We Are Losing an Entire Generation of Laborers to Student Loan Debt

February 2, 2015 — 10 Comments

“The greatest enemy [to sending] other than Satan himself is educational debt.” Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary

Seven out of ten students that we are challenging to full time ministry are carrying a crippling weight.

Seven in ten college graduates have student loans. And their average debt is $37,172. That is truly staggering. Overwhelming.

“Ben Sawatsky, associate personnel director of Evangelical Free Church Missions, says 95% or more of those who apply as potential candidates are paying off student loans.”

Increasingly, student loan debt is becoming the number one obstacle to students working in full time ministry. Student debt has tripled over the past eight years.

“What [mission agencies] told us over and over is that the number-one barrier to getting people to live and work overseas was debt. They called it the black hole.” – Johnnie Moore, Senior VP of Communications at Liberty University

Student debt now exceeds credit card debt and trails only mortgages as the leading cause of debt in the United States. And “unlike credit card debt, which can be refinanced or wiped out with bankruptcy, student loans will not go away. Even in bankruptcy, the individual is expected to repay his or her loan.”

“Thousands of US college graduates desire to willingly place themselves on the front lines of the mission field for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Tragically, many of them will never go because of the barrier created by their student debt.” Luke Womack founder of The GO Fund (his entire article Satan, Starting Salaries, & Student Debt is worth reading)

This is a relatively new problem. College tuition costs 17 times more than it did 40 years ago.


It’s becoming nearly impossible to work your way through college and emerge debt free. I’ve met one student who’s done it in the past 10 years. One.

“The landscape of college affordability has changed dramatically. Long gone are the days where working a summer job would yield enough money to foot the bill for college. There is now more pressure than ever to get a high paying job to tackle student loans as efficiently as possible. This pressure exists for everyone, missionary or otherwise.” Luke Womack

Let’s lay out the problem:

  • To work in full time ministry, you need a college degree.
  • The cost of a college degree is 17 times more expensive now.
  • 7 out of 10 graduates who want to go into full time ministry find it very difficult to do so. Their debt is so high that monthly payments can’t be made on a missionary salary.

“Educational loan debt introduces a threat to the spread of the Gospel that promises cataclysmic and eternal consequences for the unreached sinner if nothing is changed.” Luke Womack

There are two options:

  1. Allow missionaries to forgo college
  2. Get in the trenches and help graduates overcome their student loan debt

The first is not really an option. Specifically for the field I work in, college ministry, you need a college degree to be able to hold your own with college students.

But in any ministry context, I think a college degree is worth it:

  • A college degree opens up doors to unreached people by getting missionaries into closed countries.
  • Young people mature in college and develop the work ethic, responsibility, and initiative necessary to be effective missionaries.
  • Students’ involvement in college ministries are where they develop a heart for the world and the skills to effectively minister for Christ. I’ve written before that college ministries are the number one producer of missionaries.

If students are considering full time ministry and have significant debt, they can take one of two routes

  • Get a job in the workplace and aggressively pay off debt
  • Go straight into ministry and include loan payments in the support that they raise

The first option is difficult, because most will not make it to the field. Most will get entangled in the worries of the world and the American Dream. The only times I’ve seen this successful is when missionary candidates have stated a specific plan and had friends hold them accountable. It’s too easy to rationalize: “Well, if I just worked 6 more months I could save another $30,000 for a rainy day. That might help be a better steward for God…” And then: “We have a baby on the way, and I need to save for our first house before I go into ministry…” But for those who’ve done it (and made it to the ministry field), it’s been great. They come into ministry with a good work ethic and debt free. It’s just that few make it.

Kyle, a missionary with Pioneers, has this advice: “Stick to [a loan payoff] plan as if your life depends on it. The people I knew from college who had no loan repayment plan never made it overseas. Without a plan, they lost focus when the debt wasn’t easily paid off.”

