You see that happy missionary family smiling out of the postcard on your fridge? Their marriage is probably hanging by a thread.


sad couple

Anybody can smile long enough for an updated newsletter photo

family photo (2)


I winced as the lights suddenly cut off.

“Really? Three nights in a row?” I thought to myself as my wife rounded the corner on the verge of tears.

“I can’t do this…I can’t do another night of no sleep!” she moaned. She was sick of the heat and the lack of air circulation every time the power cut out. In that moment, I should have hugged her but I wasn’t in the mood for complaints.

I scornfully shot back, “You are lucky to have running water! Most of the people in El Salvador would love to be in the circumstances that you are complaining about!”

I knew it was wrong but I hoped she would feel guilty enough to just suck it up. As this thought crossed my mind, my daughter’s voice rang out from the bathroom, “The water is out!”

Just like that, I went from being a smug jerk to choking on humble pie.


One of the things that shocked me when we began our ministry to missionaries in El Salvador was the number of missionaries struggling in their marriages. I was even more shocked when my own marriage began to suffer. Within two months, my wife and I went from having 2 to 3 big fights a year to having 2 to 3 fights a day.

Many people put missionaries up on pedestals and assume their marriages are perfect. The reality is that missionaries are just normal people like you and me. They have answered the call to leave everything to serve God. The thing is that they didn’t get to leave behind their selfish desires, annoying habits, and personal struggles. Not only are these issues along for the ride, but they are in a pressure cooker. Cracks become chasms and as people begin to boil over, their spouse is bound to get burned.

What the what????!!! You are telling me missionaries struggle in their marriages?

Nobody talks about how much pressure answering the call to missions puts on a marriage and few people understand the risk of their marriage imploding because they are on the field. We have seen this play out time and time again with deep hurt and severe consequences. If your missionary was brave enough to repost this blog then they are discerning enough to know the risks, and humble enough to understand the need for prayers and support.

What are the factors that cause marriages to fall apart and what can sending churches do about it? I have outlined some contributing factors below and usually several (or all) of these issues collide creating a perfect storm that threatens to undo the marriage.

  1. Spiritual Warfare

Most Christians pay lip service to the fact that Satan comes against us, but on the mission field it is in your face all day long everyday. Satan has come up with a great plan to destroy a ministry, the employees of the ministry, and the missionary family all with one blow. It is easy. All Satan needs to do is infiltrate and destroy one relationship…the marriage of a missionary couple. If the marriage fails, the family splits. If the family splits, they leave the field. National Christians, supporters, fellow missionaries, and especially their children are left with a shaken faith as they struggle to pick up the pieces.

What can you do?

The marriages of missionaries are in Satan’s crosshairs. As we outline some of these other factors you will see some of his strategies. They are targeted everyday. Pray for your missionaries, and then pray for them some more.

  1. Stress

Most of us are guilty of letting a bad day affect how we interact with our spouse. On the mission field everyday is circumstantially a “bad day.” You know how your day goes if your power goes out, or your car won’t start. You know how much it impacts your mood if you spend fruitless hours at the DMV, or if you are getting over a stomach bug and have to plan your day around toilet locations. You know the frustration of planning an event for weeks only to have no one show up. Any of these things alone can ruin your day. For a missionary, experiencing all of these situations over the course of just a few hours can mean it’s just another Wednesday. Add having to do all of these things in your second language while constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you won’t get mugged while driving on sub-standard roads with major traffic, and well, you get the picture. Don’t you think you’d be pretty stressed out and cranky by the end of the day?

What can you do?

Make sure that your missionaries can mitigate as many issues as possible. Make sure they have a car that won’t break down and that they live in a secure home where things function more often than not. Make sure husbands and wives both have cell phones to deal with issues that arise. Give them ample time for language learning on the front end, and provide financial flexibility to fix things when they break. Find out what they need and send it to them if you can.

  1. Long Hours and Large Workloads

The work is never done for missionaries who are passionate about what they do. Many deal with life or death issues, and all deal with people making choices with eternal implications. Many are burned out and exhausted by the poverty, abuse, and brokenness that they see everyday and they are always on call. Some live on their ministry sites and can’t separate home and work even if they wanted to. Missionaries burn out, give beyond what is healthy and come home with nothing left. Their spouse is neglected and distant especially if they are in a different role such as caring for young kids.

What can you do?

Help your missionaries come up with healthy limits on their involvement and put parameters on the hours they keep. Do not encourage a hero complex or give them the unhealthy view that everything depends on them. Make sure they have time to spend with God themselves, and time to invest in their spouse and kids.

  1. Temptation

“The grass is always greener” even on the mission field and there is temptation as missionaries interact daily with people of the opposite sex. A man is often idolized by the women he works with or serves, while his wife knows him and all of his shortcomings. She knows things aren’t as great as the newsletters portray. She knows their financial struggles, she knows he’s not perfect and she is often the one personally impacted when he falls short. She knows his actions don’t match his words and even though she loves him he seems to love his ministry far more than he loves her. She starts to think she’s not as lucky as everyone says and those thoughts come out in the form of nagging and criticism. Soon he becomes vulnerable to women who are amazed that he takes the time to talk to them and to serve them and he prefers their company to that of his wife.

Meanwhile, the wife may feel neglected as she struggles to manage the household and kids in a land where simple things are a battle. At the end of the day she goes to bed alone as her husband works late yet again to serve the ministry. He doesn’t know what she is going through, and one day an old friend reaches out through social media and he seems to care for her far more than her husband does. She begins to find value in a relationship outside of her marriage.

What can you do?

