In every youth ministry I’ve served, I’ve had students who come from families that struggle financially and, therefore, cannot afford expensive events such as summer mission trips. Although we spend a year fundraising for mission trips and subsidize them through my youth ministry’s budget, the reality is that mission trips still cost families between $350 per child for a week-long domestic trip and $2,000 for a two-week international trip.
No doubt, mission trips are expensive for all families, but for families struggling financially, their high costs actually can be prohibitive—a barrier to participation. If we, as youth workers, allow event costs to dictate who can participate, are we really living out the gospel?
The more I’ve wrestled with this question, the more committed I’ve become to ensuring that in my ministry, any student who wants to participate in expensive events such as mission trips are able to do so regardless of his or her family’s socioeconomic status. I hope you’ll join me in this commitment.
To make this commitment possible, offer financial scholarships to students, not financial aid. Phrases such as financial aid or financial need establish a financial hierarchy that divides people into the haves and have nots, thereby stripping people of their dignity. In contrast, scholarships communicate value, inherently restoring and redeeming people’s worth by giving them a way to accept help without feeling shame.
To fund financial scholarships, tithe a portion of your fundraising profits to a financial scholarship fund. Solicit private donations, as well. Publicly share how much it costs to send a student on a mission trip. Be open about your ministry’s commitment to allow all students to participate in events. Invite people to partner with you to make this possible by donating to your ministry’s scholarship fund. Be transparent about the process your ministry uses to award financial scholarships. Creatively thank donors for their partnership.
Once a scholarship fund is established, create a process for students to receive money from it. To apply for a scholarship, have students complete a written application. Asking students to do this is yet another thing that helps restore their dignity. It also keeps those who don’t really need scholarships from asking for them.
On your application, include questions such as, “Why do you want to participate in this trip?” and “What gifts, talents or skills will you contribute to this trip?” The first enables you to get to know students better. The second helps students recognize how they uniquely will contribute to the trip, even if they’re unable to do so financially.
On your application, ask students how large a scholarship they need. State the estimated cost of the trip and ask how much families can contribute. (Note: I recommend setting an expectation that families pay something for the trip. Even a small financial investment on the part of families helps prevent students from backing out of the trip at the last minute.) Then ask how much scholarship money is being requested. Finally, ask how students arrived at those numbers. Though personal, questions such as these foster honest conversation between students and their parents about money. At the same time, it subtly communicates the idea that ministry is a partnership between students, parents and the ministry itself. Also include a spot on the application for the student’s and parents’ signatures to ensure parents know their child is applying for a financial scholarship.
Set and enforce a due date for scholarship applications to be returned. Until scholarship applications are due, publicly remind students of your ministry’s commitment to make it possible for everyone who wants to participate in an event to do so, regardless of whether they can afford it. Specifically encourage students from families who are struggling financially to apply for scholarships.
After applications are due, establish a group of people to read them and award scholarships. Having a group award the scholarships keeps the process honest and unbiased. Once awarded, privately communicate to students and their parents the amount of their scholarship. Communicating dollar amounts in private is yet another thing that helps preserve a student’s dignity in this process. If the amount of scholarship awarded is less than what was requested, work with families to fund the remaining amount so all students really are able to participate in any event your ministry offers. When this occurs, we powerfully model the gospel for students, teaching them what it means to be one in Christ Jesus.
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Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.