Life on the mission field can be unpredictable and stressful for so many reasons. Change is a constant of life overseas. Missionaries often tend to have a “pioneer/adventurer” spirit. But expecting stress and change is one thing, and actually experiencing it is another.
In general, people become distressed when faced with instability, and they tend to become more distressed as the instability affects more central aspects of their lives. So what happens when someone experiences change stress in things basic to their identity, such as the culture they live in and the language they use to communicate? Or things basic to their environment, such as the climate they live in and the diseases they are exposed to? Or things basic to their social system and support network, such as leaving friends and family behind and getting new neighbors, a new work team, and a new church/social community all at the same time?
Now let’s add some common mission scenarios on top of those already world-rocking changes. Mission vision changes, affecting job responsibilities. Housing situations change, causing more transitions for the family. Unexpected emergencies strike, turning life upside down temporarily or even permanently. High workload, inadequate staffing, poor work-life boundaries, and pressure to produce results push us toward the cliff of discouragement and burnout.
Both physical and mental/emotional health are critical to keeping cross-cultural workers resilient and productive. When we suffer in the body and/or mind, it is difficult to remain focused on any job, including our ministry. Earlier in the survey, we discussed the physical health challenges that missionaries encounter most commonly, and we saw hints about mental health factors there.
In this section, stress and mental health impacts were the focus of questioning. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be mental health factors:
The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
More than half of the stressors in this section were experienced by more than half of the missionaries surveyed:
It is noteworthy that given the high numbers being reported for each of these stressors, there is considerable overlap. Families are subjected to not just one stressor at a time, but find them accumulating and compounding the effect on their well-being. A family may be struggling with isolation, transitions, job dissatisfaction, burnout, being robbed/assaulted, and facing serious health issues all at once. It is not surprising that anxiety and/or depression can be the result when facing so many difficult circumstances beyond one’s control.
We also see a high number of factors in this section that were a serious consideration in departure decisions. The proportion of people who experienced the factor and also reported that it was a part of their decision to return to their home countries were:
Some of these factors also had strong effects on return decisions, as seen in the strength factors. This section of mental health factors had the highest concentration of significant strength factors than any other section in the survey.
Life on the mission field includes unique financial stressors. Many cross-cultural workers raise their own salary and expenses. Inviting others to join in the work of the Great Commission through financial contributions can be a blessing, and always helps to grow us in humility and trust in God’s provision. But it can also be uncomfortable, frustrating, and stressful when we don’t know if our next paycheck will arrive.
In addition to the pressures of fundraising, life overseas is subject to other financial wild cards such as fluctuating exchange rates, inflation, immigration fees, unexpected expenses, and even increased risk of financial loss due to robberies. Workers may find that what they raised is suddenly not sufficient for a variety of unpredictable reasons.
No one becomes a missionary thinking that they will get materially rich. In fact, many of us leave more lucrative positions in our home country to become missionaries despite the cut in pay. The missionary life is definitely not about making money, nor should it be.
But even with the right motivations for missions work, ongoing stress about finances can take its toll over time, eventually leading to turnover. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be financial factors:
The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
The majority of returning missionaries felt some degree of discomfort with raising money (67%) and experienced having low financial support at some time (53%). Both affected their return decision to some degree at least half of the time, and the strength factors (0.93 and 0.95, respectively) were the largest for this section, but moderate when compared to other factors in the survey.
The next tier of financial concerns were cost-of-living or inflation surprises (strength factor 0.73), and being unable to save money (0.75) or plan for retirement (0.80). While many missionaries are able to raise support for their normal monthly expenses, it is less common to raise enough for future financial planning through savings and investment. While this may not be a problem for short-term assignments, long-term missionaries may find themselves in a financially vulnerable position later in life as they sacrifice their greatest earning years in the work force to missions.
38% of missionaries struggled to adjust to their missions salary, but it affected the return decision of only 1/3 of those and not to a large degree (0.53). It seems that most missionaries are prepared to buckle down and manage their salary very carefully. As a result, the remaining items surveyed were either experienced by few or of low concern to those experiencing them.
Funding Status at Departure to Mission Field
In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we asked each participant if they went to the mission field fully funded. If they did not, we asked them to supply a percent of support raised relative to their goal.
75% of participants in this study went fully funded to the field. The remaining 25% went with varying degrees of funds raised relative to their goal, as indicated in the chart above. Individuals who went to the field before reaching full funding went at an average of 63% of their goal, and a median of 70%.
When we divide the sample into subgroups of fully funded and not fully funded, we see that those not fully funded experienced significantly higher levels of financial distress on all factors. First, we can see that the percent that experienced each stressor was higher in all cases.
Next, we can see that in nearly all cases, the percent of respondents who felt that the factor affected their return decision was also significantly higher for those not fully funded.
Finally, when comparing strength factors, we can see that nearly all of the financial factors were more heavily weighted in the return decision for the not-fully-funded group.
The mission field is a place of tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. We can learn depend on the Lord so much more when we have our normal comforts and culture stripped away. We can see God doing amazing things in the lives of others, even miracles, that strengthen our faith. We can see Him working in our lives to make Himself more real than ever to us.
The mission field can also be a place of tremendous spiritual challenge. Traumatic things can happen, leaving us wondering about God’s goodness and presence with us. We often see pain and suffering on a new scale that can give us doubts about God’s sovereign plan. Unusual isolation, stressors, and temptations may present themselves, and a lack of accountability can lead to moral failure. Satan desires to take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy not only our work and our families, but even our faith itself.
The spiritual highs and lows of life on the mission field can take its toll over time, eventually leading to turnover. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be spiritual factors:
The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Our perception of an experience can be greatly colored by our expectations. On the one hand, missionaries tend to understand that they must hold any expectations lightly as they travel to live in another country. They know that with so much change in their lives at once, the nature of some of those changes will surely be unexpected and surprising. They are prepared to be flexible. However, if the dissonance between expectations and reality is large enough, it can cause pervasive dissatisfaction that negatively impacts our assessment of the missionary experience and ultimately causes attrition.
It can also be true that we enter new situations with expectations that we don’t even realize we have. It’s possible that we have not been adequately informed of what to expect at all, so our imaginations have filled in for the lack of information. We can even romanticize what life will be like on the mission field, filled with rewarding work for the Lord and saving souls day after day, with our well-adjusted families serving at our sides. For if the Lord is with us and has called us to this life, everything will be great, right?
It is important to examine the role that expectations play in the missionary experience, and their potential role in causing missionary attrition. For if we find that they are an issue, we can do a better job in setting them accurately. And if they are not an issue, we can focus on other factors that do have more impact on turnover.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be expectation-related factors:
The following table summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
Half or more missionaries experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality with regard to:
(1) team members – 62%,
(2) community – 58%,
(3) relationships back home – 54%,
(4) ministry results – 52%, and
(5) job responsibilities – 50%.
Nearly half felt inadequately prepared for life on the mission field (44%) and that their family life did not meet their expectations on the field (43%). These are all significant enough portions of the population to consider these experiences normative for missionaries.
When we consider how these factors affected missionaries’ decisions to leave the field, we find that the biggest issues factoring into attrition were:
(1) team members – 65%,
(2) job responsibilities – 64%,
(3) community – 61%, and
(4) family life – 56%.
When we consider the strength of the factors, we also see that the most significant were:
(1) team members – 1.29,
(2) job responsibilities – 1.11,
(3) community – 1.02, and
(4) family life – 0.94.
The strength ranking mirrors exactly the percentages reporting that the factors affected their attrition, indicating that these are the top factors regarding expectations in both percent of people weighing them into their return decision AND the weight given to those factors.
The top concern about team members correlates with the findings in the team section that it is one of the issues causing the most attrition on the mission field. Given the strength of certain factors in the team section, we would expect to see here that expectations were not always met in that regard. However, it is not the only thing that did not meet expectations. There was also considerable dissonance between expectations and reality regarding job responsibilities, community, and family life on the field.
Culture was of very low concern to missionaries when it did not meet their expectations, probably because they knew it would be different from any expectations they formed and went into the situation expecting to be surprised. Relationships back home, while commonly different from expectations, did not weigh heavily into return decisions. While many missionaries experience dismay that it is harder than expected to keep in touch and cultivate long-distance relationships, it appears that it is not something that often sends them home, given the low strength index.
Discussion of Qualitative Results
In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we collected open comments on several questions to probe more deeply. This was an apt overall response about missions and expectations in general:
“In response to the next few questions about expectations, nothing was exactly as we expected; just in general. There is no doubt about that and it was a definite stressor on the field for all of us… For future missionaries, they need to know that nothing they expected will be as they thought, so I want to ensure that’s heard.”
While job responsibility dissatisfaction was experienced by lower raw numbers of people than the other top 4 factors of this section, it ranked second in terms of how much it influenced the return decision. We would do well to pay heed. 240 comments were provided to this question, representing 32% of survey participants.
ROLE NOT AS ADVERTISED
The greatest reason for unmet expectations relating to job responsibilities was that the role they filled was not as advertised. 30% of the respondents to this question reported that their job on the ground was different than what they were told and what they went there to do. For 21% of the respondents, it was arbitrarily changed upon arrival.
“The ministry role was quite different from what was conveyed to me pre-field.”
“I thought we would be in translation work and my husband had admin duties.”
“I expected to be helping run the aviation program, so when I got asked to help with construction on a house, I understood it was part of mission work to do stuff outside what we were expecting. But when all we did was construction for 5 months without much regard to flying, it became a bit frustrating.”
“Went expecting to work in church ministry and was asked to do relief work.”
“I was given a job without much consideration of how I felt about it.”
“It was in constant flux… never matching what we agreed to do in training (providing direct support for short-term teams, guesthouse).”
“I was told I would be doing a certain ministry, but upon arrival to the country everything had changed and I found I had no role at all.”
In a smaller number of cases (5% of the commenters on this question), there was a disconnect between the agency and the locals on the ground in terms of what was needed, so the agency recruited, trained, and sent a person who was not what the team needed.
“There was a misunderstanding between the locals and the mission agency [about] my role. Took 2 years to realize it.”
“My national boss had an agenda that I didn’t know about when I accepted the assignment.”
“We were frequently told to do things that did not fit in with the culture or the mission’s core values when we joined.”
“Lack of integration into the Nepali team.”
And finally, in 4% of comments on this question, people were given the impression that they would have teammates and then ended up working alone.
“I was more isolated than I anticipated.”
“I was a midwife and was told a doctor would work with me, but I ended up working alone.”
“I was brought on to share in children’s ministry. Within weeks, my partner ditched me to do what she loved, and left me alone to do the job.”
“I was the only one on the team doing church planting while the others all worked in the marketplace, leaving me basically by myself with the church planting strategy.”
POOR FIT BETWEEN JOB AND SKILLS
The next most commonly mentioned issue regarding job expectations was poor fit. People were asked to do jobs for which they had no training or passion. Some felt their assignment did not match their call, or that they were just not good at it. This sentiment was shared by 20% of commenters on this question.
“Upon arrival I was asked to do so many things outside of my gift[ed] areas for extended periods of time. When I voiced concerns or said no, it was met with guilt, like ‘we NEED you to do this,’ ‘if you don’t do it, who will?’ or ‘this is how we do things here.’ Because I’m flexible and adaptable and didn’t want more conflict, I continued to do all those things for four years until I was too burned out and stressed to continue.”
“I felt that my team members expected things of me that I was not gifted in or capable of doing well.”
“Eventually the workload and the stress of working outside what I felt were my gifted areas played a significant part in my decision to leave.”
“I ended up having to do a lot of nursing type stuff because there were many health issues among the people we lived around. I am not a nurse and it was very hard to deal with some of these issues. But you had to because their lives depended on it.”
“I was in way over my head. I needed way more guidance and experience than I had under my belt.”
9% of commenters on this question reported that their jobs were more administrative or task-oriented than they had expected. They expected to focus on relationships, discipling, or church planting, and felt like they got mired in bureaucracy and paperwork.
“Ended up doing more administrative tasks and less teaching and workshops.”
“I was expected to fill out very lengthy paperwork about ‘significant’ conversations I was having and to categorize the relationships I was building. It was very much objectifying the people I was building relationships with.”
“I had expected to be involved in more discipleship roles with my teammate, but she left prematurely and my role ended up being more involved in Bible translation and I struggled with this aspect of ‘desk’ work that required more attention to detail and analysis than I am gifted for.”
“I was hoping to train the resident orphans in agriculture skills. When other missionaries left the field, I had to fill in their administrative positions and had no time to do what I am gifted in and passionate about. Shortage of missionaries is a perpetual problem that will not be resolved soon.”
The third most commonly mentioned issue regarding job expectations was workload. 19% of commenters on this question felt that their workload was either too much or too little, producing either stress or boredom. More people (11% of commenters) felt that they were overworked.
“I was asked to lead a bunch of ministries within the church while also having mission responsibilities that took me out of the country quite often.”
“Job responsibilities that kept piling up year after year.”
“Too much responsibility for a small staff.”
“I was given more responsibilities than I could handle. This meant that I could not take care of my family as well as I should.”
“Time expectations of the leadership for involvement in ministry were consuming.”
“Overwhelmed with the amount of work and changes.”
“We worked 5:30 am until 11 pm. Never had a break, weekend or otherwise, for over 2 years. When we left, our mission employed 5 families to do our job.”
“I replaced 3 physicians in the department. One person for [the workload of] three.”
“Having too many roles and never getting rest. And challenging the team that we needed to change how we did things or we wouldn’t last, but change never happening.”
On the other hand, 7.5% of commenters felt underutilized and not sure what to do at all.
“There was nothing for us to do.”
“I was bored sometimes and did not feel challenged enough.”
“First term they didn’t seem to know what to do with us… finally managed to cobble together a useful project our last 2 months before furlough.”
“I found I had no role at all.”
“Not being used much though our agency asked us to come to this country. Felt like we were sitting around but had to find things to tell our supporters.”
Women, more likely to be considered “trailing spouses,” more frequently reported this issue. Hoping that there would be a ministry role for them on the mission field, they were often disappointed to find that the only available role for them was at home. Women also seemed more likely to be placed in roles that were a poor fit for their skills. Since the job placement is often primarily focused on the husband, a missionary wife may have to settle for whatever is available where her husband is posted, regardless of her skills or gifting. The stereotype that women are by nature more organized can pigeon-hole women in administrative roles whether it is their personal gifting or not.
POORLY DEFINED ROLE
The fourth most commonly mentioned issue with job expectations was a poorly defined role. 18% of commenters cited this as a reason for dissatisfaction with their job. Poorly defined roles led to diffuse or confusing responsibilities, poor job fit, ever changing duties, difficulty in measuring results/progress, and mission or job drift.
“I didn’t expect to wear so many ‘hats.’”
“Felt HR could’ve done a much better job at finding an appropriate fit rather than someone semi-qualified for a poorly defined job.”
“Our job descriptions were not clear. When I requested clarity, I was told things like ‘make it better, just figure it out, do something to move things forward.’”
“It was vague and misdirected. Often I would do work that a local employee did simultaneously, rendering my work worthless.”
“Little influence or impact.”
“The job assignments were changed approximately every 6 months, so it was hard to feel stable.”
“My team gave little guidance as to what they expected, other than they didn’t like things I tried… hard to really feel like I knew my role.”
“I didn’t feel like I really knew what to do.”
“I realized that when I was told there were many things I could be a part of, that meant there were many things I could do if I created the project. And that’s just not how I’m suited. I work best plugging into a team rather than creating something new.”
PUT IN A BOX
Others found themselves very limited in the role they could play, when they had hoped for more involvement or freedom to choose their projects. 14% of commenters mentioned that they felt forced into a mold, devalued by leadership, limited in their ability to do what they went to do, or not given the authority or access they needed to do the job asked of them.
“I was told that I would never be given greater work roles or any responsibilities. I was told that since I didn’t go to college I didn’t have anything worth contributing pretty much.”
“We were asked to investigate to see if the funds that were given to native pastors for orphans were actually going to the orphans. We did extensive investigations and found many pastors who were not allocating the funds to the children. When we exposed this to our agency in the States we felt that they dismissed a lot of the findings and were not as supportive of our efforts as we had anticipated.”
“Felt limited to support roles in the ministry as I’m a young woman. Was not given the authority to lead, but was expected to manage.”
“I was under constant pressure to force any type of outreach I did into a specific church planting focus, rather than evangelism and exploration.”
“It was told to me how I was to minister and I was held tightly to a rubric.”
“The many ideas I came up with were not permissioned by head office. I was left to teach English without involvement in plans for church planting.”
A number of women who were mothers commented that they were put in a child-rearing box that prevented them from having the freedom to do ministry. Even when staying home was the plan, it could be difficult and lonely. When it was a surprise, it was an even greater shock.
“I had hoped to be more involved in ministry, but family and ‘living’ took most of my time and energy.”
“I don’t think I had realistic expectations of what I would do and achieve on the field, particularly with two, and later three, young children. Life was incredibly ordinary, rather than ‘doing great things for God.’”
“As a wife and mom, roles change from season to season, which in turn affects ministry roles. It was difficult to continue to sort that out, and to know what my expectations were to be related to ministry responsibilities.”
“We planned that I would stay home with the kids, but I felt isolated doing so there.”
“I expected to have a ministry of discipleship to local women in the church. I did not have any. I did not expect that I would have to homeschool our children; this became my primary responsibility.”
These comments echo what we have already seen and discussed about work-life balance (in the family section) and women’s roles in ministry (in the team section). It is not surprising that the theme would emerge here with regard to role/job expectations.
Finally, 12.5% of commenters felt that leadership played a role in their job expectations being unmet, echoing comments that we saw about leadership in the team section of this study.
“My spouse had 5 different bosses in 3 years. The team and the expectations were changing constantly. There was a lack of clear vision and articulation of how to meet the needs...”
“Given a job to do and then told it wasn’t done to her expectations or going behind us to do things her way.”
“No supervisor in country.”
“Lots of politics in the mission agency.”
“Too many bosses, too much responsibility, very little authority.”
“Supervisor didn’t seem to understand, appreciate, or utilize me well.”
“The denomination chose to not support us or deal with the lack of integrity and strong toxic working environment that was created by the leader.”
“I didn’t realize how much of a ‘pawn’ I felt under my team leader. That they cared more about exerting authority than asking my own opinions and how I felt about their decisions over me.”
This last comment cannot help but bring to mind Matthew 20:25-28. “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Even leaders in missions can forget this servant leadership principle and revert to authoritarian leadership styles that disempower those who work for them and damage teams.
The second question for open comment regarding expectations was about culture. This question received the least comment in this series of questions, with only 113 people (15.2% of survey participants) responding. Most missionaries seem to know that culture shock is coming and that having expectations about culture would be futile, as illustrated by the following comments:
“I had zero expectations from the local culture. Aim low and avoid disappointment. ;-)”
“I didn’t have many expectations, but even the few I did, I was wrong about them. I was pretty quickly forced to give up on my expectations.”
“No culture meets expectations. We live in a fallen world.”
“It wasn’t really possible to come in with realistic expectations. But that in itself was an expectation I came in with.”
Our own worldview is so ingrained in us that we hold many beliefs and values without questioning or examining them. It can be inconceivable that a person would feel or believe otherwise until we run into one of them and experience first-hand the shock of having our own assumptions for viewing the world challenged. 31% of comments on this question revolved around worldview issues related to frameworks for leadership, structure, hierarchy, communication, integrity, and work ethic.
“The more you discover about China, the more you realize how vastly and deeply different their worldview is from the Western one. I never felt like I really scratched the surface to really ‘know’ China.”
“Every move we got more Islamic culture and it was harder to live in.”
“I was naively expecting a North American mindset rather than Latino when I first arrived.”
