This is an article from the July-September 1999 issue: Winds of Renewal

Mission Frontiers’ Missionary Attrition Series - Part 1

Mission Frontiers’ Missionary Attrition Series - Part 1

Excerpts from the book, Too Valuable To Lose

Examining the Faces of Attrition

I well remember the case study of a young missionary family in Latin America. The husband was a missionary kid who had returned to his beloved region with a young wife and a baby daughter. He had dreamed since the age of eight that he would be a missionary. Finally, after three years of Bible school, a university degree, four years of seminary, and a term of staff ministry with InterVarsity, they were off to the field, to his "home." Little did the young man know what he would encounter when his expectations faced reality, or that his dreams would be torpedoed due to a conflictive mission leader. Towards the end of the first term, this aspiring missionary was absolutely worn down and was on the verge of throwing in the towel and returning to his "passport culture."rning to his "passport culture."

During the worst of that darkness, one evening the doorbell rang. To his astonishment, the struggling young missionary found outside the gate a greatly respected veteran mission leader, who at that time lived in the USA. "What are you doing here in Guatemala? We had no idea you were coming here." He simply stated, "I have come." So into the house he came. He sat down and asked simply, "How are you doing?" The young husband and father broke, and with his wife alongside, he told his painful story in tears. The veteran listened. He discerned the deeper cries. He spoke healing, and gradually new perspectives of hope came into focus. Humanly speaking, God used this man to "save" that young family from being an early case of attrition. That man was not only the mission president; he was a beloved visionary shepherd. He was also my father, for I was that young man.

In 1994, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission launched the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project (ReMAP) to address specific issues related to long-term missionaries and undesirable attrition from active field service. ReMAP studied mission leaders in 14 different nations (8 from the new sending countries and 6 from the older sending countries).

Our overall goal in our study was to reduce undesirable attrition in the long-term missionary body and thus increase the effectiveness of the global mission task force. We listened to and dialogued with our colleagues around the world and concluded early on that there are three major components of an interrelated, functional missions infrastructure.

The first is the pre-candidate componentthe mobilization of the church and the selection of the missionary, including screening, sending, and supporting. From our perspective, the international missionary enterprise seemed to have done relatively well in this area.

The second is the training componentthe effective equipping of the cross-cultural force. We were encouraged to see that the training vision was growing worldwide.

The third is the field componentsupporting, strategizing, shepherding, and supervising the global missionary force. We had to ask ourselves if the global movement was scoring as high in this area. Were we keeping our new and younger mission force in long-term, effective, cross-cultural service? Were we sending those we should not have sent? Our primary concern was not longevity of service, but effectiveness in long-term ministry.

Through the research process and now two years after concluding the study, we have learned so many vital lessons related to this issue called attrition. We want to share some of these in the upcoming issues.

Attrition in the Secular World

Attrition is a genuine problem in the secular world as well. Note this insight from the business world: "Approximately 30% of managers from the US return home early from an overseas assignment" (Shames, 1995). Shames observes that the primary factors are personal and family stress. What is the financial cost to business? For a single, middle-level professional, the figure is close to $150,000; for a senior professional with a family, it is $350,000 or more. But there are different price tags also. The article goes on, "The human costs defy calculation. Emotional havoc, broken families, derailed careers, and illness are the price of neglecting personal well-being on the global circuit." In June 1996, the Personal Journal offered a brief but sober report entitled, "Expatriate Assignments May Not Be Fulfilling Their Objectives." Some of the questions are given in the chart below.

Change in Language Needed

We must change our language on attrition, avoiding such negative terms as dropout, failure, quitters, body count, and blame calling. Often these words underscore a judgment placed on the wrong people. Perhaps the missionaries were pushed out by negative field leaders or by colleagues who felt threatened by new leaders; maybe they burned out due to inadequate pastoral care or unrealistic expectations from themselves and/or others.

We must also start seeing strong positives in attrition. It may be the best thing that could happen to a missionary, even "the will of God in Christ" for the person. Church and mission leaders should restructure their attitudes and actions to find the right place of ministry for the individual. Perhaps God in His sovereignty will allow a person to serve in a cross-cultural context to work on character, skills, or some other testing, and then to move on to another ministry.

Agency Tracking Studies

Some agencies have done an admirable job of tracking and addressing their attrition factors. Some have truly grappled with the implications and introduced changes. But many say they track attrition, yet never seriously analyze their results. More agencies, however, desire help in tracking their attrition and in addressing their particular issues.

Several studies have clarified that while attrition hits first-termers especially hard, it is not limited to the first term. One mission found that serious attrition was taking place at the level of their emerging, experienced leaders.

Four Faces of Attrition

Acceptable Attrition

"Acceptable" attrition arises from such causes as normal retirement, issues related to children (although some issues are a cover for unresolved parental conflicts), a legitimate job change, or health problems. In North America, with an older mission force, these are the top four reasons for attrition.

