Why are 2/3 World Missionaries Quitting?

My students were doing presentations for Missionary Member Care Class. One, Michael, was presenting the findings of ReMAP… a study of (Christian) missionary attrition.

All of my students come from New Sending Countries (2/3 World) from the standpoint of the ReMAP study. When one looks at reasons for attrition of missionaries from Old Sending Countries (US, Canada, UK, Germany, etc.), the top 4 reasons listed were:leaving

  1. Normal Retirement     13.2%
  2. Children Issues             10.1%
  3. Change of Job                  8.9%
  4. Health Problems            8.4%

The numbers are quite different for New Sending Countries (Ghana, Singapore, Korea, Brazil, Philippines, etc.):

  1. Lack of Home Support            8.1%
  2. Lack of (Missionary) Call       8.0%
  3. Inadequate Commitment       7.3%
  4. Disagreement with Agency    6.1%

These stats are compiled in Too Valuable to Lose. It can be read HERE

The problem is that in many 2/3 world cultures (including church and missionary agency micro-cultures), missionaries are left in a  “Catch-22” scenario. They often get inadequate support. If they acquiesce to that fate, they may eventually have to quit. On the other hand, if they express concerns to their mission agency or sending church, they risk being labeled “unfit for missionary service” or having inadequate commitment.

The lists above were based on surveys given to mission agencies or sending churches. They were not based on answers given by missionaries. So it is quite possible that the reasons were based more on the interpretation of the sender (mission board or church). Breaking down the results to countries, we find that Nigeria and Ghana are particularly prone to label attrition as “Lack of Call” and Singapore as “Disagreement with Agency.”

It is quite possible that lack of home support dominates all four of those top four reasons for attrition. Lack of home support when reported to unsympathetic senders, can get labeled as “lack of missionary call,” “Inadequate commitment, or “disagreement with agency.” If so, inadequate support from home is huge.

One may argue that because this survey is 20 years old, things have changed. I am sure things HAVE changed… but much still appears to be the same. Living in the Philippines, I know that a lot of the problems still exist.  If anything, things are getting worse, as some of the problems of the new sending countries are trickling over to the old. I know a lot of missionaries from “the West” who have had to go home due to lack of support. Frankly, our support is dreadful at the moment, but we are hoping to ride out the storm.

Regardless, for 2/3 world missions, home support is still a major issue, but so is a better selection process and pre-field training. These mission groups should NOT try to mimic the Western missions, but should pay attention to some of the lessons learned.


Camping - Log Cabin camp fire
Image via Wikipedia

When I was young. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp, Bethay Campfor 5 summers. By the 2nd summer, I wondered whether I wanted to make Christian camping a life-long profession. By the 4th summer, I knew that it takes a special person to want to do camp ministry summer after summer, decade after decade.

My fifth year, we got a new camp director. He was great in some ways, and a bit annoying in other ways. After five summers I got into some ruts and did not always like his shaking things up with new ideas (poking a bit of fun at my traditionalism). Later, I found out that his new ideas weren’t new. They were just old ideas from his old camp. That added to my annoyance, but that’s neither here nor there.

Our new director put up a sign on the bulletin board that said, “NO ONE IS INDISPENSABLE”. Presumably, this message was meant to shake us out of a sense of self-importance. We were there to minister and serve God, but it is not about us. (We had a saying, “Camp is for campers, but staffers rule.”)

But that statement, “NO ONE IS INDISPENSABLE” has been on my mind for more than 20 years. It is generally true (though I am not sure the certified lifeguard at camp was “indispensable”) but it is only half of the story.

The other half of the story is that “NO ONE IS REPLACEABLE.” Each person is unique. No one can be an exact replacement for the skills, experiences, personality, and circumstances of another.

We like simple truths, but the profound is often found in the form of the paradox.

NO ONE IS INDISPENSABLE, and NO ONE IS REPLACEABLE. We need to grab hold of both truths. Recent works have been concerned about the loss of missionaries. A good example of this is “Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition” by William Taylor. It is a very good book, recognizing that we need to hold onto missionaries… no one is completely replaceable.  But we still need to reject the sense of privilege that some missionaries have… that God and locals cannot carry on God’s work without them. No one is indispensable.

The near worship of some Christian celebrities, be they preachers, musicians, writers, missionaries, etc., is destructive. No one is indispensable. However, church groups that mistreat their own workers because they are supposed to be “doing it for God, not for man” is also flawed. No one is replaceable.

The “creative tension” (to use a phrase popularized by David Bosch) between the two seemingly contradictory statements is where Christian ministry must function.