“It was much more patriarchal than I realized.”
“We did not recognize how different leading and following was until we had made a mess.”
“Arab indirect communication styles were a huge challenge for me.”
“More words than actions.”
“I wish the locals would have taken more pride in their work.”
“Unstructured manner of all activities.”
Even when missionaries are prepared to encounter a different worldview, it can sneak up and surprise us with all the unexpected ways that it affects daily life. The constant vigilance to understand why things are happening the way that they are can be exhausting. And sometimes we are simply incapable of questioning our own worldview in order to really understand the perspective of others.
The second most prevalent cultural issue that did not meet expectations was the formation of relationships with locals. It was common for missionaries to hope for close friendships with locals, and to be disappointed when they did not happen. 27.4% of the responses to this question centered on this issue. This was caused by a number of factors, including difficulty in bridging cultural differences to reach true intimacy, relationships loaded with wrong expectations and/or prejudices, and perceived unfriendliness or hostility toward outsiders.
“I expected easier connections and relationships without expectations.”
“I had anticipated more opportunities to establish friendships with local colleagues and their families. But there was an isolation that was unexpected.”
“I expected to be more accepted into their community.”
“When I spent more time with a few, jealousies became a problem.”
“I never had the close friendship with a national that I had hoped for.”
“I’m warm and friendly and love connecting cross-culturally so I expected I’d make friends easily, which did not happen.”
Many people blamed the local culture for their unmet expectations, describing it as “cold,” “closed,” or “distant,” implying that they should have been more warm and welcoming. There was little consideration that the difficulty in forming relationships may have been related to missionary characteristics rather than the receiving culture. Inability to speak the local language at a level that allows intimacy will naturally make people less likely to pursue relationships with a missionary (unless they are based on self-interest). In some places, the missionary may be associated with a colonizing culture that is viewed with mistrust. Missionaries often give unintended offense because they are unfamiliar with the rules of the culture (see Storti’s Type I versus Type II incidents in The Art of Crossing Cultures). However, almost no one offered these as possible explanations for their relationship struggles. It may be that more training is needed in these areas to prepare missionaries better for the very real challenges of forming authentic relationships of trust with people in other cultures.
The comments here echo what we saw in the cultural factors section of this study. It is not an easy thing to form true and lasting friendship with someone who does not share your worldview and life experiences, for there is little common ground to build on. Missionaries should be aware of this to temper their expectations as they reach the mission field. Sometimes it can be a lonely and isolating place, even when you are surrounded by family, team, and locals.
The last prevalent theme that emerged in answer to this question was local conditions. Some commenters were surprised by the level of injustice, corruption, and poverty that they encountered in their host culture. 7.1% of commenters mentioned that this was difficult for them. Many missionaries know that systemic societal conditions will be vastly different than what they are used to. But there is knowing, and then there is experiencing first hand. Our advance “head knowledge” is often not enough to inoculate us against shock and dismay when we come to know and love local people that suffer poverty and injustice. Gaining this “heart knowledge” can be a truly heartbreaking experience.
“The thing that disappoints most is the perceived futility in fighting poverty. It’s hard to see significant change that can be maintained. It seems things will never change.”
“Didn’t expect the culture to be so violent.”
“Christians were severely oppressed. Evil was rampant. Children were kidnapped and abused. Women/girls were systematically treated worse. It was emotionally draining to deal with the constant theft, bribes, corruption.”
“The local cultures (in general since I’ve worked in a few) often allow powerful individuals to act with impunity and foster corruption.”
“Perhaps I didn’t expect the injustice or self-seeking to be so blatant.”
When people move from one culture to another, often blind to their own culture’s favored types of sin and brokenness, they can be shocked at the brokenness and evil in the rest of the world. One reason is that sin IS rampant all over the world. Another is that evil does have a stronger foothold in some parts of the world, especially where the Gospel is lacking. And another is that we often have ways of putting an acceptable veneer on our own culture’s sin so that it is not so ugly on the surface. Other cultures may not do so in the same ways, making it seem more obvious to the outsider.
The third question for open comment in this section was about expectations regarding ministry results. 25% of participants commented here, with the primary concern being the lack of visible fruit or the difficulty in measuring it. In distant second, third, and fourth, there were also concerns that the focus was on the wrong thing when reporting results, that their own local engagement was less than ideal, or that there was a lack of planning/focus that led to undefined or diffuse goals.
Asking a question about results may seem to imply that we are somehow responsible for the results or that there should be visible results. As one commenter shared, “We faced so many disappointments in just not seeing results no matter how hard we worked.” On the one hand, we know as Christians that God is in charge of producing the harvest. But on the other hand, we are also his laborers and want to see the expansion of his Kingdom as a result of our efforts. Sometimes our home culture condemns us if we don’t see the fruits of “our” labors. Americans especially are from a very results-oriented culture. We want to be useful and productive. If we work hard enough, shouldn’t we see something happen? It can be hard to accept that God is simply not blessing all of our efforts by producing the results that we expect.
The intent of this question is not to imply that a certain type of result is desirable or that a certain way of measuring or not measuring results is preferable. The purpose of the question is to acknowledge that not getting the anticipated results can be a reason for becoming discouraged and, ultimately, going home. The answers of missionaries reported here give us a glimpse into what is hard about seeing and measuring results on the mission field, and how it can affect morale.
Many of us go to the field passionate to change the world for Christ and see amazing impacts on the lives of the people we serve. The reality is often that the work is slow and hard, it is very difficult to measure heart change in the people with whom we share the gospel, and it can leave us feeling ineffective. 38.5% of commenters noted that ministry results were slower than they expected, they didn’t see much fruit at all, fruit was hard to quantify, or they weren’t there long enough to see the fruit of the seeds they were planting.
“It was difficult to leave the field before the work was done. There was no church planted, and only a handful of scattered believers.”
“Even after 12 years, things moved so much slower than I anticipated. You leave expecting to change the world, and run a mile, and then you realize you have to be comfortable with mere inches of change, if at all.”
“The work did not grow as quickly numerically as we expected and as we perceived that our sending church expected.”
“Concrete ‘progress’ is difficult to measure when your ministry is building relationships and discipleship.”
“Bible translation is long and arduous… In the tedium it was easy to lose the bigger picture.”
“It felt like it took all my energy to survive and the work was so long-term and slow that I couldn’t see that it made any difference for anybody.”
“Reporting zeros on a monthly basis for new believers, baptisms, new churches, etc. gets discouraging over time.”
“It was hard to be in a pioneering area, and to keep realizing more and more obstacles while continuing to press in. Eventually I realized that I had come to think of my life as working for God, being miserable, and pressing on with no expectation of anything coming from it. I was shocked when some friends started following Jesus, and then shocked that I was shocked by that.”
“I had hoped that our work would help the church to mature, but we did not see much after 15 years.”
“After a few years, our home office got tired of the slow pace and withdrew us from the country prematurely. We hadn’t completed the things we promised the locals that we would do. We were perceived by our local friends and contacts as breaking our promises, not keeping our word, and giving up on them.”
Some recognized looking back that their expectations were probably too high and they needed to adjust their perspective on exactly what they were responsible for:
“Well I’m not sure you can get ‘results’ from the lives of broken children. They’re broken when you arrive and broken when you leave. Hopefully not more damaged with another abandonment.”
“When I began ministry, I had the usual rose-colored perceptions of what it would be like and what I could accomplish where others had failed or only made insignificant advances.”
“I thought before going that I would see huge results. I realize now that ministry is often sowing seeds that you may never see grow, or that bear fruit much later after you’re gone from the field.”
“I think Westerners generally can be results-oriented, and want them quick. Discipleship around the world is much slower than we’d like. I was teaching the Bible to refugees, at one point 49% Muslim. I would have liked to see more change in some of the individuals we work with, but poverty alleviation is working against deeply-ingrained, usually dysfunctional, cycles.”
“I learned a long, difficult, painful, and wonderful lesson in the difference between being responsible for faithfulness and being responsible for results.”
MISGUIDED RESULTS FOCUS
A smaller but noteworthy group of commenters (15.4% of those responding to this question) felt that there was an inappropriate focus on numbers and results, which led to unhealthy dynamics such as ambition, competition, misguided activity, and misrepresentation of results.
“What was difficult was that the leadership was constantly pushing me to evaluate how I was going to move whatever group I was working with to become a church, regardless of the dynamic, and as quickly as possible. I don’t think it even works that way. It certainly doesn’t in the States, so it doesn’t make sense to force it in a foreign culture. There was a heavy stress on Church Planting Movement-type expectations, which aren’t realistic.”
“It ended up being mostly about reporting the numbers from evangelical outreaches, and then there was no follow up or discipleship for those people. I was highly disappointed.”
“It felt very rushed and broad instead of slow and deep.”
“Our initial plans were blocked by another mission agency that had clout in the region and target people group… they threatened us with having our visas canceled (they had government connections), belittled us, and placed a host of limitations on our ministry.”
“What we were told was happening at the mission we were going to in reality was not true. Their reach and their work had been grossly exaggerated.”
“I found so much corruption in the both the organization I worked for and the ones my friends worked for. It was stressful and often felt like so much of what we did was lie to people in America over social media to make it look like we did so much more and there were no issues.”
UNSATISFACTORY ENGAGEMENT WITH LOCALS
13.2% of commenters felt unsatisfied with their level of engagement on the field, either because they felt underutilized, did not speak the language well enough to make an impact, or made lifestyle choices that impeded their engagement with locals.
“My husband came to be the job foreman for building projects and would not be consulted when they started a job or even let him know that a job was in the works.”
“I feel as though I could have had a much bigger impact if my thoughts and opinions had been asked for and listened to.”
“I was there to provide anesthesia, but volumes never increased. I didn’t go there for one emergency C-section a week.”
“I had expected to minister more in the language, but that proved very difficult because of my lack of expertise.”
“My husband struggled with language and culture and felt like a failure.”
“I didn’t get out to the local communities and become more a part of their lives. Thus, my own choices and restrictions lessened my success as a missionary.”
“I wish I had been with a smaller, more intimate mission where I could have immersed myself differently in my ministry.”
LACK OF FOCUS/CLARITY
11.5% of those commenting felt that there was little strategy or planning that guided their work. This led to people not being sure what to do, not understanding how their role tied into the goals of the larger organization, or not understanding how to meet those goals without a defined strategy.
“The team had no clear goals or strategy to accomplish their vision. A lot of miscommunication and unmet expectations on every side.”
“Unclear how to move forward.”
“Every team meeting presented a new plan, never allowing one to grow and develop.”
“I expected our project to change and advance with the times and local economic development, but it remained the same and expected to be effective forever as it was.”
“[My team was] divided into too many goals and underutilized.”
38.6% of survey participants responded to this question. Some concerns were reiterated here that echo findings in the team section, such as leadership, integrity, conflict, and abrupt or frequent staffing changes. Others brought up new dynamics in this section, such as personality or life stage differences that made it hard to connect, communication problems, jealousy, control, and personal baggage that caused dysfunctional situations.
One wise commenter gave a very good perspective on this question:
“Tricky question because the only way people fail to live up to expectations is if we forget that they are people who are still trying to die to self and can have bad days and seasons … even if they are missionaries! In the end, you have to set your expectations on God, and as leaders build systems with accountability and systems to help protect people from leaning on anything other than God’s strength.”
This person rightly recognizes that sometimes expectation issues are with the holder of the expectations. Maybe the expectations are unreasonable or naïve. We may tend to hope for an ideal and lose track of what is realistic.
On the other hand, we all are going to have some expectations upon going to the mission field about what things will be like, whether we should or not, and whether they are realistic or not. Some are actually completely reasonable, and yet things go awry and the expectations are not met. Disillusionment can ensue. It is important to recognize what our expectations are, and whether they are realistic, so that we can manage them (and the ensuing disappointments when we and others fail to live up to our ideals).
The largest number of commenters (44.9%) felt that there was a level of dysfunction in interpersonal relations on their team which kept it from wholeness and health. Included in this category are pride, abuse, integrity issues, emotional baggage that made people difficult to deal with, jealousy, conflict, division, criticism, and manipulation/control.
“Brought emotional baggage that should have been worked through pre-field.”
“Mean, unkind, charged me to eat with them (I was there to teach their children), told me I wasn’t pulling my weight, looked at me as less than and a burden.”
“Our team leader was emotionally manipulative and abusive, and dishonest with us.”
“I guess I assumed that because we were all Christians and there to do ministry together that … we would at least show each other basic human decency. Things got really bad: cliques, defamation of character, intentional back stabbing, wild rumor mills, and alliances built with the intention of pushing people off the team.”
“Some treated the local people deplorably and I found it embarrassing to be in their company [in public]… Why be here if you hate the people and their customs?!”
“More dysfunction and less oversight than I expected.”
“There was a lot of territoriality and the team was kind of a mess ...”
“The truth was stretched when it was convenient. Money was misappropriated.”
“I am bewildered that Christian workers and teammates put their own desires and ego before unity and real teamwork. I’m embarrassed at the model this behavior is to our local brothers and sisters.”
“I did not expect so much drama, jealousy, gossip, slander. Before going on the mission field, we worked in church ministry for 15 years. We’ve experienced church splits, lots of nasty things from believers, but nothing could have prepared us for the unhealth of the ministry workers overseas.”
“I thought we would overcome conflict more easily due to our shared faith. Sometimes (often) I found conflict in the field has no resolution.”
“I thought our teammates would be our best friends… By the time we left I was hardly speaking to my teammates – we were just going through the motions. Our teammates ended up not returning to the field either, and if I am honest with myself I probably contributed to that.”
It is a sobering finding that nearly 1 in 5 missionaries overall felt that their team did not function in a healthy way due to serious issues with matters of character, sin, and integrity. We can be sure there are two sides to every story and that one person’s perception is not always the reality. Regardless, the prevalence of this sentiment should grieve the heart of any missionary, sending church, or missions agency. We should ask ourselves some hard questions about the testimony that we give to the world about Christians when our teams fail each other in this way.
The second most frequently mentioned observation about team expectations not being met was related to the level of cohesiveness and community that the team experienced. 23.4% of commenters felt that they did not experience the level of close friendship, social time, teamwork, and emotional support that they had envisioned. They went to the field with high hopes that their team would become like family, or be their best friends, and they just didn’t click together that way.
“I perhaps naively expected ‘team’ to mean we would be friends and community for each other, not just coworkers. I didn’t expect there to be so much negative conflict or that half the group would gel and exclude others.”
“I was kept at arm’s length and used when convenient over the course of 5 years.”
“Lack of joint projects and a sense of working toward a shared vision.”
“I expected there would be opportunities to be accountable, prayer partners, [and have] vulnerability in relationships. Instead, most people on the team generally kept to themselves other than organized times to gather.”
“We were tired and overworked a lot, most of us suffering on some level of compassion fatigue, so deeper relationships were hard to do.”
“Upon arrival in our host country, we were left to find our own way, given little to no support, we were promised mentorship and received none, we were promised transition into leadership positions where none ultimately existed.”
“I had hoped that our team would be very close and do well together. In the end I would have to say we made the partnership work but it was not easy.”
“Maybe I had different expectations from my teammates on this one, …that they would be family to us. In lots of ways they were… but they were a discouragement to us too. I thought we would work together better but there was jealousy and a breakdown in communication that we battled.”
“There was no relationship outside of the work.”
“They were very different than we expected and it was a struggle to trust and feel trusted.”
These comments highlight how expectation-laden working relationships are on the mission field. Missionaries have left their families and established communities behind, and may hope that their team members will fill in to meet their emotional needs for close relationships.
But there are also legitimate reasons that this may not work for every team. There may be physical distance between them or they may be assigned to different projects that their minimize time together. Some missionaries are “lone ranger” types that don’t feel they need others or have had bad experiences that made them wary of others. Each family is under cross-cultural and ministry stress, lessening their ability to meet the emotional needs of others. They are likely trying to focus that limited energy within their family unit and with locals in their ministry. Over time, emotional fatigue and grief sets in with the loss of so many relationships as peers and friends come and go. Some veteran missionaries respond to that by putting more self-protective boundaries in place with new people, which the newcomers perceive as unfriendliness or coldness. And finally, not everyone wants their work team to also be their neighbors, church community, social circle, and family members. Some prefer to have a number of different communities to meet their diverse needs for fellowship rather than one group that must meet all of them.
Neither the expectation holders nor the people who fail to meet the expectations are wrong or bad. Everyone is doing what they feel they need to do in order to cope with life overseas and all of its transitions and stressors. What different people need is often very different, making it difficult to know what others expect. Having team conversations about work and social relationships within the group would be helpful to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings by setting clearer expectations up front.
21.4% of commenters mentioned various differences that made it hard to connect with teammates or leaders. These included differences in personality, upbringing, life stage, culture, politics, priorities/interests, or coping mechanisms of people on the team. These things were no one’s fault, but did sometimes make it difficult to work together. Such differences created more potential for conflict and sometimes caused situations to escalate in unexpected ways.
“The coordinators… had no tolerance for differences in personality and NO sense of humor.”
“Didn’t mesh well with the team. Maybe it was just me.”
“Expected pretty strong personalities, but had a few team members who were pretty far on that scale.”
“Most missionaries were ‘difficult’ to work with. They didn’t get on well with others.”
“Our team was international so cultural dynamics were at play.”
“I felt unliked by [our team leaders] and that they just tolerated us. They were from a different country than us. I kind of felt like they didn’t like Americans.”
“As a single woman I was not welcomed into family, but rather was excluded.”
“Our teammates were all young and single. We were the only ones with kids on the team. They left us alone and only interacted with us when we had team meetings or dinners, which wasn’t very often.”
“Bible study and activities were always during [my child’s] nap time. It was little things like that. I felt very unsupported and alone in our small expat world.”
“Our teammates were all in their 50s while we were in our 30s. We felt many of their views were too narrow so we didn’t see eye-to-eye on many things.”
“The tone set by the vocal conservative, right-wing U.S. Christians. Because they were in the majority, they didn’t really need to adapt their views or their rules… There was a sense that if you didn’t think like them, you somehow fell short of the Christian ideal.”
“Since we all had received the same training, I assumed we would all share the same goals/perspectives/values. Sometimes the disparity was shocking.”
20% of responders cited an issue with leadership, making it the fourth most common response theme for this question. This finding echoes comments made about leadership in the team section of this survey.
“The team leader was not involving us in decisions. I didn’t feel valued by the team leader.”
“Poor leadership caused a lack of accountability in many areas. Due to this we saw issues with integrity in sexual relations … and even financial responsibility with ministry funds.”
“The three people under us were very independent and didn’t want to be led.”
“There was a lot of change in leadership that happened on our team, and some of the leaders didn’t seem to be well-qualified for the position, but it was what was most convenient at the time.”
“My team leader was unable to hear criticism and deal with conflict in constructive ways.”
“We felt constantly undermined by our direct supervisor.”
“There was an anti-intellectual culture and a very authoritarian leadership style.”
“The leadership lacked experience, training, competence and integrity and as a result bullied.”
“There was little visionary work being done and no encouragement for work well done. Our team leaders were burned out, but not leaving the field. Everything was about the task and not about relationships, either with nationals or with expats.”
“There was no clear authority figure to whom I could go with problems or to clarify my responsibilities.”
And finally, the last common theme in responses to this question touched on various forms of disengagement: lacking skills for the role, not doing much work, frequent changes and turnover that minimized impact, or not being open to progress/change. 19.3% of responses mentioned this factor as a concern.
“I did not expect 3 sets of team leaders to have to suddenly leave the country. I don’t think I had really considered the implications of constant team shifting as I headed overseas.”
“I joined a team expecting most of them to be around for many years. My wife and I were newlyweds when we joined the already established team. Within two years the other three families had all returned stateside.”
