Overall missionary attrition may not be sky rocketing, but it sure seems like it. Every time I turn around, there is someone else packing up and going home.
Some attrition is normal as people enter different stages of life, and family or ministry circumstances / callings change.
But some attrition is unfortunate and preventable.
Although it is sometimes the missionaries themselves who have issues, other times it is their mission agency and/or supporting church(es) who have failed them. And in the messiness of real life, sometimes it is a combination of both missionary and agency, of uncontrollable and controllable factors.
In the past, I have written some positive posts about language study, the importance of friends, pre-field training, etc. But in the current post, I want to approach missionary attrition a bit more negatively, in hopes that a bit of cynicism might help us consider how to prevent attrition. So, without any further ado, here are 10 ways that mission agencies, churches, and others (including missionaries themselves) can speed up unanticipated departures from the mission field.
1. Encourage High Expectations
It is really important to set lofty goals to accomplish in a short-period of time, whether that be speaking fluently with only 1 year of language study, starting a church planting movement, or training up competent, faithful local leaders who will have the exact same values and priorities as you. The higher the expectations, the more crushing it will be when those expectations are not realized. And crushed expectations lead to disillusionment, guilt, blame-shifting, discouragement, and bitterness. Played out to their depressing end, unmet expectations left unexamined eventuate in comparing oneself with others and finding that you don’t measure up. The conclusion is that you don’t have what it takes, and you go home.
2. Minimize Language Study
The less language ability you have, the more stressful and difficult it is to do daily tasks and to communicate with people. Even after the basics of colors, numbers, food, and directions are mastered, there are many complex layers of language and culture across several semantic domains that need to be learned in order to have meaningful relationships and to communicate (and understand others) effectively. Increasing language ability results in greater satisfaction in life and effectiveness in ministry. Feelings of progress spell longevity on the field, so be sure to find every excuse imaginable to avoid language study, such as doing ministry through translation, taking on administrative responsibilities, traveling to your home country frequently (via airplane or Facebook), and getting busy with some kind of ministry in your native language to give the impression you are doing something productive.
3. Promote the Savior Complex
You CAN change the world! YOU can change the world! You can change the WORLD! Be sure to nurture the idea that YOU the missionary are different from all those who have come before. Where other groups who don’t share your particular theology or philosophy of ministry have failed, YOU will succeed. Once you get the language under your belt (1 year is more than enough, right?), you will set to work in virgin territory, single-handedly starting a church planting movement, wiping out human trafficking, or finally contextualizing the Gospel correctly. YOU have what it takes and YOU can do it. Don’t let anyone stand in your way. Don't let anyone trouble your great ideas and radical strategy by citing reality, history, or experience.
4. Isolate People
For the missionary, if you want to go home quickly, be sure to take your Savior complex and high expectations to a remote location where no one can mess with your strategy. Go it alone and figure everything out on your own. Teammates are just additional dead weight that will slow down your ability to make decisions. Mission leaders, be sure to give lip service to teams and partnership, but when it comes to actual placements, make sure your missionaries are spread out as thinly as possible. Be sure to equate pioneering and spirituality with going it alone. In such circumstances, many missionaries will shrivel up from loneliness and frustration. The isolation strategy will burn out many new workers, though of course a few hearty ones will endure in spite of the odds. Put these survivors in positions of leadership in order to perpetuate the cycle: "I did it all alone, so you should be able to do it too."
5. Leave Tasks and Goals Intentionally Vague
Clear tasks and goals only serve to create healthy boundaries and job satisfaction, so be sure to leave everything vague. Asking too many questions and defining everyone's tasks may create uncomfortable feelings or reveal differences of opinion, so it is important to paper over the true nature of goals and working relationships in the name of unity and mission. If you can effectively avoid having any one person in a position of leadership, it is easier for miscommunication and misunderstanding to develop as nobody is sure who is responsible for what. Toes gets stepped on, and feelings get hurt as one person is accused of acting without consulting the others, and yet another is looked down on for not carrying their weight. Before you know it the team will lack unity, everyone will feel unsupported, and want to quit.
