“Budgets cover all the costs of sending the missionary, not just what they need to live on.”

While the amount of money missionaries need to raise varies considerably, rarely is it limited to “how much do I need to live on?” Most missionary budgets include all the expenses of fielding the missionary. Besides a salary, budget categories generally include taxes, health and life insurance, retirement, travel expenses (including cost of furloughs), and administrative expenses (including the costs of communicating with supporters, and often a certain percentage that supports the mission agency’s home office). Many missionaries will need to raise funds for training costs (e.g. language school), purchase or rental of property, and/or purchase and maintenance of a vehicle. 

It’s also wise to include some kind of surplus account, or perhaps a 5% buffer built right into the budget in anticipation of lost support, cost of living increases, changing exchange rates, or inflation. Workers may also be asked to set up an emergency fund and/or purchase insurance that covers medical evacuation.

All this can add up to a daunting amount. Cutting corners is not worth the savings, though. Being well prepared will help the missionary family avoid some of the stress of getting to the field and not having what they need. 

Most mission agencies include some kind of “admin fee” in the amount a missionary is required to raise, and what these fees cover varies considerably. A high admin fee may include some of the expenses listed above, and a low one may suggest these items are listed elsewhere in the missionary’s budget.

It’s tempting to cut out things like contingency and retirement funds, but if missions is your career, you may regret neglecting such things. 

Some online resources you may find helpful include sample missionary budgets and basic budgeting forms. See also this helpful article: How Much Is Enough?

Answer from Marti, who has served as a mission mobilizer since 1995, including more than ten years with Pioneers.

“If married, count both of you as missionary workers who should get a salary.”

A candidate recently asked me if I though it was better for a married couple to both counted as legal employees or just the husband as some agencies do to simplify payroll even if both are working as missionaries. We’re both W-2 employees and we’re each issued a W-2 with half of our total income per year. I think it’s more respectful of our partnership to do it that way and honor my wife’s major contributions to the work. That was our original reason.

We’ve discovered strong financial reasons along the way too. When you are negotiating your budget with your agency and others it is to your advantage to present the full force of your contribution i.e. two full-time workers. “The worker is worthy of his wages,” and although people might remember there are two of us, it is to your financial advantage to remind them of the income you both are earning together. Most missionaries, even if they start under the traditional model of the man as the only breadwinner, evolve eventually to give the wife a significant responsibility in the work. There can be a tendency for some to forget that you are working not just 40 hours but 80+ hours as two workers. When mission committees and business people there ask why should you earn so much money, “This is more than my pastor makes!” You have a good response to remind them that you are not just one pastor’s salary, but two salaries. 

The wife as an employee accrues Social Security credits, too. I’m not sure, but I believe this means she would probably have higher income in retirement than if she wasn’t an official employee. 

Another thing to consider is liability insurance, it is probably not going to extend to a non-employee legally as it would to employees. This could be an issue if there was legal trouble I also wonder about taxes too. CA state income tax has a safe harbor rule, meaning we can return under an employment contract to CA temp AND work there fundraising for 45 days without paying state income tax (12%). Non-employees wouldn’t be under that contract and shielded from further tax liability. Even if that is not the case, consider how taxation for expats has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. If you’re on the field for 20 years, it could change even more. Historically, tax rates have been much higher in past periods such as when we were born. I wouldn’t bet that it is going to stay as low as it is now.

Answer from Sam in Taiwan, who has served with Beyond and Joni and Friends for 13 years.

“Your missionary budget is hopefully designed for your longevity on the field, from veterans who’ve realistically counted the cost.”

Raising an amount so much higher than a salary may surprise you. Why’s this necessary? You may be raising the actual costs it takes a business to employ a person (which can be an additional 100-180% of a salary) – plus costs intrinsic to being a successful global worker. 

These expenses may include costs like

  • overhead for project costs for your ministry. For example, if you hope to run a supply distribution for at-risk children, you may be raising costs to maintain that programming. The more independent your project is from your sending organization, the more likely you may need to raise those project costs.
  • travel expenses.
  • your computer, software, internet, desk, chair, phone, office space, etc. Some agencies don’t already provide these.
  • member care. These costs cover critical mental and emotional support for the challenges of living cross-culturally and more challenging circumstances. There are a vital component to your longevity, and should be factored into your budget (or your organization’s).

Editor’s note: When considering what to relate to potential financial supporters about your own budget, see this post, “RAISING SUPPORT: 2 COMMANDMENTS OF SHARING BUDGET NEEDS”. Sometimes missionary budgets are difficult for non-missionaries to understand without passing undue judgment.

Obviously, lower administrative fees in a missionary budget help reduce your overall budget. But typically, more moderate to high admin fees include more benefits and services that help keep you going on the mission field.

Other thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Different sending organizations have very different philosophies of budget-setting (ranging from frugal to robust, job-based or needs-based). They also have varying levels of control over budget-setting.
  • Ask your organization about categories or aspects of a budget you don’t understand.
  • Keep in mind that the amount may seem overwhelming when you’re raising a high support goal. But your budget is hopefully designed for your longevity on the field, from veterans who’ve realistically counted the cost.
  • It’s also far easier to raise support before your first departure–and much harder to raise from the field and even during travel back to your passport culture. So go well-funded from the start!

Answer from John, the Human Resources director for Engineering Ministries’ International’s offices around the world.

Editor –  Would you like a good realistic look at a missionary budget and the critiques it will generate? Then check out “Why the heck would a missionary need so much money to live in a poor country?