Why do missionaries leave the field? Help us find out!

by Andrea Sears

Craig Thompson published a very informative article here at A Life Overseas in July about studies that have attempted to discover the primary reasons that missionaries return to their home countries.

What really struck me in that article was that:

  1. The research is dated, as much has changed on the mission field in 20 years;
  2. The definitions of missionary turnover have been convoluted, leading to cases being included that shouldn’t have been and vice versa; and
  3. Working through mission agencies to get data, rather than asking the missionaries directly, leaves room for a host of problems that affect the data.

While mission agency data is a convenient source of already-compiled information, it’s also subject to error and/or misinterpretation at several points. First, thoughts and feelings must be transferred from the returning missionary to a file at the agency. Then it must be collected and passed on to a researcher, who must “translate” this data to a standard set of factors to be used for the study. Things can be left out that might be relevant, simply because different agencies have different debriefing procedures and questions, and some do a better job than others with this process.

And finally, agency data can lack important pieces of the story because the missionaries may not have given full disclosure to their agency about all the reasons for their return, for many possible reasons. We’ve all probably known returning missionaries that have a “politically correct” reason that is given to the mission agency and donors, and another set of “behind-the-scenes” reasons that not everyone hears about.


Why this project?

Given the above background, it seems that we need (1) some new research, (2) based on the right population, (3) with a consistent set of questions and categories, and (4) addressed directly to a broad base of returned missionaries without having to filter responses through their agency.

Well, I just happen to be in an academic setting this year with people who need research ideas, while my husband and I serve as the Missionaries-in-Residence at John Brown University for our furlough. And this topic has been an interest of mine for some time.

Like any missionary on the field for any length of time (my family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years), I’ve seen my share of fellow missionaries come and go, and for a plethora of reasons. This has prompted some reflection about the keys to longevity on the mission field. As the U.S. church seems to move toward a short-term team model and away from long-term missions, this question is more relevant than ever. If fewer young people are willing to consider long-term missions, it becomes extremely important to figure out how to keep those long-term missionaries healthy and productive on the field as long as we can.

Missions is an amazing and complex endeavor. It’s both incredibly hard and incredibly rewarding, both gut-wrenching and fulfilling at varying times, or even at the same time. The factors that bring us to a sense of “calling” and the factors that end that season are complex, personal, and not easy to unravel. I want to try anyway. If it helps us to figure some things out, it’ll be so worth it.


What can you do?

We’ve developed an online survey with the supervision of JBU faculty and a student research assistant. This is where you come in. If you are a missionary who has returned home, please take 15 minutes to complete the survey (linked here and below).

A missionary who has returned home is defined as a person who has done missions work for longer than a short-term team engagement, and has returned “permanently” to their passport country (i.e., not on furlough or medical leave, for example).

Important things to remember about this survey:

  • While we never know if something is permanent and we could conceivably be called back to the field, go ahead and fill out the survey if you do not currently have plans in motion to go back overseas.
  • DO NOT fill out the survey if you changed mission agencies or host countries, but remained on the mission field.
  • DO fill out the survey if you still work with your mission agency, but are now placed in a role in your passport country.

Please be totally honest. It’s an anonymous survey and results will not be published by agency. There is a blank for entering your mission agency, but only to make sure that the responses are not heavily weighted for one agency only (and therefore potentially biased based on one organization’s policies or practices). Our hope is to include participants from a broad range of mission agencies and faith backgrounds, and seeing varied responses in that field will help us to make sure we are doing that.

If you are still on the field, please forward the survey to those returned missionaries that you know. I know it takes a few minutes to think about who you should send it on to, but getting a good sample is critical to being able to interpret and apply the results to a broad population. It doesn’t matter where they served, how much time has passed since they returned to their home country, what led them to return or what type of missions work they did. The more people participate, the more valid the results, and the more useful (and credible) the findings.

The survey will only be open until December 6th, so please participate and encourage others to do so promptly.

Again, here is the link to the survey.


How will the results be used?

Access to better information about what missionaries experience on the field will help to improve their preparation, their experiences on the mission field, and the care they receive through the hard stuff. Your participation (or forwarding to others who can participate) will provide valuable insight that can be shared with mission agencies and the general missions community about where we can direct our efforts to better support missionaries.


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 is serving as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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