Too Much Member Care—Can There Be Such a Thing?

It’s a question I’m reluctant to ask, because I’m a strong proponent of more effort and resources devoted to caring for cross-cultural workers. But here it is: Can there be too much member care?

To help with the answer, I’ll dip once more into the deep well of data from ReMAP and ReMAP II, studies conducted by the World Evangelical Fellowship/World Evangelical Alliance. And more specifically, I’ll consult the analysis of those results by Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, who first asked the question more than twenty years ago. The pair examine the effects of member care on attrition in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, and Blöcher addresses the issue in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention.

Cutting to the chase, here is what they found: An increase in time and money devoted to missionary care, as a proportion of a sending organization’s total resources, tracks with a decrease in “preventable” attrition. That’s true, though, only until a tipping point is reached. Above that percentage, more care actually correlates with more workers leaving the field. While the first finding seems obvious to me, I have to say that the second one doesn’t align with my general assumptions and seems to fly in the face of my advocacy for more and more member care. But I can’t ignore information just because it doesn’t easily fit my personal views.

This requires a closer look, so here are more details: The first ReMAP study, published in 1997, looked at the overall area of “field care and support,” made up of ten items (field leadership, pastoral care, job description, on-the-job training, annual leave, regular field visits, provision for children, team structure, letters or phone calls, and conferences). When considering agencies with 26-200 members (the group giving the “most reliable results”), the study found “a clear and positive relationship” between the percentage of an agency’s overall time and money spent on these kinds of care and lower rates of attrition. But once the percentage reaches 6%, preventable attrition begins to rise. 

Ten years later, ReMAP II asked agencies (in both ReMAP studies, the term agencies also includes individual churches that send out missionaries on their own) to estimate the percentage of their total time devoted to “pastoral” or “member” care. Its findings reinforce those of ReMAP I. When considering potentially preventable causes of attrition for agencies from “Old Sending Countries,” a drop-off in retention occurs when the proportion of member-care staff hours climbs above 10%.

How are we to interpret these results? Following are some questions to consider, gleaned from thoughts presented in Blöcher’s writing:

  • Does too much attention paid to looking for missionary difficulties create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • Could member care interfere with missionaries’ development of resilience and produce attitudes of self-centeredness and entitlement?
  • If an organization is known for its strong member care, might it attract struggling candidates?
  • Could an agency be inclined to accept applicants with obvious issues, assuming that its extensive member care will take care of them after they go abroad?
  • Do professional counselors sometimes too quickly encourage workers to leave the field?
  • When large amounts of  money and time are spent on member care, does that hurt the organization by pulling resources from other priorities?

All of these are interesting questions. Some make more sense to me than others, but I can’t discount any of them out of hand. Having said that, here are a few ideas to add, to help in the discussion.

As we’ve talked about before at A Life Overseas, when surveys are conducted concerning the missions experience, it matters who is queried, as we can expect variations between responses from agency leaders and from field workers. The ReMAP studies consulted agencies, coming up with the results referenced above. But two years ago, when Andrea Sears surveyed former missionaries about their reasons for leaving the field, one of their highest-rated factors was “lack of missionary care.” I wonder if some of this disconnect comes from how we define the terms. “Member care,” “missionary care,” “pastoral care,” “personal care,” “personal support,” and “field care and support” may mean different things to different people. It’s quite possible that agency representatives could be offering what they consider member care while those on the receiving end don’t see it as such. It’s also possible that care may be distributed unevenly or that it’s not adequately reaching those who need it most.

Along the same lines, the giver of the care makes a difference, too. As an example, while an agency leader may make a field visit with the plan to minister to a worker’s spiritual and emotional health, the worker may not feel safe enough, given authority structures, to share openly. Thus, the missionary may interpret the visit in a much different way than the visitor does.

There’s also the factor that not all member care is created equal. As Blöcher points out, the ReMAP surveys could only look at quantity of member care, not quality. Here’s one aspect of this: When extra member care is added, can it become diluted? For instance, if all personnel were tasked with giving 25% of their time to member care, would it really translate into a 25% increase in actual care? Or might it become, in practice, neglected, as in “everyone’s job is no one’s job”?

