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.