These vulnerable situations can begin innocently and grow into something that completely devastates a marriage and ministry. Make sure your missionaries have trusted people in place who will be able to detect when things are off balance. Ask what their boundaries are and hold them accountable to keeping them.

  1. Guilt

Missionaries feel guilty for taking time out with their spouse. They know their supporters are sacrificing for them to be there and they feel they will be judged for using resources for a date night or vacation. Because of a lack of opportunity to enjoy each other their marriages become stale and business-like as they struggle to survive another day.

What can you do?

You can make sure that the missionaries you support take time to invest in their marriage. They both need permission to take the time and resources needed to make this happen. Send them some extra money with the stipulation that they have to use it in the next month to take a weekend away together. Require them to have regular date nights as a condition of your support. When your team comes to volunteer, offer to watch their kids one night so that they can out together. This allows them to do what they need to keep their marriage healthy without feeling guilty about it.

  1. Financial Struggles

Men have the need to provide for their family, and women have a need to feel secure. The unrealistic budgets that many missionaries survive on means that neither of these needs are being met. On the mission field it’s not as simple as picking up a side job because of ministry demands and visa restrictions. For women, the pressure may be compounded if she feels her children are unsafe or are receiving a sub-standard education. All of this adds up to huge marital strain.

What can you do?

Make sure your missionaries are supported financially. Put yourself in their place…would you want your wife driving your kids through dangerous areas in an unreliable car? Would you want your kids to fall behind their U.S. peers academically and ruin their chances at college? Missionaries generally will not advocate for themselves, so you need to advocate for them. Understand the true costs and help your missionary to budget for plenty of cushion including things like health insurance and retirement. Keep in mind that life overseas is almost always more expensive than life in the U.S. and their budget should reflect that.

A closer look at financial issues missionaries face

  1. Missionary Kid Issues

Missionary kids face unique struggles that impact marriages. When your kids are homesick or depressed everyone suffers. Nothing is more troubling for a woman than to hear her kids accuse her of ruining their lives by bringing them to the mission field. Men are frustrated when their children are always the ones acting out. Some kids withdraw and rebel or become suicidal, others are always in trouble. Some families may be homeschooling; others may be battling the local school system trying to find something that works. Everyone is drained as the wife focuses her energy and time on the children, and the husband blames his wife for the kids’ unhappiness and bad behavior leaving her exhausted and unappreciated.

What can you do?

Encourage your missionaries, and make sure the whole family is prepared before they go and supported while they are there. Find out special things to do for the kids, and cut everyone some slack when they are home on furlough. Kids may be jet-lagged, and out of the environment that they are used to. Let missionaries know it’s normal, and that you care about their whole family.

  1. Too Much Family Time

While some missionaries don’t get enough time with their family, some are in the opposite situation where they do everything together, everyday, all the time. Couples used to having separate jobs and routines clash as they adjust to the constant togetherness. Women lose their independence, especially if the family only budgeted for one car or it’s too dangerous to drive on her own. A man may see his family as a burden, and something keeping him from doing ministry.

We struggled with this ourselves when we arrived on the mission field. El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, and we live an hour from the city. If my wife wanted to do something in town, I had to drive her there and occupy the kids just so she could attend a Bible study or go shopping. One trip could waste half my day and I become frustrated with the inefficiency. Meanwhile all four of us were sleeping in one room. This made intimacy in our marriage a challenge…and not just in the most obvious way! We no longer had our own space to share our joys and struggles with listening ears lying just feet away. When we finally got another car and reconfigured our home it was amazing to see how much healthier our marriage felt.

What can you do?

Think through transportation and housing needs and how they affect the family. Make sure the wife has independence if she desires, and that they have adequate living space for healthy family relationships. Give them permission to wrestle through the changed family dynamics and remind them that it’s normal to struggle when family routines change.

  1. Destructive Coping Mechanisms

Missionaries are regular people, and sometimes they cope with stress in sinful, destructive ways. The difference for missionaries is that chronic stress, a foreign language, an ever-changing set of rules, and danger and corruption all add up to push them quickly to the breaking point. Some days missionaries are genuinely surprised that they made it through the day without some kind of crisis. They feel stressed and overwhelmed. They often feel like they can’t be honest about how drained they feel, or how traumatized they may be by the brokenness and loss they see around them everyday.

With no good outlet to process and debrief, they may turn to destructive coping mechanisms. Drug use, alcohol abuse, pornography, stress eating, and self-pity are very real on the mission field with constant triggers surrounding the missionary every day. Marriage issues caused by all the above factors may push missionaries farther down this destructive path and drive a greater wedge in their marriage.

What can you do?

Make sure that your missionaries have people they can reach out to without feeling judged. Missionaries may find it hard to seek help for the issues that they face. Many times their close friends and home church are also their financial supporters. They are afraid to share transparently for fear of losing their financial support and finding themselves in a worse situation. It is vital that missionaries are provided with a support team, as well as a mentor or counselor that they can reach out to in times of need.

In closing, keep in mind that missionaries are just normal, flawed people who have answered the call to live in very challenging situations. Think of all your issues and multiple them by 10. Satan wants missionary marriages to fail because he knows the damage he can do. He knows how powerfully a healthy marriage models Christ, and how easily a failed one can turn people from Him. You have the opportunity to make sure that he doesn’t succeed.

Pray for your missionaries, care for them, support them, and love them. You can do some of the practical things mentioned above to make sure the missionaries you are supporting remain strong. If we want to reach the world for Christ, we need to provide those serving on the front lines with a firm foundation. First, their ministry must be rooted in Christ, but we also want to help them build on the foundation of a healthy marriage.