Preventable Attrition

Some attrition causes could be dealt with before or during field service: lack of home support (not just financial), problems with personal concerns, lack of call (dealt with before field service), inadequate pre-field training, poor cultural adaptation, and some others. The younger mission force faces their own causes of attrition, all perhaps preventable: lack of home support, lack of call, inadequate commitment, and disagreement with the agency.

Desirable but Unrealized Attrition

No formal study that I know of documents this fact, but some missionaries stay who should leave, and they compound the tragedy, in that their staying makes some of the better people leave. It can be a healthy thing to reduce the number of missionaries allowed to stay on the field, but this requires courageous, proactive leadership from the agency or responsible church.

Attrition Among the Vulnerable

Finally, there are "those vulnerable to attrition." What factors in a particular mission society or in a subteam of that agency, perhaps different from one national context to another, cause this segment to be vulnerable to attrition? Mission leaders are wise to address this issue right away.

Churches and Agencies

Some churches, profoundly dissatisfied with the way schools have "mis-trained" people and agencies have misused human and financial resources, decide, "We can do it better and cheaper ourselves!" They select, train, and send their own church-planting ministry teams, even into the tough, unreached parts of the world. But have they truly counted the cost of providing the imperative field-based support system to enable their teams to live and serve effectively and for longer terms? I tend to doubt it. Few churches have analyzed their own missionary attrition history or the realities they will face if they don't change their way of doing things.

Other churches carry a major portion of a missionary's financial support, but must invest more concern with attrition matters. One American missions pastor called to say, "Your attrition study is absolutely crucial to our church. I have just gone through a gruesome experience with two families, and the tragedy is that we could have prevented a lot of the pain."

But unfortunately, many agenciesin both old and new sending nationshave not faced their own attrition history. Why so? Uneasiness? A sense that it isn't necessary? Lack of knowing how to do it?

Significantly, the ReMAP attrition workshop caused many agency leaders to work on their own attrition factors. M. Patrick Joshua of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band of India wrote me: "Our Research and Development Department took the initial notes I brought from the missionary attrition conference seriously and applied some of the principles to our system. There is enormous effect in the observance of intensive pastoral care, having a different outlook in dealing with younger generations of missionaries, etc. There is much reduction in our attrition rate."

We noticed during the workshop that the further a missions leader is from field realities, the greater the tendency to minimize the attrition issues. It was those close to the nitty gritty of people's lives who sensed the critical nature of the topic at hand.

Attrition and the Next Generation

When I evaluate the younger generation in North America, I wonder how many of them will fit into current mission structures, particularly the agencies with the weight of history and tradition. These particular Christian subculture structures come in all stripes and shades of doctrines, policies, unspoken rules, and unique particularities/peculiarities. After I spoke on attrition at the 1996 EFMA/IFMA conference, a 31-year-old mission leader from a well-known agency asked me point blank: "Do you really think Generation X is going to fit into these agencies?"

I gave him this fourfold response: First, yes, some of them will fit in, because Generation X is so diverse. There are always some who have grown up in a subculture that matches that of the agency. Second, there is hope that some older agencies will make substantive, even structural changes to make room for these gifted and godly young adults. Third, other Generation Xers will find their global community in the context of vibrant local churches where pastoral, mission, and business entrepreneurs merge their visions and create new sending/supporting structures. Finally, others will start their own unique organizations, which will reflect their values, commitments, and passions, as is already happening across the USA. But the fact is that many in this rising generation will struggle with frustration as they work out their global commitment.

Frankly, I am profoundly distressed by the attitude of older "boomer" missionaries and leaders who have harshly judged the Xers and have shown such little compassion and grace to a broken generation. Michael Schwartz, Gen X missions mobilizer, recently told me that his generation has found a more compassionate hearing from the older generation than from boomers. And for that reason, they respect the elders much more. Generation X is a generation that is closer to the socio-moral-spiritual condition of first century Christians than we can imagine. As they acknowledge and deal with their brokenness in the power of the Spirit, they will become a generation of glorious promise both for the church and for the global cause of Christ!

Revisiting Attrition Studies

Let's take a look at one of the prime findings of the ReMAP research: In terms of the global missions force, it is estimated that 1 career missionary in 20 (5.1% of the mission force) leaves the mission field to return home every year. Of those who leave, 71% leave for preventable reasons. If we estimate the current long-term, international, cross-cultural missionary force at 150,000 stronga very conservative numberan annual loss of 5.1% would be 7,650 missionaries leaving the field each year. Over a four-year term, this figure jumps to 30,600. This is the total loss figure for all reasons. Seventy-one percent of those could be preventedalmost 22,000.

Just the financial implications are dramatic and calculable, but the human implications are staggering and incalculable. Can we simply continue to do business as always? Absolutely not!