The second option is not perfect. In an ideal world you’d go into full time ministry debt free. But we should encourage students to go, in confidence that God will provide.

Kyle once more with wise advice: “For most students coming out of college, I recommend this option. Here’s why. In my experience, many mission-minded people are not able to land jobs that pay enough to kill debt fast (because their degrees are not in demand). While the ideal is a high-paying job, many end up working in a position that pays barely enough to live on. Don’t be ashamed to add a certain amount of money into your budget to repay student loans, and don’t hide behind a rock when people ask about it.”

Just know your facts (about the rising cost of college, your plan to aggressively pay off, etc) and you can confidently field questions from donors.

So what can we do about Student Loan Debt?

  • Talk about student loan debt – at your weekly meeting, in discipleship, with your leaders.
    • Cru just put out 6 new Bible studies on Gaining Financial Peace – giving the Bible’s view on borrowing/lending, saving, wealth, generosity, spending and financial planning.
    • Here’s a weekly meeting talk I gave on money and student debt. Feel free to use and adapt.
  • Normalize it. I didn’t realize this (until I started asking questions of new Cru staff) but graduates often have a tremendous amount of shame and guilt related to school debt. They feel unspiritual, foolish, and enslaved – “not realizing that there are other people just like me”. Paul Worcester advises we need to “communicate that it is normal and OK to join staff with some student loan debt.” Graduates going into ministry are “afraid to disclose to anyone because I didn’t know how they would feel about my substantial debt.”
  • Train graduates in how to rapidly get rid of school debt
    • Encourage them to take a Dave Ramsey class (or at least read his books) and start to snowball debt
    • Allison Vesterfelt has a good first hand account of being $50,000 in debt and what she did about it
  • Missions Organizations need to raise their debt limits. If we require applicants to have college degree, and 70-95% have $30,000 in school debt, we need to make allowances for greater debt.
    • I know many organizations are being proactive- with Cru, if a single person only has student loans (no car, credit card, etc), depending on interest rates, we will accept up into the $30’s. For marrieds it’s double that. If there is car or credit card debt, you can definitely still be accepted with significant student loan debt, but it does affect the calculations.
      Cru treats it holistically and tries to accept as many people as possible but they don’t want to put people in a position that is unsustainable – their limits are set to with the aim that staff will be able to pay off all student debt in 10 years and all credit card debt in 3 years.
    • Todd Ahrend, in his book In This Generation (which, admittedly, is 7 years old and undoubtedly things have changed), surveyed 10 missions agencies. Two allowed no student debt. The other 8 had a debt limit between $20-$25,000.
    • If we want the best and the brightest to join us in accomplishing the greatest mission in the world, we need to make allowances. Ivy League graduates (and other graduates of elite, leader-producing schools) often carry significantly more than average school debt. We’re losing these elite leaders if we don’t make allowances.
  • We need more foundations and organizations like the GO Fund who offer to “take over student loan payments for some who go to the unreached.”
    • We should consider reaching out to our largest ministry partners and show them the significant hurdles graduates are facing and ask if they would help us overcome that hurdle. Start a foundation where maybe ministry applicants would pay down half and a foundation would pay the other half.
  • We need to become educated ourselves and help seniors who are graduating become familiar with their options on dealing with debt after college:
    • Unfortunately, most Christian workers cannot take advantage of the amazing Non Profit Student Loan Forgiveness program where your debt is forgiven after only 10 years of paying. BUT if you work in more of a support/ops role or in an organization like IJM or GAiN you can qualify. You must work at least 30 hours in work that does not include “religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”
    • Pay off private (non-government) loans first because of variable interest rates (and I don’t think they’re eligible for income based loans). Nationwide, “nearly 20 percent of all graduating seniors’ debt came from private student loans.”


Some Helpful Resources:


“We should declare war on educational loan debt for the sake of those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.” – Luke Womack


There is so much at stake, we cannot afford to sit idly by while we lose a generation of laborers for the gospel. We will feel the ripple effects for decades if we do nothing.