“The team was far less enthusiastic than they had been ... They were not eager to meet, cancelled meetings, did not offer up their own ideas for how to improve the teamwork.”
“Individuals that did not become part of the team. Others that totally disengaged.”
“In evolving teams you will always have a few people who do not have the cross-cultural skills they need to make a positive contribution.”
“Two of us were undertrained and the other two expected too much from us.”
“I think some people go into missions because they can’t find their place in their passport country. In other words, so many people with very few skills, but a ‘heart for missions’ end up on the field and you have to figure out how to make them fit on your team, or create a job that does fit their skills which may or may not truly add value to the team.”
“I had looked forward to a partnership with my most direct colleague, discussing ideas and possibilities together and figuring out the best option as a team. Instead, the person adamantly refused to discuss possible changes, even though the need for those changes had been identified several years earlier in a formal review of the organization.”
Comments in this area showed the need for both new and tenured missionaries to be sensitive and graceful toward one another. Older missionaries may feel the “newbies” don’t respect their experience and want to question and change everything in their enthusiasm and idealism. Newer team members may feel devalued by the experienced, as though they have nothing to contribute and the veterans aren’t open to new ideas and change. Surely understanding is needed on both sides to allow everyone to contribute their strengths, see progress in the mission, and keep everyone engaged.
21.4% of survey participants gave feedback on this question. Some of the things shared here reiterate what we saw in the family factors section of this survey. Namely, that the stressors of the mission field and managing work-life balance can adversely affect the entire family system. One commenter shared their surprise in this way:
“We just struggled beyond what I would have ever imagined! We thought our kids were more resilient and our marriage stronger. It was such a refining time!”
The top four areas ranked very close in terms of how often they were mentioned, so the order in which they are presented does not indicate any significance about their primacy.
One thing that makes family life on the mission field difficult is the isolation and loneliness, including a lack of extended family support nearby, fewer options for family activities, and the ensuing devolution into complaining and conflict. While a lot of family time can be a blessing, it can also be a source of stress and strife when there are few other outlets for socialization.
25.3% of commenters noted that isolation and loneliness changed their family dynamics. It appeared that mothers particularly struggled in isolation with kids at home, while fathers had other outlets for socialization through ministry. Singles also struggled when their hopes to find an adoptive “family” on the field did not materialize.
“No outlets for families. Lived within walls.”
“I didn’t expect to be at home alone with the kids so much while my husband traveled and did ministry.”
“We were not happy to be together all the time.”
“We had a blast together lots of times but it was just us. My kids and husband being really my only friends on the field.”
“I had no family and was totally isolated and alone. I had no friends. It was miserable.”
“No grandparents to take the kids.”
“Didn’t get through the transition and lead each other to Christ. Complained instead.”
“There was no fruit of the spirit in any of our lives and we fell into survival mode.”
ADJUSTMENT OF CHILDREN
23.4% of commenters indicated a challenge with managing children and their adjustment on the mission field. As we saw in the family factors section of this survey, some children have trouble adjusting to their new life on the mission field. Others develop issues that eventually send the family home in order to care better for them. Issues relating to the education of children can also lead to a change of plans.
“We hoped we could do ministry as a family but the children did not adjust well to the work we were doing.”
“My daughter struggled with other kids connecting to me.”
“Homeschooling was torture.”
“Our kids experienced a high level of stress and it wore on us.”
“The struggles of our children became overwhelming and we needed a less oppressive and stressful context to help them with their struggles.”
22.8% of commenters mentioned that their schedule did not allow much family time. This was sometimes because the ministry’s demands on the husband’s time (or his inability to put boundaries in place to protect family time) precluded it. This correlates with what we saw in the family factors section of this report: work-life balance is a common struggle for missionaries. Understandably, this is likely related to the previous issue of children’s well-being on the field.
“We had many months where our family did not have an entire day together during the whole month. Our schedule was very demanding and family time was a challenge.”
“No time off. No affordable vacations/holidays were possible.”
“I had expected our family life to be valued and our ministry to our family to be valued as well. Instead, it was a mentality of ‘the church always comes first.’ I felt constantly pulled and guilty and thus our family struggled more to thrive than I had hoped.”
“I felt like I was often not there for my kids.”
“The workload for my husband created such a strain on him. Incredibly long hours and relentless demands. We worked to carry the burden together but our family was exhausted.”
“Not able to enjoy each other because of lack of time, energy.”
“My husband was gone ALL THE TIME. We didn’t have a weekend as a family for years.”
“There were significant ministry commitments on weekends and evenings. With kids in school during the day, this greatly reduced family time and added stress in family dynamics.”
“We were not thriving, just surviving. You do the work and feel guilty if you’re not doing enough.”
“I failed to protect the time and attention boundaries which were needed and healthy for our family.”
22.2% of commenters shared that the stress of life on the mission field adversely affected the mental health of at least one family member, which in turn had an impact on the whole family system.
“As we wore down, things like traffic (extremely stressful in this country) and dealing with locals and language became more upsetting.”
“The crises made it difficult to relax at home and have normal family time.”
“My family ended up being in depressed, stressed out shambles for the last several months. We had intense struggles being alone in country, and our organization did nothing to help. On the contrary, they criticized what we were not getting done while there alone.”
“We struggled so much with physical health issues and moving so much, it really decreased our sense of family stability and we needed a major breath.”
“It was too unbalanced and chaotic.”
“I was surprised at the degree of stress the ministry, combined with the cross-cultural differences we had, brought to my marriage. Without a mentor, and virtually no missionary care while on the field, we were in real danger.”
“I watched as my husband struggled with health and addiction issues, which obviously greatly impacted our home life. While we had amazing support from our home church, the fact that we were on the mission field made an already difficult situation even harder.”
“Depression reared its ugly head.”
And finally, 13.3% of commenters mentioned that their missions experience negatively affected their marriage. Stress, overwork, lack of time to invest in the relationship, and differences in perspective on situations and events can easily create a cocktail of disconnection between spouses where Satan can work to destroy marriages and families.
“The ministry became more important than the marriage.”
“I thought we’d be able to keep our marriage strong. After all, we were together most of the time and working on shared goals. But we didn’t keep valuing each other as people, as best friends, as lovers.”
“Early experiences just before arriving and shortly after arriving on the field led to a rift in my marriage.”
“I did not expect the work to affect our marriage in such deep and hurtful ways.”
“My marriage suffered a little bit from local girls constantly wanting my husband’s attention. I wanted him to have clearer boundaries.”
“We were so tired!!!!! …I rarely saw or connected well with [my husband].”
168 survey participants (22.4%) commented on this question. Far and away, the greatest concern was feeling “out of sight, out of mind.” Second place concerns were a tie between logistical challenges to keeping in touch, feeling a lack of care/support, feeling an “otherness” from those the missionary was once close to, and feeling that life had moved on without them during their extended absence.
35.7% of responders said that they felt forgotten by those they had left behind. People did not stay in touch the way they hoped they would. The busy-ness of life back home made it hard for people to maintain a connection to them and a concern for them. It was as though they had “dropped off the face of the earth.”
“Almost zero replies to my newsletters, and very few emails or calls.”
“A lot of things I never heard about. For example, I found out my father became an alcoholic two weeks before returning home. My mother never told me while I was gone.”
“No one wrote to check up on us, not even our church leaders/pastors.”
“I felt abandoned by my home country friends. They rarely answered my calls for help and prayer, and even failed to connect me with the women’s bible study group which I asked on multiple occasions to join long distance just so that I could be getting some sort of group bible study in.”
“Often felt forgotten, I was depressed and didn’t initiate contact and neither did people back home. In the 2 years we were away, my parents didn’t send us anything in the post once, which was disappointing.”
“In nine years, I had one phone call each from my siblings.”
“It hurt to see that a lot of people didn’t even open our e-mails.”
“Our churches took a ‘hands off’ approach and while we appreciated their trust, we would have welcomed feeling they were more invested.”
15.5% of responders noted logistical challenges, such as time zone differences and technological access, as reasons that it was hard to keep in touch with people back home.
“The time difference was hard, internet availability was spotty.”
“Facebook and social media didn’t really exist yet.”
“Communication was very limited in some places.”
“We had to travel 2 hours south once a month to send emails.”
“I didn’t realize how 3 weeks turnaround on mail and no telephone would cause a permanent loss of many relationships.”
“A phone conversation is not nearly [an] adequate [substitute] for a cup of coffee with a friend.”
LACK OF CARE/SUPPORT
A similar proportion of responders noted that they didn’t have the care/support network that they needed from connections back home. These comments echo what we saw in the team section of the study regarding missionary care and its importance in attrition.
“Facebook is fine, email is fine… but we needed to talk with people back home, and they were too often unavailable or inconvenienced. We didn’t have the support system back home that we needed.”
“Our American church designated two ‘liaison couples’ who were supposed to be our main contact people, but connecting with them in real time was difficult.”
“I was told or given the expectation of regular visits and hands on support. This evaporated as soon as I left my country and within a short period of time my ‘sending church’ (one I had been in over 20 years) started refusing all contact with me. In the end, they left me stranded on the field with no resources at all.”
“Our home church had no idea how to practically support missionaries besides sending money.”
“Our sending church sometimes didn’t put money in our account, which …nearly resulted in us leaving the field 2 months in as our savings were gone and no monies had yet been put in… Faith churches seem to think God will step up and fill the gap if they don’t quite get round to doing as they promised.”
“We knew we had people praying for us, but I can’t remember a time when anyone reached out to us to see what we needed or how we were doing. It certainly wasn’t a regular occurrence. We were drowning in stress, family changes, work frustration, political upheaval and possible evacuation, financial challenges, and then an unexpected and unhoped-for pregnancy at the end of it all, and although we shared prayer requests, we didn’t really have any kind of member care or closer personal friends to vent to, either there or back home.”
“I think if the churches spoke to congregations about ways to support or even better understand the calling, it would change things hopefully!”
A similar proportion of survey participants noted that they felt a persistent separateness from people with whom they used to be close. Some felt that they had changed so much during their time on the field, that they no longer fit into their communities back home. Others felt that people were disinterested in their experiences because they could not relate to them. And others noted that they had been gone so long that everything had changed in their absence, a kind of Rip Van Winkle effect.
“Many people are actually not that interested in your life overseas.”
“I felt a definite distance from my parents that I hadn’t experienced before, and struggled to be able to feel understood in the breadth of our experience/disparity from them. I occasionally was discouraged by the lack of interest (or perhaps at times it was just knowing what to say) in our work there, when the sacrifice felt so all-encompassing.”
“No one wants to hear the pain. I felt very brushed off with quick solutions, like ‘we’re praying for you,’ ‘God is in control,’ etc. I hoped for someone to just understand.”
“I was becoming a foreigner in my own country.”
“After being on the field for 20 years, I felt distant from everyone… I felt unknown, unnoticed, and unloved.”
“We were gone for 18 years. Our support network had changed, moved, or passed away in that time. Our family members were there, but so much had changed.”
“Churches are so rapidly changing in folks who attend that when we would return during home assignment/deputation, it was sometimes like visiting a whole new church.”
LIFE MOVES ON
A final similarly-sized group of people simply noted that life moves on after you leave. It’s no one’s fault, but the missionary has missed out on a lot of life in the community back home. This erodes intimacy with those left behind and makes it difficult to re-insert oneself back into their lives at some future point.
“I missed marriages, births, and funerals. Not being there made it difficult to feel a strong bond with many old friends.”
“I did not understand how missing out on extended family gatherings and the lack of ability to provide comfort and care when an extended family member became sick would impact my desire to remain in country.”
“The physical and emotional distance created with family and friends from being sent is just not ever recovered.”
“Our kids were young and … were missing getting to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
“Each passing year I hear less and less from folks and rarely get to see friends and family when we visit due to short stays.”
“Life on the field is demanding and easily absorbs all your time. Staying connected to friend[s] and family back home became harder and harder, and furlough more necessary.”
“Tried to keep my feet in both places. Often felt as though I was being replaced in close friendships and that I was losing relationships dear to me. That was not the case, but at the time it was a great time of grieving.”
It was unnecessary to evaluate the responses to this section in great detail. The vagueness of the word “community” in the question caused a wide and disparate variety of responses that echoed trends identified elsewhere in the survey, but contributed nothing new to the findings, even though 154 people, or 20.8% of survey participants, commented.
A few interpreted “community” as the local community, and expressed the difficulty of truly connecting with locals due to language and cultural barriers, already seen in the cultural factors section of this report. Some interpreted “community” as the expat or missionary community, and expressed the frequent turnover of expat friends, not having access to other expats at all, or difficulty in balancing local and expat engagement. Others talked about “community” in terms of their team, and feeling loneliness or lack of support from their co-workers, already seen in the team factors section of this report and the team question in this section on expectations. Regardless of the interpretation of the word “community,” the common denominator was a feeling of disconnection and isolation, regardless of where missionaries looked for community.
According to the quantitative data, the greatest gulfs between expectations and reality for missionaries are with their team members, their job responsibilities, their ability to find a community with which they can be their genuine selves, and their family lives. In the qualitative data, we also see concern with ministry results and maintaining relationships back home. When there is a dissonance between expectations and reality, sometimes it is the expectations that need to be adjusted, and sometimes it is the reality.
The main themes that emerged regarding team member expectations on the mission field (and the percent of the total survey population mentioning the issue without prompt) were:
62% of survey participants experienced some aspect of their team members not meeting their expectations, which negatively affected their missions experience. 38.6% of them provided commentary about why. This finding confirms other studies that have found interpersonal conflict to be one of the primary reasons for missionary attrition. This is a partially preventable and partially unpreventable issue. Addressing it to the degree that we can would greatly increase the job satisfaction of missionaries.
Suggestions for reducing missionary turnover related to unmet team member expectations are:
While every missionary takes their sin nature with them to the mission field, these practices would go a long way toward avoiding preventable issues between team members. Wherever people must work together, there will always be conflict. But when handled rightly, it need not result in turnover.
The main themes that emerged regarding job responsibility expectations on the mission field (and the percent of the total survey population mentioning the issue without prompt) were:
50% of survey participants experienced some aspect of their job responsibilities not meeting their expectations, which negatively affected their missions experience. 32% provided commentary on the reasons for this. They are mostly preventable issues. Addressing them would greatly increase the job satisfaction of missionaries.
Suggestions for reducing missionary turnover related to job responsibilities are:
The main themes that emerged regarding family expectations on the mission field (and the percent of the total survey population mentioning the issue without prompt) were:
43% of survey participants experienced some aspect of their family lives not meeting their expectations, which negatively affected their missions experience. 21.4% of them shared why. This is a partially preventable and partially unpreventable issue. Addressing it to the degree that we can would greatly increase the job satisfaction of missionaries.
Suggestions for reducing missionary turnover related to unmet family life expectations are:
We cannot completely control how well MKs adjust, whether we experience a certain degree of isolation, or whether unpreventable stress may cause unexpected mental health issues to emerge. But these practices would go a long way toward avoiding preventable issues in family life on the mission field, thus increasing the job satisfaction of missionaries and resulting in lower attrition.
The main themes that emerged regarding ministry result expectations on the mission field (and the percent of the total survey population mentioning the issue without prompt) were:
52% of survey participants experienced some aspect of the ministry results not meeting their expectations, which negatively affected their missions experience. 25% of them shared why. This is a partially preventable and partially unpreventable issue. Obviously, God is responsible ultimately for results. But that does not let us off the hook for being good stewards of the ministries He has entrusted to us and working with focus and clarity toward the calling that He has given us. Addressing expectations about ministry results to the degree that we can would greatly increase the job satisfaction of missionaries.
Suggestions for reducing missionary turnover related to unmet ministry results expectations are:
Bryant Myers says in Walking with the Poor, “we know we cannot bring the kingdom, and yet we are committed to work for its coming.” This is the difficult balance of missions. Short of Jesus’s return and the full arrival of the kingdom of God, we will never be satisfied with the results of our ministry. However, we are called to work toward it anyway. This is bound to cause frustration at times for any missionary. But we can seek to maintain a perspective that helps us to balance both imperfect results and a holy desire for kingdom fullness.
RELATIONSHIPS BACK HOME
The main themes that emerged regarding expectations of relationships back home (and the percent of the total survey population mentioning the issue without prompt) were:
54% of survey participants experienced some aspect of their relationships back home not meeting their expectations, which negatively affected their missions experience. 22.4% of them shared why. This is a partially preventable and partially unpreventable issue. Relationships will definitely change due to distance and some level of disconnection will result. However, we can play a role in the degree to which that will happen. Addressing it to the degree that we can would greatly increase the job satisfaction of missionaries.
Suggestions for reducing missionary turnover related to unmet expectations of relationships back home are:
In summary, mission agencies, sending churches, missionaries, and family and friends of missionaries can benefit from this examination of expectations that missionaries have when going to the field, and the many ways that real life can fail to live up to them. It can help to understand what common feelings and experiences missionaries share, and be aware of how to support them more effectively through it.
There are many things about living on the mission field that can influence the physical health of missionaries and their families. The climate and conditions in the host country may be a shock to the physical body. The doubled impact of long-term culture and ministry stress may weaken the body’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to breakdown. When sickness does strike, the quality of health care in the host country may be questionable or inadequate. In host countries where infrastructure is lacking and “life is cheaper,” accidents and injuries can strike at any time. And we must never forget the factor of spiritual warfare: the enemy will do all he can to disable us, and that includes attacks on our health.
When the body does not cooperate, even the most simple of tasks can become difficult. Mustering the energy to do the hard work of ministry and life overseas can become exceedingly difficult. Sickness can necessitate trips to the home country for treatment, or even permanent relocation to an area where full recovery is possible.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:
A focus of this survey has been identifying areas of preventable attrition so that we may improve the experience of missionaries and lower attrition rates. When it comes to health matters, neither missionaries nor their sending churches and agencies are necessarily in control of how their bodies will respond to physical conditions, challenges, and illness. Country factors impacting health, such as climate and pollution, can hardly be changed. However, it is hoped that this data will be helpful for its descriptive value, as well as for the limited conclusions we can draw about preventable factors of attrition related to health. It may also suggest areas for deeper etiological research into the health of missionaries.
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
It is noteworthy that more than half of missionaries reported having serious health problems. More than one-third reported serious health problems for their spouse. And one-third reported serious health problems for at least one child. These are very high rates of sickness for the periods of time being reported (the average tenure was approximately 8 1/2 years). In all three cases, over half of the respondents reported that this issue affected their decision to return to their home country, and to an overall moderate degree. It is hard to know how much overlap there is between the three categories, but clearly many families have multiple people experiencing significant health problems, which can compound the stress of dealing with them.
Sixty percent reported that health care was inadequate in their host country and 52% said that this affected their decision to return to their home country, also to an overall moderate degree. As people who may have the option to seek better health care in another country, it makes sense to do so for many missionaries with serious health problems. Certain treatments or expertise may not be available in the host country, may be at a great distance from where the missionary lives, or may be of lower quality given the limited resources of many developing countries for health care.
Fortunately, most missionaries had adequate health insurance to address their health issues, even if they had to travel to another country to get the care that they needed. However, one-fourth reported that they either didn’t have health insurance at all or didn’t have the coverage that they needed. This affected the return decision of nearly one-fourth of those, though to a slight degree.
The most significant finding of this section (and indeed, one of the most significant in the survey) is the degree to which participants felt that stress affected both their health and the health of their families. More than two-thirds felt that stress affected their health, while half felt that stress affected the health of other family members. In both scenarios, this affected the return decision in 68-70% of cases, and to a relatively strong degree. These findings seem to indicate that the whole family experiences the stress of living on the mission field and is affected by it. Spouses and children are not immune. In addition, when stress is affecting the health of the whole family, the likelihood of attrition greatly increases, perhaps because the family sees no way to reduce the stress other than leaving the situation.
