A Response to “Staying Well”

The Director for Member Care and HR with OMF UK for the past ten years, Beverlea Parkhill reflects on what Janet Dallman discusses in her paper “Staying Well”—five key things that help missionaries stick with the work. Beverlea applies these principles of sticktoitiveness to the role of sending centers, particularly as it relates to member care.


Beverlea Parkhill joined OMF in the UK in 1998 and moved to East Asia as a member in 2005 to serve at Singapore-IHQ and then as part of a services team based in Chiang Mai. Since 2012, she has served as the Director for Member Care and HR in OMF UK. In 2018, she completed a master’s degree in Member Care at Redcliffe College in the UK.

 

 

 

A Response to “Staying Well”

Mission Round Table 17:1 (January–April 2022): 12–15

Janet Dallman’s paper on “Staying Well” has highlighted five key areas that have an impact on missionary attrition and retention. As someone who has worked in personnel and member care roles within OMF for almost twenty-five years in field, home, and international contexts, I have seen individuals, couples, and families leave their ministry contexts for a variety of reasons—some for good reasons, but also some for preventable ones. In my cu ofnt role as Director for Member Care and HR in OMF UK, I have seen members leave the field prematurely and sometimes negatively, often after only one or two terms.

In the ten years I have been in my current role, I have seen a reduction in the numbers of members sent from the UK. Ten years is not a long time in terms of establishing trends and so this is just a snapshot of my experience in this role. I understand that the average length of service in OMF is about ten years (or two terms). From some rough calculations made last year, I estimate that the average length of service in OMF UK has risen from ten years in 2010 to fourteen years in 2020, which, if accurate—maths isn’t necessarily a strength of mine!—is encouraging. But we still have a long way to go to retain members for the long haul. REMAP II, in 2006, highlighted twenty years as the average length of service for long-term missionaries who had left between 2001 and 2002 from a high-retention agency and ten years for low-retention agencies, so OMF UK’s figures fit broadly with this wider study.[1]

However, in gathering data from around the world while compiling Operation World, Patrick Johnstone reports that the period between eight and seventeen years on the field, on average, seems to be when mission workers are probably at their most fruitful.[2] This statistic is from 2011, and so it would be interesting to see how it compares to 2022 data, if only the figures were available. If the 2011 statistics are still valid, how do we keep our workers on the field for the long-haul, so that they can be fruitful and effective?

Two questions

Before commenting on the issues highlighted by Dallman, I would like to ask two questions that are crucial for this conversation. (1) Is retention just the opposite of attrition? (2) Are we putting our efforts into retaining people for the right reasons?

In response to the first question, it can be seen that

retention is more than the opposite of attrition. Retention takes into consideration who the people are in the agency, how long they have been with the agency, at what point in a person’s career a person leaves, and the reasons for that leaving.[3]

Both attrition and retention rates are important to give an overview of how an organisation is doing in terms of caring for its people. However, it is not feasible to look only at the reasons for attrition in order to understand how to increase retention in an organisation. For example, when people leave the organisation, they will give their stated reasons for leaving. However, there may be many unspoken reasons that the organisation may not be aware of. It may focus their attention on the wrong things. Blöcher noted the following reasons why people leave: stated reasons (such as those given in an exit interview), personal reasons (told to close friends or family), secret reasons (not shared but believed deep in their heart), reasons identified by the team or field leader, recorded reasons (added to the personnel file), believed reasons accepted by the director of the sending agency, socially accepted reasons (published in the mission journal), further reasons identified by the missionary’s professional counsellor, and, true reasons (a combination of the above or something completely different).[4]

In terms of whether we are keeping the right people for the right reasons, we should celebrate when members return home to retire after thirty or forty years on the field. Retirement is a natural end to someone’s active ministry on the field. However, as Dallman notes in her article, we need to promote effective service rather than seeing members limping along to the end.[5]

We should be frequently reviewing the effectiveness of our members, providing specific feedback on how they are doing and assessing the level of input that needs to be poured into the lives of members to keep them going on the field, and evaluating at what point the burden outweighs their ministry effectiveness. Several years ago, I was involved in conversations, alongside a field leader, with a family that was struggling on the field. A lot of the issues only came to light when the family came back to the UK on home assignment. The issue of the level of input and support needed from the whole field team as well as from leadership was raised as a concern. This led to conversations with the family about levels of resilience, their lack of a vibrant spiritual life, and the challenges of cross-cultural life and ministry. In the end, neither homeside clearance nor a field welcome were given to the family and they subsequently left the organisation. That was a tough situation to work through—for them and for us! Asking the hard questions isn’t always well-received, but it is a necessary process to ensure that we do the right thing for our members as well as for their ministry contexts.