Every time you look at that smiling family on that refrigerator magnet, think about the issues they are facing. Lift their marriage up in prayer, and think about tangible ways that you can cheer them on to success. There is too much at stake, and the mission they have been called to is far too important to fail.



“Buy 1 missionary get 3 free” and other myths- Why it costs a lot more to send a family to the mission field than a young single.

I have never really understood why people blog, but two weeks ago I had some things I wanted to share with the missionaries we work with and it seemed to be the most convenient format so I decided to try this blogging thing.   I did not realize when I sat at down at my computer what I was getting myself into. I was taken aback to see my observations on the obscure topic of missionary support circulate around the world within hours. I thought the visitor stats must be wrong as it racked up 50,000 readers in the first week.

original post

It has been fascinating to see the range of reactions and emotions that this topic elicits.   I viewed the subject as budgeting 101 based on common sense and dull math computations. I quickly realized that I had stepped into a mine field with some looking to my words as validation of their reality, while others saw my suggestions as a damaging form of American imperialism, advocating comfort and privilege. There were several missionary families thanking me for saying what they couldn’t, lay people and pastors challenging me to rethink assumptions about how a missionary should live, and my favorite, the young single missionaries rebuking me (yes they used the word, rebuke) as a comfort seeking charlatan in it for the money. Even when I emphasized I was advocating for others, that we had nothing personal to gain as we do not raise personal support, they refused to believe it.  What really stood out to me is that when people think about what it should cost to send out a missionary, they generally think in terms of a single person. They take this amount and add another 25-50% if the missionary happened to have a family.

Most of the comments on the blog missed the very point I was writing about. It was to help educate people on how cheap things are in the US compared to the rest of the world. It is hard for people to make decisions or understand missionaries’ budgets if they don’t understand the cost structure missionaries have to contend with. My point of comparing things to the cost in San Diego was not to suggest that missionaries need to replicate their American lifestyle. It was to show that things in most poor countries are even more expensive than San Diego, a city most Americans view as an expensive place to live.

Productivity not Comfort

There are always tradeoffs when it comes to the family budget, but I think it is important to understand the opportunity cost of sending missionaries on a bare bones budget. Even on the tightest budget it is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, so as good stewards we need to make sure that missionaries are equipped to have the greatest impact possible. It makes no sense to cut 20% from their budget if it is going to make them 50% less effective. This is not about comfort, but wise stewardship.

To those who think missionaries should not have cars or smart phones, you need to at least acknowledge the opportunity cost of your recommendation. You are saying we want the missionaries, that need thousands of dollars a month just to be in the country, to waste a lot of time riding a bus and looking for internet cafes. (Internet cafes are going the way of the pay phone, even in the developing world smart phones are everywhere). I bought a truck for my local helper here, not because I am worried about his comfort level, but because I want him to be productive. I also pay the monthly bill for him to have a smart phone so he can send me documents and pictures.  Even though his salary is a fraction of what it takes to send a missionary to the field, it still does not make sense to have him try to manage projects using the bus and not being able to communicate with me.

I was surprised that the strongest rebuke to my advocated budget came from young single missionaries. I quickly realized that their objections were directed more towards the economics of raising a family than they were to the standard of living I was advocating for. I know this because their own budgets that they thought were reasonable and austere, were usually higher on a per person basis than the one I was advocating for. Though many of them were blind to it, the disagreement was not due to deep theological or missiological issues, but the fact that they have never had to provide for a family. I totally understand why they see things so differently.   I spent time working with missionaries throughout the developing world right after I finished college. ( Had to throw in a shameless plug) I know that at that time my views were pretty similar to many of the young single commenters. When I replied to some of them, I felt like I was debating a 22 year old version of myself.

But I was told there would be no math.”

I went through the painstaking process of breaking the budget down for them. Yes, a family of 4 will have the same housing expenses as 4 single missionaries sharing a home. I showed that health care costs and insurance for a family of 4 is about 4x that of a young single missionary.   Kids need to be driven a lot of places, increasing car expenses. It costs just as much for a family of 4 with two cars as it would for 4 single missionaries sharing 2 cars.

I worked my way through the budget showing the impact of additional family members on every line item. Yes, feeding a family of 4 costs almost 4x as much. Yes, it costs 4 times as much to go out to eat. Yes, your emergency savings will be needed 4x as often. There were only 3 real exceptions. Two expenses that kids do not incur, cell phones and retirement contributions combined for $280 per adult in my budget. The third item is school tuition which the adults do not incur at $450 per kid.   For my efforts, I was rebuked for the fact that I was using math in my budget instead of purely using scripture. Though I am guided by scripture there is a biblical basis for the valid use of math. Even Jesus used it.

I am a visual person so I thought it might be helpful to see side by side what a budget that provides a similar standard of living would look like for different size families. That way we can compare apples to apples. If you think my budget is too high for singles and large families, then we can have a productive conversation about it. If you think that the family budget is ridiculous, but think the budget for singles is reasonable then maybe we have found a blind spot. Those of you who read the first blog may notice that the budget below for a family of 4 is about 10% less than the one I advocated for in my original budget. (For those of you who were all geared up to rebuke me don’t worry, it still reaches 6 figures). The below budget reflects the bare minimum required without sacrificing health, effectiveness, and wise long- term planning for most families in El Salvador. The one I previously advocated for, provided for more complete health insurance and a little more flexibility, but since this seemed to distract from the points I was trying to get across, I have cut out all the “luxury”.