As access to clean water has increased worldwide, so has access for missionaries living in these areas. One-third of missionaries reported that their access to clean water was limited, but few of those (22%) reported that it affected their return decision, and to a low degree. Those in these areas likely knew this was an issue before arriving, came prepared to deal with it, and did not feel that it was debilitating enough to strongly affect their return deliberations, though it was certainly an inconvenience.
Climate difficulties and pollution were reported by just under half of the respondents as affecting health, and in 37% and 46% of these cases, respectively, affected the return decision, but only to a slight degree. People reported in the open response section that air contamination, heat, and humidity (and the accompanying mold) affected them because they were not used to them in their home country. While inconvenient, it was not a strong reason for leaving for most. For those who did feel very affected in their bodies by these environmental factors, however, the only solution for improving health would be to leave the area, since these are not issues that can be changed.
To survey the most frequent types of health problems experienced by missionaries, in addition to the quantitative scaled data, we collected open comments on the following question:
We received 396 comments covering everything alphabetically from acid reflux to Zika. Problems reported were as manageable as intestinal parasites, and as catastrophic as the loss of a spouse or child. The collective pain reported truly shows the sobering costs of the missions call, and the astonishing bravery and stamina of missionaries in facing them.
Many missionaries reported here on mental health issues that they and their families experienced. There is a subsequent section specifically pertaining to mental health, but at this point in the survey, respondents would not have known this, so some provided it here. One shared about a pollution-related sickness that had persisted 6 years after their return, but also commented that in even comparison to that, “the psychological/emotional/spiritual price to pay for the years we spent there were maybe more significant than just the physical (although I doubt they are unrelated).”
The analysis of and commentary on mental-health-related data will be set aside until publishing of the relevant section, except for one very important observation: Missionaries reported mental health issues more than any physical health category, and this occurred without them being asked to include such issues specifically.
To illustrate, the mental health data is included here for comparison only. The following table lists the most common major categories and the number of cases in reported in each:
We must remember that these were self-reported “serious health problems.” We did not ask specifically about each possible health problem, nor define what constituted a serious health problem. Therefore, issues like parasites, asthma, and infections, for example, were likely under-reported because some participants did not judge those as sufficiently “serious” to warrant inclusion. The ones that were reported were likely more serious cases that caused greater complications. However, even taking into account potential under-reporting in some other categories, one cannot ignore the primacy of mental health issues on the mission field.
One note of caution before drawing conclusions about the mental health of missionaries in general: This finding does not mean that missionaries experience greater rates of mental health problems than the general population, only that it is the greatest problem reported by missionaries. Any of the following three reasons could apply, or a combination of them:
It would be the job of medical professionals to establish whether missionaries experience higher rates of certain diseases than the general population, and what factors may contribute to their rates of sickness. Such conclusions are beyond the scope of this study. But perhaps this study can indicate further areas of research into the physical and mental health of missionaries.
The following table lists, in descending order, the number of cases reported for each type of specific ailment mentioned in the comments, for those who would like a more detailed breakdown:
STRESS AS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR
Another important observation is the role that stress can play in many of these physical ailments, either giving disease a foothold or exacerbating a problem that would otherwise be less severe. In fact, 52 commenters specifically mentioned that they believed or were told that their physical health problems were caused by high stress:
One participant shared that she and her husband were part of “an organizational culture of doing above and beyond what any one person can naturally do,” a common feature of mission culture, as we saw in the family factors section of this report where we discussed the issue of work-life balance. Her husband “leaned toward workaholic tendencies,” buying into the organizational culture. As a result, she felt that “stress levels at times greatly affected our whole family.”
Another responder saw a relationship between their health and their ability to manage stress, saying “my ability to manage my stress in healthy ways gradually deteriorated over the years,” as did his/her health. Others commented:
“I had to go to the hospital when I was having chest pains. My blood pressure was 240/139. Stress was the culprit.”
“Stress played a huge role in my health. I did not necessarily come back because of health issues… but once I came back, I realized how much stress had affected every area of my life and health.”
“Coupled with stress and constantly fighting malaria and taking lots of treatments, my immune system couldn’t fight off the malaria very well eventually.”
One person was diagnosed in their second year on the field with an unspecified autoimmune disorder causing extreme joint pain and severe insomnia:
“I learned that one of the primary causes of what I was experiencing was extremely high levels of cortisol from too much stress. Although I didn’t feel I was under that much stress on the field, my body said otherwise. Now almost three years after leaving the field, my hormone levels are finally starting to normalize and I am finally feeling healthy more days than not.”
It is also important to recognize that the causality between stress and physical health (or mental and physical health) is not one-way. Physical problems cause stress as much as stress causes physical problems, creating a feedback loop that can create a downward spiral in both physical and mental health.
“The main reason I left the field was because of depression and anxiety that became so serious that it caused other health issues, including respiratory problems, anxiety attacks, weight loss and gain, and a significantly weakened immune system.”
ENVIRONMENT AS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR
Sometimes the physical environment in the host country was not conducive to maintaining the health of the missionaries and/or their family. This included primarily air pollution, but also natural substances that caused allergies or severe reactions. These comments illustrate how some places of service made people physically ill:
“The pollution really affected my health and fibromyalgia. I struggled with sinusitis because of the pollution and my eldest had flare ups in his allergies due to the pollution. He sounded like he was sick all the time during peak pollution.”
“My husband and youngest son are both asthmatic. We had to move house one time to get away from neighbors burning rubbish. Air quality in the capital city was really poor and affected them both.”
“I developed severe respiratory problems in our second placement and several of my children had milder but similar symptoms. We are fairly sure these were caused by the extreme air pollution. Still not fully recovered almost a year later.”
“My eyes got so bad with pollution that I couldn’t wear contacts any longer. I was sick a lot (intestinal and sinus). I also began to worry more about my children’s health/lungs raising them in such a polluted area.”
“I began having severe migraines, nerve pain, numbing and skin trouble on my hands. This only happened when we were in our tribal location and began almost immediately. It led to times of bedrest and almost constant pain. After a few years and many medical visits, the doctors’ best guess was that it was the environment we served in as it was in a swamp and our house had a great deal of black mold that was impossible to get rid of. My husband later began to experience numbing as well. He also has struggled for many years with fatigue and this was worsened in this hot environment and high stress environment.”
MENTAL AND PHYSICAL “GRIT”
Reading the stories of health trials reveals one type of high price paid by some missionaries for their commitment to the call. The mental and physical toughness of these missionaries is also apparent. Far from being “weak” or debilitated by their health struggles, they were more typically strong individuals who stubbornly persisted for some time despite them.
People were hospitalized repeatedly.
“I went to my host country knowing I had Crohn’s disease, but my condition was stable. Throughout my 2 ½ years there, I was hospitalized several times. I underwent emergency surgery in the third-world country and was dying. I returned to my home country for medical help.”
They contracted rare and “exotic” diseases that their home-country friends and family have probably never even heard about.
“Two of our daughters contracted Chagas disease while serving in the jungle.”
“Right after returning to Zambia for my second term, I was diagnosed with bilharzia and experienced severe joint pain and fatigue. Thankfully, I was diagnosed pretty much right away and felt relief!”
More than a few faced near-death situations.
“Had malaria 10 times in 6 years, twice life-threatening.”
“A severe asthma attack in our 8-month old nearly took his life.”
“One of our daughters became anorexic and came close to dying. She spent two months in a hospital in the U.S. Our second daughter was diagnosed with OCD.”
Some “battled constant sickness” and “wondered if I would ever get better.” One participant shared of their family, “it seemed someone was always sick for three years.”
“We were continually sick for long periods of time. My wife experienced burn out. My youngest son had a constant illness that wasn’t diagnosed until we went to a different country. He lost significant weight. I was diagnosed with cancer upon return to Australia.”
“Multiple cases of malaria, hepatitis, dengue fever, skin rashes, diarrhea, fungal infections, scabies, intestinal worms etc., plus a work-related accident that tore muscles in my chest (6 months recovery) and a broken ankle (motorcycle accident).”
“I had ongoing stomach issues and anxiety, husband had recurring amoebas, kids both had pneumonia and one had amoebas four times in a year, husband and I both had dengue fever.”
Some health issues lasted for very long periods of time, affecting family and ministry life, and missionaries had to evaluate whether to stay or go “home.”
“I contracted hepatitis A while I was overseas … that took about a year to recover.”
“I had an illness that lasted 3 years that slowed my ministry down to almost nothing. Then I was healed and began ministry again.”
“My husband was diagnosed with cancer after we left the field that should have been diagnosed on the field. We both felt exhausted even after a six-month sabbatical (which really wasn’t a rest as we used the time to do fundraising). We tried to practice good self-care. My husband’s cancer caused fatigue which we blamed on stress and living conditions instead of looking for a medical answer. My husband died two years after we left the field, at age 63, as a result of his cancer.”
Many had to return for access to the kind of medical care that they needed, while others were able to receive care in their host country.
“Baby born in country, had cancer at 8 months, home for chemo, return to country, war broke out, home again, stayed home because of side effects of chemo and learning needs.”
“Was hypoglycemic due to diet, stress, and the way I responded to both by overproducing insulin leading to pancreatic and adrenal disorder. A fellow missionary doc told me to return home or I’d die in 12-18 months after viewing my test results. He prayed that maybe someone in the U.S. could find out what caused me to lose 50 pounds in 5 weeks. Returned to U.S. and 5 months later had a triple bypass.”
“Miscarriage and my first ever hospitalization, our toddler son had croup and had to be hospitalized, I had hepatitis A, we all had various parasites, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Our family returned to the U.S. for 8 months, then returned to the field for one more year before we left for good.”
Some health issues cleared up once missionaries were in the home country, but others suffered lifelong health effects.
“Malaria a few times was pretty easy, but 18 months of a staph infection, complete with boils covering my torso, became a problem. The 14 rounds of antibiotics started a chain of digestive issues that are still a problem 15 years later.”
Some withstood a barrage of health crises, or a sudden decline, in a very short period of time.
“In one three-month span, had appendicitis, measles, chikungunya, and shingles.”
“I lost 18% of my body weight in one month due to gastrointestinal issues.”
“Serious motorcycle accident with knee damage, a dog attack requiring facial reconstruction, a severe concussion, a broken arm requiring surgery… and much more, and we were only there for 18 months!”
“Upon arrival to Togo, I quickly began to experience debilitating migraines that lasted up to a week. This occurred at least once per month.”
The children of missionaries are not exempt from physical and emotional suffering. Parents find it particularly difficult to watch their children’s health suffer, especially if they feel that it may be related to their own lifestyle choices.
“The children had malaria repeatedly.”
“My child almost died from a sudden illness, and the top doctors/hospitals in the country indicated they could do nothing for us. My daughter was allergic to all the antibiotics they had. They said they had no more available. Doctors told us that ‘if’ she survived, it could happen again, and this country simply could not help her.”
“Both of our teens had depression.”
“One child suffered from severe anxiety together with failure to thrive, another suffered from chronic stomach aches/reflux but no underlying medical cause was found despite extensive testing.”
In many of these stories, any one of the issues would have been the cause of great suffering. Chronic pain, respiratory problems, or gastric issues are difficult enough to deal with on their own. But when other issues get layered on, such as parasites, infection, surgery, or mental health issues, it can become very hard to function. When more than one person in the family is sick, the effect is multiplied and one can feel that all time is spent trying to get people healthy again.
Having a health emergency is frightening enough in one’s home country. Being in a place where you are not sure you can even get the medical care that you or your children need can cause an entirely different level of anxiety and uncertainty. One participant shared, “Frankly, any health issue seemed to be serious in an overseas context.” This is a sense of vulnerability that people in the home country cannot often understand.
It is truly impressive how much missionaries are willing to endure for the privilege of participating in the Great Commission. Sending agencies, churches, and friends back home should be aware of what missionaries may go through physically in order to provide the necessary emotional and practical support when health problems strike.
LACK OF SUPPORT AS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR
Even when faced with severe physical or emotional challenges, some said that they still would have stayed were it not for other barriers that came into play. For some, it was a lack of team support during health trials. One woman shared that team members expressed relief after her miscarriage, because they had not wanted the burden of having to help with an unplanned pregnancy and a new baby. Another had a young child nearly die because of her inability to absorb antimalarials and was subjected to “criticism and hurtful comments” by their home community that:
“we must have been in ‘sin’ or God wouldn’t have allowed our daughter to get so critically ill with malaria. Some criticized us and said that we should have used medicine rather than relying on our faith, as they had never heard of a child not responding to antimalarials or malarial treatments. A few said if we had been called to the mission field, we should have stayed even if our daughter had died out there.”
Some felt they could have stayed with minimal support from their team. Far from home and without a community who would draw around them during difficult times, these missionaries ended up heading back to the home country where a stronger support network awaited them.
“The leaders of the mission were unwilling to help me secure the medicine I needed to stay. Instead, they opted to send me home when all I really needed was an inhaled steroid.”
Some commenters even felt that their physical symptoms were the result of stress related to team dynamics.
“My husband started experiencing serious headaches and had to leave for further evaluation. From what we know now, those headaches were due to the immense stress of living on such an unhealthy team.”
This was not the only person to comment on how team conflict created a stressful environment that affected their health. It’s a good example of crossover between factor categories, in this case between team factors and health factors. No factor operates in isolation from the others in a missionary’s life. They constantly interact to form a complex web of cause-and-effect relationships.
What can we learn from this data to help us better serve our missionaries? How can missionaries best protect themselves from health dangers on the mission field?
Physical health is important to all people everywhere. It enables us to have the energy and ability to follow our dreams and calling. When the body is working well, we don’t think about it. When it malfunctions, restoring it can quickly become the focus of our concern. Poor health can hobble our ministry as quickly as team conflict, family emergencies, or a loss of funding.
We must not idolize physical health, for we know that our bodies are subject to decay and that God works through suffering as much as (or more than!) He does through health. But neither must we ignore it, naïvely missing its importance to our ability to serve. With this model of being good stewards of our missionaries’ health, but also recognizing that we are not in full control of it, we can do the following things.
And when sickness does come, we can remember that this too is forming us into Christ’s image. God still loves and cares for us even when He allows us to pass through difficult times, and these same trials can be used to glorify Him.
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. 1 Peter 4:1-2
As we review cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:
For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.
Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. There were commonalities on aspects such as a living in a developing country, interacting with the poor, looking different and standing out, and coping with a life of less comfort and ease than that to which they were accustomed. However, there were great differences when it came to local religion, social mores, cultural practices, customs, and languages, for example. Taking into account the diversity of individuals and the cultures in which they serve, there are endless ways for the missionary to interact with culture and react to it.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.
This would seem to indicate that while cultural struggles are common for missionaries, they are expected, and therefore don’t tend to be among the primary factors that drive people back to their passport country. Hopefully no one goes to the mission field expecting things to be the same as their culture back home. That things will be different, and sometimes hard, is one of the more obvious things about missions.
This category is also probably the focus of most preparation and training done by the mission agency. The missionary has probably received some level of orientation about the culture they will be serving in, its practices, its customs, and training in the language as necessary. While they may not have been prepared for struggles in other areas (such as family, health, missionary care, or team conflict), this one does not sneak up on them. It is a feature of the human psyche that when we are prepared for something to be difficult, it is much easier to handle the difficulty. We know “what we signed up for” and are prepared to deal with it.
We could divide issues in this category into several subgroups.
Issues that are only experienced by a subset of missionaries due to the more volatile areas in which they serve.
Natural disasters, risk of persecution, political instability, armed conflict, economic instability, and government restriction of missionary activities only occur in certain portions of the globe, and therefore affect a smaller group of missionaries. Those affected by even these serious issues, however, did not cite them as the most important or heavily weighted factors in their return decisions, despite their gravity.
More common issues that are still outside of the missionary’s locus of control.
Some degree of stress arising out of a move to another country is inevitable and attributable to factors beyond the missionary’s control. Most missionaries experience a change of climate or the hassles of an immigration system they must navigate. Limited access to products or services that seemed basic in the home country can affect one’s daily quality of life. Having security issues and feeling taken advantage of economically are guaranteed where the missionary is seen as affluent.
Two of the issues in this group were the highest among the cultural factor strength indexes: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues (0.78) and (2) having security issues (0.87). While high relative to other cultural factors, these are still not high strength indexes relative to the rest of the survey. Of the two, security issues affected far more people than immigration issues (70% versus 28%), and was more likely to affect the return decision (53% versus 39%). While not one of the higher findings in the survey, safety and security are certainly not trifling issues for the missionary, as they are the most likely among cultural factors to cause attrition.
Issues very common to the missionary experience that are at least partially in the missionary’s locus of control.
While there are not many things the missionary can do about issues in the first two subgroups, this category contains issues where the missionary can exert at least some control. As a result, it would be a place to look for cultural factors that cause preventable attrition.
Missing the home culture can be exacerbated or diminished by the missionary’s response and coping mechanisms. The degree to which one struggles with the local language, culture, and relationships is at least partially related to the degree of effort expended in learning, understanding, and relating to the new surroundings. Conflict with locals takes place, at least in part, because of the missionary’s missteps in navigating cultural behaviors and communication.
Interestingly, these tended to be the cultural issues affecting the most missionaries, with the first four factors experienced by 66-78% of participants. Effects on the return decision were in the 43-51% range, with strength factors of 0.55 to 0.68. While not significant enough to rival key findings affecting attrition elsewhere in the survey, these factors affect a very large proportion of missionaries. The biggest cultural friction comes at the place of personal interaction with another culture. Fortunately, these are also factors that we can mitigate through our pre-field preparation and on-field adaptation.
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language. The following table summarizes the responses:
In the first column of percentages, we see that most participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. There is really no meaningful differentiation between the groups, except that those who did not need to study at all struggled less (57.6%) than the others (70.6-85.7%). This is likely due to the fact that English-speaking missionaries going to English-speaking countries are included in this group, so we would expect little language difficulty for them outside of colloquial usage differences.
In the second column, we see a mild effect begin to emerge. Those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. There is an exception in the 1-2 years category that defies this trend, but it otherwise holds.
In the third column, we see a clearer picture emerge. Those ranking their language struggles as having a moderate to strong influence on their return decision show more differentiation between groups. About 17% of those studying less than 3 months or not at all said that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision, whereas only about 3-12% of those studying more than 3 months did so. It appears that there is a link between length of language study, and likelihood of ranking language struggles as having a moderate to strong effect on the return decision.
What can we make of the 1-2 year category, which shows a higher rate than the surrounding groups of both experiencing language struggles and feeling that those difficulties affected their return decision? One possible explanation is the language being studied. It seems likely that a more difficult language to learn (Chinese versus Spanish, for example) would require longer study. And that even with longer study, the more difficult language is likely to continue to give the speaker more trouble. That would put a group of people in the 1-2 year category that are simply more likely to have language struggles because of the difficulty of the language (new alphabets, tones, or grammatical structures, for example), no matter how long they study. However, the weighting of the factor on their return decision is similar to the 9-12 month group.
It is likely that the 2+ years category does not show a similar profile because it became a catch-all category. As the longest language study grouping, it likely includes people who studied in college or part-time for many years rather than full-time for a shorter period. It also would contain people who studied full-time for a shorter period of time and then transitioned to tutoring or other methods of language learning for some time after that. Because we did not define what “formal study” was, this was open to interpretation by the participants. Some may have chosen this category simply to say “I studied for a very long time” or blurred the lines between what some would call “formal instruction” and “informal continued education.” After all, we never really stop learning a non-native language, and some may have had this in mind when answering the question.
