Why Do Missionaries Leave the Field? It’s Hard to Say

November 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

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Read very many reports of people who out of the blue quit their prestigious, well-paying jobs (for example, company CEO, NBA coach, speaker of the house), and you’ll quickly see that one of the main reasons they claim is “to spend more time with family.” Of course, we understand that in most cases, that’s a boilerplate answer used to sidestep what’s really going on. The truth is much more difficult to discern.

When it comes to missionary attrition, the situation is not much different.

After finishing our first term on the mission field in Taiwan, I and my family made our first trip back to the States. During that visit I heard a representative from our sending agency talk about the many reasons why missionaries leave the field. What she said went something like this:

There’s the reason you tell your supporters.
There’s the reason you tell your church.
There’s the reason you tell your agency.
There’s the reason you tell your teammates.
There’s the reason you tell your family.
There’s the reason you tell yourself.
And there’s the reason you tell God.

Detlef Bloecher, in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Good Practices in Missionary Retention, has a similar list, citing

stated reasons (written in the missionary’s prayer letter)
personal reasons (told to close friends or family)
secret reasons (not shared but believed deep in the missionary’s heart)
leader’s reasons (identified by the team or field leader)
recorded reasons (added to the missionary’s file)
believed reasons (accepted by the director of the sending base)
socially accepted reasons (published in the mission journal)
further reasons identified by the missionary’s professional counsellor, and
true reasons (a combination of the above or something completely different)

Bloecher’s listing is part of his discussion of the challenges faced by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) when, in 1994, they set out to examine why missionaries leave their work. Their study, surveying 551 mission organizations and sending churches from 14 countries, was called ReMAP (Reducing Missionary Attrition Project), and their findings were reported and discussed in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition.

Why do missionaries leave the field? It seems that it’s hard to say.

Attrition Happens

In Chapter 6 of Too Valuable to Lose, Peter Brierley writes that one of the key findings of ReMAP is that each year the on-field mission force loses 5.1% of its workers. Of these, 71% leave for what are called “preventable reasons.” These reasons are in contrast to non-preventable reasons, “such as normal retirement, a political crisis, death of a spouse, marriage outside the mission, or a change of job.”

To clarify, this number of “leaving” missionaries includes those who resign from one agency and then join another, thus returning to the field, but it does not include those who leave the field to take a home-based position with their agency.

When grouped in categories, the reasons that ReMAP found for missionary attrition are as follows, ranked by weight/importance:

  1. Unpreventable
  2. Personal
  3. Marriage/Family
  4. Society
  5. Work-Related
  6. Team
  7. Cultural
  8. Other

Broken down further, the complete list includes 26 reasons, arranged by perceived significance, from greatest to least:

  1. Normal retirement
  2. Child(ren)
  3. Change of job
  4. Health problems
  5. Lack of home support
  6. Problems with peers
  7. Personal concerns
  8. Disagreement with agency
  9. Inadequate commitment
  10. Lack of call
  11. Outside marriage
  12. Immature spiritual life
  13. Marriage/family conflict
  14. Poor cultural adaptation
  15. Problems with local leaders
  16. Elderly parents
  17. Inappropriate training
  18. Lack of job satisfaction
  19. Political crisis
  20. Inadequate supervision
  21. Death in service
  22. Dismissal by agency
  23. Immoral lifestyle
  24. Language problems
  25. Theological reasons
  26. Other

Where Should the Data Come From?

It is important to note, and fully acknowledged by ReMAP researchers, that the reasons above are not necessarily those given by the missionaries themselves. Rather, they are the ones perceived to be true by their sending agency or church. This is because, writes Jonathan Lewis in Too Valuable to Lose, interviewing all 4,400 missionaries who left the field during the study period, from 1992-1994, would have been nearly impossible. And by choosing to get data from organization “decision makers,” the researchers were involving the people who would have the power to later make the changes necessary to reduce attrition.

This method of gathering data on attrition is not uncommon in the missionary community. Mark Wingfield, writing in the Baptist Standard, reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board (IMB) carries out a study each year on personnel attrition, with regional supervisors filling out the survey forms.

In 2000, several IMB trustees had questions about the reported numbers. They wondered if IMB’s recent movement of missionaries to new fields had caused an increase in missionary attrition.

David Garrison, then the associate vice president for strategy coordination and mobilization, assured them that that was not the case.

IMB’s figures showed that in 1999, only 9.56% of those who left their work left with “disagreement with IMB philosophy, policies, staff or structure as a contributing reason.” The largest proportion, 25%, left because of a “change in understanding of God’s call.”

Winfield writes that Garrison “admitted some who resigned could have failed to cite their true feelings about IMB philosophy changes but expressed confidence that was not likely to have been true in many cases.”

Drilling Deeper

When Worth Keeping was published in 2007, it was ten years after Too Valuable to Lose. The second book uses the results of the ReMAP II (Retaining Missionaries: Agency Practices) study to followup on ReMAP, this time focusing on what organizations can do to keep their missionaries. ReMAP II called on agency leaders to evaluate their practices, and then their responses were used to find correlations between methods and retention.

Two  months ago, the mission research organization Global Mapping International (GMI) published a post on their blog commenting on ReMAP II, calling it “one of the more famous mission research studies since the turn of the millennium.” But GMI reports that when Jim Van Meter, the leader of the US analysis, looked at the correlations, he found that the practices and retention rates didn’t match up as expected. So he asked GMI for its input. Were the questions flawed?

No, said GMI. “The problem isn’t the questions. It’s the person answering them!” They explain further:

Administrators can reliably answer factual questions about their agency’s practices, but they cannot reliably answer evaluative questions related to their support of field staff.

