A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition, Part II

In part one of this “distant look back,” I discussed the length of time missionaries of the past spent on the field, using data from William Gordon Lennox’s 1933 book, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries. In this segment, I’ll move on to the reasons why their time overseas came to an end.

When determining the causes of missionary attrition, Lennox understands the challenge of drilling down to the truth, writing,

The elder Morgan is credited with this statement, “There are two reasons for a man’s decisions: first, a good reason; second, the real reason.” How many missionaries leave their work is not nearly so interesting and pertinent a question as, why do they leave? Obtaining this information for all missionaries who have left service is a real task. Precipitating or contributing factors must be separated from those of fundamental importance; the reasons which lie behind the merely good reasons must, if possible, be unearthed.

For the missionary employer a lack of funds may be an excellent reason with which to cover his real dissatisfaction with the work of an employee. For the missionary himself, ill health may subconsciously act as substitute for a more fundamental but unexpressed dislike for his missionary task.

To track reasons for withdrawal, Lennox received data from the following missionary boards in the US, for the noted time periods: the general boards of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Northern Baptist Convention (1900-1928), the Northern Baptist women’s board, the board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, and the American Board (1918-1928), and the Young Women’s Christian Association (1918-1927). These groups reported reasons for withdrawal for 3,712 of the 3,733 missionaries who ended their service during these years.

“Undoubtedly a somewhat different picture would be presented,” writes Lennox, “if we had the reasons as given by the missionaries themselves rather than those given by the officials of the boards.” He qualifies this by noting that the Methodist and Baptist general boards did also consider missionary correspondence in their determinations, but the general principle still holds true: that agency leaders and missionaries will often differ in what causes they report. And this, combined with the difficulty of finding the “real” reason, as opposed to the “good” reason, makes collecting those causes even more difficult. But whatever information we are able to gather—even with its limitations—is useful and adds to a fuller understanding of the missionary experience.

So what did Lennox find? Following are the top-ten causes for attrition as reported in The Health and Turnover of Missionaries. Note that these are considered “major” causes, without contributing reasons factored in:

  1. Sickness, 31% (19% missionary, 12% family member)
  2. Death, 15% (12% self, 3% family member)
  3. Age/retirement, 8%
  4. Other, 7%
  5. Difficulty in temperament, 6%
  6. Marriage, 6% (though nearly half married other missionaries and continued their work with other organizations)
  7. Personal claims at home, 5% (such as caring for parents or supervising children’s education)
  8. Term worker, 5% (those who left after a 1-3 year appointment)
  9. War, 4%
  10. Unsatisfactory work/performance, 4%

Lennox groups together temperament, unsatisfactory work, poor personal conduct, disinterest in the work, and deficient faith under the interesting category “Misfits,” which includes 15% of the withdrawals. Of these, 40% had “difficulties in temperament or in getting along well with other missionaries, nationals, or with general missionary policy,” and 30% were lacking in the quality of their work.

As can be seen above, nearly half (46%) of the workers ended their service due to sickness or death—either affecting themselves or a family member. And even this reflects an improvement over the situations faced by earlier pioneers. Here is what Lennox has to say about whose who served a century before his report:

The early days, with their slow sailing ships and their quick viper-striking tropical diseases, saw missionaries dying “with their boots on.” When missionaries went home it was to the Heavenly and not to the American home. Accounts of some missionaries of a century ago end as follows: “jungle fever,” “massacred by cannibals,” “spasmodic cholera,” “thrown from sofa in cabin—shattered nerves,” “in a paroxysm of delirium he plunged into the sea,” “African fever,” “bleeding of the lungs,” “lateness of season in which journey taken,” and again and again, “cholera”—“cholera”—“cholera!”

For the years leading up to 1928, Lennox notes a significant drop in sickness and death as causes of attrition, with deaths decreasing by more than half. And today, those two factors have moved even farther down the list. Certainly much has changed in this area over the last two-hundred years. And yet, many of those who now go abroad in missionary service are still putting their health and lives at risk.

As for the other causes, how do they compare with what’s found in newer rankings? While that’s a useful question, we need to be cautious in formulating an answer. It’s difficult to make accurate comparisons when different surveys use different labels, or common labels have different meanings. Some studies report categories; some break them down into individual causes. Some weigh contributing factors, while others don’t. Some collect data from agencies, with others asking the missionaries themselves. We also need to take into account such things as differences in the number of workers included in the results, where they are from, where they are serving, the kinds of organizations they represent, and the amount of time that is covered.