We also wanted to check for a correlation between length of language study and length of tenure. The following table summarizes the responses:
Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. This may reflect the practice that those with shorter terms tend to spend less than 6 months studying, while those with longer terms are permitted by their agencies to invest more time and money in language study.
Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure. Interestingly, beyond 3 months of formal study, there does not appear to be a discernible correlation between studying longer and staying on the field longer. This observation, of course, is limited only to the issue of longevity, and says nothing about one’s effectiveness on the mission field during their time there. Presumably, those who study the language for longer periods of time may still reap a harvest in terms of how effective they are able to be, no matter the length of their stay.
Surprisingly, those who did not need to study a language had the shortest tenure (6 years). Several factors could contribute to this effect:
Qualitative Data on Culture Struggles
In addition to the quantitative scaled data, we collected open comments on the following question:
Predictably, we got a lot of good feedback on this issue, as all missionaries experience it to some degree. The most entertaining comment summed it up well: “Lol. Every. Single. Part.” Another humble commenter said, “It was so different that I’m not sure I ever really understood what was going on.” Certainly, when living in another culture, there is no shortage of things to befuddle us! Six issues immediately came to the forefront in terms of the large numbers of people commenting on them. In order of prevalence, they are:
HONOR/SHAME CULTURE & INDIRECT COMMUNICATION
Whether participants phrased it this way or not, the most commonly mentioned issue of cultural adjustment was the challenge of living in an honor/shame culture and the impact that this has on communication. A representative commenter said, “The half-truths and outright lies that people told in order to save face bothered me a lot until I got a little more accustomed to it. I never fully embraced it but came to expect it.”
Participants often felt that locals were too indirect in their communication, not wanting to just come out and say what they meant. This resulted in difficulty resolving conflict, as direct confrontation was not culturally acceptable and it appeared that locals were avoiding conflict in ways that Westerners deem unhealthy. An uncomfortable ambiguity created confusion, with the missionary never knowing whether to take a person at their word or look for hidden meanings beneath the surface. Missionaries sometimes found themselves lost, guessing what was really happening in a situation, and unable to interpret subtle cues that probably would have been obvious to a local. When ambiguity was extreme, missionaries felt that they were manipulated because the motives of others were not clear, or that they could not trust the locals because they had hidden agendas.
People frequently felt that they were just being told what they wanted to hear, instead of the truth. The more charitable comments attributed these struggles to “differences in how we viewed integrity” or “different concepts of honesty.” Unfortunately, this difference often resulted in a negative value judgment about those in the local culture: that they were dishonest or lacking in commitment to do what they say. Many people framed situations as “being lied to” when those in the local culture were probably trying to save face (or help the missionary to save face).
The next most common issue of discomfort culturally was the result of living near or with the poor. Missionaries are often keenly aware of the standard-of-living differences between themselves and the locals. One sensitive commenter said:
“We lived in a very resource poor area. It was always hard to know how to help. We wanted to be generous and help where we could, but there was so much more need than we could help with. Even though we lived very simply, we still had much compared to people in our village, and it was always hard to figure out how to balance that.”
Poverty is at the root of many difficult interactions in missionary life:
The issue of income disparity is extremely tricky to balance. It is true that most missionaries are far more wealthy than those they have come to serve. One commenter shared, “We felt rich for having a sink.” It is also true that not all citizens of Western countries, foreigners, or white people have access to unlimited reservoirs of wealth to throw around. We must be careful to walk the line of acknowledging both our privilege and our limitations.
Missionaries have the difficult job of figuring out the most strategic ways to be helpful, without creating unsustainable paternalistic dependencies that rob people of their dignity. They do need to recognize income disparity and be generous to those they came to serve, for generosity to the poor is a sign of our allegiance to God. They also need to steward their finite resources well, for faithfulness with little shows that they can be entrusted with much.
The third most common cultural issue that caused stress for missionaries was the way women (and often children) were treated. All missionaries in the survey came from countries in which women enjoy certain freedoms and have more equal status with men. At home, women are free to walk the streets unaccompanied, wear the clothing they like, vote, own property, make their own decision about marriage, and get an education. It can produce culture shock and moral outrage in men and women alike to see women devalued, oppressed, abused, sold, exploited, and mutilated in more patriarchal cultures.
Even when the environment is not openly hostile toward women, more subtle customs can still communicate male dominance. “Machismo,” tolerance of male infidelity, narrow roles for women, prescribed forms of dress, restricted ability to speak, and limited participation in the labor market, church culture, or educational arena communicate a consistent message of inferiority to women. They are not human beings with agency and value, but belongings or servants for men.
Female missionaries may receive unwanted attention based on their gender. They reported feeling vulnerable alone outside the house; being sexually objectified; getting cat calls on the street; receiving lewd looks or comments, marriage proposals, and harassment on the street and at work; being groped and degraded; and suffering violent physical attacks. For some missionary women, public spaces in foreign cultures are a hostile environment. One participant shared her reticence with “local men who treated women, white women especially, as something to gawk at, comment on, and make openly sexual remarks aloud.” One woman reported, “It was a scary thought knowing I was a sexual commodity.” Another said, “It makes me question my ability to effectively serve as a single woman, if everyone is just seeing me as a potential foreign wife.”
About the same number of people commented on corruption/crime as those that noted poor treatment of women. Many people find that the ethics of their home culture do not translate in their new setting. Missionaries often experience conflict between their personal, cultural, and religious ethics and this strange new system.
Bribery of government officials may be the norm. Ample project budgets disappear into the pockets of leaders and politicians and the projects never get done. Falsifying documents or revenues to save money on taxes can be considered “smart business.” Some cultures do not even define these realities as “corruption,” but simply the way the world works. Sometimes only money can get the slow wheels of bureaucracy turning in the developing world.
Should missionaries remain committed to the ethics of their own culture or adjust to the ethics of their new setting? Evaluation of right and wrong is a deep worldview issue and is not easily modified. Our main question should not be “Is this considered good and right back home?” but “Does the Bible say something about this?” This question must be worked through on a case-by-case basis. Surely sometimes there is a biblical principle that should not be violated, but other times we may feel free to adopt a “when in Rome” approach to the local culture. When we evaluate using scripture instead of our own worldview as the benchmark, missionaries can keep their consciences at peace regardless of whether local practices align with their own.
In addition to institutionalized corruption, personal safety was a concern for many missionaries. The combination of being visibly different, relatively affluent, and in proximity to the poor increases their vulnerability to crime (particularly thefts). One commenter shared that “we had a house helper who stole $1000 and ran away.” Another expressed fatigue with “always having situational awareness and being on high alert 24/7, and having to think about where my passport/phone/money were.”
Worry about personal security can be a constant stress for people from a more prosperous passport country. One person said, “Our safety was always in question.” Constant vigilance can be psychologically taxing. We did not formerly have to worry about our belongings and safety this much. We left open green spaces between houses and arrived in a land of walled-in compounds, gates, and barbed wire. We used to leave bikes outside unattended in the driveway and car doors unlocked. Now we don’t wear jewelry and hide money in several different places on our person in case we get robbed. These are big adjustments and can be a shock to the system.
Living in constant suspicion of others can also be spiritually taxing. We try to balance loving people in the host country with protecting ourselves from them. It’s easy to let our guard down for a moment and find ourselves the victim of a crime.
DEMANDS OF HOSPITALITY/LESS PRIVACY
The fifth-most-reported cultural struggle was different expectations of hospitality and privacy. Many host cultures do not schedule social engagements ahead of time, but instead just pop in to visit. One participant said this “was a sign of deep friendship, but it stressed me out.” Even while understanding the reason for a local behavior (and maybe even being flattered by it), we can also be stressed by it.
Drop-in culture creates a lot of spontaneous entertaining. This can feel to more time-structured Westerners like being interrupted while trying to get other things done. It adds stress to always have the house ready for visitors and have food/drink on hand to serve.
Introverts particularly struggled with less privacy, time alone, and personal space. One participant reported “always having to say yes to hanging out with people.” Another said, “People were always around.” Another lamented, “There were no introverts there. I kid, but it seemed that way. A lot of the time, if I tried to invite someone out to get to know them, or just to spend time with them, they’d invite other people without letting me know, and most of the time people spend with each other is in groups.” This was likely a way to not shame this missionary by turning down the invitation, but also not violate a cultural norm of socializing in groups. Group-oriented cultures can be taxing for those who prefer one-on-one time.
Many missionaries also lived in closer quarters with others than they would in their home culture. Because missionaries are the outsiders who are different, they may feel as though they are under a microscope, being constantly watched and commented upon. One person noted “little discretion by locals on handling personal/private information. One person’s business is everybody’s business.” Another shared that “the local culture demanded a lot of interaction and socializing with strangers, and I struggled to balance my comfort with impromptu interactions and my spouse and children’s need to escape these interactions.”
LESS FOCUS ON ORDER/EFFICIENCY
The last of the most common culture struggles was a lack of order/efficiency. One person called it a “culture of chaos.” Many reported it as bureaucracy. Others called it a “lack of planning ahead” or disorganization. Another simply said, “unpredictability, constant changes.”
In the developed world, getting things done well and quickly are valued highly (at times too highly, as people and relationships are sacrificed in order to get tasks done or make money faster). Developing-country cultures are more likely to be relationship-focused, more concerned about how people interact with one another than with how fast things get done. They are also more likely to be event-focused rather than time-focused, not worried about the amount of time that it takes to complete an event as long as the purpose is accomplished eventually.
Poor infrastructure may create cumbersome processes and slow down important services like transportation and communication. Excessively long lines (into which people may routinely cut), forms, “red tape,” and endless immigration hoops can be maddening to those with an expectation of efficiency imported from their home culture. Appointments unkept or plans that fail due to a lack of preparation can frustrate those with a “get it done” attitude.
OTHER COMMONLY-REPORTED STRUGGLES
Other themes that did not make it into the top six, but were also frequently mentioned are:
Unfortunately, fatalism was often negatively judged as “laziness,” “victim mentality,” “passivity,” or “lack of initiative.” These terms reveal a worldview bias toward the “Puritan work ethic.” The assumption is that fatalism is a character flaw because it does not reflect the optimism and autonomy values held so dear in Western individualist nations.
And finally, a few themes were mentioned less frequently, but still repeatedly:
One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own culture permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things. We often see other cultural practices as “bad” or “wrong” and couch them in negative language, even when trained to be culturally sensitive to the customs of our host country. We can easily find ourselves critical of behaviors that are not even biblical “sin,” but just different from our own unconsciously held worldview about how people “should” behave. We must have clear eyes to see our own culture as broken too, and not view it as the measuring stick for others.
Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us). It is our responsibility to choose better ways of responding to cultural difference. Our ways are usually as offensive to them as theirs are to us (or more so), and we would do well to remember that with humility. Each culture has its own patterns of sin, and it’s much easier to see it in someone else’s culture than in our own.
Qualitative Data on Local Relationships
We also collected comments on the following question:
Some of the issues already mentioned in culture struggles were reiterated here as they relate to relationships. Income disparity made it hard to have a genuine relationship that did not have economic strings attached or cause jealousy with others who also wanted the perceived economic benefits of a relationship with the missionary. Honor/shame culture made it difficult to know when to believe what people said, making it difficult to establish trust. It was easy to get into trouble by being too direct, resulting in offense to a local. However, we will focus here on new primary factors that emerged as significant in the area of relationships.
More than a few survey participants noted that they did not really form local relationships for various reasons. They were “too busy with their work,” too insulated from local culture by other missionaries or ex-pats, or too linguistically limited. Others felt shut down or rejected by locals when they reached out to form relationships. One participant said about local relationships, “We didn’t have any. We were encouraged to make friends with locals, but felt like we were on an island…because the other missionaries there told us to always keep our guard up and not trust them…which pretty much made it impossible for us to establish relationships.”
This is unfortunate, as relationships can be some of the most enriching experiences in crossing cultures, and can last a lifetime, even after the missionary has returned to their passport country. They can also be some of the most frustrating experiences and humbling experiences in crossing cultures. But both positive and negative relational experiences teach us to grow in personal character. Missionaries will almost always benefit from making time for and pursuing local relationships in their country of service. And fortunately, the vast majority are trying to do so despite the cultural barriers to mutual understanding.
The most commonly cited difficulty in local relationships was language. Misunderstandings that affect relationships can occur when we produce the wrong word or phrase for the moment. It can also be difficult to have relationships that go beyond the superficial level without the fluidity, vocabulary, and grammar required for discussing emotions or heart issues. One participant commented, “I felt very one-dimensional as I was not able to express the depth of my personality in the local language (facts, but not feelings).” Asking for tomatoes at the vegetable market is not nearly as difficult as sharing a traumatic experience from your childhood, a heartbreak from a failed relationship, or the story of how you came to know Christ.
It is easy to have acquaintances in another culture. It is harder to develop deep friendships with people who are extremely different from you. Vast differences in upbringing, education, life experiences, religion, income, standard of living, customs, and expectations can cause missionaries to ask themselves, “Where is the common ground? What do I have to talk to this person about and build a relationship on?” One participant wrote, “As a single educated woman in an area where women worked in the fields and raised children, I found it hard to connect because I had no common experiences with them. But I didn’t fit in with the men, either. I did not establish close relationships at all and was very lonely.”
Being seen as a patron also tends to keep relationships at a transactional level. One participant shared, “I made few close friends where I felt I could be myself in our relationship. There often seemed to be strings attached or relationships that demanded strong boundaries on my part as the person was seeking a patron relationship, not a level friendship.”
There can be many barriers to the establishment of mutual trust with locals. The challenge of not knowing if people mean what they say makes it difficult to establish trust, a necessary ingredient for deep friendships. Mistrust of foreigners on the part of the locals (or previous unpleasant experiences with “outsiders”) may also make it difficult for them to trust the missionary. Some cultures are simply very guarded, group-oriented or family-oriented, making it hard to spend the one-on-one time necessary to develop deep trust and friendship.
Given the obstacles to be overcome, taking relationships to a deep level takes a lot of time, if it can be done at all. One participant shared, “Once they were established, the relationships were amazing. It just took a long time; some took 5-6 years to get close. That led to some lonely times.” If a missionary is only on the field for a few years, closeness in relationships may never be achieved.
Female missionaries who are stay-at-home moms find that with their other responsibilities (kids, housework, homeschooling, cooking, errands, etc.), they have insufficient time to develop deep friendships with local women, who also have their own household tasks that keep them busy. One woman felt limited because of gender-related cultural practices in how time was spent and what was discussed: “No depth of conversation. Women talked about rice, kids, chickens.” While men were more interesting conversational partners for this missionary, “It wasn’t really acceptable to have many conversations with men without my hubby around.”
Sometimes local expectations of friendship differ from the missionary’s. One commenter shared, “I struggled with the cultural expectation that good friends are pushy. To be a good friend, you are supposed to make sure your friend conforms. So you criticize her clothing…daily. You tell her what to do and when to do it. The culture is what we would define as ‘nosy’ or ‘pushy.’” Or as one person succinctly put it, “Expectations: I did not meet theirs, they did not meet mine.”
Unspoken expectations can make or break relationships. Cultures can vary greatly in who pursues who, how time is spent together, when you should be available to your friend, where you spend time together, what you talk about, who pays for what, which belongings might be borrowed or loaned, and the degree of personal boundaries. Missteps in any of these areas can push people away instead of bringing them closer.
Sometimes local expectations of certain groups of people (women, young people, or singles, for example) are different enough that the missionary doesn’t fit into a recognized social group. A female leader has trouble forming friendships with local women in subservient roles. A single 30-year-old woman has trouble forming friendships with locals her age because most of them are married with kids. A teacher has trouble forming friendships with adult students in a host culture where there is a respectful distance between teacher and student. When expectations don’t align, needs are not mutually met, and the relationship becomes unsatisfying for at least one of the parties.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN TRUE FRIENDSHIPS AND MINISTRY
It can be hard for a missionary in relational ministry to distinguish between true friendships and ministry. One man commented, “Always feeling like I’m investing and not really just kickin’ it with the boys.” When it is one’s job to build friendship so that the gospel can be shared, it is easy to lose track of whether one is “working” or “socializing.” The two become blended. The missionary feels “always on” because each person they encounter is a potential convert.
This dynamic can confuse not only the missionary, but also the locals. One commenter mentioned that local friends may have been wondering, “Are you really my friend, or am I just part of your job?” When friendships are only ministry-motivated, they feel like work time instead of life-giving social time. If missionaries slip into a “rescuer” syndrome, they are tempted to treat people like projects. This leaves the missionary feeling lonely and tired, unable to feel cared for because they must always be the one giving care.
With all of the obstacles to deep local friendships, it is not surprising that the mission field can be an achingly lonely place sometimes. It is quite possible to be surrounded with people, speak the local language well, and have a vibrant ministry, and yet still feel that one has no close “friends.”
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.
Many host country challenges are unpreventable, such as geography, climate, infrastructure, political and economic conditions, and accessibility to certain goods and services. However, there are several to-some-degree preventable challenges that are experienced by large numbers of missionaries. These would include their engagement and attitudes toward language, culture, relationships, conflict, and homesickness.
Missionaries will be healthier and more successful when prepared in advance to face the challenges that they can mitigate. Learning the language well can help with a number of the other factors, such as culture, relationships, and conflict. Learning as much as possible in advance about the local culture, especially the unspoken rules, can help the missionary avoid a lot of pitfalls.
Typically we prioritize theological and language training as the most central requirements for most missions work. It appears from the qualitative responses in this section of the survey that many missionaries lack significant anthropological or cross-cultural training that would help them to understand, adjust to, and work in their new context. Are many of us missing a critical component that would enable us to thrive more and contextualize the Gospel better?
Every culture is different, so there is obviously no one-size-fits-all cultural training for all missionaries. But this survey suggests that some key areas would be profitable to address with most:
Even when we have cross-cultural training, ethnocentrism is buried deep in our worldview and difficult to root out. Even when prepared for cultural differences, the actual experience of them is stressful. But when missionaries are unprepared for them, they can be downright overwhelming. An overwhelmed and anxious person is more likely to judge others negatively and blame the locals for doing things “wrong.” Such a stance can paralyze the learning process. In contrast, when properly equipped, missionaries will be ready to navigate the complexities of culture shock and continue to learn humbly.
The following resources can assist missionaries in preparing for cultural differences, and agencies in developing cross-cultural training:
Cross-Cultural Servanthood, by Duane Elmer
Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry, by Duane Elmer
Anthropology for Christian Witness, by Charles Kraft
Worldview for Christian Witness, by Charles Kraft
Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures, by Sarah Lanier
Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien
Biblical Multicultural Teams, by Sheryl Takagi Silzer
The Art of Crossing Cultures, by Craig Storti
Perhaps the most important skill to learn in crossing cultures is reframing differences in neutral language. Interpreting others’ actions according to our own cultural values leads us to use judgment-laden language to describe the local culture (people are dishonest, late, lazy, or rude, for example). Instead, we should seek to understand not what people are doing in the lens of our own culture, but why they are doing it in the lens of theirs. It turns out we don’t just need a new set of eyeglasses to see through. We need completely new eyeballs.
Learning to reframe instead of react is very difficult. Our worldview is so deeply ingrained in us that we use it automatically as our yardstick of what is right and wrong. Different gets labeled by default as bad. Our sinful nature selfishly insists, “my way is the best way, so if they don’t do it my way, they are wrong.” We are tempted to assign a moral value even to neutral behaviors, or to use the Bible to try to justify our way as the right one.
In contrast, when we reframe charitably, we look for the positive aspects of difference, and we use the Bible, not our own culture, as the measuring stick:
If we can develop and cultivate the cognitive habit of reframing, we free ourselves up to learn instead of judge. We start to obtain real cultural insight. We learn to appreciate others and fit in better ourselves. We put the onus on ourselves to understand and accommodate. After all, missionaries are guests in the local culture and have no right to impose their own cultural values on others who are already doing things “right” according to their own worldview. Locals, in turn, sense this humble posture, and become more receptive to us and our message.
