A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition, Part I


The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.         —William Lennox

Not every former missionary gets an obituary printed in The New York Times, but in 1960, William Gordon Lennox did. Born in Colorado Springs in 1884, Lennox attended Colorado College, but when he applied to the Boston University Divinity School, he was rejected because of his deficiencies in Latin and Greek. For his fall-back plan, he earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, followed by spending four years as a medical missionary in China. It was during his time there that he saw epilepsy firsthand, and upon his return to the States, he devoted himself to the study of the disease, as a teacher and researcher at Harvard. In time, he became known as the “father” of the modern epilepsy movement in the US.*

Also, along the way, he wrote The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, in 1933. I referred to this book in my post “What Is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It, ” and having found a copy since then, I’d like to share more from this extensive study.

Before diving into the more recent findings, Lennox begins by taking a broad look back at “the entire journeyings of the missionary host.”

  • In the more than 100 years of Protestant missionary work preceding the book’s publication, approximately 75,000 missionaries had gone out, providing around 1 million years of service.
  • Their efforts resulted in 110 national Christians per missionary, or 8.3 for each year of work.
  • These missionaries served an average of 12.5 years, with those married averaging 13.7 years, and singles, 8.5 years.
  • By 1923, there were over 29,000 missionaries—representing 826 societies and committees in Europe, the United States, and Canada—serving abroad.

Then Lennox takes a narrower view, concentrating on workers sent out by six foreign missionary boards: the American Board, the board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the general and women’s boards of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the general and women’s boards of the Northern Baptist Convention. Findings from these groups were also supplemented with survey results from an additional 28 missionary societies from the US, Canada, and Great Britain.

The first missionary from these six boards went abroad in 1812. By 1880, the number of cross-cultural workers from these groups had surpassed 1,000, and by 1932, the total had grown to 4,263. This last figure represents about one-third of Protestant missionaries from North American and about one-sixth of those from around the globe at that time.

Here are some of the data derived from these six boards:

  • In 1830, 49% of missionaries were female. In 1929, women made up 69% of the missionary workforce.
  • For those missionaries entering service after 1900, the most frequent age to set sail was 26 for males and 25 for females.
  • When looking at the length of time overseas, Lennox took two perspectives: counting missionaries sent out in a given period, and counting those who returned in a given period. In the first category, for the 120 missionaries who went abroad before 1830, the average length of service was 18 years. Of the eight decades covered for the sending-out years (1810-1889), the lowest average length of service was recorded from 1830 to 1839, at 15.5 years, and the highest was slightly more than 20 years, for those heading out from 1860 to 1869.
  • When switching to the years in which missionaries ended their service, the studied timeframe covered 1860 to 1928. The lowest average, a little over 10 years, came from those who withdrew (or died in service) from 1890-1899, while those leaving between 1910-1919 averaged a high of between 13 and 14 years.
  • From 1920 to 1928, 10% of female missionaries who withdrew and 15% of male missionaries who withdrew left after serving for 40 years or more.
  • For the whole group of 12,774 missionaries serving up to 1928, the average length of service was 12.4 years. The two-thirds who had already left their service averaged 11.9 years, and the one-third still active averaged 13.4.
  • During the time covered in the study, the “usual term” of service was considered “six or seven years, followed by a year of furlough,” but the end of those first terms did not mark a high point in attrition. Rather, the largest number of missionary withdrawals, 9%, occurred during the third year, with 34% leaving in years 2-5. By the seventh year, half had withdrawn.

At this point I’ll return to the quotation at the top of this post: “The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.” It’s the kind of sentiment that sounds as relevant today as it did in 1933—maybe even more so. After making this statement, though, Lennox then goes on to show that the missionaries of his day were actually serving longer, on average, and the proportion of “lifelong” service was increasing compared to their predecessors.

It would be difficult to make the same claim today, as it seems that lengths of missionary service are growing shorter. But determining with precision the details of the current situation is difficult. As seen above, when we count up years of service, it is always a look back. Sometimes it’s a more distant look, when we wait until all those who began in a particular time period have withdrawn. More often, though, we look at the more recent past, considering all those who left their service during a certain timeframe, including in our calculation the long-termers from yesterday but excluding those who may stay for a lifetime tomorrow.

Each way of counting helps us gain understanding, though the two produce different outcomes. Lennox took both approaches, and with a plethora of data, he was able to compare and interpret the results, taking into consideration such things as changing circumstances overseas, evolving missions policies back home, global events, increases in the missionary population, and the list goes on.

An accurate analysis of data today will require the same kind of considerations, helping us answer several questions: Is there currently a gap, as there was in the early 1930s, between opinion and reality? And if so, how wide is it? How much are any changes in length of service due to the environment on the field or to shifting strategies or to the missionaries themselves? How are generational attitudes affecting plans and outcomes?  Are we truly living out long-lasting trends toward shorter service? Is it too early to say?

Half of the equation comes from answering How long do missionaries stay? The other half comes from answering Why do missionaries leave? For both, we can get insights into the present situation by looking at the past.

To that end, in Part II of this discussion, we’ll delve into The Health and Turnover of Missionaries again and consider the reasons for attrition for those who’ve gone before.

*As obituaries tend to do, Dr. Lennox’s praises the high points of his life while neglecting the less than laudatory. As I researched more about him, I found that in addition to being a pioneer in the field of epilepsy treatment, Lennox also came to be a proponent of eugenics, including euthanasia. While those viewpoints don’t impinge on his analysis of the missionary data provided him, and while his attitudes were not uncommon at Harvard and among the general population in that era, I don’t want to ignore this aspect of his life as I bring attention to his work.

(William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933; “William Lennox Obituary,” The New York Times, July 23, 1960 (at Lasker Foundation, retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

Photo by Made By Morro

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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