Reflections from a Personal Experience

In March of 1996, my wife and I stood on the windy, frigid shores of the Scottish island of Iona, a crucial pilgrimage site for students of Celtic history and Christianity. We felt history washing over us as we relived the powerful testimony of those unique men and women of faith who so shaped their world and beyond. In the year 563 A.D., St. Columba (Columcille), both pilgrim and missionary, journeyed across the Irish Sea to establish his base on this tiny island. The island became the platform for the Celtic evangelization of what we know as Scotland. Christian Celts from Ireland would eventually send their missionaries as far away as the Ukraine.

Of particular interest to my own study of attrition is the Celtic missionary visionperegrinatio (pilgrimage, or wanderlust to explore the unknown)behind one of their symbols for the Holy Spirit, the wild goose. Over the years, the Celts developed a fascinating, tricolored symbol for martyrdom: red symbolized persecution, bloodshed, or giving one's life for Christ; green spoke of self-denial and severe penitential acts that would lead to personal holiness; and white spoke of the pain of leaving family, clan, and tribe to spread the cause of Christ, perhaps never to return.

As I think of these diverse attrition issues which come out of ReMAP and our own modern Christian missions peregrinatio, I sense that those Celtic men and women of missionary faith would have had much to say to us about the relevance of their tricolored martyrdom to our problems. Perhaps we can adapt their wisdom and vision to our time and reality.

This is a glorious day to be alive, serving the supernatural, Triune God in global missions. And while we must not avoid the price to be paid, we can do a much better stewardship job with our missionary force.

"Expatriate Assignments May Not Be Fulfilling Their Objectives."

(Exerpted from Personal Journal, June 1996)

1. Has your organization experienced early repatriation of expatriates?

No 27% Yes 73%

2. Has your organization experienced the early return of expatriate families without the employee?

No 55% Yes 45%

3. Has your organization experienced the failure of the expatriate to meet the business objectives of the expatriate assignment?

No 18% Yes 82%

4. Do you suspect that many business problems occur in the international location because of cultural problems that may never come to the attention of senior management?

No 9% Yes 91%

5. Does someone in your office have regular contact with the expatriate to monitor how the assignment is progressing?

No 36% Yes 64%

Younger Senders and Attrition

Following are some vignettes with attrition implications from the newer sending nations, which have a younger force with few retirees.

Singapore: "A minimum bond of S$75,000 has to be paid to the government if the parents choose to continue with overseas schooling for boys after they reach the age of 12."

India: "On an average, each missionary working in the Malto region has had malaria more than 15 times. There are missionaries who have been affected by malaria 25 to 30 times. But they stay." India has its martyrs also, and this category emerged in the results of the study.

Philippines: The prime reasons for attrition were lack of home support, lack of call, outside marriage, inadequate com-mitment, and health problems.

Brazil: Based on unconfirmed reports, they feared attrition was 15% per year, but their ReMAP study showed 7% annual undesirable attrition. The five primary causes of undesirable attrition are inadequate train-ing, lack of financial support, lack of commitment, personal factors such as self-esteem and stress, and problems with colleagues. The major attrition causes focused on character problems and not skill limitations, which will have a great impact on Brazilian training programs.

Korea: In 1992, only 23% of the agencies reported attrition, but by 1994 the figure had jumped to 44% of the agencies. The attrition rate is much higher for single women missionaries, primarily due to parental pressure toward marriage. For the year 1994, the first-term attrition was 2.75%. The main perceived causes for attrition were problems with peers, weak home support, health problems, children, change of job, and outside marriage.

Never Want to Forget Betty!

She was a sweet, gracious, gifted disciple of Christ who was preparing for ministry. Her young adult face reflected a two-volume set of emotions. She would smile in our conversations, but her eyes never smiled. They were etched with permanent pain.

As her story poured out, her just anger, hurt, and tears roiled through me. Both of her parents were graduates from a premier missionary training school. They were accepted by a major mission agency and, supported by friends and churches, they went to the mission field. But once there, reality emerged, and Betty's father revealed himself as a quiet, cruel, violent abuser of his wife. Betty and her younger brother saw it all. But the "family secret" was never unveiled. The family returned home and resigned from the mission.

The parents divorced, and the family fragmented. Betty's mother slipped away from faith, and in mid-life she married a non-Christian who, ironically, truly loved her in a way that her "Christian" husband never had. The father today is a bitter man; the brother is isolated from the family and is angry with all, including God. When Betty heard about our attrition study, she asked me, "Do you think your study will help discern what happened to my family so as to prevent other similar cases?"


Expatriate assignments may not be fulfilling their objectives. Personal Journal (1996, June).

Shames, G. W. (1995, February). United Airlines Hemispheres.

Order Too Valuable to Lose from William Carey Library.


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