In what follows, I will return to Dallman’s five key areas to consider how a sending centre could engage with these areas to encourage retention.

1. God’s call

The “Purpose and Principles” of OMF reads “Applicants for membership are required to satisfy the Directors and Councils/Boards concerned as to their soundness in the faith, suitability for service and call to service with the Fellowship.” Part of the candidate process is to assess God’s call on individual lives. A robust candidate process is necessary to test and confirm God’s call.


Linked to this, the UK candidate team ensures that new members have job descriptions in place before they go to the field. This is to help make sure they understand their role, at least when they initially go to the field, so that they will have realistic expectations of what they are going into. This feeds into the self-care area mentioned below. However, it is also helpful for sending churches to know what their role is expected to be as they seek to endorse the candidate and their gifting.

Assessing God’s call on a candidate’s life is only one element of pre-field selection and training, yet one that is key to retention. Theological and missiology training, physical health reviews, organisational orientation, and church engagement are all important elements that need to be considered in pre-field selection and training.

2. Spiritual life

Like Dallman, I completed the MA in Member Care at Redcliffe College. My dissertation on “Self-Care for Single Missionaries” highlighted the great need one has to maintain a healthy spiritual life while serving overseas (although it is important for any believer wherever they are).[6] One individual commented that her “spiritual life is the only thing that keeps [her] going on the field.”[7] Tony Horsfall, a former OMF member who has been involved in cross-cultural mission and pastoral care for most of his life, comments:

With this as my background, I am more convinced than ever of this: that the spiritual life is the key to longevity in mission! A relationship with God is the greatest resource … for coping with the challenges of cross-cultural living; for being effective in our particular ministry and for making our time in the “adopted” country or community a satisfying and fulfilling one.[8]

As a sending centre, we can encourage our members to take time out to be refreshed spiritually while on home assignment. This can be through re-engaging with their sending church(es) or by taking time out for a retreat. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased use of online technology has meant that mission workers can listen to sermons from their sending churches. This has been a blessing to many, especially to those who are not able to regularly attend church services in their ministry context.[9] We are blessed here in the UK to have retreat centres that cater specifically for mission workers. One such centre that I am personally familiar with is Penhurst Retreat Centre, which offers retreats such as “Refilling Whilst We Pour Out” or “Grace Space for Mission Partners.”[10] Their “Preparing for Retirement” retreat has received much praise from the OMF members who have attended it.

3. Self-awareness and self-care

Self-care refers to the way mission workers can care for themselves proactively and wisely by having a balanced lifestyle throughout the ups and downs of their missionary life. This includes caring for our spiritual life, physical health, and emotional health. Self-care needs to be both proactive and preventative in nature so that mission workers can thrive in their mission contexts. Various self-care questionnaires are available online that are useful for mission workers to work through.[11]

After having written my dissertation on self-care, I am convinced that we can do so much more to better care for ourselves, and that part of this is through being self-aware. The following quote from Ohanian is one which I feel describes self-care well:

Self-care is neither selfish nor egotistical, but a wise, mature, preventative and self-respecting practice for anyone who desires to remain in their role of care and service. Self-care ensures that one will thrive and flourish as opposed to merely survive and cope. Self-care is the unseen root system, deep, nourished, expanding, of a strong, resilient, blossoming tree.[12]

Self-care is important for retention. As Brenda Bosch highlights:

Some of us do not last long, simply because in our race in life we permanently sprint, instead of keeping in mind that we are in a long-distance marathon, which means that we need to take small breaks to refresh ourselves along the way.[13]

