Friday, November 30, 2012

The Opportunity Cost of a Mission

I recently listened to the podcast interview of Don Livingstone, former president of the Kinshasa Mission, and his wife Marsha on “Into All the World.” The interview included a discussion of the sacrifices made by young men and women to serve missions and the faith that was necessary to produce those sacrifices. I thought back to the time that I decided that I wished to serve a mission and the sacrifices I made. The things that I deemed sacrifices were very different than those mentioned in the interview but they were real to me. As I was contemplating sacrifices, I started to put them into an economic framework using an important economic insight, opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is the cost of what you give up to get something, your second best alternative. I thought that my sacrifices were unique and enormous. I would have to give up dating for two years. Was that possible? I would have to quit my job (cooking chicken for KFC), forgo my university education for two years, give up dating, leave my friends, and did I mention, give up dating? I magnified my costs and, because my faith was not yet sufficiently developed, understated the benefits I would receive. Developing a testimony was my biggest opportunity cost. It required study, prayer and small changes in lifestyle. I decided to read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover and my faith grew. I yearned to serve. I wanted to be like the sons of Mosiah as described by Alma (Alma 17:2-3).
2 ...they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.

3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.
I was called to serve in the Argentina, Cordoba Mission. I sold my car and emptied my savings account to pay a little more than 50% of the total cost of my mission. My parents paid the remainder. I did not consider the lost saving a major part of my opportunity cost, nor did my parents. My mother claimed that it was cheaper to pay for my mission than to feed me at home. In a high income country like the United States, money is relatively cheap.

The African missionaries of the Kinshasa Mission face similar challenges but probably weight them differently. Many are from countries where the average person earns something approaching $45 per month. One young man from a slightly more prosperous area gave up a $225 a month job as a chemist with a mining company to serve a mission. It is unlikely that he will regain that job after his mission. Other young men rode bicycles 40 miles to buy corn, bundle it in 80 kilo bags and push the bicycles back through their point of origin and onward another 40 miles to sell the corn. Their reward was approximately $10 per trip. Because the church only asked them to pay about $400 of their mission’s total cost, these young worked about a year to raise their missionary funds.

A cynic might claim that these African missionaries have a low opportunity cost because church funds will pay the majority of their expenses and their second best choice is to earn $45 per month while paying their own expenses. I do not accept this conclusion. These missionaries are giving up saving that would have allowed them to start small businesses and make other investments that would last a lifetime. A mission offers similar returns, but only if you have the faith to see them. I believe that their biggest cost, like mine, was developing sufficient faith to value the rewards of serving.

The work habits, and commitment to others and determination to achieve goals that I developed while serving prepared served me well as I pursued and education and maintained a career. I do not believe that I would have had the work ethic to earn a Ph.D otherwise. Missionary service also prepared me for marriage and fatherhood which are more important to me than career. I suspect that the Kinshasa missionaries have and will continue to realize these benefits after their missionary service ends.

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