What is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It [—at A Life Overseas]

December 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

Before you read on, I want you to take a shot at answering the question in the title of this post. Don’t think on it too long. Just go with your gut.

What is the average length of service for missionaries on the field?

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Have an answer? OK, what number did you come up with? And if your number were true, would you consider it a sign of hope or a reason for concern? What would you think if I told you the real average is 4 years? What about 8? What about 12?

For insight into the actual statistics, let’s go to ReMAP II, the 2003 survey of mission agencies conducted by the World Evangelical Alliance. In an article looking at the survey’s results, Jim Van Meter, part of the ReMAP II steering committee, writes that for career missionaries from the US who left the field in 2001 or 2002, the average length of service was 12 years. (Here, “career missionaries” means those planning on spending three or more years abroad.)

So there you have it . . . 12 years.

Before moving on, I do want to address this number’s shortcomings.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Jim Van Meter, “US Report of Findings on Missionary Retention,” World Evangelical Alliance, December 2003)

[photo: “Behind the Clock, Musée d’Orsay,” by Erika, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Beating the Drum for Missionary Care: An Interview with Neal Pirolo [at A Life Overseas]

July 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

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In her post “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” Katie Rowe looks at the findings of a recent survey of missionaries, showing that respondents rated “lack of missionary care” as one of the most common reasons for leaving the field. One of those who commented on the post was Neal Pirolo, author of Serving as Senders—Today: How to Care for Your Missionaries as They Prepare to Go, Are on the Field and Return Home, and The Reentry Team: Caring for Your Returning Missionaries. The current edition of Serving as Senders—Today is a revision of the original, first published in 1991. Since then, it has been translated into 20 languages and has nearly a half million copies in print.

In reference to missionary/member care, Neal writes, “I have been ‘beating this drum’ since 1976!” I contacted Neal to get his long-term perspective, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions (and along the way, with his wife’s help, remembered that the year was actually 1978).

Why was 1978 a starting point for you to begin your drumbeat for missionary care? 

Oftentimes, telling a story communicates better than “just the facts.” Let me tell a story:

I went to Brazil to administer the five schools Wycliffe/SIL was using at the time for missionary children. My wife was given the responsibility of overseeing the Group House in Cuiaba. We had a choice: move our family of six in with all the singles or move from house to house every three months as translators went to their villages and back. We moved in. We looked in the refrigerator. Every item had someone’s initials on it. We looked at each other. “This will not work,” our eyes said to each other. But how do you change a group of people so entrenched?

Read the rest at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Drum,” by André Prata, used under a Creative Commons license]

Is Conflict with Teammates Really the Top Reason for Missionaries Leaving the Field? [—at A Life Overseas]

July 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

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You’ve probably heard it many times. Simply put: The number-one reason missionaries leave the field is because of problems with coworkers. The trouble is, it’s not that simple.

First of all, the best source I can find for this, or something close to it, is the in-depth study ReMAP (the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project), conducted by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), with its results presented in 1997 in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Today, most of what we hear from ReMAP are snippets and referrals to their lists ranking causes for why missionaries return. But there is so much more to the data—and so much more behind the data—collected by the study. In light of this, and in honor of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Too Valuable to Lose, let’s take a deeper look at ReMAP, through the lens of team relationships.

Looking Back

ReMAP’s survey asked the leaders of mission agencies to a) look at a list of 26 causes for attrition and pick the seven that they believed were the most important for their organization, covering the five years preceding 1994, and b) rate these seven in importance in relation to each other. According to Too Valuable to Lose, the Mission Commission received back over 500 responses from mission agencies in 14 countries—categorized as old and new sending countries—and the results were compiled to come up with an overall weighted list.

So is trouble with team relationships on top of that list? No, it comes in at number six. But stopping there would oversimplify things. Rather, here are five points as to why the top causes of missionary attrition can be difficult to name.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Exit,” by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons license]

Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down

March 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights? That meant that when our family of six moved overseas as missionaries, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.

It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?

There’s also another set of luggage that missionaries tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our our assumptions, our plans . . . our expectations.

A few years ago, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss surveyed 323 female missionaries on how their expectations corresponded to reality on the mission field. The results form the backbone of their excellent book Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. What they found is that our pre-field predictions often don’t measure up to our on-field experiences. (I say “our” because though the book is written for and about women, most of its insights and lessons easily apply to both sexes.)

The authors gave the women a list of 34 expectations, and asked them to rate each one on the degree to which it applied to them. Then the respondents went back and evaluated the list against what actually came to be in their lives as missionaries.

