by Andrea Sears
In reviewing the cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 survey participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:
For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.
Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:
- I struggled with the local language of my host country.
- I struggled with the local culture of my host country.
- I struggled with local relationships in my host country.
- I missed the developed world.
- I experienced security issues.
- I had limited access to electricity and/or technology.
- I felt taken advantage of by locals for resources.
- I experienced conflict with locals that grew out of cultural differences.
- I experienced conflict with locals that was unaffected by cultural differences.
- I had to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues.
- I was in danger of persecution because of my faith/vocation.
- I was in danger of persecution because of my nationality.
- Political instability or armed conflict made it too dangerous to stay.
- National economic instability made it untenable to stay.
- The government restricted missionary activities to the point that I was unable to work in the area of my calling.
- The climate was difficult for me to live in.
- A natural disaster caused me to be evacuated.
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.
Two of the strongest factors in this group were: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues and (2) having security issues. Interestingly, the issues experienced by the most people are thankfully those that are at least in part within the missionary’s locus of control, such as the first four statements on the list. This is a place to look for preventable attrition and prepare missionaries to better weather cultural stress.
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and tenure, or between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language.
Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure.
The majority of participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. However, those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. Those studying less than 3 months more often reported that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision.
We also collected open comments on the following question: “What aspects of the local culture did you struggle with?”
Themes that consistently emerged in the comments, ranked by prevalence, were: (1) honor/shame culture and the resulting style of indirect communication, (2) income disparity, (3) gender inequity, (4) corruption/crime, (5) demands of hospitality and having less privacy, and (6) less focus on order/efficiency.
Other themes also frequently mentioned were visibly not fitting in, language difficulties, fatalism, different concepts of time/pace of life, local supernaturalistic beliefs, and different cleanliness/hygiene standards.
Unfortunately, comments about culture often contained tones of negative judgment, with indirect communication being categorized as “dishonesty” or fatalism being called “laziness.” One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own worldview permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things, leading us to evaluate others unfavorably when they don’t share our values. Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us).
We also collected comments on the question: “What did you struggle with in your local relationships?”
Themes commonly mentioned were language barriers, developing intimacy and trust, the time required to build friendship as an outsider, differing relationship expectations, and distinguishing between true friendships and ministry.
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.
Conclusions and recommendations include preparing missionaries to cross-cultures well, including a list of topics to cover in training and coaching; learning and using the skill of cognitive reframing to minimize ethnocentrism; curbing certain Western tendencies to adjust to different settings; and self-care.
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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.