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]

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]