Once missionaries have prepared for cultural changes by learning to reframe situations and avoid ethnocentrism, they are ready to truly adjust to their new setting. There are many adaptive skills and behaviors that can serve Westerners well, depending on their host country.
To adjust to an honor/shame culture, one may have to:
To navigate the labyrinth of indirect communication, it can be helpful to find a “cultural ambassador:” a local friend who commits to answer questions and help to interpret signals in the culture. One participant said, “I had several trusted national friends who served as my cultural interpreters. This helped me to better understand events and circumstances and know how to appropriately respond.” This resource helped the missionary to offend others less frequently and have a more positive experience culturally.
To adjust to income disparity, missionaries will:
To thrive in societies with a great deal of gender disparity, missionaries will have to:
To adapt to settings with rampant corruption and crime, missionaries will:
To adapt to less privacy and closer social contact, missionaries will learn to:
To adapt to the developing world, missionaries must:
To adapt to a setting in which ministry work and social relationships frequently overlap, missionaries can:
Missionaries are a giving bunch, and sometimes have trouble receiving from others. But true friendships have reciprocity. If the missionary is always the giver of care and concern with a local, then there is no mutuality and no true friendship. Reciprocity is essential in some cultures where gifts and favors are meticulously tracked and exchanged to ensure parity in the relationship. Even in cultures where the tallying is less formal, a friendship flourishes only when we permit others to reciprocate kindness to us in the ways that they are able. A wise missionary will allow people do so, even where there is great economic disparity. And they will ruthlessly examine any desires that they have to always be the savior or giver in relationships.
All of the adaptations necessary in crossing cultures can be exhausting. So it’s important for missionaries to remember to care for themselves during it all. Stress affects us physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Missionaries must be prepared to practice good habits in all of these areas to avoid burnout. As they give grace to others, they must remember to give some to themselves too.
As missionaries prepare, reframe, adapt, and care for themselves, they can extend grace to others more readily and find more success in local relationships and ministry. They can better cope with situations that make them uncomfortable. And they will better maintain a positive frame of mind about the people they have come to love and serve, making it less tempting to hop a plane back home.
As we review team factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is important to consider who participated in the study.
Of the 739 survey participants, 23% didn’t want to disclose their agency, went independently, or were with different agencies over time and therefore didn’t have one simple answer to the question “Who was your sending agency?” Among the 77% who could answer the question straightforwardly and did have a mission agency, 221 mission or sending agencies were represented in the survey. 151 sending agencies (or 68% of those represented in the study) had only one participant in the study, 59 (or 27%) had 2-9 participants in the study, and only 11 (or 5%) had more than 10 participants in the study. This is a list of those agencies:
No single agency had more than 52 participants in the survey, or 7% of the total sample. This shows that the survey results represent a broad sample of missionaries with a diverse representation of agencies, and that the sampling from any given agency did not disproportionately influence the results. The results do not reflect the culture or practices of any given agency, but rather are an aggregate of all agencies represented.
Past studies have contacted mission agencies for data instead of former missionaries themselves, and understandably have focused on large agencies where they could get large samples of data. But it could be that large agencies have different cultures, procedures, leadership values, selection processes, etc. that impact the way their teams function and what kind of an experience their missionaries have. The inclusion in this study of many individuals from smaller agencies that would not normally be surveyed will give a broader view of the missionary team experience.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be team- or agency-related factors:
Past studies have indicated that conflict with other missionaries has been a frequent or predominant reason for attrition. We wanted to dig into this issue and try to find some clues about the reasons that conflict occurs. There are many aspects of a team: the character of individual teammates, the overall team dynamics, the type of direction (or lack thereof), institutional and individual views on gender and roles, the type and quantity of care given within the agency and team, and the team leader’s character and leadership style, just to name a few. For this reason, this section of the report will be the longest, as it attempts to deal with numerous and complex issues that seem to greatly affect the missionary experience and retention rates. We will try to begin to identify which aspects of the team experience cause the most attrition.
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
As in the family factors section, we observe that some factors are experienced by significant numbers of missionaries, and impact their return decisions to significant degrees. The largest strength indexes in this category are seen in the areas of team conflict, role confusion, the lack of missionary care, feeling restricted in the pursuit of one’s passion/call, and feeling that other team members lacked integrity.
We also wanted to compare the responses generationally to see if there are team factor differences related to age. Do younger and older missionaries have a different experience or different values that impact their return decisions? To check for this, we selected the subset of survey respondents who were under 30 when they went to the mission field, on the field less than 10 years, and left the field less than 10 years ago. This subset accounted for 190 of the surveyed individuals.
When the subset of younger missionaries is compared with the overall sample on team factors, several subtle differences can be seen. Younger missionaries were:
Qualitative Data on Conflict
In addition to the quantitative scaled information, we collected open comments on the following question:
Many stories and examples were shared, with 43% of the total survey participants choosing to share comments in this field. Several themes were common, touching on issues of sin and dysfunction, leadership, communication, boundaries, and resources.
SIN AND DYSFUNCTION
Despite the missionary pedestal they are still placed on in many Christian circles, missionaries are not perfect people or “super-Christians.” They still have sin natures, personality issues, selfishness, pride, and emotional baggage that can cause a host of conflicts. And they take all of these things to the mission field with them. Broken people will have conflict, whether they are on the mission field, in church, on the street, or in a soccer stadium. This is probably a primary reason for team conflict on the mission field.
The following factors were all cited in comments relating to everyday personal brokenness that caused conflict on teams:
Enhancing the potential for these factors to cause interpersonal problems is the intensity and all-consuming nature of the work in which many missionary teams are engaged. One participant put it this way:
“The environment was a pressure cooker and we had no time outside of it beforehand to get to know each other as people and become a team before jumping into intense work together.”
Another commenter (from the U.S.) added that missionaries are often given tools for task execution, but not tools for soul-nurture. This leaves our souls tired, broken, and unable to sustain the demands of missionary life and getting along with others:
“We don't have language for or a culture of nurturing people's souls. We have tools for sharing the gospel, tools for leading Bible studies, but very few tools to address the real brokenness and faults that people have. We are Americans, we are success-driven, and matters of the soul tend to slow that ‘success.’ No one has time or space to dig into each other’s lives. The consequence is that people serve and give, but over time, simply cannot sustain it.”
Another thoughtful commenter said:
“I honestly think the conflict was due to a huge lack of self-awareness and emotional health. I used to think that knowing the Bible and knowing Jesus was enough, but now I realize that cross-cultural workers actually have to do their own inner work, including work connected to their family of origin and their own weaknesses, not just confessing sin but actually becoming aware of themselves.”
As in any other profession, the most delightful people to work with will be those who know their strengths and weaknesses, love others well, are humble and self-aware, and have skills such as the ability to compromise, accept responsibility, and adapt. The peace-making process of confessing, forgiving, and restoring relationships are also essential elements of successful relationships, and are often difficult for sinful people to do well or completely.
The second most common cause of conflict cited by participants was leadership. Sometimes leaders were not leading well or at all; other times they were perceived as too controlling and stifling, “micromanaging” the people on their team. And still other times, the issues of the leader’s personal sin or dysfunction affected the whole team, as ministry leaders are not perfect people either.
Admittedly, leading is a difficult job. It is a delicate balance to strike between empowering and providing accountability. Team members have differing opinions on what makes a good leader and how much control and authority they want the leader to have. We probably generally tend to prefer that our leaders have good control and authority over others, but less over ourselves, as our self-serving bias whispers to us that we don’t need the same kind of supervision that others do because we are inherently more trustworthy and responsible. Such a bias probably makes it very difficult to lead a group of people who all feel that everyone else needs more direction and accountability than themselves.
Passivity or authoritarianism may take place when people who are not equipped to lead are placed in a leadership role out of necessity. This can happen on the mission field when the candidate pool for leadership is limited by the number of people willing to make the sacrifices required of the missionary life. Then it is narrowed again by the subset of those that have leadership gifts and abilities on the mission field. And then it is narrowed further to the even smaller subset of those who are willing to set aside at least some of their “personal ministry call” (what probably took them to the mission field in the first place) to allow time to lead and shepherd others well. The end result is that with missionary attrition as high as it is, frequent turnover can mean that people who stay a while find themselves “in charge,” whether or not that is their gifting or desire:
“The leader was chosen because he had been there the longest and not because he earned the role or was gifted for it. He was a poor leader and we told our agency this and nothing was done.”
We can hear in this comment not only frustration with leadership, but a compounded frustration that voiced concerns were unheard or marginalized, as no response was made.
People in leadership who are unqualified to lead are not only frustrating to their team members, but also unfulfilled and frustrated themselves. No one wins when people are asked to serve outside of their gifting, as the following comments illustrate:
“He was functioning as the President solely because there was no one else with the required education (a doctorate) to take on the role. Everyone was miserable--including the President.”
“We had to stay in leadership roles, which we didn't feel was our gifting, because there were no other leaders (they left and weren't replaced and others wouldn't step into it).”
Some respondents were asked by leadership to hide things about what was really going on within the ministry:
“Our concerns were marginalized. The missions organization did nothing about the issues and actually told us to be quiet and not tell anyone what was happening...”
“We were thrown into the leadership role with little training and then asked to lie to groups about what was happening.”
Understandably, mission leadership does not want the name of Christ to be maligned by scandals or poor management becoming public knowledge. But we cannot sacrifice our integrity as Christians to cover up wrongdoing, or our sin is compounded. As recent sex abuse scandals have shown, sin must be condemned (and victims protected), or even more damage is done to our witness (and the victims). Confession, heartfelt lamentation, and sincere corrective action should be our response when things have gone awry.
Another challenge for missionary leaders is that they are so busy, often being ask to lead in addition to their own personal ministry projects. They may be asked to travel frequently to headquarters or elsewhere as part of their leadership responsibilities, reducing time on the ground with their own team and family.
“The leader was often absent, and there was no person clearly deputized for those times.”
Absence or distraction make leaders less available to address concerns, navigate normal conflict, and care for their team to keep things moving in the right direction. And when normal conflict goes unresolved and unattended over time, resentment festers, making it even more difficult to get along and even more likely that further conflict will occur.
The issue of attrition can cause frequent changes in team leadership (one person noted that they had four team leaders in four years). This kind of regular upheaval makes it difficult to achieve recalibration of the team before things destabilize again. Constantly shifting leadership, team roles and relationships is an effective recipe for conflict.
And finally, some leaders were overcome by fear and responded poorly or sinfully to their team members in the face of challenges. This comment tells a story of leaders who were no longer able to lead in a healthy way and should probably have considered stepping down or heading home themselves:
“The team leaders began to distrust team members. They questioned motives, and even would lose their tempers at specific team members in team meetings. They would accuse them of undermining and disobeying leader instructions. They would have hours-long private meetings with one particular team member to question her actions and tell her all the things she was doing wrong. They would not allow her to have anyone with her during these meetings. Quite frankly, they appeared to become paranoid about the actions, intentions, and motives of several of the team members.”
If the team has recourse to be heard by upper management about problems like these, the situation can possibly be resolved effectively and without attrition. But if they are met with silence, unconditional support for the leader, or a lack of belief/concern about what is happening, team members may be lost due to ineffective leadership. The consequences for poor leadership are illustrated in this comment about what caused conflict for this unfortunate team:
“The leader. 5 families left the field on account of this one ungodly person.”
Lack of communication or miscommunication were also factors that led to conflict for survey participants. According to comments, lack of communication resulted in:
One person described their team as “not a team, but a group of competing individuals” that all went in their own directions as a result of poor communication and oversight. This can be a temptation for missionaries, many of whom have a “pioneer spirit” of boldly striking out to do new things. Figuring out how to do things on one’s own can be an asset in some missions situations, but it is not often a behavior that helps a team to function well.
According to participants, miscommunication tended to result in:
One former missionary shared:
“We discussed doctrinal issues in a theoretical way prior to leaving for the field. However, things that weren't considered as sin or immoral became roadblocks when in practice. We didn't dig deep enough into some of those issues to know that they would become a problem when we were on the field and past the theorizing stage.”
This highlights the need for frequent and thorough communication both before and during the missionary assignment to manage expectations, keep the team running smoothly, and keep conflict to a minimum.
Lack of clarity or agreement on boundaries can create opportunities for conflict, as they are extremely personal and variable. Sometimes conflict arises about personal boundaries:
“Other team members were from different backgrounds and we had different views on life. They were from rural Ohio and we were from Los Angeles. We agreed on things biblically, but day to day things were a struggle.”
“There was not a culture of sabbath.”
“The most frequent cause of conflict was different attitudes toward engagement with one another.”
“Extroverts were preferred over introverts.”
A lack of good personal boundaries can result in overwork, irritability, or sensitivity in interactions with others. In addition, missions is a career that blurs the line between “work” decisions and typically “personal” decisions, such as ministry call, place of residence, free time/vacation time, educational options for children, travel plans, place of worship, and even whether a wife is permitted to work, as we will see in the section below about women’s roles. Sometimes leaders in missions make decisions for team members that affect their personal boundaries and family rhythms. When individuals feel distressed by personal consequences related to work decisions that they had no control over, frustration and conflict can emerge.
Other times, missionaries encounter ethical/cultural boundaries that cause conflict:
“Dealing with corruption and whether bribes were appropriate. Also, whether we should pay national staff legally (paying high taxes) or under the table to save the taxes and employ more people.”
“Treating people in our host country as ‘less than’.”
“The struggle of ‘Are we letting the Holy Spirit lead us? Or our own culture? What is guiding us in our time spent here? Are we really doing what God wants or what man wants?’”
“Value differences about how to handle high-stakes situations.”
Living and working in another culture can bring novel ethical issues to the forefront. Norms in the host culture may seem aberrant to missionaries with different worldviews or upbringings. There are a variety of sensitive issues on which inflexible opinions may be held:
We can sometimes fail to realize that there are different interpretations on the application of integrity in specific cultural situations. We can get caught up in rigid moralism according to our own culture, not realizing that our own cultural norms may not be backed by the Gospel either. And we can easily misjudge others when we cannot communicate clearly and effectively with them due to language barriers.
And finally, conflict can arise from disagreement on ministry boundaries:
“The most conflict I personally experienced was due to short-term missions and their effect on the local population. For instance, we would have the same individual people be converted every time a team came through. There was not enough accountability and we had inappropriate interaction between young people on the short-term teams and the young people we were helping.”
“Differing ideas about what should be prioritized, specifically administrative policy vs. field work.”
Ministry policy, strategy, and day-to-day decisions can present challenges to team harmony:
A spirit of compromise and humility is needed to maintain harmony on a team where personal opinions on these issues vary. If we remember that our personal convictions are not the only possible way, we will be able to navigate conversations gracefully when differences emerge, and find solutions that everyone can live with instead of alienating one another.
The final common category of conflict cited by participants was the use of resources:
“To sum up causes of conflict: assumptions, money, supplies.”
“Too many goals for too few resources.”
“The resources did not go where they were promised to go.”
“There were financial concerns as to how they handled money.”
There is a finite quantity of funds, donors, and interest in missions. Instead of living in an abundance mentality, we can be overtaken by a scarcity mentality: competing with others, getting possessive of the resources we have, and feeling sure that we are the most deserving and responsible stewards of them. When resources are perceived as scarce, team members may have different opinions about how they should be handled, presenting an obvious opportunity for conflict.
Qualitative Data on Women’s Issues
We also collected comments on the following question:
31% of the women surveyed shared comments in this field. Their stories reflect a range of obstacles for women’s engagement on the mission field.
Women with families and careers everywhere feel the pressure of being the “family and home manager” in addition to anything they would like to do outside the home. The mission field only amplifies this, as location, culture, or level of development in the host country frequently make household tasks and errand-running more time consuming than they were in pre-mission life, leaving even less time available to women for work outside of the home.
“I was given ample opportunities, but I was expected to do them above and beyond having full care of the kids, while the men just did ministry 90% of the time.”
“I was responsible for making the family and team run logistically so there was not time for me to function [in] my gifted areas.”
The mission field also adds some unique obstacles to female team members feeling valued and having opportunities to contribute. Some of these challenges are cultural differences about the roles of women, which missionaries must handle carefully and sensitively in their host culture.
“There were a lot of things I was restricted from doing by the ministry because of cultural expectations of women.”
But even where local cultural norms allow for women to be involved in ministry, another unique obstacle for female missionaries crops up: the tendency of male leaders or peers to regard women as a threat to their sexual purity. When treated this way, women find themselves shut out of opportunities to participate when it would require them to work in certain situations with men. Female survey participants described being hurt by this dynamic and the absence of men who would stand up for them:
“I was a co-leader at one point and after I had been co-leading for a year, I was told my male co-leader was the actual leader as the male and I needed to follow his lead--which included us not meeting alone together and needing to include his wife in all meetings. It was degrading and belittling.”
“Women, including me, were often not offered or given opportunities simply because they didn't ‘think about it,’ assumed they wanted to only be housewives, or because they would be working too closely with males.”
“As the roles and responsibilities for the men on my team grew, they were less able to invest well in shepherding our team...specifically providing deep and nourishing teaching. When I offered to help with that, it was a ‘no’ because a man on my team was uncomfortable with a woman teaching from the Word or even leading a discussion on a spiritual book. A ‘go with the lowest common denominator’ approach to women’s roles meant that one man’s ‘no’ was a final ‘no,’ as passive men did not speak up.”
Another assumption that can be made by male leadership is that women are “trailing spouses” and either don’t want to do ministry or aren’t qualified to do it. Even if they have both desire and qualification, they are sometimes told that their place is in the home.
“My husband and I had a child and I was told by leadership I had no ministry outside the home as a mother.”
“Despite qualifications and experience I was treated like a trailing spouse.”
“Even though I was sent with my husband and we were each employees of the organization, I would get ignored in emails, calls and decision-making times. It is pervasive in my organization.”
“This was constant and very hard. At home I was a well-paid professional. On the field all the men (except my husband) told me my place was domestic and in the home.”
Even when an effort is made to include women, they may be directed only to roles viewed as more stereotypically suitable for women or face backlash if they are doing what are seen as “male” roles.
“Was tasked with things that ladies would normally do (e.g., cook, take charge of hospitality), which are not my strengths but more because of my gender.”
“No opportunity to transfer to positions that fit my interests and skills, despite similar positions being offered to men with similar or lower qualifications than mine. In one case, despite having an MA and one term of prior experience in my field, I was offered a visa only if I took an administrative assistant position.”
“People commenting on the role I had and expressing strong surprise that I was doing it, not a man. I was still able to do my job but I felt uncomfortable hearing others’ comments about this. I felt they thought I was unqualified or had gotten the job by some illegitimate way.”
Some women felt overlooked or without a voice of their own, seeing that men’s opinions and contributions were consistently more highly valued.
“It was felt by both my husband and me that they did not regard my input or contributions as valid. I never felt as though I was considered an equal person at the table.”
“I felt devalued in my gifts and abilities. My personal experience was not considered or even asked for. My husband was lauded as a hero for his work with the organization, and I felt like I was just supposed to smile and wave… My personal sacrifices were neither recognized nor appreciated by the organization.”
“There were monthly pastors and leaders meetings for all the men in our country, who gathered in a large city, but the women were never included. I was home with three little ones under 5 years and desperately needed that monthly fellowship time my husband was getting without me.”
And some women even felt invalidated or openly belittled by the attitudes of male peers and/or leaders.
“My biggest frustration was my opinion and thoughts not being validated without my husband’s approval. If I was ever asked my thoughts on something, it was very often followed up by what his opinion was, and would be scrutinized if they did not match.”