Keep in mind that these include all costs, as if the missionary had to pay them. If a supporter provides housing and a car when missionaries are on furlough than you know that part of the budget expense is covered. If you plan on being in the field for less than 5 years than you might not need to put away for retirement. If your sending org raises money separately to cover overhead, than you may not have org fees to pay directly. If a supporter buys you a car than they are covering part of that expense directly. The point is to accurately portray what the real costs are so you can make informed decisions about the wisdom of certain actions. Just because somebody pays for an expense, it does not take that out of the calculation of what your family needs to live on.  Too often in ministry we pretend that costs don’t exist if another person or ministry outside our budget is picking up the tab. This causes most missionaries to severely underestimate their true costs and skews proper analysis of the effectiveness and productivity in their ministry. If you would not spend your own budget on something, than you should be just as careful before encouraging somebody else to spend their money on it. This is true not just for projects and personal overhead, but also staff. If you invite a missionary nanny to come down so you can homeschool and she has to raise $14,000 to cover her expense, then the cost to support your family did not go down $10,800 it went up $3,200 (14,000 raised for nanny – $10,800 saved in school tuition). We need to be honest and address the numbers straight on with full disclosure since it is all God’s and He has entrusted us to be good stewards. The downside of this is that when we are completely transparent and honest the numbers can look scary, especially when it comes to sending missionary families. People often react emotionally instead of logically saying things like “that is more than I make”. It is much easier to split off half the expenses into other categories and say it costs $50,000 to send a family than it is to include them all in a transparent way and tell people a missionary needs 6 figures. I am a firm believer that any time you play with the numbers to justify an action, it leads to poorly made decisions.


All that said, here are the real numbers and the reason it costs 3-5x as much to send a family of 4 to the field as it does a single. The knee jerk reaction is to say well we just should only send singles. We should always look at all the factors involved, and cost is definitely one of them. We do need to remember that families offer life experience and stability that is often different from what singles bring to the field. These considerations are not much different in the corporate world where it cost several times as much to send an employee with a family than it does a single. Companies usually consider this, but they often still choose to send those with families because they see the value in their experience and stability.



Transportation Shared Corolla Corolla Pickup truck&Corolla truck&Corolla truck&Corolla truck&Sienna truck&Sienna
Housing Furn Room 200sq ft Studio 400sq ft 1 BR 650sq ft 2 BR 750sq ft 3 BR 850sq ft 3 BR 900sq ft 3 BR 950 sq ft 3 BR 1000sq ft
young single Single 32+ Married 1 kid 2 kids 3 kids 4 kids 5 kids
Rent                              300.00                          400.00                500.00                        600.00                        700.00                        725.00                  750.00                        775.00
Electric included  


                   75.00                        100.00                        120.00                        130.00                  140.00                        150.00
Gas included                            10.00                    20.00                          30.00                          40.00                          45.00                          55.00                          55.00
Water included                            15.00                    25.00                          35.00  


                         55.00                          60.00                          65.00
Drinking Water                                    10.00                            10.00                    20.00                          30.00                          40.00                          50.00                          60.00                          70.00
internet included                            40.00                    40.00                          40.00                          40.00  


                         40.00                          40.00
Furnishings included                            75.00                125.00                        175.00                        200.00                        210.00  


transportation                                    300.00                          600.00                700.00                1,150.00                1,160.00                1,170.00              1,350.00  


cell phones                                    30.00                            60.00                120.00                        140.00                        150.00                        160.00                  165.00                   170.00
Household non food                                    25.00                            25.00                    50.00                          75.00                        100.00                        120.00                  135.00                   145.00
groceries                                    194.00                          194.00                357.00                        511.00                        649.00                        771.00                  925.00                1,022.00
eating out                                    20.00                            20.00                    40.00                          60.00                          80.00                        100.00                  120.00                        140.00
kids school tuition                                                  –                                  –                                  –                        450.00                        900.00                1,250.00              1,475.00                1,700.00
entertainment                                    20.00                            20.00                    40.00                          60.00                          80.00                        100.00                  120.00                    140.00
misc                                    60.00                            60.00                120.00                        180.00                        240.00                        300.00                  360.00                        420.00
retirement                                                  –                          200.00                400.00                        400.00                        400.00                        400.00                  400.00                        400.00
emergency savings                                    50.00                            50.00                100.00                        150.00                        200.00                        250.00                  300.00                        350.00
Total Monthly Spending                                1,009.00                      1,819.00            2,732.00                4,186.00                5,144.00                5,876.00              6,675.00                7,232.00
tithe                                    100.90                          181.90                273.20                        418.60                        514.40                        587.60                  667.50                        723.20
payroll taxes                                    169.81  


               459.80                        704.50                        865.74                        988.93              1,123.40                1,217.15
Health care                                    100.00                      200.00                400.00                        550.00                        700.00                        800.00                  850.00                        900.00
furlough                                    85.00                            85.00  


                       250.00                        325.00                        375.00                  425.00                        475.00
visa expense                                    10.00                            10.00                   20.00                          30.00                          40.00                          50.00                          60.00                          70.00
Total Monthly expenses                                1,474.71                      2,602.04           4,055.00                6,139.10                7,589.14                8,677.53              9,800.90            10,617.35
Org Fee                                    147.47                          260.20                405.50                  613.91                        758.91                        867.75                  980.09                1,061.73
Total Monthly                                1,622.19                      2,862.24            4,460.50                6,753.01              8,348.05                9,545.28            10,780.99            11,679.08
Total Yearly  


















Total Housing Expenses- “Living the Chinese dream”- I could not find any stats for El Salvador, but in China the average urban home provides 215 square feet per inhabitant. My above budget provides 212 square feet per person (based on family of 4). The average in the US is 828 square feet per person. In homes with more people, shared space can be used effectively which is why a family of 4 does not need twice as much as a couple. Families benefit from this economy of scale, but so do non-family members who chose to live together as roommates. This is why the budget expects that a young single choose the economical option of renting a room from a family. I have allocated a bigger budget to allow an older single to rent their own place. This takes into account that an older single is more likely to remain on the mission field (as a single). Many young singles are trying out missions after they finish school and are much less likely to remain long term. Plus they are at a stage in life where there are a lot of benefits to living with others. We feel it is reasonable to allow older singles the budget to find housing that allows for privacy and, for lack of a better term, the ability to live like an adult. Also note that drinking water has to be purchased, as tap water is not drinkable.