In 14 of the areas, the women reported that their expectations exceeded what they found in real life. The 10 with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

75.4% Am fruitful
70.4% Am a prayer warrior
67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
65.8% Continually trust God for everything
57.5% Have a daily quiet time
56.5% Have a successful quiet time
56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
50.9% Embrace my new host culture

The disconnect between expectations and reality often leads to disappointment and guilt. And as the authors point out, this can lead to burnout. It is difficult to move steadily forward when we are dragged down by the weight of our overpacked luggage.

So how can we pack less? How can we lighten our load? Here are some suggestions.

  •  Read fewer biographies, read more people.
    Stories about missionaries can be very inspirational, but when inspiration is the main goal, they can often leave out the flaws and shortcomings. When we assume that real missionaries are super human, then we are discouraged when we don’t measure up. That’s why we need to have honest conversations to find out the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. But not everyone will give you the unvarnished truth. It usually takes time to earn someone’s trust. And you’ll need to ask questions that get people rethinking their responses, to speak beyond the safe and familiar answers. Try asking a missionary, “What do you wish you’d known before you moved overseas?” “What have you learned?” “What would you tell yourself as a younger missionary candidate if you could?” “What are some of your unmet expectations?” (For other examples, see the questions asked of missionaries in Eenigenburg and Bliss’s survey, printed in the appendix of their book.)
  • And when you read, read between and outside the lines.
    As Eenigenburg and Bliss discuss, too many books on the lives of past missionaries paint a picture of spiritual perfection. One of the best-known missionary legacies is that of William Carey, who is often called “the father of modern missions.” In 1792, a sermon he delivered gave us the words, “Expect great things; attempt great things.” But I doubt that all of his expectations were met in his later life as a missionary in India, during which a five-year-old son died, his wife, Dorothy, went insane and died, and another son, after becoming a missionary himself, suffered tragedy and walked away from God. in Expectations and Burnout, the authors report that James R. Beck, in his book Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey, writes that Carey has often been portrayed as “never discouraged and never complaining.” But Carey wrote in his journal, “I don’t love to be always complaining—yet I always complain.” The context for “Expect great things; attempt great things” is the life and work of Carey, not a Pinterest board or a poster of a snow-capped mountain range. But just as some books—and missionaries—are only completely positive, some are entirely negative. Be cautious in drawing conclusions based on either side. When you hear what sounds like cynicism and despair, be slow to judge. Context is important here, too. Find out the whole story. And don’t say, “That will never happen to me . . . not with my faith, my preparation, and my plans.”
  • Remember that short stories can be good literature, too.
    Before packing your bags, talk to those missionaries who have failed and come home early. I say “failed” only to grab your attention. I don’t really count those missionaries as failures. Instead, I understand that most are people who have struggled with some great disappointments and have made the extremely difficult decision to return. What can they teach you about packing? Know that “ex missionaries” who left under less-than-ideal situations often fade into the woodwork and aren’t often sought out for their expertise. But they just may be the ones with the most to offer.
  • Don’t book a ride on the magic plane.
    A ride on the magic plane is the one in which you fall asleep half way across the ocean and wake up “A Missionary,” with all the super powers that that entails. You may arrive at your destination with increased confidence, but you’ll still be the same person who stepped onto the plane. You’ll still need to deal with the same issues and weaknesses that vexed you back home. In fact, you’ll probably see your struggles increase in the crucible of cross-cultural service. Simply taking on the title missionary doesn’t change who you are the inside, in the same way it didn’t change those missionaries you’ve idolized in the past, or those teammates you’re traveling to join.
  • Pack your own bags
    Here’s another throwback to days gone by. Before 9/11 and TSA protocols, ticket agents would ask, “Did you pack your bags yourself?” That question isn’t asked much anymore, but it’s an important one for missionaries. Yes, getting input from those who have gone before is important, but the luggage holding your expectations needs to be filled by you, not by your sending agency, supporting churches, supervisors, teammates, or even other members of your missionary family. Get clarity on other’s expectations and work out disagreements before disillusionment is allowed to set in. And don’t set yourself up for failure in their eyes by over predicting the positives in order to gain support—or to convince yourself. Sometimes you’ll find that other’s assumptions are unreasonable and need to be corrected. Sometimes you’ll find that you’re trying to please voices that exist nowhere except in your own head.

Before you head to the mission field, prepare thoroughly, and pack carefully. When it comes to packing your expectations, it isn’t just about seeing how much you can get into a suitcase and still get the zipper closed. It’s also about being discerning and knowing what to leave behind.

But you don’t want to go empty-handed, either. Hopes, dreams, and plans are important. Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And if you’ve got room, you might want to take that swimsuit, too. Just in case.

(Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss, Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, William Carey, 2010; “Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things,” Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, D. D. [1761-1834], updated November 22, 2013)

[photo: “Suitcases,” by Tom Godber, used under a Creative Commons license]

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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