That being said, I still want to show the following information from two more-recent surveys, not so much for the comparisons, but for the overall context they provide, to draw together their “somewhat different pictures” to help bring into focus a more complete panorama over time. The studies are ReMAP II, published by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship in 1997, and the Missionary Experience Survey, from Andrea Sears at John Brown University, conducted in 2018.

First, here are the top-ten reasons for withdrawal, as collected from US agencies and churches, from ReMAP II. The percentages show the relative importance of the weighted reasons:

  1. Normal retirement, 13.7%
  2. Children, 8.8%
  3. Change of job, 8%
  4. Health problems, 7.4%
  5. Problems with peers, 7.3%
  6. Lack of home support, 6.1%
  7. Disagreement with agency, 4.9%
  8. (tied) Personal concerns, and Marriage/family conflict, 4.5%
  9. Poor cultural adaption, 3.6%

And here are the results gathered by Andrea Sears, from responses sent to her by missionaries from the US and several other countries, with the percentages representing the perceived importance of the weighted categories:

  1. Family, 25.7%
  2. Team/Agency, 22.3%
  3. Other, 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%

In the world of missions, over the years, much has changed. Much, also, has stayed the same. What will the future bring?

We can learn a lot from numbers and statistics—whether that be in the quantity of years served or in the percentages attributed to causes for attrition—but the numbers are valuable only if they point us to the individuals and stories that produced them. And I’m not expressing anything new when I say that numbers don’t give the complete narrative. In fact, Lennox said the same thing years ago.

As he starts his book, he comments that in 1923 there existed 826 Protestant missionary societies and committees, which had spent $70 million that year in support of 29,000 cross-cultural workers serving abroad. And then he adds,

The influence of missions, however, is not to be measured by numbers, either of societies, of men or of dollars. For a hundred years mission-driven men and women have been percolating into the far crannies of the earth. They have jolted over dust-heavy Manchurian plains, paddled into lonely ocean lagoons, established homes in Indian villages of mud, struggled through African thickets and claimed Himalayan heights, bringing, or trying to bring, God to man. These missionaries have altered age-old customs, deflected the course of civilizations, demonstrated goodwill, lived devotion and courage, and turned thoughts in myriads upward.

Yes, much has changed, but the essence of cross-cultural Christian service is one thing that has remained the same: Mission-driven men and women percolating into the far crannies of the earth . . . bringing, or trying to bring, God to man.

(William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933; Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; Andrea Sears, “More Results: Continued Analysis of the Missionary Attrition Survey,” A Life Overseas, September 12, 2018)

[Photo by Made By Morro on Unsplash]

A Distant Look Back at Missionaries and Attrition, Part I


The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.         —William Lennox

Not every former missionary gets an obituary printed in The New York Times, but in 1960, William Gordon Lennox did. Born in Colorado Springs in 1884, Lennox attended Colorado College, but when he applied to the Boston University Divinity School, he was rejected because of his deficiencies in Latin and Greek. For his fall-back plan, he earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, followed by spending four years as a medical missionary in China. It was during his time there that he saw epilepsy firsthand, and upon his return to the States, he devoted himself to the study of the disease, as a teacher and researcher at Harvard. In time, he became known as the “father” of the modern epilepsy movement in the US.*

Also, along the way, he wrote The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, in 1933. I referred to this book in my post “What Is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It, ” and having found a copy since then, I’d like to share more from this extensive study.

Before diving into the more recent findings, Lennox begins by taking a broad look back at “the entire journeyings of the missionary host.”

  • In the more than 100 years of Protestant missionary work preceding the book’s publication, approximately 75,000 missionaries had gone out, providing around 1 million years of service.
  • Their efforts resulted in 110 national Christians per missionary, or 8.3 for each year of work.
  • These missionaries served an average of 12.5 years, with those married averaging 13.7 years, and singles, 8.5 years.
  • By 1923, there were over 29,000 missionaries—representing 826 societies and committees in Europe, the United States, and Canada—serving abroad.

Then Lennox takes a narrower view, concentrating on workers sent out by six foreign missionary boards: the American Board, the board of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the general and women’s boards of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the general and women’s boards of the Northern Baptist Convention. Findings from these groups were also supplemented with survey results from an additional 28 missionary societies from the US, Canada, and Great Britain.