How do third-party member-care givers fit into this equation? If a cross-cultural worker receives member care above and beyond what is supplied by the agencies—from dedicated member-care organizations and professionals, supporting churches, or informal sources—could that contribute to an even-higher rate of attrition? Or could it be that those outside the agency can provide more of the kind of care that missionaries are desiring? Or is care directly from the agency necessary for the missionaries to see that they are valued by their organizations?

Another issue involving member care from outside the sending organization is that those caregivers may not have the same commitment to retention or length of service that the sending group has. Therefore, they may be quicker to support workers in making the decision to leave. For some, this may lead to a premature exit. But it can also allow for the kind of necessary leaving that is best for all involved. Blöcher acknowledges the need for this type of attrition.

To me, one of the strongest explanations for the connection between excessive member care and higher retention is the recognition of how an increase in member care affects other services offered. For most organizations, allocating dollars and hours is something of a zero-sum game, so adding to one area necessitates subtracting from another. But as Blöcher states, member care should not be considered a replacement for other important components. In fact, he reports that

mission agencies with very intensive [member care] programs gave a significantly lower rating in organisational issues like: Mission statement, Clear goals, Missionaries’ pre-field training (especially in Missiology), Effective orientation of new missionaries in the place of service, Language study, Supervision, Effective administrative support, Sustained and adequate financial support, and Maintenance of spiritual life.

When member care is emphasized, what might be neglected?

We also need to consider that for some organizations, the cause and effect could be reversed, meaning that a high rate of attrition (or in anticipation of such) could be what brings about an extreme commitment to member care. In those cases, the increased care would come as a response to workers leaving the field, and it might take some time for the new and greater devotion to member care to have a positive effect. It’s also possible that, in some cases, the increased proportion of time and money going towards member care is not the result of growth in the number of member-care personnel but rather comes from a decrease in other categories of workers.

The type of member care invested in is also an important factor. When ReMAP II compared preventative care (“strengthening of the missionaries’ personality and spiritual life”) to crisis response and restoration, retention was shown to decrease when too much attention was paid to one over the other. In one subgroup of Old Sending Countries, the best proportion for lowering preventable attrition was 40% preventative care to 60% crisis intervention, while a snapshot of New Sending Country data put the best mix of the two at around half and half.

And if we return to the components making up ReMAP I’s field care and support (listed above), we see that the data show that the presence of all but two of these items correlate with an increase in the preventable attrition rate. Only regular letters or phone calls showed “a clear positive effect,” and on-the-job training showed a “marginal” positive effect. This led Blöcher and Lewis to conclude that

good communication with the missionary may be the single most significant support item in helping lower preventable attrition. It is not likely that the rest of the items in and of themselves actually increase attrition, yet agencies with low attrition rates have invested less into these benefits. This means that support on the field in itself will not keep people in service, unless it has been preceded by careful candidate screening as well as pre-field training and possible other factors.

So what do we do with this information . . . and speculation? First, we shouldn’t forget the correlation between too little member care and higher rates of attrition. But we also can’t ignore the data as member care increases.

Member care is a good thing. Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes. But agencies will need to understand the whys in order to formulate their priorities and policies in this area. And for cross-cultural workers, I would caution against avoiding help for fear that it will do more harm than good. Those who are struggling often tend to be embarrassed by their needs, thinking that they’re at fault and don’t deserve extra attention. Instead, they believe it’s up to them to try harder on their own. This is difficult to figure out when you’re at your weakest and most vulnerable. That’s when it is all the more necessary to have someone skilled, someone trustworthy, someone who can provide empathy and honest feedback to help you see things clearly.

Member care certainly isn’t a cure-all. It has its limitations and, quite possibly, its undesirable effects if relied on too heavily. The solution to problems faced by cross-cultural workers can’t be member care period. It needs to be member care and.

When it comes to member care, what is the best balance, the correct rhythm? That’s something definitely worth looking for.

(Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; Blöcher, “What ReMAP I Said, Did, and Achieved,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, Rob Hay, et al, eds., William Carey, 2007; Blöcher, in “Member Care,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention;   Katie Rowe, “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” A Life Overseas, April 16, 2018)

[photo: “Coffee Beans Falling into a Cup,” by Bryon Lippincott, used under a Creative Commons license]