More Results: Continued Analysis of the Missionary Attrition Survey

by Andrea Sears

Remember that survey of returned missionaries? The missionary who conducted it (me) wrapped up her furlough, headed back to Costa Rica, weathered 2 months of absolute craziness (only part of which is contained in this blog post) and is now finally able to refocus on publishing the results. I am sorry for the delay, as I know many have shown interest in seeing the results!

The decision to “head home” from the mission field is a complex one, to put it lightly. Sometimes that decision is made for us (our term is up, the agency doesn’t allow us to stay longer, it’s time to retire, etc.), but other times we have to decide when the time is right to move on.

We have a lot of different things to consider. Here are just a few of them:

  • Of course there’s our “call” and whether it’s “completed” or we feel a “release” from the call by God, or if we believe He wishes us to continue.
  • Then there’s fundraising: “do we have enough money to live on?”
  • Practical things can’t be ignored, like how our kids are doing, options for their schooling, and who might need us back home.
  • Our own physical or mental health, or that of our spouse or children, can create a need to return for healing’s sake.
  • Life happens, sometimes creating trauma, injury, war, or other conditions that preclude our continuing.
  • And difficulties with our team or agency or co-workers may seem too dysfunctional to overcome, or we might be part of the problem and unwilling to admit it and make changes.
  • And sadly, if we are honest, in the mix of all of this is our own pride:
    • Does leaving mean I have failed?
    • What will God feel about me if I leave?
    • What will my donors think if I leave?
    • Being a missionary makes me “somebody.” What will I be back in my own culture?

In order to be able to share the full-length survey results with anyone who is interested, I have set up a web site to publish the results section by section as I write them up. The site is, for those who want to read the complete “Overview of Survey and Methodology” section. You can subscribe to get updates when new sections are published. And I’ve got a resource list of helpful books and web sites about different aspects of missions.

What follows is a blog-sized teaser of the overview section, setting the stage for understanding and contextualizing the results sections.



The survey was distributed electronically through a variety of networks including popular missionary blogs, the Missio Nexus web site, personal networks, and appeals to forward the survey on to other possible participants. Participants self-selected if they felt they had the time to participate in the survey and were former overseas missionaries who had returned to their “home” country.

Demographic information was collected for each participant, including:

  • gender,
  • ethnicity,
  • age (currently and at time of departure for the mission field),
  • marital status,
  • number of children in the home on the mission field,
  • passport country,
  • religious denomination,
  • mission agency,
  • years on the mission field,
  • countries served,
  • type of work done,
  • language study,
  • funding, and
  • years since leaving the mission field.

Survey questions were grouped into the following 8 sub-topics:

  • Family
  • Team
  • Host country
  • Physical Health
  • Expectations
  • Spiritual
  • Financial
  • Mental health

For each sub-topic, a list of statements (e.g., “I was homesick.”) was provided with instructions for the participant to rate each statement with an answer from the following 5-point scale:

  • 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.

These response options allowed us to measure three important pieces of information for each potential factor, increasing in specificity at each level:

  1. The proportion of missionaries experiencing each factor (answering the question: “how common is this experience on the mission field?”),
  2. The proportion of missionaries that felt that the experienced factor impacted their return decision (answering the question: “does this factor tend to impact the return decision or not?”), and
  3. The strength of the impact of each factor on the return decision (answering the question: “how heavily does each relevant factor weigh in the return decision?”).


Open-Ended Questions

In addition to the scaled responses, several sub-topics had open-ended follow-up questions where participants could share more details or stories (e.g., “If you experienced marital issues and feel comfortable sharing more, please describe them.”). Many heartfelt stories were shared, for which we are grateful. These responses were analyzed qualitatively to look for central themes or particularly poignant quotes that illustrated an important concept.


Overall Factor Weighting Results

Finally, each participant was asked to try to quantify the weighting of each factor in their decision, summing to 100%.

When the overall weightings assigned to each factor are averaged across all survey participants, the following list shows the ranking of each category in terms of perceived importance in making the decision to return to the passport country:

  1. Family: 25.7%
  2. Team/agency: 22.3%
  3. Other (miscellaneous factors not mentioned in other categories): 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%


The next section of analysis will be about family factors, the most heavily weighted category in the return decision for many missionaries. Stay tuned.


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.

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