Transportation- We assume that a car is the most efficient way to get around, because it is in El Salvador.   There may be some who serve in places with decent public transport and their budget may be less. For reasons similar to our housing explanation we think it is practical for young single missionaries to share a car, but it is reasonable for established singles to have their own vehicle. This is in part because the older singles usually have a lot more ministry responsibilities and less flexibility to coordinate schedules with another person. It would be ideal for a couple to each have a car but it is easier for them to coordinate schedules so most can get by with one. Once you throw kids into the picture, especially if they are going to school, sharing becomes much more inefficient. As families get larger, there are some economies of scale on a per person basis, but they often need to buy larger more expensive vehicles.   Kids at different ages often have different schedules so bigger families drive more miles.


Cell Phones- younger singles can probably get by with cheaper prepaid phones as they generally have less ministry responsibility and no family to coordinate things with.   Those with more responsibility generally are more effective if they have smart phones. Larger families mean more things to communicate about.


Household nonfood- This means soap, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, light bulbs, paper towels, toilet paper and the list goes on and on. Slight economies of scale in larger families who can buy bulk.


Groceries- Since food here in El Salvador is at least as expensive as it is in the US, I budgeted the amount people living in the US on food stamps are allotted. Many of you may have heard of the food stamp challenge (if you have not google it). Yep, we are challenging you to provide for missionaries at this luxurious level. Slight economies of scale for a larger family.


Eating out- Studies have shown that an average family of 4 in the US spends $225 a month eating out.   This budget for family of 4 is $80 a month. Keep in mind many times for ministry the family must travel, and grabbing a meal is most practical. Not really any economies of scale when it comes to eating out.


Tuition- We feel that missionary kids should be able to get a decent education that is not significantly below what they would receive in the States from a public school. An accredited bilingual school is $450 a month.   Yes, homeschooling works better for some families. We need to keep in mind the opportunity cost; if the wife is homeschooling it will greatly impact her ability to be a part of the ministry. Even if it cuts 15%-20% from the family budget, is it a wise choice if it cuts down on the hours available for ministry by 50%? Most schools give discounts if you have 3 or more students so there are some economies of scale. Obviously this is a huge expense that singles and couples with no kids do not have to contend with.


Entertainment- $20 per month per person. No economies of scale.


Misc. – This takes care of clothes, shoes, gifts, celebrations (MK’s have birthdays) books, printer paper, etc.


Retirement- Only applies to the adults. For young singles who are not going to be on the field long term it is probably ok to wait to start contributing to retirement. I would also say this is optional for people who plan on being on the field less than 5 years. Most people use the equity in their homes when they retire to help with their retirement. Missionaries rarely own their own home and must plan to pay either rent or a mortgage in their retirement. This makes planning ahead even more crucial. If a missionary put away $200 per month over a 30 year period their IRA account would provide them about $437 (in today’s dollars) a month during their retirement years. (Assumes money is invested earning a 7% return and 2% inflation. Withdrawals from the account, using the 4% rule that is the accepted norm among financial advisors). While I personally would suggest that missionaries will need more than that to supplement what they receive from Social Security, the reality is most are putting away nothing, so saving even at this level would be a huge improvement


Emergency savings- Bigger family means more emergencies. No real economies of scale.


Tithe- No economies of scale, based on income.


Payroll taxes (Social Security/ Medicare) – No economies of scale, based on income.


Healthcare- Slight economies of scale for families with 3 or more kids.


Furlough- Slight economies of scale for living expenses. No economies of scale on plane tickets.


Visa expense- Usually per person but some economies of scale for lawyer fees.


Org Fee- Based on percentage of total operating budget. No economies of scale unless sending org has a monthly cap in place.



If you disagree with some of my analysis or projections please specify the particular item and why you think it should be looked at differently. Statements such as “this is obscene” are easy to type but rarely lead to any sort of edifying discussion. I hope that this sheds some light on why families have to raise so much more than singles and that it helps people see that it is not about maintaining an American lifestyle or a life of luxury.  It is about providing a budget that allows a family to function in an efficient and impactful manner.






Why the heck would a Missionary need so much money to live in a poor country?

A picture is worth 1000 words and this one pretty much sums up the cost of living in El Salvador.  Exact same Hot Dog from Costco/Pricemart.  In US $1.50 with a 20oz soda and in El Salvador $2.49 and if you want the drink it will cost you $1.29 more.


I remember several years back speaking with a close pastor friend about a couple that was preparing to go the mission field. His church had just heard back from the sending agency the amount of money they would need to raise for their budget. He was aghast at the amount, remarking that it was almost equal to his salary.

I remember being struck by the two things this revealed. The first was that we American Christians expect missionaries to have a much lower standard of living than we would subject our pastors to. The second was that the majority of Americans do not realize how cheap things are in the US compared to the rest of the world. Most do not realize how much it would take to maintain their same standard of living, even in very poor countries.

