What is the Average Length of Service for Missionaries on the Field? The Long and the Short of It

Before you read on, I want you to take a shot at answering the question in the title of this post. Don’t think on it too long. Just go with your gut.

What is the average length of service for missionaries on the field?

Have an answer? OK, what number did you come up with? And if your number were true, would you consider it a sign of hope or a reason for concern? What would you think if I told you the real average is 4 years? What about 8? What about 12?

For insight into the actual statistics, let’s go to ReMAP II, the 2003 survey of mission agencies conducted by the World Evangelical Alliance. In an article looking at the survey’s results, Jim Van Meter, part of the ReMAP II steering committee, writes that for career missionaries from the US who left the field in 2001 or 2002, the average length of service was 12 years. (Here, “career missionaries” means those planning on spending three or more years abroad.)

So there you have it . . . 12 years.

Before moving on, I do want to address this number’s shortcomings. First, it shows a snapshot from nearly 20 years ago. While it would be great to have more-current data, extensive surveys such as ReMAP II aren’t conducted every year, so we have to go with what’s available.

Also, the figure covers US missionaries only. I wish I could give you a global number, but I haven’t seen that derived from ReMAP II, and I don’t have access to the survey’s raw data to try to work that out on my own. Even if it were available, though, a worldwide figure might not be as helpful as looking at each country’s numbers individually. But in this case, the figure from the US is still significant as it involves agencies representing 15,087 missionaries, which make up nearly 40% of the total (over 38,700) covered by the survey.

The 12-year figure also tracks with other overall numbers provided by ReMAP II. In the first chapter of Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, the editors use data from the survey to show that missionaries in “high retaining agencies” stayed for an average of 17 years, while those in “low retaining agencies” averaged 7.

I also found two PowerPoint presentations online based on ReMAP II results that provide global comparisons:

  • Concerning missionaries from “Older Sending Countries” (from agencies in Australia, Europe, New Zealand, North America, and South Africa), those from high-retaining agencies stayed for an average of 15.5 years, while those from low-retaining agencies averaged 7.9.
  • For those from “Newer Sending Countries” (from agencies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia)—which, by definition, haven’t been sending out missionaries for as long—the respective lengths of service abroad were 10 years for high-retaining agencies and 6.3 years for low-retaining.

Back to 12 years. Does that number surprise you? Is it higher than you thought it would be? If you’re like me, your answer is yes to both questions.

Before I began working on this post, I’d heard people say that missionaries stay an average of fewer than five years. At the time, that seemed somewhat low to me, but not so low that I could confidently dismiss it. But if 12 years is accurate, then where do the low numbers come from, and why do they at least sound good enough to be repeated? I think I’ve come up with a few possibilities:

  • The current dominant message is that, overall, missionaries today aren’t staying long enough overseas. So when we come across low estimates, they affirm that belief and get our attention, and those are the numbers we tend to remember and pass on. Conversely, we don’t repeat a figure like 12 years because it doesn’t seem short enough to validate that attitude . . . though it could be. Van Meter points out that those workers who leave at 12 years are “in their prime of service,” heading back “just when [they] are ready to enter that phase of ‘unique contribution’ in their ministry.”
  • A higher figure makes sense when we remember to factor in those missionaries who stay for decades beyond the average. Their length on the field, though, is offset by the number of individuals who return more quickly (many on the average’s other side). This volume and movement in the lower range is often more noticeable than the steady accumulation of years by the longest serving.
  • Also, if we assume that today’s missionaries, on average, will spend less time abroad than their counterparts in the past, it’s easy to discount those who’ve been on the field for the longest time, since they’re the product of a different generation. Maybe the trend toward shorter service is actually already in place, but only hindsight from a vantage point in the future will let us know that for sure.
  • And asking what the “average length of service” is is different from asking how long the “average missionary” stays overseas. In this case, the years of service for the typical missionary would probably be lower than 12 (at least I assume that’s true). How much lower? That would be interesting to know.

In 1933, a former medical missionary in China and professor at Harvard Medical School, William Gordon Lennox, wrote The Health and Turnover of Missionaries. It discusses various reasons for missionary attrition, giving special attention to life expectancy on the field. A synopsis of the book, in the March 10, 1934, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association contains the following, showing just how much things have changed over the last nearly 200 years:

In recent years there has been a curtailment in the financial support and in the number of persons who volunteer for service as foreign missionaries. In 1928 the medical secretaries of four large American boards requested that an analysis of the data in their medical files be made so that their judgments might be based on scientific knowledge rather than on general impressions. . . . There have been 75,000 workers, of whom 48,000 were women, in more than a century of Protestant missionary work. Only 25,000 of the total are still active. Of the 50,000 who have left the work, 10,000 died while actively engaged and 40,000 left in order to rest or to enter other employment. The death rate and the resignation rate among the women missionaries were greater than among the men. The average length of the period of service of these missionaries has been twelve and a half years.

(Jim Van Meter, “US Report of Findings on Missionary Retention,” World Evangelical Alliance, December 2003; Rob Hay, et al, eds., Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, William Carey, 2007; “ReMAP II—Retaining Missionaries—Agency Practices: Older Sending Countries in Europe and North America,” published online by Mavis O’Connor; “ReMAP II—Retaining Missionaries—Agency Practices: Newer Sending Countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America,” published online by Hailie Rains; “Book Notices,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, March 10, 1934)

[photo: “Behind the Clock, Musée d’Orsay,” by Erika, used under a Creative Commons license]