Family Factors in Missionary Attrition

by Andrea Sears

Forging ahead with the results of our returned missionary survey

The first major section of the report has to do with factors related to family dynamics (nuclear and extended). We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be family-related factors:

  • I was single and I felt that I would find my spouse back in my home country.
  • I wanted to start a family and have children in my home country.
  • I experienced marital issues.
  • My kids were not adjusting well.
  • There was a lack of options for my child/children’s education.
  • I sent my kids to college.
  • I wanted to be close to my adult children.
  • I wanted to be close to my grandchildren.
  • I wanted to be close to my aging/ailing parents.
  • I felt that my extended family needed me.

For each of these statements, we asked them to choose one of the following 5 answers:

  • I did not experience this on the mission field.
  • I did experience this, but it had no effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a slight effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a moderate effect on my decision to leave.
  • This had a strong effect on my decision to leave.

Click here to see the full report with tables and charts and all sorts of cool data. I can’t include near that level of detail here.

 

Discussion of Quantitative Results

The first striking observation is the sheer number of missionaries that are experiencing these family stress factors. Six out of ten of the factors have higher than 50% incidence rates, indicating that the majority of missionary families will deal with them at some point.

Compared to people living in their passport countries, who may not have the additional marital, family, and educational challenges of the mission field (not to mention factors from the other sections of this study, including financial, cultural, etc.), missionaries are subject to a compounding effect as these stressors accumulate. The high percentages of missionaries experiencing each factor guarantees that each family is experiencing multiple family stressors, perhaps serially over time, or perhaps at the same time.

Marital issues, adjustment and education of the children, and wanting to be near family that need them in their passport country (college students, adult children, parents, or other extended family) are all important issues for missionaries to balance with their overseas ministry, since over 50% of participants who experienced those issues felt that they affected their return decision to some degree.

Educational options for the children and having aging/ailing parents that need care are the two strongest family factors in making a decision to return to the passport country, according to the weighting of responses given.

The full report gives a more detailed discussion of the results for each question and the possible reasons for those results.

We also wanted to compare the responses generationally to see if there are factor differences related to age. Do younger and older missionaries have a different experience or different values that impact their return decisions? To check for this, we selected the subset of survey respondents who were under 30 when they went to the mission field, on the field less than 10 years, and left the field less than 10 years ago. This subset accounted for 190 of the surveyed individuals.

When the subset of younger missionaries is compared with the overall sample on family factors, several differences can be seen. Younger missionaries were:

  • More likely to report the experience of singles feeling their spouse would be found in their passport country (89% versus 71% in the overall sample).
  • More likely to report that they wanted to start their family in their passport country (49% versus 27%).
  • Less likely to report marital problems (41% versus 54%).
  • Less likely to report kids’ adjustment problems (33% versus 58%).
  • Less likely to report concern about educational options for their children (38% versus 64%).
  • Less likely to report wanting to be near aging/ailing parents (35% versus 50%), but it was still the highest strength index in the family factor group (1.11).

This makes sense, as given the age of the missionaries while they were on the field, they were more likely to still be in the single or child-bearing years. If they had children, they were likely young enough to be more adaptable and easier to educate with available options. And this generation of missionaries didn’t experience issues like sending kids off to college or wanting to be closer to adult children or grandchildren at all.

 

Qualitative Data on Marital Issues

In addition to the quantitative scaled information, we collected open comments on the following question: “If you experienced marital issues and you feel comfortable sharing, please describe them.”

Hundreds of comments were provided and helped to delve into the reasons that missionaries struggle with marriage and family issues on the field.

These were the most common issues we heard about that produced marital stress:

  • extreme stress, coupled with the isolation, of living overseas
  • a lack of friends to talk to about problems
  • the all-consuming nature of the mission work and the pressures of working closely together in a shared career
  • not taking the necessary time out of the work context to nurture their marriage and spouse or to process things together
  • temptations to neglect those closest to them in order to perform well in the ministry
  • one spouse’s depression, burnout, or anxiety that affected their closest relationships negatively
  • anger at the way a spouse was (or was not perceived to be) coping with life overseas
  • disappointment (usually of the wife) with her lack of a fulfilling role in the ministry
  • the pain of the trailing spouse (again, more frequently the wife) who didn’t want to be on the mission field but had submitted to her husband’s call to life overseas

The full report contains more detail and quotes from comments given to illustrate these points if you want to delve in deeper.

 

Qualitative Data on Children’s Adjustment Issues 

We also collected open comments on the following question: “If your kids were not adjusting well and you feel comfortable sharing, describe specifically why.”

Again, hundreds of comments were provided. Here are some of the most common:

  • looking different, standing out, and receiving unwanted attention in the form of staring, touching, teasing, or even bullying
  • isolation and the lack of friends or a social group
  • grief as a result of leaving behind friends, family, or adult siblings in their passport country
  • resentment or anger toward parents over their decision to go to the mission field
  • having parents that are distracted by a million other things and find their ability to parent compromised in the chaos
  • depression and anxiety as they struggle to cope with the many transitions in their lives

Again, more details and stories on this in the full report.

 

Conclusions 

While family factors have typically been considered non-preventable by other studies, some of them ARE preventable with the proper preparation, care, and treatment. The following areas should be revisited within mission agencies and sending churches, regarding how well they promote the health and welfare of marriages and families:

  • the selection process
  • preparation, training, and expectation-setting
  • missionary care
  • mission policy
  • work-life balance

(More detail and a discussion of each area in the full report.)

But in the end, no matter how phenomenal a job our mission agencies or sending churches do in safeguarding and caring for our families, it is every missionary’s responsibility to ask him/herself some hard questions:

  • Am I too proud to reach out for help when I need it and be real about struggles with my friends, family, supporters, sending church, or mission agency? Am I trying to perpetuate the missionary pedestal or save my funding by presenting only the best face?
  • Am I driving a wedge in my marriage by judging my spouse, or not offering the emotional support that they need?
  • Am I a workaholic? Am I willing to sacrifice the needs of my family to the ministry?
  • Am I allowing life overseas and my ministry to distract me from parenting and tending to my children’s needs (and griefs?

Our families have been granted to us by God and are our most important ministry and opportunity to serve. Our intimacy with our spouse or the well-being of our children should never be sacrificed to our ministry. Our ministry vision must be realigned to include ministry within our families (for both women AND men) if we want longevity and health on the mission field.

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Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

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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.