Our work in El Salvador is primarily providing on- ground missionary care to long term missionaries.   We see firsthand the strain unrealistic budgets have on the missionary families, and their ministries. Because we are bi-vocational missionaries (We go back to the US several months a year to run a seasonal business.) we are in a unique position to speak about this issue. Most missionaries will not bring these things up, because they don’t want their supporters to feel like they are ungrateful. Since we don’t need to raise support for our living expenses it is easier for me to be more frank about this issue.

While I want to mostly focus on why it is so expensive to live on the mission field, I do want to take a brief look at the first thing I mentioned.

Why do we assume that missionary’s families should live at a much lower standard of living than we would ourselves be willing to live at?

Missionaries leave behind their support network of family and friends often moving into a dangerous environment where daily life is so much more difficult. A place where a car that breaks down is more than an inconvenience, and living in a nicer neighborhood is not about prestige but being able to sleep with less fear at night. Where power and water outages make being able to buy fast food a life saver, and where shopping at a decent store is more about not getting sick from parasites than convenience. In a foreign land missionary kids feel lost and alone struggling to communicate and spending most their time locked in their homes because of safety concerns. They miss dearly the freedoms they had in their former life. There is no walking to meet friends at a local park and very few free opportunities for recreation as most has to be done in areas with security and high walls. For a missionary couple, having the financial flexibility to allow their kids to participate in an extracurricular activity is critical to the family’s survival.   The above are just a few of the challenges missionaries face; there are many others (cannot flush toilet paper, no hot water, days spent in long lines trying to pay bills or get government documents, the list could go on and on.). So why when we send them out to face so many challenges do we also expect them to live at a level we would deem unacceptable in the US?

It seems ironic that the corporate world sees the necessity of paying people who move overseas to work a larger salary, while the church does the opposite. Corporations do not offer higher salaries overseas because they just want to be nice. They do it because they realize the extra hardships and costs their employees will face, and they want to make sure they have the resources to be successful. Does it really make sense to do the opposite for our missionary families?

A look at missionary marriages and finances


The myth of a cheap life overseas

“I heard that the average person in xyz country makes $300 a month so if we give you $1500 a month your family you should be able to live like kings.”


People have heard how low the salaries in xyz country are, or read articles about how it is so much cheaper to retire overseas, or know you can get an hour long massage for $5. Therefor,  you must be able to live on next to nothing. There are a number of reasons why a poor country that seems cheap when you visit can be so expensive to live. Since we serve in El Salvador I am going to use examples from here, but the same principles hold true regardless of the country your missionary is serving in.

The first thing you have to wrap your mind around is that the situation in the US is an anomaly. In the US things (food, clothes, electronics, building material, ECT) are cheap and labor is expensive. In most of the world it is the exact opposite, things are expensive and labor is cheap. That means in most poor countries luxuries like a massage that you indulge in on vacation are cheap, but day to day things you need are often more expensive.


Below I have outlines what I feel is the minimum budget for a missionary family of 4 in El Salvador to operate in a healthy way. As a reference point this budget would allow them to live at the same level as a family of 4 living in San Diego making $65,000 a year.

Costs for things like cars and furnishings are taking the average over a 5 year period. It also assumes that at this income level they will not owe any state or federal income taxes, but only social security and Medicare.

The budget comparison is a family of 4 in Escondido California (low cost suburb of San Diego) with a combined gross income of $65,004. It also assumes employer provided health insurance and matching 401k. Those who live in San Diego area know that $65,004 a year is far from living a life of luxury. You will notice that besides rent, for comparable items most things are more expensive in El Salvador.  I explain why these things are more expensive in more detail towards the end.

Monthly expenses-

Monthly amounts for items like furnishings and car are averaged over several years

                                                             San Salvador                              Escondido

Rent (1100 square foot apt)                   $800                                             $1300

Furnishings                                            $200                                             $100

Water                                                      $75                                                $37

Electric                                                   $200                                              $100

Internet                                                  $50                                                $30

2 cell phones                                          $160                                              $80

Total House and Utility                         $1485                                            $1647

Groceries                                                $770                                              $700

Eating Out                                              $100                                              $75

Household Items(Soap, shampoo, etc) $110                                               $100

Car expense (5 year old base model compact SUV) below are costs for 2 vehicles

Depreciation                                           $366                                             $250

Insurance                                                $150                                             $150

Gas                                                           $275                                            $250

Repairs and Maintenance                       $350                                            $250

Tuition and school fees 2 kids                $900                                           $50

Entertainment                                         $100                                            $100

Misc.                                                         $250                                           $250

Retirement contributions                        $400                                          $200

Emergency Savings                                  $200                                          $200

Total                                                          $5586                                        $4754

10% tithe                                                   $559                                          $432

Total Net monthly income needed          $6145                                         $4754

Medicare and Social Security owed         $940 (15.3%)                             $363 (7.65%)

Heath Ins not paid for by employer        $1000                                         $300

Total Monthly                                           $8085                                         $5417

Yearly                                                        $97,050                                      $65,004

Airfare and travel expense to US             $4000                                         $0

Visa and Lawyer Fees                               $500                                           $500

10% fee for sending Org overhead          $10155                                         $0

Total Needed                                            $111,705                                       $65,004

So a missionary in San Salvador needs to raise $111,705 to have a similar standard of living as a family of 4 living in San Diego making $65,000 a year. This does not even cover any funds to be used for ministry. Remember a big portion of this is for things most employers pay for and people don’t consider part of their salary (the employer’s share of SSI and Medicare, health insurance, matching 401k, airline tickets, and admin fees) and $10,000 is for school tuition that they would not have to pay in the US.

