Just as we were going to press we received a point of view different from “stay away (entirely) from student debt”–which is my own feeling and the thesis of most of the articles in this issue. Steve Shadrach has worked with college students for 25 years and founded the marvelous “Travelling Teams” ministry.
Should School Debt Delay College Graduates from Going to the Mission Field?
More students than ever are graduating from college with more school debt than ever. I believe, though, that the debt itself is not the problem, but how you view that debt.
School debt and consumer debt are different. School debt doesn’t have to be paid back until after graduation and normally requires a small monthly payback amount with a very low interest rate. Consumer debt is normally accumulated because of the use of credit cards that charge exorbitant interest rates. (Many times the high debt amounts are because of trying to sustain a higher standard of living.)
There are good and bad reasons a student accumulates school debt. A bad reason is the student purposely seeks to sustain a standard of living during college that is beyond their means. In other words, instead of focusing on paying for basic room and board and transportation, etc., they want to get a nicer apartment with newer furniture and bigger stereo systems, a fancier car, designer clothes, and spring break trips.
A good reason is that students may be taking personal responsibility for the payment of their school expenses. Maybe they and their parents have been sacrificing, saving and investing to pay for the basic college costs. The students themselves work during the summers and school year to help pay the expenses too. If they graduate and have 10K, 20K, 30K, etc. of school debt, it could actually be viewed as a plus, not a minus. It may be said they did not put all the burden of paying for their college expenses on their parents, but worked and borrowed (and plan on continuing to work to pay off the loan).
Now, why would mission agencies be concerned about this topic? Their reps must have run into many graduating students who claim they cannot go directly into missions because they feel like they need to stay at home and work in order to pay off their school debt first. Many of these graduates never fulfill that initial calling because (during the period of time they are paying off their school loan) they get married, buy (and owe on) a house, have kids, advance in their job, etc. and now have such deep roots they are not able (or willing) to go into missions.
My solution doesn’t deal with the debt itself, but how you view it. I deal with college students through our ministry all the time. I also train many recent college graduates who are going into full-time ministry and missions. Here is what I tell them:
If you have a significant amount of consumer debt built up, do not go into full-time support raising and ministry yet. Get a second or third job, live frugally, do everything you can to kill the debt as quickly as you can. You can’t in good conscience go to donors and ask them to support you to help you pay off a credit card balance that is there because of an exorbitant lifestyle and interest rate.
However, if students graduate merely with school debt (regardless of the amount!) and feel called into missions, I counsel them not to even skip a beat. I ask them what the amount of debt is, what the required monthly amount is and what the interest rate is. They will usually say something like, “I owe $18,000; they want me to pay $146 a month at a 4% interest rate.” I tell them to build their budget (including all their expenses) and simply include that $146 a month payment right into their support budget.
Seldom will a donor ever question a budget. In 18 years of support raising I think I have had maybe two people ever even ask to see my budget. If someone does ask to look at a young person’s budget and they see the $146 school-loan-payment line item, how will they respond? My belief is that any businessman worth his salt would congratulate that young person for taking responsibility for putting themselves through college and now being faithful to pay back the loans–on time and in full. It would give them more credibility–not less–with that donor.
Bottom Line: Graduating college students:
- Consumer debt? Kill it, then begin support raising. Never accumulate consumer debt again.
- School debt? Build it into your budget, go raise your support. Never look back.
P.S. As a side note, I believe the main purpose of college is not to get a degree or even an education. Supporting this concept, Walt Henrichsen, author of the classic Disciples Are Made Not Born, wrote, “If you are at college for any other reason but to be a missionary for Jesus Christ, you are there for sinful, selfish reasons.” For a student to see how many courses they can test out of or cram into a semester (in order to save money or graduate early) can actually work against the development and ministry of the student. Never again will a student have the opportunity to be in such close proximity to non-Christian peers, and if a young person can step onto a campus and become a missionary for Christ, it could be they will be better able to step onto the foreign mission field and have an impact.
I find Steve’s approach both challenging and sensible–for the most part.
I note and appreciate his important distinction between “consumer debt” and “school debt.” Yet both may result from injudicious choices and exorbitant living, as he says.
Thus, why not bring the same kind of judgment into the realm of school debt? Laying the burden of $18,000 on donors is quite different from presuming to cast $78,000 on the backs of donors. Could that additional $60,000 be avoided? If a student uses borrowed money to pay for more expensive school choices (which school, which dorm, which vacation trips), is that not somewhat in the consumer debt category? Whether it is cars, clothes, food, homes, or schooling, choices can be unwisely expensive.
In any case, witnessing for Christ on campus, while a vitally important experience, ought not replace what can be learned by a student sharing heavily in the earning of the funds college requires.
What if mixing in work experience adds a year or two? Witnessing on the job as well as at school is equally important from that standpoint. But there is also the largely unsung value of the work experience itself. Both witnessing and work are vital to growth and maturity even if neither is usually considered an important component of true education.
Equally important educationally is attendance at key meetings like Urbana, or the young people’s section of the International Society for Frontier Missiology (Sept 23-25 in St. Louis—see www.ijfm.org/isfm–an exciting annual conference, jointly meeting with the Evangelical Missiological Society, the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Society, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies. This combination could be the largest gathering of mission executives in history.)
Meanwhile, the current issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions ($15 a year) includes the following: Hugh Ross and the problem of evil; contextualization no panacea?; Is observance of the law a help in Muslim outreach?; How anthropology became the number one study for Evangelical missionaries; reviews of The DaVinci Code and The Purpose Driven Life; Editorial comment on Science and Insanity; Stunned Into Silence; Face to Face. The latter is a plan for local discussion groups for both readers of Mission Frontiers and IJFM. Are you interested in such a group? Write to me via Betty, whose contact info is in the announcement below.
Meanwhile don’t overlook the unique bargain just below. This reprint will be of lasting fascination.