6. Discourage Pre-Field Theological & Pastoral Training
It is important to embed deeply in the thinking of (potential) missionaries that the context on the mission field is so different from the West, that Western training is largely useless… except for your own organization's required training, of course. Two thousand years of Christians thinking about the meaning and application of the Christian faith is worthless because all those Christians never served in your particular context. Publicly praise but privately belittle traditional theological education and pastoral training with catch-phrases like, “It’s too Western” “It’s too traditional” and “It’s not reproducible.” A lack of Bible knowledge and a broad framework for thinking about ministry issues on the field will leave the missionary scrambling for whatever scraps they can gather from Google and other missionaries. In the grind of daily survival, language study, and everyday ministry, there is very little leisure time to look deeply into what the Bible teaches about how and when to baptize, charismatic gifts, and the best form of church government. Without a solid foundation of Scripture and theology going into mission work, the missionary may ended up confused or discouraged when they feel unprepared to teach the faith, lead a church, and to answer questions that come up in their context. This may lead to discouragement and feelings of powerlessness in the lives of missionaries, but don't hint at the fact that in-depth formal theological training will help them. Tell struggling missionaries to “just figure it out as they go” until they finally go when they can't figure it out.
7. Emphasize Right Methodology
Mission leaders should pick some particular trendy methodology as THE most effective to reach people with the Gospel quickly. The methodology doesn’t need to have a strong foundation in Scripture. Prooftexting from the book of Acts will be sufficient to dismiss the objections of dissenters. Promote this methodology as THE way that your mission will work, and put all your hope in this particular methodology. If that particular methodology doesn’t seem to be bearing fruit, hang onto it for as long as possible, ignoring the fact that it is not the silver bullet to reaching the nations. For individual missionaries, choose some guaranteed method for a short-time and leave out the parts you don’t like. When it doesn’t work, keep going to seminars and conferences looking for the next best thing that is sure to work. Keep doing this until you are exhausted, just don’t care anymore, or get bitter at the local people for not responding to the method as the people in the case study did.
8. Trivialize Concerns and Struggles
New missionaries in particular have all sorts of challenges and issues that they are dealing with, to different degrees of seriousness. Some are just growing pains that they will be able to work though, and others are deal breakers that need to be addressed. If you want to get rid of people, make sure you treat all their problems the same, lumping them into the category of “You need to tough it out.” If the missionaries won’t give it a rest, tell them they are inflexible, too picky, or not a team player. Whatever the issue, make sure they know it is THEIR issue and the fault for not working through it lies with them. Divert attention from inflexible mission policies and unreliable partners by hinting (but not saying) that the missionary is divisive for making a big deal out of nothing.
9. Promote Conformity
This is a particularly important strategy for broadly evangelical or inter-denominational missions. Publicly, you need to keep your vision and mission vague enough for everyone to agree with, such as “Reaching People with the Gospel” or "Partnering to Reach the Most Needy” or something similar. Use a generic statement of faith and a set of core values that leave a lot of flex room. This is your public face. But once missionaries actually get into the organization, slowly make it known that things are done in a certain way that they are expected to fall in line with. It may be a particular view of the end times, or a position on charismatic gifts or women in leadership, or a particular method for church planting. Only promote diversity in acceptable ways, such as using songs from different parts of the world or from different faith traditions. In other areas, foster a culture of theological and ministry conformity that is significantly narrower that the publicly stated vision and mission. Anyone who doesn’t conform to this particular approach can be quietly pushed out the back door if they don’t resign first.
10. Demand Results
Clearly connect success with numbers. Push for visible results in a given time frame. When those results don’t happen, question what the missionary is doing with their time and whether they are using the right method. It is important for the missionary to base their level of spirituality upon the number of converts won or churches planted. If the missionary continually fails to meet deadlines for the Holy Spirit to work, they will likely conclude they are a failure and go home. If the missionary succeeds in meeting goals, they may become arrogant and other missionaries who fail to produce the same result will compare themselves with this so-called successful missionary and conclude that they don’t have what it takes.
Aside from the 10 tips above, there are likely many other ways to set missionaries up for failure. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section.
I don’t want to see people fail and it makes me sad when I hear about yet another missionary packing their bags and leaving the field. It doesn’t have to be this way. Hopefully this post that you have just read will promote some critical self-reflection and a recogiztion of toxic situations you may feel trapped in. May the bad practices listed above happen less frequently, and more missionaries stay on the field long-term, working with joy and satisfaction in Christ.