If you look at our sample budget there is not really any fat to cut. Unfortunately most missionaries we work with live on budgets much lower than the one I have outlined. Sometimes this is because they have struggled to raise funds, but often it is due to the living allowance allotted by their sending church. This means that all the stresses of living in a foreign land are compounded by finances. Unfortunately this often has dire impacts on marriages and families causing many to leave the mission field. Even from a purely financial perspective it is more expensive when we do not support our missionaries properly. When a missionary leaves the field after only a couple years because of financial stresses it means tens of thousands of dollars of wasted investment.

We would invite you to have an honest conversation with the missionaries you partner with. Are they operating on an adequate budget like the one we detailed? One that allows them to focus on the ministry task at hand? Or are they in a situation where more effort goes into keeping their head above water than pushing forward in the ministry.


Below is a further explanation of all the line items



Just as in the US, in El Salvador rents are all over the board. Most missionaries in El Salvador live in the capital city of San Salvador because that is where their ministries are based. Wanting to live in the nice part of town has an entirely different motivation when your host country has the highest murder rate in the world, and gangs control most of the city. A 3 bedroom cinder block apartment with security in a safe area of town can be found for about $800 a month. This would be a simple but clean 1100 square foot block construction with old window unit AC units in some of the bedrooms. We know missionaries paying from $400-$2000+ but around $800 would be the norm. A similar apartment in Escondido (inland San Diego) would probably rent for about $1300 a month. We are talking something livable, but nothing to get excited about.

This is a great blog dealing with living in the murder capital of the world


Because of import taxes and less competition new furniture and appliances are about 30% more than they are in the US. Used furniture is at least double what you would pay in the US if you can even find something used.    Also due to the harsh environment and erratic power, appliances last about 1/3 as long as they would in the US. We are on our 3rd brand new washing machine in 8 years


While rent is cheaper in El Salvador utilities are more expensive.   The US has very cheap electricity because it has access to cheap coal and natural gas. Water is cheaper because US has more efficient infrastructure and cell phones are cheaper because it is a bigger market with more competition



Non drinkable piped water averages about $12 per 1000 gallons in San Salvador. In San Diego it is less than half at $5 per 1000 gallons and it is even drinkable. Most missionaries pay $50-$100 a month for piped water in San Salvador. This does not include the bottled water missionaries must buy not just for drinking, but also washing produce, cooking, and even brushing teeth.


Even though San Diego has some of the highest electricity rates in the US they are still about half the cost of El Salvador. The US has plenty of cheap coal and natural gas giving it some of the lowest electricity costs in the world.  At our house in El Salvador we pay about .30 per KWH. This is 3 to 4 times the average rate in the US. I remember being shocked when we got our first electric bill. Our house in El Salvador is only about 900 square feet and our electric bill was over $500 for one month. In San Diego we had a 2600 square foot house and our bill was usually around $200. Most missionaries spend between $100-$400 a month on electricity.


If you live in an area with fixed line internet it is a little higher than prices in the US. We have to rely on cellular internet which is $90 a month for enough data for emails and normal web use but no videos.

Cell Phones

Cell phone plans with about 300 minutes of call time and 3 gigs of data is about $80 per phone. No unlimited calling here. It is about 2x what you would pay in San Diego for a similar plan. It is a necessity for the family to have a minimum of 2 cell phones for safety.



We spend about 10% more on groceries here than we would in San Diego. If we tried to eat the same here as we did in San Diego it would be significantly higher than that. We just don’t really buy things like cereal or chips that often, because they are crazy expensive. They also don’t really ever have sales on things. In the US you can often find nice steaks on sale for $5.00 a pound where here those same steaks would be about $12.00 per pound. I love steak, but we wait until we go back to California to buy it. There is also not really any advantage to buying in bulk. If the package contains 10 times as much it is usually 10 times the price.

Eating Out

Fast food is more expensive here than in the US if you are trying to get a cheap meal. You can get a Whopper for about the same price as in the US, but there are almost no $1 budget menu options. Also if you want a drink you have to buy it. There are no free cups of water and if you buy a soda. no free refills. Mid-range restaurants are about the same as the US. High end restaurants are cheaper than the US.

If you are really on a budget in the US you can go in and feed a family of 4 for $10 off the dollar menu. You do not have that option here. Pricesmart which is the Costco of El Salvador is a prime example. At Costco you get a hot dog and soda for $1.50. At Pricesmart the exact same hot dog (they actually use Costco’s hot dogs) is $2.49 and it is another $1.29 for a soda. So a hot dog and soda at Costco is literally 2.5x as much in El Salvador. Things like saline solution, feminine products, laundry detergent are about 30% more expensive than in the US.


Vehicle expense

Because of high import and sales taxes and less competition in the car market, new and non-salvaged used vehicles are about 30% more expensive than in the US. This is further complicated by the fact that if you do ministry outside of the capital you need an SUV or truck due to the road conditions. Gas is about 10% more expensive. Having a decent car is much more critical in El Salvador than in the US. Breaking down in the US is a hassle, but breaking down in El Salvador can put you in serious danger. Also the driving here is very aggressive and you are much more likely to be involved in a high speed head-on accident. For the first time in my life I care if my car has airbags. Average cost in El Salvador for a 3 year old non-salvaged Honda CRV is $22,000; the same vehicle in US can be bought for$16,500.   Some families make due with one vehicle, but this is very difficult especially with kids. Usually means the wife is stuck at home quite a bit and can be very isolating.