“One of my closest working teammates, who was an older man and thought that made him in charge of our team, did not treat me as an equal, belittled me in team meetings with no apology, and tried to assume a ‘dad’ role in my life without invitation from me. He had a general air of expecting people to follow and need him as the oldest/only man.”
“If males on our team had any experience in a given situation, their opinions were asked and followed even if it was an area that I was in charge of and had more knowledge of with a varying opinion. Only if men didn’t have any knowledge of an issue would my opinion be considered ‘enough.’”
Preferential treatment of men can also take the form of organizational policies or practices that favor men, exclude women from decision-making processes, or require additional scrutiny of women.
“An underperforming male colleague caused havoc in our office. Despite five women making detailed complaints to an administrator, he ultimately ignored us. He told me on multiple occasions exactly what he would or wouldn't do, and shortly afterwards did the opposite, always in favor of the male colleague.”
“There were times when I was expected to justify myself and my work to the local church with whom I was working. The same level of reporting and seeking official approval from the church was not expected of my male coworker.”
“I [a single woman] had to fight to even ask the home office to allow me to raise money to buy a vehicle, while my single male coworker got a vehicle without question. I felt the males were never questioned and always respected.”
“I tried delving into a few things but crashed each time because I lacked any support. My husband’s required work week was 40+ hours and my time doing ministry after he got home was too much for our family. Our org did not allow him to reduce [his work week] to 30 [hours] so I could pick up 10 hours, for example.”
Many women commented that leadership was all-male and they felt unwelcome in leadership (by policy or practice). The few that do reach leadership positions are usually the only woman “at the table” and may feel that they are not treated as an equal by the male majority.
“The majority of the leadership were men, with the exception of head administration positions (glorified secretaries). The Big Boys club, we called it.”
“I recognized that no matter how long I'm with the agency, I'll never have a shot at leadership positions. None of our upper leadership is female, and women are not asked to speak at our meetings.”
“When a team leader left, head office was not going to appoint a new team leader and instead appointed a director that was going to try to lead the team from our home country. I offered twice to lead the team before finally being appointed ‘interim team leader’ - a role I held for two years before leaving the field, none-the-wiser why I was not ever given the role properly. I suspect it was my perceived youthfulness (late 30s) and gender, where I think my husband would have been welcomed to the role easily.”
“I was not allowed to lead men on my team - at one point when I was without a team some of the regional leadership did not want to allow a couple to join my team because then I would be ‘over a man’ - even though this couple was new to their assignment and I had a lot to offer both the husband and the wife with my then 9 years of experience overseas.”
“All organizational leadership was composed of white married men with the exception of one Asian married man. I had more private sector experience and credentials than my supervisor, but the organization would never place me in the same role. The few conversations I had with organizational leadership included why I need to be married, or why I wasn’t married.”
“I was asked on several occasions by peers how I decided to choose leadership over marriage. I do not believe these two things are mutually exclusive and this is a very hurtful question.”
And finally, single women faced special challenges, feeling in some cases that they were treated differently than married women, or even infantilized because they did not have a husband.
“I felt marginalized as a single woman, who was actually older than my team leader; the way he treated me he never would have treated someone who was married.”
“Local people didn't have a category for adult and single without children, and I believe Christian culture also struggles to value single women as whole, complex, and valuable members of the Body. At mission retreats, for example, single women were always expected to share a room with other single women rather than having a room to themselves. An older single man would never be expected to do the same.”
“I was treated as ‘less than’ my whole time there because I was single. When we went to therapy as a team, the therapist even called it out when the leader said ‘we have 4 families here...’ and the counselor responded, ‘no, you have 5 families here.’ It was devastating to be treated as such a non-entity.”
“As a single woman, I often felt that I would not have been spoken to in the disrespectful way that I was spoken to if I were a man or if I had a husband to stand with me.”
While many Christian organizations or churches hold conservative views about women and their roles in family, society, missions, and the workplace, there is hope for greater inclusivity. One commenter shared an encouraging new beginning with a more welcoming agency:
“I don't know one married woman who led a team in my old organization, even though it was one of the biggest organizations in this line of work… Although we've been home for five years, we have recently begun a journey back overseas and we are working with an agency that deliberately looks for female leaders. Our future country leader is a woman; we just met another woman who was the field leader for a Middle Eastern country. What I love about this new agency is that these are married women who have leadership gifts and they are welcomed at the leadership table, not based on being a team leader's wife but by being leaders themselves.”
There can be many reasons behind the decision not to continue on the mission field even when a term end is reached. The low strength index for “my term was up” shows that there were other things that also influenced the return decision. Why didn’t that 54% choose to do another term? And why did the other 46% apparently leave mid-term (or not have a defined term at all)? Personal, team, leadership, or gender experiences on the mission field clearly come into play when a missionary is considering what to do at the end of a defined term.
We have already seen the importance of missionary care in the family factors section because of its relationship to the health of marriages and families on the mission field. As a result, we will not discuss missionary care again at great length. It will suffice to reiterate here that missionary care was the top factor cited as the reason for attrition in the survey, both in terms of the percentage of missionaries stating that it was a factor in their return decision (75%) and in the strength of influence of the factor (1.46) on their decision.
As challenging and isolating as missions work can be, good missionary care is critical to both health and longevity on the mission field. In its absence, conflict can occur as missionaries hope that others will meet those needs and are frustrated when their expectations aren’t met. Early dysfunction is missed in the absence of regular care, allowing personal and ministry problems to grow and become reasons for leaving. And missionaries simply get tired of always being the giver and never the receiver of care.
It is important to review and improve the way that we are caring for a population of people in extremely vulnerable and stressful situations. Doing so will go a long way toward increasing retention of missionaries on the field.
LACK OF STRUCTURE/ORGANIZATION
A number of the concerns shared by respondents in this section seem to have a common denominator: a lack of overall structure or organization creates high levels of ambiguity that decrease job satisfaction and increase opportunities for conflict. The large numbers of missionaries that struggled to understand their role (57%) should encourage us to ask why. The strength factor of 1.23 for this issue is one of the largest in the survey, indicating that it is a strong reason for attrition.
If someone is going to stay in any job for an extended period of time, they need a clear sense of purpose and an understanding that they are contributing something unique in a role for which they are gifted. The same is true of missions. Being “called” is not just based on a feeling, but also on a realistic view of what we have to contribute to kingdom work. If agencies don’t select candidates carefully based on their qualifications, they may not get the right people for the job. If missionaries and agencies don’t prepare well for the field, understanding the needs in that location and on that team, well-meaning individuals can find themselves aimless when they arrive, not sure where they fit in. Rapid change and turnover can produce rapid role evolution that brings confusion and ambiguity.
Some potential solutions for increasing role clarity are:
Developing job descriptions with a competent human resources or organizational design staff helps to make sure that the right people are selected for the right roles, and employees know what they are supposed to be accomplishing. A “clearinghouse” agency that is less hands-on in terms of direct supervision will need to require that people they send have a well-defined role/strategy to which they can be held accountable by a sending church or other body.
Once we have decided what we want to do and how we want to do it, and developed the varying roles that will help us to meet our goals, it is time to select candidates. Not the other way around. At times, an agency will need to say no to someone whose call, experience, or skills don’t align with a role they have in their organization.
Missionaries are frequently asked to be “jacks of all trades,” filling in wherever needed because of the lack of other personnel resources. But if this becomes too frequent or even permanent, people can get stuck in a role that does not use their gifts, just because there is no one else to do that job. When people are confused about their role on the team, feel that it’s not what they were told, or that it isn’t a fit with their gifts and passions, the result can be dissatisfaction, conflict, burnout, and attrition.
A lack of structure/organization can also create an environment where compromises of integrity can take place due to inadequate supervision and accountability. Temptations arise when one has little oversight or is isolated. Redirecting some funds or making your work look more impressive than it really is can start to look like necessary evils for survival, and those “small” concessions on integrity can become a slippery slope to even greater moral failures. The number of survey participants who doubted their team members’ integrity (48%) or who felt that there was a “scandal” on the team (33%) is truly a tragedy. Christians should be known for honesty, forthrightness and fair dealing according to the tenets of their faith. The high strength index of 1.38 on the integrity factor indicates that it strongly influenced the decision to leave the mission field.
It is impossible to ascertain whether perceptions of lack of integrity were correct in all cases. We cannot know what proportion of the suspicions may have resulted from miscommunication, misunderstanding, misjudging, or simple differences of opinion. However, it is certainly the case that increasing structure and accountability in the sending organization would reduce opportunities to compromise character, reducing departures from the field for this reason.
This issue was also discussed in the family factors section of the report because of its influence on family life. Husbands may find it difficult to balance demanding work expectations (and important, rewarding, eternally meaningful work) with the needs of their wives and children at home. We saw this in the family factors qualitative analysis: men who gave 100% to the work they were doing for the Lord didn’t have anything left for their families, and their families suffered for it. And we have also seen in the analysis of women’s comments that women may have to wear many different hats: mother, wife, homeschooler, shopper, ministry partner, hospitality expert, etc. It can be truly dizzying trying to keep up with the demands of life in various spheres on the mission field, making work-life balance a challenge. Agencies that aid their missionaries in establishing and maintaining a healthy work-life balance are likely to see lower attrition rates.
The most common categories of conflict seemed to center around (1) sin and dysfunction, (2) leadership, (3) communication, (4) boundaries, and (5) resources.
Sin & Dysfunction
Missionaries are not necessarily the most mature Christians or the star disciples. If missionaries neglect their personal walk with the Lord and continued spiritual growth, they can stumble into patterns of sinful thinking and actions rather quickly, just like any other believer.
Missionaries need to be held accountable for becoming more like Christ in character as they work to complete the Great Commission. The fruit of our character is as important as ministry results. Tough honesty and uncomfortable conversations with overseers may be necessary to call out areas in which the missionary needs to continue to do battle with his/her own sin nature. Counseling may be necessary for missionaries experiencing emotional distress or conflict. This will equip him/her to minister more effectively to others.
What if we spent less time trying to be productive and effective in our tasks, and more time building relationships that work and tending them? This would help us not only to function well on our teams and increase longevity, but also to better connect with the cultures in which we serve, as many of our host cultures value relationships over tasks. Locals in these countries are far more likely to be won for Christ by our relationships characterized by love than by our productivity.
Conflict attributed to leadership can be reduced through rigorous selection, training, job definition, and accountability.
Selection procedures should be in place for appointing leaders who have the skills, experience, and/or education necessary for the role. If that person is not found in a timely fashion, settling for less can be a costly mistake that impacts the whole team. The hard work of doing an extensive candidate search, in-depth interviews, and talking to recommenders and past colleagues is essential to selecting a good leader.
Leaders also need training to develop the skills needed to lead well. Someone being on the mission field for a long time, having success in business, or having a graduate degree or seminary title does not necessarily make them a good leader. When they are first promoted to leadership, they need training in basic leadership principles and how this new role changes their job. And even after people have been leaders for some time, they need continual training that challenges them to improve and mature as leaders, as well as to innovate and strengthen their team dynamics.
Role ambiguity is an issue for leaders as well as rank-and-file missionaries. Stories abound of the missionary who is given a leadership role and is now trying to balance their original ministry responsibilities with the added responsibility of leading. These unfortunates are likely to do neither well. People lead best when they are fully dedicated to the task of leading. Leadership should not be viewed as an extra task, but the primary task of those given this responsibility.
And finally, accountability for leadership is critical. Missions organizations must demand excellence from their leaders and investigate when allegations are made that there is a problem. Ignoring a leadership situation is short-sighted and costly. Tolerating someone doing a poor job indefinitely is not “Christian” or gracious, but negligent. The Bible outlines a diligent process for selecting leaders of character and holding them accountable. Our missions organizations and the level of harmony on our missions teams reflects God to the world. We damage our testimony to the world if we accept mediocrity in leadership that trickles down to compromise entire teams or organizations.
In order for conflict to be minimized, expectations must be managed, and that is done by communicating thoroughly and explicitly about them. If this doesn’t happen, expectations and idealism will surely outstrip reality, with disappointment and attrition as the inevitable result.
Speaking the truth in love is the biblical key to communicating without falling into conflict. Truthfulness helps us to communicate well and clearly, not allowing deceit or blindness to gain a foothold in our relationships. And speaking with love helps us to avoid offenses that create division and defensiveness.
In a new culture, complex, unfamiliar, or ambiguous situations create many challenges in navigating ethical boundaries. Others may do things differently than we might prefer, and that doesn’t mean that they are inherently wrong. Only God is the all-knowing Judge of right and wrong.
The key is to navigate these issues gracefully so that everyone can follow established practices/policies and feel at peace with their own conscience at the same time. Good communication about boundaries can prevent the eruption of serious conflict about them. A willingness to have hard but respectful conversations goes a long way toward eliminating misunderstandings and doubts about others’ integrity. Issues for which we will “die on the hill” should be limited to those that tie clearly to biblical teaching. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide us, sometimes we will need to compromise to keep the peace, and other times we will need to stick with our convictions.
Leaders can respect the boundaries of their team members by being sensitive to the ways that “work decisions” can cause great upheaval in a missionary family’s life. It is kind and respectful to consider the missionaries’ input in coming to such decisions, even when the final decision will be made by the leader.
A scarcity mentality is driven by fear. And fear is fodder for bad decision-making. It can cause us to compromise in order to get or keep a resource. It can also breed jealousy or unhealthy comparisons. And it can cause us to live in a perpetual state of worry about material things.
To avoid conflict about resources on the mission field, we must remember that the One who sent us is the One who provides, evaluates our work, and ordains our future. He gives us life in abundance and will have no trouble supplying what is needed to accomplish His will. We need not tear others down, compare ourselves to others, or compete to get what we need, as God is unlimited in His resources.
If we don’t get our way in how resources are procured and used, we can rest in the knowledge that it is all God’s and He will do what He wishes with it. If resources are misused, God will deal with the offender. If resources dry up and we must leave the mission field, God has a plan for us elsewhere. If partnerships don’t materialize or grants are not won, then that is not where God is working. Missionaries must steward resources with open hands, offering them back to God. For what we grasp too tightly can easily become an idol, and idols create conflict.
In an endeavor based on religious beliefs that have historically been associated with patriarchy, the finding that men are given more opportunities to contribute and lead is not surprising. But the experience of women in missions is an important issue, as women make up a large proportion of missionaries. It is significant when 35% of missionaries in the survey (one half of the 70% female respondents) report feeling marginalized on the basis of their gender to some degree.
It is interesting that this factor was not heavily weighted as a reason for leaving the field, despite the strong feelings that came out in the comments. This could be due to several reasons:
While men generally encounter no obstacles to ministry or leadership other than their ability, there are three progressively narrowing “gates” that determine a woman’s role on the mission field:
With so many gates that must align for a woman to have a satisfying ministry role on the mission field, it is not surprising that many are struggling to find fulfillment. Women are currently an untapped reservoir of gifts and abilities on many teams, their contributions not viewed as valuable or strategic. The church should consider that when the majority of the missions workforce is female, their perspectives and abilities should be valued, included, and represented in leadership. Both formal policy and informal practice should ensure that women have a voice and an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways on the mission field, if they so desire. Improvements in this area would be sure to reduce attrition and better serve the lost.
Frankly, many missionaries are leaving the mission field right when they are approaching competence at their jobs. It is a significant learning curve to acquire a new language, learn to navigate a new culture, get trained for a new job, and become proficient at it. Many missionaries never get to enjoy a “normal” life of competency in the culture and their role, one that can only be achieved after the mastery which comes with experience.
Hiring and training is one of an organization’s most expensive investments, particularly when the learning curve is as long as it is in missions. Organizations sending missionaries must seek to be good stewards of this investment by maximizing the likelihood that missionaries will reach competence. One way this can be done is by assuring that their missionaries have a good team experience, where their jobs are well-defined, their contributions are valued, relationships are characterized by mutual support, and conflict is handled in timely and healthy ways.
As we review family factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is important to consider some demographics.
Of the 739 survey participants, the majority of them were young, married, and in their childbearing years when they went to the mission field.
Of the singles who participated in the study, 88% of them were women and 12% of them were men, indicating that single women are far more likely to go to the mission field than single men. This can bring up difficulties in terms of single women’s roles on the mission team, fitting into a team made up of mostly married couples and families, and feeling adequate security in some situations and cultures without a male present, which will be seen in the team factors section. It can also present concerns with respect to finding a mate, when there are few eligible bachelors in your geographical area who speak your native language or share your native culture.
We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be family-related factors:
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing:
Discussion of Quantitative Results
The first striking observation from the above table is the sheer number of missionaries that are experiencing these stress factors, as shown by the first column. Six out of ten of the factors have higher than 50% incidence rates, indicating that the majority of missionary families will deal with them at some point.
Compared to people living in their passport countries, who may not have the additional marital, family, and educational challenges of the mission field (not to mention factors from the other sections of this study, including financial, cultural, etc.), missionaries are subject to a compounding effect as these stressors accumulate. The high percentages of missionaries experiencing each factor guarantees that each family is experiencing multiple family stressors, perhaps serially over time, or perhaps at the same time.
This observation brings to mind the Holmes and Rahe stress scale and the compounding effects that such life stressors can have on individuals. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale has been proven to predict health outcomes: the more stressors, the higher the score, and the more likely a person is to become ill. Compared to their passport-country cohorts, one would expect to see missionaries suffering the effects of family-related stress in the form of higher rates of physical illness, and higher rates of need for counseling and other family emotional support services.
The second column on the table gives us an idea of the likelihood that each factor affected a person’s return decision at all (if they experienced it). Marital issues, adjustment and education of the children, and wanting to be near family that need them (college students, adult children, parents, or other extended family) are all important issues for missionaries to balance with their overseas ministry, because over 50% of participants who experienced those issues felt that they affected their return decision to some degree.
When we look at the data in the third column, we see that some factors have a larger effect (or a heavier “weight”) on the return decision than others. For example, educational options for the children and having aging/ailing parents that need care are stronger factors in making a decision to return to the passport country than the others in this category.
Combining the story from all three columns, we begin to get a picture of how missionaries generally view and experience each factor, though we must remember that generalizations are never 100% accurate and there are certainly missionaries that don’t fit these descriptions and trends.
We also wanted to compare the responses generationally to see if there are factor differences related to age. Do younger and older missionaries have a different experience or different values that impact their return decisions? To check for this, we selected the subset of survey respondents who were under 30 when they went to the mission field, on the field less than 10 years, and left the field less than 10 years ago. This subset accounted for 190 of the surveyed individuals.
When the subset of younger missionaries is compared with the overall sample on family factors, several differences can be seen. Younger missionaries were:
Marital issues, kids’ adjustment issues, and kids’ education issues also yielded lower strength indexes for this age group. Perhaps they were not on the field long enough for the stressors to take their toll on the marriage over time (or perhaps they are somehow better at balancing the work-life issues that tend to cause marital friction than the overall sample). Their children were likely young enough to be more adaptable and easier to educate with available options. And this generation of missionaries didn’t experience issues like sending kids off to college or wanting to be closer to adult children or grandchildren at all.
Qualitative Data on Marital Issues
In addition to the quantitative scaled information, we collected open comments on the following question:
Hundreds of comments were provided and helped to delve into the reasons that missionaries struggle with marriage and family issues on the field.
Probably the most common and obvious factor affecting marriages and families on the field is the extreme stress, coupled with the isolation, of living overseas. Constant stress will inevitably strain even the best marriage to some degree, and children’s welfare is directly related to the health of the parents and their relationship. One respondent put it this way:
“I found it impossible to experience cross cultural stress, financial stress, and extended family issues without all of that producing stress in our marriage. My wife began to experience emotional distress brought on by daily traffic, immigration issues, tax issues, etc. All these things are accumulative, and will manifest in the marriage.”
