When You Want to Want to Stay Longer

When living overseas, sometimes there’s no doubt that you need to leave. A denied visa, a medical emergency, a government coup, a burn-out, an unresolvable conflict.

Sometimes there’s no doubt you want to stay. You’ve adapted; you’ve found community, ministry, purpose, and most of the time, you’re loving life.

But what about when you think you should stay, but you really don’t want to?

When the need is great, and right now, you’re the best person to fill it. When you’ve received affirmation from local believers and leadership from home that you are a good fit for your role. When you are seeing fruit–or you can almost see it, just over the horizon.

But you are weary of this life. You are sick and tired of the long lines at government offices, of bugs in your kitchen drawers, of being misunderstood (again). The pollution aggravates your daughter’s asthma, and it takes you five hours to run one errand, and suddenly the price of milk doubles over night. Again.

And your old life is looking pretty great. Your friends’ lives on Instagram are looking even better.

You don’t really want to stay. But you’re pretty sure you should. You want to want to stay. How do you get there?

Maybe sometimes you just need a vacation. Or some counseling. Maybe you need to consider a new neighborhood. Maybe you just need to bite the bullet and buy that air conditioner.

But after fifteen years living overseas, do you want to know what has kept me here longer? Changing my perspective from This is an experience to This is my life.

What’s the difference?

An experience is temporary. It’s something that you check off your bucket list before going back to your “normal” life. You’re likely to expect fun and adventure. You’re likely to have high expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, and lower lows when you don’t.

Since an experience has a defined beginning and end, you also aren’t necessarily looking for the normal rhythms of work and rest. You might be thinking that you need to pack in as much as you can because you know your time is limited. And when you’re looking at your time overseas as an experience, when times get hard, you just dig in your heels and endure it. (Buy an air conditioner? Pish! I’m here to be tough.) The end is always in sight, and you are counting the days till it’s over.

When it comes time to decide if you should stay longer, it’s not even a consideration. The experience is over; so why should you stay? Your sights are already set on home; they have been for a long time. Staying longer seems unfathomable.

But when you enter your time overseas with the mindset that This is my life, then there is no end in sight. You realize that adaptation is key. Of course, this does not mean that you try to recreate your life back home. But it does mean that you are actively looking for that “new normal.” When times get tough, you aren’t counting the days until it’s over. Instead, you’re thinking about how you can make this work. How you can adapt. How you can either change your circumstances or change your perspective so that you aren’t utterly miserable all of the time.

What does this tangibly look like? Put pictures up on your walls. Plant a garden. Spend the extra money to get the couch you love, instead of someone’s old ugly hand-me-down. These are little things, but can help significantly with your mindset. Slow down. Watch TV sometimes. Don’t fret over “wasted” time learning language and culture, chomping at the bit to get your “real” ministry started. Watch. Wait. Listen. Learn. When the power goes out or you get three flat tires in a week, pay attention to your thinking. Are you telling yourself, “Just a few more months and this will be over,” or rather “How can I learn to live this way?”

You want to want to stay? Let me tell you something I’ve learned about contentment in this overseas life: The more you think about leaving, the more you will want to leave. The more you resolve yourself to stay, the more content you will be.

And one more thing: There will always be a reason to leave if you are looking for it. Always. If you want a reason, you will find it. So here’s my challenge: Instead of just asking yourself, Do I want to leave?, consider asking yourself, Is there a good reason why I shouldn’t stay longer?

Full disclosure: My family is in that place right now, asking ourselves that question. I realize that finding the answer is not simple, because it can be easy to mingle God’s calling with our own desires. Knowing when has been “long enough” can often become more complicated the longer you stay….because the experience has become life! That’s what’s kept us here fifteen years, and the depth of our friendships, the wealth of what we have learned, and the multiplying impact of ministry have made all of these years more than worth it. I pray it will be for you too.

Family Factors in Missionary Attrition

by Andrea Sears

Forging ahead with the results of our returned missionary survey

The first major section of the report has to do with factors related to family dynamics (nuclear and extended). We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be family-related factors:

  • I was single and I felt that I would find my spouse back in my home country.
  • I wanted to start a family and have children in my home country.
  • I experienced marital issues.
  • My kids were not adjusting well.
  • There was a lack of options for my child/children’s education.
  • I sent my kids to college.
  • I wanted to be close to my adult children.
  • I wanted to be close to my grandchildren.
  • I wanted to be close to my aging/ailing parents.
  • I felt that my extended family needed me.

For each of these statements, we asked them to choose one of the following 5 answers:

  • 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.

Click here to see the full report with tables and charts and all sorts of cool data. I can’t include near that level of detail here.


Discussion of Quantitative Results

The first striking observation is the sheer number of missionaries that are experiencing these family stress factors. Six out of ten of the factors have higher than 50% incidence rates, indicating that the majority of missionary families will deal with them at some point.

