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]

Is Conflict with Teammates Really the Top Reason for Missionaries Leaving the Field?

You’ve probably heard it many times. Simply put: The number-one reason missionaries leave the field is because of problems with coworkers. The trouble is, it’s not that simple.

First of all, the best source I can find for this, or something close to it, is the in-depth study ReMAP (the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project), conducted by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), with its results presented in 1997 in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Today, most of what we hear from ReMAP are snippets and referrals to their lists ranking causes for why missionaries return. But there is so much more to the data—and so much more behind the data—collected by the study. In light of this, and in honor of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Too Valuable to Lose, let’s take a deeper look at ReMAP, through the lens of team relationships.

Looking Back

ReMAP’s survey asked the leaders of mission agencies to a) look at a list of 26 causes for attrition and pick the seven that they believed were the most important for their organization, covering the five years preceding 1994, and b) rate these seven in importance in relation to each other. According to Too Valuable to Lose, the Mission Commission received back over 500 responses from mission agencies in 14 countries—categorized as old and new sending countries—and the results were compiled to come up with an overall weighted list.

So is trouble with team relationships on top of that list? No, it comes in at number six. But stopping there would oversimplify things. Rather, here are five points as to why the top causes of missionary attrition can be difficult to name.

1- Peter Brierley (director of Christian Research from 1993 to 2007) performed the initial analysis of ReMAP data and gives his findings in chapter seven of Too Valuable to Lose. It’s there that we find the table “Total Weighted Reasons for Leaving Missionary Service,” showing the top five causes as

  1. Normal retirement: retirement following normal completion of missionary service
  2. Child(ren): children unable to adapt to new culture, needs of education, health, or behavior
  3. Change of job: change of job due to completion of assignment or move to a new post
  4. Health problems: problems related to mental and/or physical health
  5. Lack of home support: inadequate financial, prayer, and/or other support from home country; high rate of inflation

But according to Brierley, looking at this list is not very helpful, and “actually misleading.” This is because of the large variances between countries. About the top reasons, he writes, “They simply aren’t the top five in reality when the country of origin is taken into consideration.”

Since many who talk about attrition are Americans speaking to American audiences, maybe those who say team issues are number one are referring to US stats only. While “problems with peer missionaries: relationship problems with mission field leaders or fellow missionaries” shows up as number six on the overall list, it is higher for missionaries from the States. But even then, it comes in at number five.

Number five isn’t number one. But what if we take out the problems that can’t be prevented?

2- In his summary, Brierley distinguishes between “preventable” and “unpreventable” causes of attrition, defining as unpreventable those reasons, such as normal retirement, that are beyond the scope of what agencies can affect. It makes sense to factor out unpreventable causes and focus on preventable ones, so we can look at the lists with that in mind. Of the reasons ranked above peer relationships, how many are unpreventable? It turns out that two are: retirement and job change. But if we remove those two, peer issues moves up to only number four on the overall list, and number three for the US.

William Taylor, editor of Too Valuable to Lose and director of the Missions Commission, presents another category similar to unpreventable reasons, calling it “acceptable attrition.” That would include the top four causes for the US (retirement, children, job change, and health). So if we remove these from the US list, we place problems with peers in the first slot. This is quite possibly the origin of the belief that team problems are the number-one reason—though I’ve never seen anyone refer to a list of “non-acceptable” causes.

3- Another interesting note is that attrition for the ReMAP study is defined as leaving an agency, rather than leaving a work located abroad. Therefore, missionaries who return to their passport country but who continue with the same agency are not counted in attrition numbers, while missionaries who leave an agency but continue working overseas are. This shows one of the differences in how agencies and individual missionaries often approach these numbers: While agencies typically keep track of those in or out of the organization, missionaries—and supporters—are more apt to draw a distinction between on or off the field.

4- It matters, too, where the reported reasons come from. Brierley writes that the ReMAP study relies most heavily on the perceptions of agency leaders—with “agency leaders” including some leaders who are in charge of sending churches that don’t use outside agencies. But the study also asked agencies to choose one of eight categories for the reasons why their missionaries left between 1992 and 1994, based on their recorded documentation. Brierley says that the results show some discrepancies between administrators’ beliefs and recorded reasons, and for this he gives two possible explanations: inaccuracy in leaders’ perceptions or a reluctance of leaders to make “real” reasons part of the permanent record, choosing instead to protect missionaries by writing down something “safe.” This divergence shows up in the category of “team reasons” (problems with peer missionaries or local leaders), with agency leaders from old sending countries twice as likely to report a belief in this as a cause for attrition as they were to find it written down.

Brierley describes the difference between missions administrators’ perceptions and official records as “not huge” but “significant,” while Jonathan Lewis, missionary and member of the Missions Commission, writes in Too Valuable to Lose that the overall general agreement between the two “suggests that missions administrators do indeed have a feel for why their missionaries are leaving the field.”

Of course, another source for finding out why missionaries return is the missionaries themselves. Lewis affirms that this is a “major perspective” but says that attempting to gather the views of the 4,400 missionaries who left from 1992-94 would have been “nearly impossible.” Also, by engaging agency leadership, he writes, ReMAP involved those best able to take steps to reduce attrition.

