Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results

by Katie Rowe

For those of you who participated in or have been following the missionary attrition study from last fall, this is the post that you have been waiting for. It is time for some initial results!

Back in November of 2017, Andrea Sears wrote a post that explained the necessity of research on current missionary attrition rates and the primary causes. Her post was a reaction to Craig Thompson’s post that asked the question “Is team conflict really the primary reason that missionaries choose to leave the field?” Thompson noted that in previous research, data about this question had only been collected from leadership within missionary agencies rather than from former missionaries themselves. We sought to close this gap in the results by surveying former missionaries from every habitable continent.

What was our question?

Our primary question in implementing the research study was “What are the greatest preventable reasons that missionaries choose to return to their passport countries?” We wanted to know what factors need additional attention by mission agencies and missionaries themselves in setting appropriate expectations, conducting training, and actually living life in community on the mission field.

What was our hypothesis?

Based on previous research, our hypothesis was that the most common preventable factor that influences missionaries’ decisions to return to their passport countries is team conflict or issues with peer missionaries.

Who participated?

In total, there were 745 former missionaries who filled out the research survey. The majority (more than 70%) were originally from the United States, but there were also people from Australia, Canada, Europe, and other places. The countries of service numbered over 140 different nations from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. The majority (more than 65%) of the participants were women.

About 48% of participants were between the ages of 20-29 when they first went to the mission field, followed by about 35% being between 30-39 years of age. The age of every participant at the time of the survey was between 20-years-old and over 80-years-old, with the majority (about 30%) being between 30-39 years of age. The average time that the participants spent on the mission field was 9 years. All participants were people who had formerly been missionaries, yet, had decided to return to their passport country.

What did we find?

Of the 9 categories of factors listed in the survey (family, team/agency, host country, health, expectations, spiritual, financial, mental health, and other), two categories ranked significantly higher than the others. These two categories were family factors and team/agency factors. In the family category, most if not all of the factors would be considered unpreventable by a missionary agency, such as experiencing serious marital issues or needing to take care of extended family who live away from the mission field. In relationship to the hypothesis, this directs our focus to the team/agency category.

Of the team/agency factors, the highest rated factors in the decision to return to a passport country as perceived by former missionaries were lack of missionary care, lack of integrity on the team, lack of freedom to pursue calling, team conflict, and confusion over role on the team (see graph below).

While all of these factors were significantly higher than the other factors in this category, not all of these five results are significantly different from one another. At a glance, it may appear as though too little missionary care was perceived to be the most influential factor in the team/agency section. However, there was not a statistically significant difference between too little missionary care and perceived lack of team member integrity. While we cannot say for certain that too little missionary care is the single most influential preventable factor, we can say that it is certainly a significant factor for this population of missionaries.

What now?

An initial analysis of these results shows that unlike the results of previous studies, team conflict may not be the number one most preventable reason that missionaries choose to return to their passport countries. These results show that too little missionary care is at least equally important. In considering measures that need to be taken to avoid missionaries leaving for preventable causes, it would be useful to look at the top five factors that were rated significantly higher than the others. These factors were (1) too little missionary care, (2) lack of team member integrity, (3) lack of ability to pursue calling, (4) team conflict, and (5) role confusion.  With these results, missionary agencies and organizations may focus their efforts in these areas.

While these results point to some intriguing conclusions, there is still much left to discover. In this study alone, there are thousands of open-ended responses that give context and meaning to the raw data. It would be impossible to compile such rich data in such a brief post as this. What you have just read is an initial analysis of the quantitative results.

It is our hope to continue analyzing the data, now looking at the qualitative data and summarizing common themes and noting exceptional comments on each issue identified as a factor. For example, when people provided comments about their team conflict, what themes emerge that warrant attention? Ideally, this will give us more insight into what the participants meant by the answers that they selected. In doing so, we hope to uncover valuable stories that will ultimately help missionaries better serve and be served in the future.


Katie Rowe is in her junior year at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She is working towards her Bachelor’s in Psychology and Intercultural Studies with hopes to become a licensed counselor. She has served on a few short-term mission trips to Central America and Asia with Missions.Me and she is preparing to spend the summer in Europe with Youth With A Mission. Katie and her fiance, Noah Brown, both feel that God has called them to be cross-cultural missionaries and they are looking forward to everything that He has for them.
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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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