Compared to people living in their passport countries, who may not have the additional marital, family, and educational challenges of the mission field (not to mention factors from the other sections of this study, including financial, cultural, etc.), missionaries are subject to a compounding effect as these stressors accumulate. The high percentages of missionaries experiencing each factor guarantees that each family is experiencing multiple family stressors, perhaps serially over time, or perhaps at the same time.

Marital issues, adjustment and education of the children, and wanting to be near family that need them in their passport country (college students, adult children, parents, or other extended family) are all important issues for missionaries to balance with their overseas ministry, since over 50% of participants who experienced those issues felt that they affected their return decision to some degree.

Educational options for the children and having aging/ailing parents that need care are the two strongest family factors in making a decision to return to the passport country, according to the weighting of responses given.

The full report gives a more detailed discussion of the results for each question and the possible reasons for those results.

We also wanted to compare the responses generationally to see if there are factor differences related to age. Do younger and older missionaries have a different experience or different values that impact their return decisions? To check for this, we selected the subset of survey respondents who were under 30 when they went to the mission field, on the field less than 10 years, and left the field less than 10 years ago. This subset accounted for 190 of the surveyed individuals.

When the subset of younger missionaries is compared with the overall sample on family factors, several differences can be seen. Younger missionaries were:

  • More likely to report the experience of singles feeling their spouse would be found in their passport country (89% versus 71% in the overall sample).
  • More likely to report that they wanted to start their family in their passport country (49% versus 27%).
  • Less likely to report marital problems (41% versus 54%).
  • Less likely to report kids’ adjustment problems (33% versus 58%).
  • Less likely to report concern about educational options for their children (38% versus 64%).
  • Less likely to report wanting to be near aging/ailing parents (35% versus 50%), but it was still the highest strength index in the family factor group (1.11).

This makes sense, as given the age of the missionaries while they were on the field, they were more likely to still be in the single or child-bearing years. If they had children, they were likely young enough to be more adaptable and easier to educate with available options. And this generation of missionaries didn’t experience issues like sending kids off to college or wanting to be closer to adult children or grandchildren at all.


Qualitative Data on Marital Issues

In addition to the quantitative scaled information, we collected open comments on the following question: “If you experienced marital issues and you feel comfortable sharing, please describe them.”

Hundreds of comments were provided and helped to delve into the reasons that missionaries struggle with marriage and family issues on the field.

These were the most common issues we heard about that produced marital stress:

  • extreme stress, coupled with the isolation, of living overseas
  • a lack of friends to talk to about problems
  • the all-consuming nature of the mission work and the pressures of working closely together in a shared career
  • not taking the necessary time out of the work context to nurture their marriage and spouse or to process things together
  • temptations to neglect those closest to them in order to perform well in the ministry
  • one spouse’s depression, burnout, or anxiety that affected their closest relationships negatively
  • anger at the way a spouse was (or was not perceived to be) coping with life overseas
  • disappointment (usually of the wife) with her lack of a fulfilling role in the ministry
  • the pain of the trailing spouse (again, more frequently the wife) who didn’t want to be on the mission field but had submitted to her husband’s call to life overseas

The full report contains more detail and quotes from comments given to illustrate these points if you want to delve in deeper.


Qualitative Data on Children’s Adjustment Issues 

We also collected open comments on the following question: “If your kids were not adjusting well and you feel comfortable sharing, describe specifically why.”

Again, hundreds of comments were provided. Here are some of the most common:

  • looking different, standing out, and receiving unwanted attention in the form of staring, touching, teasing, or even bullying
  • isolation and the lack of friends or a social group
  • grief as a result of leaving behind friends, family, or adult siblings in their passport country
  • resentment or anger toward parents over their decision to go to the mission field
  • having parents that are distracted by a million other things and find their ability to parent compromised in the chaos
  • depression and anxiety as they struggle to cope with the many transitions in their lives

Again, more details and stories on this in the full report.



While family factors have typically been considered non-preventable by other studies, some of them ARE preventable with the proper preparation, care, and treatment. The following areas should be revisited within mission agencies and sending churches, regarding how well they promote the health and welfare of marriages and families:

  • the selection process
  • preparation, training, and expectation-setting
  • missionary care
  • mission policy
  • work-life balance

(More detail and a discussion of each area in the full report.)

But in the end, no matter how phenomenal a job our mission agencies or sending churches do in safeguarding and caring for our families, it is every missionary’s responsibility to ask him/herself some hard questions:

  • Am I too proud to reach out for help when I need it and be real about struggles with my friends, family, supporters, sending church, or mission agency? Am I trying to perpetuate the missionary pedestal or save my funding by presenting only the best face?
  • Am I driving a wedge in my marriage by judging my spouse, or not offering the emotional support that they need?
  • Am I a workaholic? Am I willing to sacrifice the needs of my family to the ministry?
  • Am I allowing life overseas and my ministry to distract me from parenting and tending to my children’s needs (and griefs?

Our families have been granted to us by God and are our most important ministry and opportunity to serve. Our intimacy with our spouse or the well-being of our children should never be sacrificed to our ministry. Our ministry vision must be realigned to include ministry within our families (for both women AND men) if we want longevity and health on the mission field.


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.