Taylor calls this third category “the reasons departing missionaries hold in private or may share with closest friends.” Then he adds another category: “the real reasons—are they knowable?”

5- Finally, we need to remember that much has changed since the ReMAP results were published 20 years ago. Think of what has taken place since then: For starters, there are the shifts in the areas and people groups targeted, the types of ministries emphasized, and the methods used. There are also the effects of generational changes in the outlooks and attitudes of newer missionaries. And in the intervening years, many agencies have altered their training and member care, and many missionaries have gained a better understanding of the challenges they will face, in part as the result of the information disseminated through ReMAP.

So where does all this leave us? According to ReMAP, here is what we can safely say:

The most important non-acceptable reason as perceived by leaders of mission agencies (and some sending churches) for why missionaries from the US stopped working with their agencies 20 years ago is problems with peer missionaries.

It doesn’t quite make for a great sound bite, but there it is.

(I do need to insert a few caveats here: First, for Korea and Costa Rica, peer conflict actually is the top reason listed for attrition, though I’m pretty sure the authors I’ve read on this topic weren’t referring to either of those countries. Also, I’m no statistician, so I might have misinterpreted the ReMAP research; and it’s possible that I’ve missed a study since ReMAP that turns all this on its head. If you find either of these to be true, please let me know.)

But does not being number one mean that team problems aren’t a concern? Of course not. Regardless of where it falls on a list, we know the damage and hurt that can happen when coworkers don’t get along. And why is this even a top-five issue for missionaries from the US? We Americans have much to learn from those from other countries who seem to be better at handling team relationships.

Looking Forward

When I consider the overall view of what causes missionaries to leave the field, the biggest question I’m left with is What would we learn if we asked former missionaries for their responses?

ReMAP certainly leaves room for and invites followup studies. As Brierley points out, “The ReMAP research should be seen as a starter study, not a definitive answer to the causes of attrition.” That’s why in 2003, WEA (WEF changed its name to World Evangelical Alliance in 2001) conducted ReMAP II, with the results discussed in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention. Like ReMAP, ReMAP II was extremely well thought out and well implemented, and it not only carried the research forward, but it expanded the pool of respondents to the administrators of approximately 600 mission agencies in 22 countries, representing nearly 40,000 missionaries.

While ReMAP focuses on individual reasons for attrition, ReMAP II looks at the organizational practices that lead to retention. Both are excellent projects that add up to a more complete picture, with ReMAP II updating overall attrition figures, showing a drop over the last 20 years. But something is still missing—the viewpoints of returned missionaries.

In Too Valuable to Lose, Lewis writes about the need for another possible followup to ReMAP:

a serious study that listens to the up-to-now unheard voices that speak to attrition issues. Among these are the voices of former missionaries, particularly those who left under difficult circumstances. Such a study would require a carefully crafted research instrument, confidentiality, and a “neutral” body to receive and analyze the survey returns and write up the report.

One such neutral body that agreed with the importance of hearing directly from missionaries was Global Mapping International (GMI). In 2006, WEA’s Mission Commission enlisted GMI and the Best Christian Workplaces Institute (BCWI) to develop Engage, “a workplace engagement survey designed specifically for North American field staff serving cross-culturally with missional organizations.” GMI and BCWI then conducted the survey.

An example of the important work done by GMI and BCWI is the 2015 Engage, which surveyed over 1,700 North American cross-cultural field workers, representing seven agencies. The findings are presented in “Thriving People: The Engage Survey 2015 Aggregate Report” and are discussed in Help Your Missionaries Thrive: Leadership Practices That Make a Difference. The two works are filled with valuable information for missionaries and mission organizations.

Unfortunately, though, when we talk about GMI, we need to use the past tense, as the organization, which began in 1983, disbanded last month. GMI CEO Jon Hirst tells Christianity Today, “The easiest way to describe what happened is that research costs a lot of money to do well” and that GMI wasn’t able to make the transition from being heavily donor funded to relying more on selling products and services.

Yes, quality research is expensive. And getting input directly from former missionaries on why they left the field would require much money, time, and effort. But I believe it would be well worth the investment. Not only would it give us insight into the situations and attitudes of those working abroad, providing a more complete picture, it would also demonstrate how much we value all voices.

Performing that kind of research—whether at the agency, country, or global level—gathering the information in a confidential and safe way, using the necessary skill and patience, and sharing the results honestly and openly, would certainly be a complex task.

But taking on complex tasks is what we need to do, because we live in a complex world, where simple answers just aren’t enough.

(Peter Brierley, “Missionary Attrition: The ReMAP Research Report,” Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; “Survey Instrument,” Too Valuable to Lose; William Taylor, “Prologue,” Too Valuable to Lose; Jonathan Lewis, “Designing the ReMAP Research Project,” Too Valuable to Lose; William Tayler, “Challenging the Missions Stakeholders: Conclusions and Implications; Further Research,” Too Valuable to Lose; Detlef 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; “Thriving People: The Engage 2015 Aggregate Report,” Global Mapping International, 2015, previously available at the GMI store; Ken Harder and Carla Foote, Help Your Missionaries Thrive: Leadership Practices That Make a Difference, GMI, 2016; Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Operation World Mapmaker Shuts Down Due to Donor Shifts,” Christianity Today, April 28, 2017)

[photo: “Exit,” by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons license]