Expectations: Future Disappointments, Planned Out in Advance

by Andrea Sears

Our perception of an experience can be greatly colored by our expectations. On the one hand, missionaries tend to understand that we must hold any expectations lightly as we travel to live in another country. We know that with so much change in our lives at once, the nature of some of those changes will surely be unexpected and surprising. We are prepared to be flexible. However, if the dissonance between expectations and reality is large enough, it can cause pervasive dissatisfaction that negatively impacts our assessment of the missionary experience and ultimately causes attrition.

It can also be true that we enter new situations with expectations that we don’t even realize we have. It’s possible that we have not been adequately informed of what to expect at all, so our imaginations have filled in the lack of information. We can even romanticize what life will be like on the mission field, filled with rewarding work for the Lord and saving souls day after day, with our well-adjusted families serving at our sides. For if the Lord is with us and has called us to this life, everything will be great, right?

It is important to examine the role that expectations play in the missionary experience, along with their potential role in causing missionary attrition. We all are going to have some expectations upon going to the mission field about what things will be like – whether we should or not, and whether they are realistic or not. It is important to recognize what our expectations are, and whether they are realistic, so that we can manage them (and the ensuing disappointments when we and others fail to live up to our ideals).

In a 2017 study on missionary attrition, we measured the frequency and strength of influence on the decision to leave the mission field for the following statements. This table summarizes the results by providing:

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field,
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor who said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect, and
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision.

The two areas that reached statistical significance on the strength factors were unmet expectations regarding team members and job responsibilities. In addition to the scaled data above, we collected open comments on these and other areas.

In our survey, 38.6% of participants responded to the question, “If applicable, how did your team members not meet your expectations?” One wise commenter gave an excellent overall perspective on this question:

“Tricky question because the only way people fail to live up to expectations is if we forget that they are people who are still trying to die to self and can have bad days and seasons . . . even if they are missionaries! In the end, you have to set your expectations on God, and as leaders build systems with accountability and systems to help protect people from leaning on anything other than God’s strength.”

Of the many comments we received, the most common ways that team relationships disappointed were in the level of interpersonal dysfunction or emotional unhealthiness of team members; the level of cohesiveness/community on their team; differences in personality, politics, life stage, etc.; the quality of leadership; and the level of disengagement on the team.

32% of survey participants responded to the question, “If applicable, how did your job responsibilities not meet your expectations?” The most common concerns were that the role was not as advertised, it was a poor fit with their skills, the workload was too low or too high (more often too high), it was a poorly defined role (which can easily cause conflict on the team when toes get stepped on), they felt “put in a box” (not free to use their unique skills and ideas), and that leadership on what they were supposed to be doing was inadequate.

Mission agencies, sending churches, missionaries, and family and friends of missionaries can benefit from this examination of expectations that missionaries have when going to the field and the many ways that real life can fail to live up to them. It can help to understand the common feelings and experiences missionaries share and to be aware of how to support them more effectively through it.

This is an extremely brief summary of a 37-page report on expectations factors related to missionary attrition, with lots of sample comments to delve into. For the full report on expectations factors related to missionary attrition, click here.


*Thanks to Elizabeth George for the insightful definition of expectations found in the article title.


Andrea Sears and her husband, Seth, spent 13 years working in the largest immigrant squatter settlement in Central America (in Costa Rica) and founded the Christian community development ministry giveDIGNITY. She holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Johnson University. She currently lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, directs the ministry’s local team from afar, and enjoys living near family and being a new grandmother.

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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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