Let’s figure this out together – what has been helpful for you in helping students overcome educational debt to serve God in full time ministry?


Federal Debt graph from http://www.cnsnews.com/

photo courtesy of thisisbossi


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  • Rahul Agarwal

    Bro, well said. Many of my students are fearful of graduating because of their debt. Then I offer them the possibility of coming on staff and they just laugh at me!

    • timcasteel

      Thanks Rahul

  • Brett Marcos

    Great insights, Tim. I think one significant step in this fight will be having people on staff who have paid off their loans living on the salary provided. If not paid off, at least aggressively attacked. Both can be done, but discipline is key. Modeling that discipline along with contentment and generosity could be contagious and help students see this is doable.

    • timcasteel

      That’s a good point – I wonder if we could profile a few staff at Winter Conference who have done it (as well as a few that have dealt with parents not wanting them to join staff).

  • Samantha Barnes

    I totally agree with the idea of normalizing debt. I had a student who told me she was worried about even getting married because she hadn’t revealed yet to her boyfriend how much debt she was in. When I shared about the debt my husband has from undergrad (praise the Lord I don’t have any), she felt a little relieved just knowing that she wasn’t the only one.

    Plus, at a school like Arkansas where a good percentage of the population is from out of state, students are more likely to have an even higher amount of debt than the $30K average if they did not qualify for the bordering state tuition discount (or if they lost it during the first couple of semesters from not taking school seriously).

    When we were at our Follow Up Staff Training conference, Bob Mac Leod met with us and told us that being in a support-raising job was actually the best place we could be with student loans because we could raise additional support and pay off our loans more quickly than with a normal marketplace job where it takes time (and discipline) to build up a larger salary and put the additional amounts to debt. This was so encouraging to us, and although the idea of raising support is overwhelming to a student, I think if they bring up the debt issue, this would be a good point to make.

    • timcasteel

      Thanks for sharing, Sam! No telling how many student/grads are struggling with the weight of guilt. I wonder how we could normalize it?

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  • David Jonescue

    Here is a simple idea. OF course it will be totally rejected, yet it is so simple. Why not have Liberty or SBTS (or the Southern Baptist Convention) do these very simple things.
    Take a budget of 1.5 million dollars. Pay $15,000 each to professors to produce 70 video recorded lecture series (of about 25-30 hours). That is $1,050000. 70 courses is the equivelent to 40 courses for a 120 credit BA/BS, and a 90 credit M.Div.. Have it cover everything that would be included in a B.S of Biblical Studies, and an M.Div.
    Then take the remaining $450,000 and pay someome(s) to set up a Moodle classroom. Moodle is free. Have each course include required reading (books that can be purchased for under $30 used), a syllabus to follow, and any other Free resource one could need.
    See in Moodle you can link the videos, and set up quizes that will not let you advance until the quiz is passed. Meaning, you can set it up in a way that almost promises the person is following through with the study. Then, at the end of the B.S. or the M.Div, an exam can be given, or finalized paper work, or whatever is deemed to test the overall compentacy of a person.
    And then just put it online free of charge. Set it up in such a way that it would really not need to be staffed.
    One cost, a lifetime of blessing. But of course they wont do this. Then who would go to their Seminaries, and pay their tuition. The problem is easily solved. Nobody with the money wants to do it.
    See this is just tireless complaining, because these same people that complain about student debt are the same people that wont allow those without formal education to be missionaries. Go figure.

  • Acarey Rosa

    Found peace in this article. My husband and I went to private Christian University ($$$ lots of student debt). He recived a degree in teaching and I recived my BSN in Nursing. We felt called to occupational ministry abroad. The need from the organization is there, the desire is there, but finacially it seems very iresponsible. I am prayfully looking for an organization that could take over our student loan payments at least while we serve or praying for fundraising support that would maintain our loan payments. Glad to see I am not the only one facing this problem.