School for the kids

This is an area that a lot of people do not think about because school is free in the US. Some missionaries home school, but often times this winds up being just as expensive as private school. Other missionary families feel it is best for their kids to have some semblance of a normal life by attending school. In El Salvador private schools range from $300-$900 a month per student. For a mid-level school it would average about $450 per month per student or $900 for a family with 2 kids. Most of the time public schools are not even an option as the education is at such a low level.



It is crucial for families and marriages that missionaries budget for fun time together. Some things like going to the movies are cheaper in El Salvador, but this is offset by the fact that there are very few free options. Even going to the beach usually means paying a fee for access.



This covers clothes, gifts, birthday parties, haircuts, kids karate classes ECT


Retirement Contributions

Retirement is an area that most people neglect to even think about. For some reason people think missionaries will not need any retirement. The fact is they should be saving even more than people back home.

Home equity is usually the biggest asset of people when they retire and most missionaries don’t own a home because it is hard to get a mortgage overseas. Missionaries should be saving significantly more than average to compensate for the fact that they will be paying a mortgage or rent during their retirement years. They also do not have any matching 401K plan so it is all on their shoulders. The last thing you want is to put people in the position where they cannot leave the mission field in their later years because they have nothing saved to live on. I would guess that at least 80% of those we work with are not putting anything into retirement accounts. Unless their sending churches plan on supporting them in their old age they need to make sure their missionaries have budgeted enough to contribute to an IRA or other retirement plan.


Emergency Savings

It is always wise to set money aside for emergencies. It is more critical on the mission field than anywhere, as most missionaries jump from one emergency to the next



Missionaries should be able to participate in the joy of giving. Not only are they members of local churches that need to be supported, but they also are continually presented with dire needs that they are compelled to help with. We expect that our pastors give back a portion of their salary and we need to make sure our missionaries have this opportunity also.


Medicare and Social Security Taxes

Many people do not realize that they only pay half of the Social Security and Medicare taxes and that their employer pays the other half. Because missionaries do not have an employer they are responsible for both the employer and employees share. This is a 15.3% tax and there are no deductions at all. If your salary is $50,000 your Social Security and Medicare taxes due are $7650. There is no way to lower them. This catches many missionaries by surprise.


Health Insurance

Most people get health insurance from their job. Even those who have a large amount taken out of their paycheck every month still have the majority of the costs picked up by their employer. It costs most companies anywhere from $12,000-$30,000 a year to provide health insurance. Of course missionaries do not have a company picking up most of the tab for their policy. Usually it is cheaper to get insurance outside the US even if they have to pay the Obamacare fine, but most missionaries also have higher medical expenses from tropical diseases and injuries.


Airfare and travel expense.

Most missionaries return to the US every few years to see family, report to supporting churches, and to fund raise. In addition to airfare they need to pay for housing and travel expenses. This is in addition to their expenses in the country they are serving in. They usually keep paying rent and other expenses so that they can return to the same home.


Visa and Lawyer fees

This is for ongoing visa issues. First year expense would likely be much higher


10% fee charged by sending Org to cover overhead

Most sending agencies have a 10% service charge for handling all the logistical and regulatory issues of taking in donations. This usually also covers the fees involved when people make donations by credit card.


This is a follow up blog to explain why it costs 4 times as much to send a missionary family of 4 than it does to send a young single missionary.  We had a lot of feedback from young single missionaries who  had a hard time understanding why a family of 4 would need so much more than they were living on.  This answers that plus a number of other great questions raised by commenters.


Added Sunday January 31 in response to earlier comments


To clarify we do not take any personal support, we are not advocating for ourselves but for the missionaries we work with. 

According to the world bank out of El Salvador’s population of 6,000,000 people- 100,000 are wealthy and 1,000,000 are middle class.  The salary we are advocating for missionaries, would make them part of the one million strong middle class .  It hardly, as some have commented, puts them in a rich bubble.  I have never heard anyone claim that a middle class American would have trouble ministering to somebody on welfare, so I am not sure why people think that in El Salvador it would raise barriers.  We work with dozens of missionaries in El Salvador at all support levels and have seen zero correlation between low support and impactful ministry.  We do however, see a high correlation between low support and burnout. 

Since I keep seeing outraged comments talking about $111,000 salary I am adding this section to try and simplify things for those having a hard time understanding.  Most people only look at their take home pay, not the value of everything that their employer pays for.  The salary I describe above is not $110,000 a year it is $58,140 ($6708 which is given back as a tithe) so $4286 per month net.  Plus tuition for kids at cheapest accredited school, health insurance, and minimal retirement.

Would it be easier if I told you that even with all the travel costs and ministry overhead, it costs the church the same amount to send a missionary family of 4 overseas as it costs California to pay the salary and benefits for a teacher to work 9 months?

I hope this will help put this in perspective by comparing it to the average total compensation of a Californian Public School Teacher.

For 1 year

                                                 Missionary              Average Californian Public School teacher

Salary                                              $58,140                                                  $71,396

Retirement contributions              $16,080 (SSI+400 p/m)                         $22,132

Health Ins (w/ 2 kids)                    $12,000                                                   $17,000

Kids tuition accredited school        Paid                                                           Paid

Work related expenses                    Paid                                                            Paid                   


I am advocating that we pay our missionary couples who serve in the most challenging of conditions, 22% less than we pay 1 Californian teacher, to work for 9 months.   I also assume of course to pay their work related expenses and for a comparable education for their children.