A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition, Part II

In part one of this “distant look back,” I discussed the length of time missionaries of the past spent on the field, using data from William Gordon Lennox’s 1933 book, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries. In this segment, I’ll move on to the reasons why their time overseas came to an end.

When determining the causes of missionary attrition, Lennox understands the challenge of drilling down to the truth, writing,

The elder Morgan is credited with this statement, “There are two reasons for a man’s decisions: first, a good reason; second, the real reason.” How many missionaries leave their work is not nearly so interesting and pertinent a question as, why do they leave? Obtaining this information for all missionaries who have left service is a real task. Precipitating or contributing factors must be separated from those of fundamental importance; the reasons which lie behind the merely good reasons must, if possible, be unearthed.

For the missionary employer a lack of funds may be an excellent reason with which to cover his real dissatisfaction with the work of an employee. For the missionary himself, ill health may subconsciously act as substitute for a more fundamental but unexpressed dislike for his missionary task.

To track reasons for withdrawal, Lennox received data from the following missionary boards in the US, for the noted time periods: the general boards of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Northern Baptist Convention (1900-1928), the Northern Baptist women’s board, the board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, and the American Board (1918-1928), and the Young Women’s Christian Association (1918-1927). These groups reported reasons for withdrawal for 3,712 of the 3,733 missionaries who ended their service during these years.

“Undoubtedly a somewhat different picture would be presented,” writes Lennox, “if we had the reasons as given by the missionaries themselves rather than those given by the officials of the boards.” He qualifies this by noting that the Methodist and Baptist general boards did also consider missionary correspondence in their determinations, but the general principle still holds true: that agency leaders and missionaries will often differ in what causes they report. And this, combined with the difficulty of finding the “real” reason, as opposed to the “good” reason, makes collecting those causes even more difficult. But whatever information we are able to gather—even with its limitations—is useful and adds to a fuller understanding of the missionary experience.

So what did Lennox find? Following are the top-ten causes for attrition as reported in The Health and Turnover of Missionaries. Note that these are considered “major” causes, without contributing reasons factored in:

  1. Sickness, 31% (19% missionary, 12% family member)
  2. Death, 15% (12% self, 3% family member)
  3. Age/retirement, 8%
  4. Other, 7%
  5. Difficulty in temperament, 6%
  6. Marriage, 6% (though nearly half married other missionaries and continued their work with other organizations)
  7. Personal claims at home, 5% (such as caring for parents or supervising children’s education)
  8. Term worker, 5% (those who left after a 1-3 year appointment)
  9. War, 4%
  10. Unsatisfactory work/performance, 4%

Lennox groups together temperament, unsatisfactory work, poor personal conduct, disinterest in the work, and deficient faith under the interesting category “Misfits,” which includes 15% of the withdrawals. Of these, 40% had “difficulties in temperament or in getting along well with other missionaries, nationals, or with general missionary policy,” and 30% were lacking in the quality of their work.

As can be seen above, nearly half (46%) of the workers ended their service due to sickness or death—either affecting themselves or a family member. And even this reflects an improvement over the situations faced by earlier pioneers. Here is what Lennox has to say about whose who served a century before his report:

The early days, with their slow sailing ships and their quick viper-striking tropical diseases, saw missionaries dying “with their boots on.” When missionaries went home it was to the Heavenly and not to the American home. Accounts of some missionaries of a century ago end as follows: “jungle fever,” “massacred by cannibals,” “spasmodic cholera,” “thrown from sofa in cabin—shattered nerves,” “in a paroxysm of delirium he plunged into the sea,” “African fever,” “bleeding of the lungs,” “lateness of season in which journey taken,” and again and again, “cholera”—“cholera”—“cholera!”

For the years leading up to 1928, Lennox notes a significant drop in sickness and death as causes of attrition, with deaths decreasing by more than half. And today, those two factors have moved even farther down the list. Certainly much has changed in this area over the last two-hundred years. And yet, many of those who now go abroad in missionary service are still putting their health and lives at risk.

As for the other causes, how do they compare with what’s found in newer rankings? While that’s a useful question, we need to be cautious in formulating an answer. It’s difficult to make accurate comparisons when different surveys use different labels, or common labels have different meanings. Some studies report categories; some break them down into individual causes. Some weigh contributing factors, while others don’t. Some collect data from agencies, with others asking the missionaries themselves. We also need to take into account such things as differences in the number of workers included in the results, where they are from, where they are serving, the kinds of organizations they represent, and the amount of time that is covered.

That being said, I still want to show the following information from two more-recent surveys, not so much for the comparisons, but for the overall context they provide, to draw together their “somewhat different pictures” to help bring into focus a more complete panorama over time. The studies are ReMAP II, published by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship in 1997, and the Missionary Experience Survey, from Andrea Sears at John Brown University, conducted in 2018.

First, here are the top-ten reasons for withdrawal, as collected from US agencies and churches, from ReMAP II. The percentages show the relative importance of the weighted reasons:

  1. Normal retirement, 13.7%
  2. Children, 8.8%
  3. Change of job, 8%
  4. Health problems, 7.4%
  5. Problems with peers, 7.3%
  6. Lack of home support, 6.1%
  7. Disagreement with agency, 4.9%
  8. (tied) Personal concerns, and Marriage/family conflict, 4.5%
  9. Poor cultural adaption, 3.6%

And here are the results gathered by Andrea Sears, from responses sent to her by missionaries from the US and several other countries, with the percentages representing the perceived importance of the weighted categories:

  1. Family, 25.7%
  2. Team/Agency, 22.3%
  3. Other, 10.3%
  4. Health, 10%
  5. Mental health, 9.5%
  6. Host country, 6.6%
  7. Spiritual, 6.5%
  8. Financial, 5.2%
  9. Expectations, 3.9%

In the world of missions, over the years, much has changed. Much, also, has stayed the same. What will the future bring?

We can learn a lot from numbers and statistics—whether that be in the quantity of years served or in the percentages attributed to causes for attrition—but the numbers are valuable only if they point us to the individuals and stories that produced them. And I’m not expressing anything new when I say that numbers don’t give the complete narrative. In fact, Lennox said the same thing years ago.

As he starts his book, he comments that in 1923 there existed 826 Protestant missionary societies and committees, which had spent $70 million that year in support of 29,000 cross-cultural workers serving abroad. And then he adds,

The influence of missions, however, is not to be measured by numbers, either of societies, of men or of dollars. For a hundred years mission-driven men and women have been percolating into the far crannies of the earth. They have jolted over dust-heavy Manchurian plains, paddled into lonely ocean lagoons, established homes in Indian villages of mud, struggled through African thickets and claimed Himalayan heights, bringing, or trying to bring, God to man. These missionaries have altered age-old customs, deflected the course of civilizations, demonstrated goodwill, lived devotion and courage, and turned thoughts in myriads upward.

Yes, much has changed, but the essence of cross-cultural Christian service is one thing that has remained the same: Mission-driven men and women percolating into the far crannies of the earth . . . bringing, or trying to bring, God to man.

(William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933; Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; Andrea Sears, “More Results: Continued Analysis of the Missionary Attrition Survey,” A Life Overseas, September 12, 2018)

[Photo by Made By Morro on Unsplash]

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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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