, and slower to produce that “bang for your buck” satisfaction. But it’s a real investment nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest investment we can make. Because when we mobilize a missionary, we’re not just sending off food, clothing or literature. We’re sending out a person to go embody the Gospel to a lost community. And aren’t we glad that our Father did the same for us: Sending not just gifts or a book from heaven, but sending a Person? 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

[1] Drops from a Leaking Tap by George Verwer. Authentic Books, 2008, p.24.
[2] Out of the Comfort Zone by George Verwer. Bethany House, 2000.