She goes on to state that agencies often see workers leave the field due to a lack of self-care “because they simply could not keep up with the pace with which they set out.”[14]

As a sending centre, we can encourage self-care, but cannot do it for members. One aspect of self-care that we, as the UK centre, have commended is that of setting up confidential personal debriefs for mission workers on home assignment. The REMAP II research observed that debriefing correlated highly with retention.[15]

A debrief is an opportunity for the member to reflect on their personal experiences without any feedback to the organisation. It allows the mission workers to feel listened to and valued. It can be helpful, especially at times of transition and crisis. Koteskey states that it gives people time to express thoughts and feelings, normalise those thoughts and feelings, and help to put those experiences in context.[16] It is also a time to celebrate the positives of the term. Many of our members have fed back to us that they greatly valued these personal debriefs, especially at a time of transition.

Another way that we can encourage members, especially during the candidate process, is to help them set healthy expectations. These include expectations of themselves, their ministry, and others (whether team leaders, sending churches, agency, team members, or national friends). One respondent in my research commented that they felt the organisation should “encourage people to not have unreasonable expectations and they need to understand what missionary life is really about.”[17]

These expectations can be addressed throughout the recruitment process, when attending Candidates Course, during the Orientation Course, and during field orientation. It is a message that needs to be reinforced throughout the candidate and orientation process as this is a time when candidates and new workers can often feel overloaded with information and they may need help in setting priorities. I meet with each of our UK candidates when they attend the European Candidates Course. One of the things I ask them about is their expectations for when they are on the field. Most, if not all, say that they don’t have any expectations. Koteskey argues that this is impossible.[18] Everyone has expectations; many of which can be unrealistic. He states that “Such expectations are most obvious and most common among the idealistic first-term missionaries who have such high hopes and great visions of how God will use them.”[19]

If expectations are not met (whether we are aware of them or not), disappointment, frustration, and stress can follow. I suggest to our new workers that they take time to think through their expectations and to discuss them with relevant groups of people—their church leaders, Bible college lecturers, other mission workers, and field leaders in advance of going. This will help them arrive on the field with realistic expectations. Part of my session with new workers is to talk through how they will connect with the UK centre throughout their first term and home assignment to help set realistic expectations. Of course, managing expectations is an ongoing process throughout the missionary life cycle and can be addressed through field conferences, home assignment workshops, regular centre communications, and so on.

4. Christian community

As Dallman has highlighted, agencies can encourage and assist workers to establish practices such as setting good patterns of communication through regular prayer letters and establishing accountability partners. The OMF UK Centre requires its members to send a minimum of ten prayer letters per year. It is often the case that the members who don’t send regular prayer letters are the ones who are struggling the most (and are sometimes the lowest supported financially). We try to follow up on those who don’t write regularly to their prayer partners.

Accountability is having someone trustworthy to whom we can appropriately disclose struggles, through whom we can be encouraged, supported, and challenged. From my research, one respondent to the questionnaire felt that

people who live on their own have no-one to point out they are overworking, not eating properly, not getting enough sleep. We can get away with it more easily. We are responsible for ourselves but being accountable to one another about the way we care for ourselves is important.[20]

Another respondent said that her work schedule changes from week to week and month to month. This has an impact on her days off and several weeks can pass without having a proper day off. “Since I work and live alone, and regularly work from home, there is also no-one who is really prodding me to stop and take time off.”[21]

Several OMF sending centres already recommend members to put together a “home ministry team” made up of key supporters who serve the missionary by providing pastoral care, and prayer, practical, and emotional support. One book that is recommended by the UK centre is PACT to Go!, which is a guide to creating a Personal Accountability and Care Team.[22] This is a practical and relevant book.

5. Language and culture learning

In reading Dallman’s fifth area, my first reaction was to say that this didn’t apply to sending centres as it was more of a field issue. However, there are times when it is appropriate for the sending centre to be aware of mission workers who are struggling with language and culture learning to facilitate communication with the sending church or to encourage praying more specifically for them.