GMI cites the following example: In ReMAP II, administrators were asked to rate their agencies’ practices in relation to the statement “Missionaries are included in major decisions related to the field.” While the responses showed that this is something that agencies do well, the findings did not correlate with retention rates.

When GMI did their own survey of over 1,700 workers in the field, the phrase “My organization involves employees in decisions that affect them” was rated in the bottom 10 of 68 items. And unlike in ReMAP II, this finding did correlate with retention.

The solution, says GMI, is a third-party collector of data, and in what they call a “shameless plug,” they offer Engage, “a customized Field Missionary-Friendly employee survey,” implemented by GMI and Best Christian Workplaces. By using Engage, they say, “Everyone wins. Leadership teams get to celebrate successes and identify priorities. Boards receive meaningful measures and see how leaders are taking initiative.  Field staff gets a chance to be heard and offer ideas.”

Getting the Full Picture

To better know why missionaries leave the field, it makes sense to me to start with what the missionaries themselves have to say, reported by them, unfiltered through others. We all have our natural, inherent biases, along with fears that come with speaking and hearing the unvarnished truth, and the less we add these to the equation, the closer we will get to that truth.

This won’t be easy, and we should consider utilizing GMI and Best Christian Workplaces, and other groups like them, for their objectivity and for their experience in conducting and analyzing surveys. At best, surveys should be repeated consistently (as is done by the IMB), and they should be shared with, and owned by, everyone in the organization, not just those in leadership.

While I highly value the responses of missionaries, I also realize that their views alone aren’t guaranteed to represent the whole picture on the causes of attrition. Missionaries don’t always completely understand their own situations, and even when they do, they’re too often inclined to voice safe or respectable explanations. Getting to the truth will take patient listening and will need to seek anecdotal input that goes beyond numerical responses to a standardized list of questions.

Groups and individuals who offer member care and debriefing can help in this area. They often hear what others do not, because of their willingness to listen and because of the safe outlets they provide. But care needs to be taken to ensure that any reporting they do does not compromise the very trust they have fostered that encourages missionaries to share openly.

Writing in Too Valuable to Lose, Brierley suggests that future research on attrition go beyond the statistics of quantitative research and move to the explanations of qualitative research. One example he gives of how this would be helpful would be to look more deeply at the differences between responses collected from different sources. How and why do the reasons given by missionaries, those written in the missionary’s personnel file, and those believed to be true by mission leaders differ?

The Truth Is Out There

We need to recognize that though the truth on why missionaries leave the field may be elusive, it can be found. The differences in viewpoints can cause confusion, but they can also bring clarity. Recognizing how we see things differently can help us get closer to the truth and can also point out areas where more communication is necessary.

I think of how we prepare for the classic interview question, “What is your greatest weakness?” Knowing that the question is coming, we try to prepare an answer that at least seems honest but also doesn’t reveal an actual grievous problem. In one interview, I was asked to tell what my coworkers would say my greatest weakness was. Though I can’t remember what I said, I know it was more revealing. Just looking at myself through others’ eyes helps me see myself more clearly.

I hope that we will be able to trust each other more and become more open to listening to different perspectives. This goes both ways in the relationships between mission leaders and field workers—and should also include researchers, trainers, and member-care workers. We’re all on the same team, and while we sometimes don’t see eye to eye, we all are working toward the same goals.

So back to the question: Why do missionaries leave the field?

It is hard to say. But if we commit ourselves to opening our hearts and our ears, it’s far from impossible.

[Update: Global Mapping International closed in June of 2017, and the Engage survey is no longer available. For more on this and for a deeper look at the ReMAP results, see my post at A Life Overseas.]

(Detlef Bloecher, “ReMAP 1: What It Said, What It Did, and What It Achieved,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Good Practices in Missionary Retention, edited by Rob Hay, William Carey Library, 2006; Peter W. Brierley, “Missionary Attrition: The ReMAP Research Report,” Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, edited by William D. Taylor, William Carey Library, 1997; Jonathan Lewis, “Designing the ReMAP Research Project,” Too Valuable to Lose; Mark Winfield, “Disagreements Discounted as Source of Missionary Attrition,” Baptist Standard, April 24, 2000; “Listening Well . . . and Why It Matters,” Global Mapping International, September 22, 2014 [cached at Google])

[photo: “Walk Away,” by Nikos, used under a Creative Commons license]

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§ 5 Responses to Why Do Missionaries Leave the Field? It’s Hard to Say

  • bobbi says:

    Technology is allowing organizations to revamp their relationships with employees, both former and present. Sites like Glassdoor and the Engage survey you mention, if used as the tools they can be, continue to create new opportunities for dialog and analysis that simply weren’t available even 5 years ago. I predict big changes in retention for organizations that commit to using the technology responsibly in coming years. Interesting article.

  • […] Messy exits from the field cost churches and organizations billions.  Personally, I believe attrition is a whole lot more complicated than this, but there’s still good reason to pause for […]

  • L. Scheffler says:

    Usually there is no single reason, but a combination of stress on the field and lack of resources to deal with the overwhelming problems faced. For me it was a choice of my family or the mission field. My wife could not handle the cultural stress, I was overworked and undervalued and my infant daughter was plagued by illness, Unfortunately no one told me that reentry into my home culture would be a difficult struggle as well

    • I agree. It’s often the piling up of causes that make them difficult to tackle, and it becomes hard to differentiate them, too. And while I knew that coming “home” would be difficult, I was counting on the constants of my old life here to overcome those difficulties. But my old life wasn’t here waiting for me. Thanks for sharing.

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