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.