The first missionary from these six boards went abroad in 1812. By 1880, the number of cross-cultural workers from these groups had surpassed 1,000, and by 1932, the total had grown to 4,263. This last figure represents about one-third of Protestant missionaries from North American and about one-sixth of those from around the globe at that time.

Here are some of the data derived from these six boards:

  • In 1830, 49% of missionaries were female. In 1929, women made up 69% of the missionary workforce.
  • For those missionaries entering service after 1900, the most frequent age to set sail was 26 for males and 25 for females.
  • When looking at the length of time overseas, Lennox took two perspectives: counting missionaries sent out in a given period, and counting those who returned in a given period. In the first category, for the 120 missionaries who went abroad before 1830, the average length of service was 18 years. Of the eight decades covered for the sending-out years (1810-1889), the lowest average length of service was recorded from 1830 to 1839, at 15.5 years, and the highest was slightly more than 20 years, for those heading out from 1860 to 1869.
  • When switching to the years in which missionaries ended their service, the studied timeframe covered 1860 to 1928. The lowest average, a little over 10 years, came from those who withdrew (or died in service) from 1890-1899, while those leaving between 1910-1919 averaged a high of between 13 and 14 years.
  • From 1920 to 1928, 10% of female missionaries who withdrew and 15% of male missionaries who withdrew left after serving for 40 years or more.
  • For the whole group of 12,774 missionaries serving up to 1928, the average length of service was 12.4 years. The two-thirds who had already left their service averaged 11.9 years, and the one-third still active averaged 13.4.
  • During the time covered in the study, the “usual term” of service was considered “six or seven years, followed by a year of furlough,” but the end of those first terms did not mark a high point in attrition. Rather, the largest number of missionary withdrawals, 9%, occurred during the third year, with 34% leaving in years 2-5. By the seventh year, half had withdrawn.

At this point I’ll return to the quotation at the top of this post: “The opinion is often expressed that the present-generation missionary does not view his work as a work for life.” It’s the kind of sentiment that sounds as relevant today as it did in 1933—maybe even more so. After making this statement, though, Lennox then goes on to show that the missionaries of his day were actually serving longer, on average, and the proportion of “lifelong” service was increasing compared to their predecessors.

It would be difficult to make the same claim today, as it seems that lengths of missionary service are growing shorter. But determining with precision the details of the current situation is difficult. As seen above, when we count up years of service, it is always a look back. Sometimes it’s a more distant look, when we wait until all those who began in a particular time period have withdrawn. More often, though, we look at the more recent past, considering all those who left their service during a certain timeframe, including in our calculation the long-termers from yesterday but excluding those who may stay for a lifetime tomorrow.

Each way of counting helps us gain understanding, though the two produce different outcomes. Lennox took both approaches, and with a plethora of data, he was able to compare and interpret the results, taking into consideration such things as changing circumstances overseas, evolving missions policies back home, global events, increases in the missionary population, and the list goes on.

An accurate analysis of data today will require the same kind of considerations, helping us answer several questions: Is there currently a gap, as there was in the early 1930s, between opinion and reality? And if so, how wide is it? How much are any changes in length of service due to the environment on the field or to shifting strategies or to the missionaries themselves? How are generational attitudes affecting plans and outcomes?  Are we truly living out long-lasting trends toward shorter service? Is it too early to say?

Half of the equation comes from answering How long do missionaries stay? The other half comes from answering Why do missionaries leave? For both, we can get insights into the present situation by looking at the past.

To that end, in Part II of this discussion, we’ll delve into The Health and Turnover of Missionaries again and consider the reasons for attrition for those who’ve gone before.

*As obituaries tend to do, Dr. Lennox’s praises the high points of his life while neglecting the less than laudatory. As I researched more about him, I found that in addition to being a pioneer in the field of epilepsy treatment, Lennox also came to be a proponent of eugenics, including euthanasia. While those viewpoints don’t impinge on his analysis of the missionary data provided him, and while his attitudes were not uncommon at Harvard and among the general population in that era, I don’t want to ignore this aspect of his life as I bring attention to his work.

(William Gordon Lennox, The Health and Turnover of Missionaries, Methodist Book Concern, 1933; “William Lennox Obituary,” The New York Times, July 23, 1960 (at Lasker Foundation, retrieved from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

Photo by Made By Morro