It is also helpful for sending centres to be aware of field policies on language and culture learning so as to help set expectations for when mission workers could go on home assignment. In some receiving centres, there is an expectation of completing a specific level in language learning before proceeding to two years of ministry. Depending on how long it takes to complete the language learning, the worker’s first term may be longer than four years. This has an impact on home assignment timing and also on the energy levels of mission workers for home assignment.

Conclusion

In responding to the five areas discussed in Dallman’s article about retaining members, I have found it helpful to reflect on the role of sending centres. This needs to be done in partnership with the individual mission partners, sending churches, and the receiving centres. It highlights the need for good communication among all parties. There are many other issues relating to retention, such as children’s education or home assignments, that haven’t been touched on here but should be considered in a wider review of retention and so I look forward to seeing more discussion on this topic in the future.

 


[1] Detlef Blöcher, “US Report of Findings on Missionary Retention: December 2003,” unpublished paper, 5, http://www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/rfiles/res3_95_link_1292358708.pdf (accessed 23 March 2022).

[2] Patrick Johnstone, The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011), 227.

[3] Louis Carter, David Giber, and Marshall Goldsmith, eds., Best Practices in Organization Development and Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001), 302.

[4] Detlef Blöcher, “ReMAP 1: What It Said, What It Did, and What It Achieved,” in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Good Practices in Missionary Retention, ed. Rob Hay et al. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2006), 10.

[5] Myron Loss, Culture Shock: Dealing with Stress in Cross-cultural Living (Middleburg, PA: M. Loss, 1983), quoted in David L. Shepherd, “Promoting Missionary Mutual Care Through Spiritual Community” (DMin thesis, George Fox University, 2014), 33–34, http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1085&context=dmin (accessed 31 March 2022).

[6] Beverlea Parkhill, “Self-Care for Single Mission Workers within OMF International (UK): The Challenges and Opportunities” (MA thesis, Redcliffe College, 2018).

[7] Parkhill, “Self-Care for Single Mission Workers,” 65.

[8] Tony Horsfall, Spirituality for the Long-Haul: Maintaining Yourself in Christian Mission, Mission Life and Practice Series 6 (Milton Keynes: Kitab-Interserve Resources, 2014), 42.

[9] While a blessing to some, it may be an unwelcome burden to others whose sending churches put unrealistic expectations on their mission workers to join meetings at impractical times. There also needs to be a balance between maintaining a connection to home and engaging fully with the host culture.

[10] Penhurst Retreat Centre, www.penhurst.org.uk (accessed 31 March 2022).

[11] See Sarita Hartz, “A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers: Learn to Prevent Burnout,” which can be downloaded from http://www.saritahartz.com or https://www.mtwcare.org/uploads/8/9/8/6/89863841/self_care_assessment_draft_only_the_assessment_draft_2019_12_04.pdf (accessed 23 March 2022).

[12] Nairy Ohanian, “Self-Care,” unpublished paper, https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BxkNxNdI_KSdZE1EOHRhdVhia0k (accessed 23 March 2022).

[13] Brenda Bosch, Thriving in Difficult Places: Member Care for Yourself and Others, Vol. 2 (n.p.: Brenda Bosch, 2014), 202.

[14] Bosch, Thriving in Difficult Places, 204.

[15] Hay et al., Worth Keeping, 382.

[16] Ronald L. Koteskey, What Missionaries Ought to Know …: A Handbook for Life and Service, Revised (Wilmore, KY: Ronald L. Koteskey, 2017), 413. This can be downloaded in several e-forms from https://www.missionarycare.com/what-missionaries-ought-to-know.html (accessed 23 March 2022).

[17] Parkhill, “Self-Care for Single Mission Workers,” 73.

[18] Koteskey, What Missionaries Ought to Know, 37.

[19] Koteskey, What missionaries Ought to know, 37.

[20] Parkhill, “Self-Care for Single Mission Workers,” 68.

[21] Parkhill, “Self-Care for Single Mission Workers,” 68.

[22] Rod and Ruthie Gilbert, PACT to Go!: A Cross-cultural Worker’s Guide to Creating a Personal Accountability and Care Team, Revised (Niceville, FL: Elemental, 2020).

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