Add isolation and a lack of friends to talk to about the marriage, and things can spiral downward pretty quickly and steeply. Friends back home expect positive ministry reports and missionaries may not feel free to discuss the hard aspects of their lives with many of them. And friends on the field may be nonexistent, primarily work-based, or laden with different cultural expectations that make them not emotionally supportive in the way the missionary needs. Isolation can also translate into a lack of babysitters, which makes it even more difficult for the missionary parents to get the time they need alone together to keep their marriage healthy.
Many other respondents noted the all-consuming nature of the mission work and the pressures of working closely together in a shared career. Slowly, their relationship became more business-like and focused on getting the work done, instead of being a nurturing and intimate relationship where emotional support was found. One touching comment from a hurting wife illustrates this perfectly:
“My husband and I fundamentally disagreed on how hard and fast to push oneself. A wedge was placed between us that just caused deeper and deeper pain.”
Many admitted to not taking the necessary time out of the work context to nurture their marriage and spouse or to process things together. One woman wrote “we were very busy and did not have much time to talk about what was happening.” This is a problem, because there is almost always a lot happening on the mission field that needs to be processed! We received stories of workaholics (both men and women) with compassion fatigue collapsing in bed at the end of a long day, without an ounce of energy left to connect with their spouse. Or husbands traveling too much or overcommitted to the ministry, while their wives or children just needed some of their attention at home.
“We settled for mediocrity in our marriage because he wanted excellence in his work. I felt alone and gradually developed major depression, in part because of lack of emotional support.”
Missionaries are clearly sometimes tempted to neglect those closest to them in order to perform well in the ministry. This can certainly be a common theme in other careers as well; one sees plenty of non-missionary marriages suffering from workaholism. But it’s not hard to see that the grand spiritual endeavor of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth can add a sense of pressure and importance and urgency to one’s work. We make so many legitimate sacrifices to do it that we can end up losing our way and starting to sacrifice things to it that God does NOT call us to abandon, including our families and their emotional welfare.
Some of the emotional issues mentioned frequently were depression, burnout, and anxiety. When one or both spouses are suffering from such emotional obstacles, it is easy to understand that this will negatively affect the marriage and children. Individuals struggling with their own emotional challenges will have less emotional energy to help others with theirs. The withdrawal and shutting-down of depression, the bitterness of burnout, or the fear and need to control of anxiety will almost certainly negatively affect our closest relationships. One respondent contextualized the emotional issues particularly well:
“What we saw on the mission field was that any hidden issue in a person’s life was exposed, as God brought light on it. Living in the stress of starting over, feeling like a two-year old again, brings up many things that you think were already dealt with or that were unfortunately never resolved but hidden away.”
Other responses noted commonly were anger at the way a spouse was (or was not perceived to be) coping; disappointment (usually of the wife) with her lack of a fulfilling role in the ministry, while the husband’s role was rewarding and more clearly defined; and the pain of the trailing spouse (again, more frequently the wife) who didn’t want to be on the mission field but had submitted to her husband’s call to life overseas. It is easy to see how these feelings could all contribute to resentment and emotional distance, as well as a lack of ability to connect since the two partners’ experiences on the mission field are so disparate that it makes it difficult for them to understand one another.
Ultimately, emotional alienation from their spouses makes missionaries vulnerable to sexual temptation and infidelity. Some finally turned to pornography or adultery (or even non-physical emotional affairs) to try to satisfy their need for connection, which dealt yet another blow to their marriage and estranged them more completely. Unfortunately, this level of moral failure and crisis is where the missions agency, sending church, or overseeing body tends to get involved in the situation, when the couple actually needed support and counsel long before things came to this point.
Qualitative Data on Children’s Adjustment Issues
We also collected open comments on the following question:
Again, hundreds of comments were provided and helped to delve into the reasons that missionary kids (MKs) can struggle on the field.
Not surprisingly, one of the difficult things about being an MK is looking different, standing out, and receiving unwanted attention in the form of staring, touching, teasing, or even bullying. Gone are the days of privacy and blending in with the crowd. One concerned parent shared this heart-rending story:
“Many people in our village would touch my daughter's red hair and even old men would ask to marry her. My son got into many fist fights with the kids he would play soccer with. We had no fence or natural boundary around our house and there were 2 schools whose foot-traffic would pass our yard. Many kids would press their faces against our screens and some would taunt our kids. Our daughter did not have any friends she could talk with in any common language. She learned to play with one girl who would pretend to cook with her without bothering her, and she learned to play with chickens. My son talked about hurting himself when he was 8.”
While missionaries can go to great lengths to teach their kids to respect others and be hospitable to those who are different from them, unfortunately not all the people of the world will return the favor, and sometimes MKs are singled out unkindly for being different from the local children. One mother lamented “she looked different and was never quite accepted even though she was fluent in the language.” These experiences may be part of the root of many MKs’ lifelong struggles with acceptance and belonging.
Another frequently-mentioned challenge for MKs was isolation and the lack of friends or a social group. MKs can find themselves isolated geographically from kids their own age. But even when there are kids their age nearby, they can find themselves isolated linguistically, culturally, educationally, spiritually, or even emotionally, finding themselves misunderstood or stereotyped by the other children around them. Their life experiences can be vastly different from the other kids around, creating a gulf across which it can be difficult to connect deeply (as in the case of middle-class developed-world children going to live in impoverished developing countries, for example). And even when MKs go to their passport country, where they may look the same as other kids, their life experiences on the mission field make them different and can be isolating. Doing relationships differently and having different worldviews can be real barriers to community and friendship on furlough or when MKs get to college. Part of the MK experience seems to be both feeling “weird” on the mission field, and feeling “weird” in their passport country, making them wonder where they truly belong.
While some children are born on the mission field and know no other kind of life, MKs who were partly grown when they went to the mission field are also dealing with grief as a result of leaving behind friends, family, or adult siblings in their passport country. These established relationships can be greatly missed in a world where everything and everyone is new. One parent described it this way:
“Our oldest thrives on order and structure and people, and his whole life was in upheaval. He had no friends his age, and we watched him wither... to the point that we were considering returning to America because we were so concerned for his well-being.”
Resentment or anger toward parents can brew over their decision to go to the mission field, the cause of so much loss in the MK’s world.
The aforementioned life stressors and having parents that are distracted by a million other things can leave some children without the constant emotional anchors they may have had in their parents previously. One parent confessed that “our focus was on the task and language learning. Parenting took a backseat.” Another confessed that “the habit of complaining took over in all of us,” highlighting how children will frequently follow their parents’ lead. If the adults are stressed and complaining, they are likely to have complaining children who are unhappy to be on the mission field. However, a good parental attitude is certainly no guarantee of a positive child. Certainly children can have their own reactions no matter how hard a parent is trying to shepherd them through a difficult experience.
Some MKs can begin to manifest depression and anxiety as they struggle to cope with the many transitions in their lives. Learning a new language makes communication difficult and fraught with potential embarrassment. Some become angry in response to culture shock and unexpected losses and transitions. Some fall prey to being molested by people they should have been able to trust. Some may struggle with a change in their schooling, especially if there are special needs or a learning disability involved, which may be difficult for schools in less developed countries to accommodate.
While these issues facing MKs are sobering, let us remember that these were comments specifically solicited about kids who had difficulty adjusting on the mission field. Most MKs eventually learn successfully how to do relationships in their new country and in their passport country, pick up the new language more quickly than their parents, and as adults feel that the MK experience has been an enriching experience in their lives and a grand adventure. However, both missionary parents and mission agencies would do well to remember that transition is still a difficult experience for kids and many will really struggle with it for at least a period of time.
One commenter noted “it is rare to see a mission organization in the States developing anything to help parents and their children.” This could certainly be rectified by providing more support and training to missionaries regarding how to support their children on the field through issues that may come up. There is also a growing body of books and blogs about “third-culture kids” (TCKs) that can be studied both before going and while on the field to help parents better understand the issues their children face.
From the moment of acceptance as missionaries, during deployment and assignment, and through resettlement in the passport country after the missions assignment has ended, both missionaries and mission agencies should be aware of the extra support their families will need to weather stressors well.
Marital and family distress are enabled when (1) missionaries are loathe to share their struggles (out of pride or fear that they will look weak or be exposed to the risk of losing support or their mission assignment or position), and (2) mission agencies or sending churches don’t intentionally inquire about and promote the health of families. These are sensitive issues and some agencies and churches may feel that marital and family issues are none of their business. But when missionaries are sent, the whole family is sent. It cannot be assumed that the family system is strong enough to withstand all the pressures being added to it without some special attention. If a job is likely to take a toll on the family system, it becomes the employer’s job to address it.
In order to promote healthy families on the mission field, both missionaries and their agencies must transform the way they engage about these issues. Some key areas to look at may be:
The family factors measured in this survey are frequently viewed as “non-preventable” by past studies, and therefore an acceptable reason for attrition. However, many of these situations ARE preventable with the right kind of selection processes, expectations, attitudes, communication, training, and support. What will it take for both missionaries and their agencies to have them?
The first step in promoting healthy families on the mission field is selecting the families that can be healthy on the mission field.
If marital, emotional, or children’s issues exist before going to the mission field, they will likely be amplified on the mission field. This doesn’t mean that we should only send perfect people to the mission field (of which there are none); it means that we should be careful to send only those who can be healthy with the level of support we can offer them, and the level of support offered can vary widely between agencies. Perhaps a smaller agency with limited missionary-care capacity and less on-the-ground leadership will need to have a higher selection bar, for example, than one with more care capacity and a large and supportive on-the-ground team with strong leadership.
PREPARATION AND EXPECTATION-SETTING
A new missionary family doesn’t know what to expect unless their agency or church guides them through the process, educating and preparing them for what they will face. Without adequate preparation and training, missionaries will be more vulnerable to the stressors they face. Marriage and family issues can be included as a more prominent part of training and expectation-setting, and relevant books can be required reading (with follow-up discussion) for missionaries preparing to go to the field.
The stigma of seeking counseling must be reduced, perhaps by setting expectations with missionaries that they will likely need counseling and support as a family at some point, and that there is no shame in asking for help. Part of pre-field training should include a preview of common marriage and family issues that surface on the field, and coping techniques for preventing and dealing with each of them. Many problems can be proactively and quickly dealt with if missionaries are prepared and alert for them, as opposed to having to figure things out on their own as they go along. This can prevent them from becoming larger problems that ultimately cause a departure from the mission field.
Mission agencies and sending churches should be prepared to support their missionaries through higher rates of stress-induced physical conditions, as well as to offer a variety of family support services and robust missionary care programs.
Team leaders and missionary care members should be trained to recognize the symptoms of stress-induced physical and mental health issues, in order to identify and address them quickly with missionaries in their care. When support is needed, there must be very real and concrete follow-up: quick and confidential provision of counseling services and intercessory prayer. There can be no sense of “out of sight, out of mind” for the agency headquarters with its overseas missionaries. Providing follow-up and accountability for taking care of issues that have surfaced is critical, so that problems cannot continue to be ignored and expected to fade away while they in fact continue to worsen.
The agency’s and/or sending church’s missionary care approach may play a role in whether missionaries feel (1) free to ask for help and (2) assured that they will be given the resources they need to cope. If no missionary care is offered, or if a missionary care program consists of periodic long-distance check-ins, the relationship with missionary care staff will seem forced and inauthentic. This will not promote the kind of transparency needed to share hard things. However, if a real and caring relationship is cultivated by missionary care staff, including regular in-person visits to spend time in the family’s space observing what is happening, missionaries will be more likely to feel a connection of trust and real interest, and be more likely to come to their missionary care staff with problems.
Imagine the difference it could make if each team had a dedicated counselor/missionary care staff person living on the field in their city or region and pursuing an authentic relationship with them. It may seem impractical or costly, but is that really too much to ask to care for people who have made so many sacrifices to serve overseas, and are making themselves vulnerable to a host of marriage and family dysfunctions? Is it really more expensive to place people locally than to fund regular international travel to visit missionaries? Given the expense involved in training and moving missionaries to the field, is it really more cost-effective to deal with the financial waste of turnover than to spend on providing the care necessary to increase well-being and longevity? Is the work of caring for missionaries and keeping them healthy and on the field somehow less important than the work of the missionaries themselves? Couldn’t counselors and missionary care staff also be considered “missionaries,” instead of making it a home-country-based role? It’s difficult to truly shepherd or care for those who aren’t near you physically on a regular basis. While many agencies have made missionary care a role for folks who have left the field, but want to continue to travel and be engaged with what is happening on the field, is that really the most effective thing for the missionaries that need care?
For many years, MKs were simply not on the radar screen of mission agencies, and were viewed as just part of the baggage that missionaries took with them when they went to the field. Research about TCKs over the last few decades has brought their issues to the forefront and they are now getting more focused attention, especially in some of the larger agencies with more staff and financial resources. However, some agencies seem to continue to place the focus on parents and their ministry without much thought for the MKs. Dedicating at least one staff person (or a team of them) solely to the well-being of MKs within each agency shows a commitment to their unique needs. This person can check in with families and MKs regularly and share resources for helping MKs to cope with the challenges of life on the mission field.
And finally, family support services for missionary families on furlough could be further developed and expanded. There are many ministries that will debrief missionaries leaving the field permanently. There are fewer centered on developing and strengthening the missionary family’s resiliency during furlough so that they can go back to the field healthier. Furlough shouldn’t be just about sharing ministry reports and raising funds to go back to the field. It should also be a time to further equip oneself for the ministry, strengthen the whole family unit, and re-evaluate the call and whether both spouses (in the case of a married couple) feel that they should continue to serve overseas. If no care is delivered during furlough to strengthen, restore, and refresh the marriage and family, the missionary family will return to the field at a deficit. The stressors that come their way will accumulate even faster if they return to the field exhausted from reporting and fundraising, and not having taken the time for the personal care necessary to recover from trauma and re-establish a healthy emotional equilibrium.
Effective and proactive care must be supplemented by compassionate policies that recognize the special needs of missionary families. Some need to get away more regularly as a family to decompress, or to participate in a more structured family care retreat, or to take a paid leave of absence to manage special family issues and transitions. Does mission policy allow for this?
Mission policies may need to be reviewed to ensure that adequate time is given for missionaries struggling with physical and emotional health issues, and that schedules are flexible enough to accommodate health needs. Health insurance coverages should be reviewed with the anticipation that counseling services will be needed at a higher rate than for other populations. And missionaries will need to be able to flexibly and confidentially connect with counseling services (perhaps long-distance via the internet).
Rules and policies are made to promote fairness and order. A large agency certainly must have guidelines and procedures to prevent chaos and encourage fairness. But we should also remember that missionaries are generally not the “taking advantage” type. Rather, from the comments offered in the survey, they tend to be the “keep your head down and work yourself to death” type. Offering policies that allow them the flexibility to care for themselves and their families through added stressors will likely not result in abuse, but in healthier families and increased longevity on the mission field. This is a win for the Kingdom on all sides. No missionary should feel hemmed in by policy or expected to sacrifice the needs of their family in order to adhere to it. No missionary should feel that “we shoulddo x for the well-being of our family, but our mission doesn’t allow it.”
Some survey participants commented about decisions made by the mission agency without the input of the missionaries, or ignoring what the missionaries thought would be best for their family and ministry. This had harmful effects on the family system through unwanted moves, sudden changes in schooling, changes of ministry focus or team, etc. Listening to the missionaries and understanding how decisions may affect their whole families should be a key part of any agency or sending church decision-making process.
Finally, a healthy work-life balance must be promoted and enforced by the mission agency or sending church, and embraced by the missionaries themselves. Many comments offered in the survey revealed missionaries’ tendencies to be workaholics and sacrifice their families’ needs to those of their ministry. This has a deleterious effect on both marriages and children.
Perhaps we should expect missionaries to report not just on ministry activities, but on family activities, physical and emotional health, margins for personal processing and reflection, and levels of stressors being experienced in the family. If we expect to see a work calendar or schedule from a missionary for accountability, perhaps it is no less important to see when they have family time, vacations, date nights, retreats, trips to visit family in the U.S., and enrichment activities to grow them personally and professionally. For none of these things are less important in the long-run than the work hours put in each week. Missionaries tend to be well aware that they are expected to get work done and report on results (especially if they fundraise). But if they are not required to care for themselves, they may not make time for it. Is there someone that will notice and challenge them if they are not balancing work and life in a healthy way?
But in the end, no matter how phenomenal a job our mission agencies or sending churches do in safeguarding and caring for our families, it is every missionary’s responsibility to ask him/herself some hard questions:
Our families have been granted to us by God and are our most important ministry and opportunity to serve. Our intimacy with our spouse or the well-being of our children should never be sacrificed to our ministry. Ministry vision must be realigned to include ministry within our families. Missionaries must put boundaries in place to protect their families through the added stressors of missionary life, and mission agencies and sending churches need to support them in this, and even to require it of them. To do less is to allow preventable family factors to send people back to their home countries, shortening their longevity on the field and limiting their ability to be increasingly effective as they gain experience and maturity.
The survey was distributed electronically through a variety of networks including popular missionary blogs, the Missio Nexus web site, personal networks, and appeals to forward the survey on to other possible participants.
Participants self-selected if they felt they had the time to participate in the survey. We expected the survey to take 15-20 minutes to complete. The only criterion for participation was being a former missionary (defined as at least a 6 month stay), regardless of the length of their mission tenure, the length of time since their departure from the mission field, or their reason for leaving the mission field. Participants left the field for a wide variety of reasons, including the end of a term, normal retirement, or any number of challenges that emerged to take them back to their country of origin. Some were asked to leave by their mission agency, but most made the decision themselves about when (and why) it was time to leave.
Demographic information was collected for each participant, including:
Survey questions were grouped into the following 8 sub-topics:
For each sub-topic, a list of statements (e.g., “I was homesick.”) was provided with instructions for the participant to rate each statement with an answer from the following 5-point scale:
These response options allowed us to measure three important pieces of information for each potential factor, increasing in specificity at each level:
A “strength index” was calculated by weighting each response given by those who experienced the factor (no effect = 0, slight effect = 1, moderate effect = 2, strong effect = 3), summing them, and then dividing by the total number of responses of those who experienced the factor.
For example, if on a certain question, there were:
This technique produces lower indexes for those factors that tend to have a lesser effect on the return decision, and higher indexes for those factors that tend to have a stronger effect on the return decision. A score of 0 would show absolutely no effect on the return decision for any survey participants by that factor, and a score of 3 would be a strong effect for every survey participant by that factor. Therefore, scores lower than 1 can be considered to trend toward the “no effect to slight effect” range, scores between 1-2 reveal a “slight effect to moderate effect”, and scores between 2-3 show a “moderate effect to strong effect.”
In addition to the scaled responses, several sub-topics had open-ended follow-up questions where participants could share more details or stories (e.g., “If you experienced marital issues and feel comfortable sharing more, please describe them.”). Many heartfelt stories were shared, for which we are grateful. These responses were analyzed qualitatively to look for central themes or particularly poignant quotes that illustrated an important concept.
Overall Factor Weighting Results
Finally, each participant was asked to try to quantify the weighting of each factor in their decision, summing to 100%. For example, a participant may have answered that their decision consisted of 50% family factors, 30% financial factors, and 20% team factors. While this is certainly a subjective and non-exact assessment, this may help to quantify and prioritize the factors that felt most relevant in the decision to return “home.”
When the overall weightings assigned to each factor are averaged across all survey participants, the following list shows the ranking of each category in terms of perceived importance in making the decision to return to the passport country:
The following analysis will detail the results within each category, sharing the prevalence and strength for each scaled question, summarizing themes that emerged for each open question, and discussing the implications of the results.