What Causes Missionaries to Leave the Field?
It is no secret that missionary attrition is a huge problem. Granted, some attrition is for good reasons (like retirement after many decades of service), yet most missionaries leave the field for a combination of reasons, some good and some not so good.
6 Minute Read
By Karl Dahlfred
As a missionary, I am always saddened when I hear of missionaries leaving the field, especially when they leave for reasons that should have been preventable. Though it is rarely mentioned, I believe one of those reasons is loneliness.
In a 2019 “Field Attrition Study Research Report”, Missio Nexus listed numerous reasons that missionaries resign from their organizations:
- Natural Causes (Completed Assignment, Retirement)
- Health (Emotional, Physical, Children’s Health)
- Family (Children’s Education, Marriage, Family Concerns)
- Interpersonal (Problems with Field/Local Leadership)
- Career (Education, Agency Transfer, Job Satisfaction)
- Organizational (Disagreement, Support Issues)
- Field (Visa Issues, Political Crisis, Closed Field)
- Dismissal (Termination, Job Performance)
- Other (Personal Concerns, Unknown, Inactive)
The full report includes a breakdown of these reasons and further analysis of trends, but one figure that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was how frequently missionaries leave. The report was based on data from 11 missionary organizations and found that between 2016 and 2018, these organizations sent 1014 new missionaries to the field and saw 974 leave their organizations.
Many of these departing missionaries not only left their organizations but left the mission field all together.
I’m not sure how those numbers relate to the overall turnover rate in those organizations, but the number of new missionaries going to the field barely covers the number who are moving on.
Long-Term Friendships Are in Short Supply for Missionaries
Although the Missio Nexus report doesn’t mention it directly, I am becoming more and more convinced that loneliness is a major contributing factor to the missionary attrition problem.
This hunch is based not just on my reading of the report, but also my conversations with missionaries who have left the field. With so many people coming and going, long-term friends who can help us through the tough times and bring joy to our daily life are often in short supply for missionaries.
I am becoming more and more convinced that loneliness is a major contributing factor to missionary attrition.
Lack of Friendship Has a Negative Impact
Even though cross-cultural missionaries tend to be determined and committed to the task in the face of many obstacles, a lack of quality, in-person friendship and fellowship wears on a person after a while.
There are very few missionaries who can be dumped alone in the middle of the proverbial jungle with nothing but a Bible, the clothes on their back, and a roll of duct tape–yet go on to successfully plant a church. For the rest of us, we need some help—and that includes quality friends and fellowship.
I think there are a few reasons why missionaries end up feeling lonely to the point of wanting to leave the mission field.
Language and Culture Issues Contribute to Loneliness
Ideally, a missionary learns the local language and culture well enough to the point that he or she has meaningful and satisfying relationships with people in their host culture, especially with local Christians.
However, not everyone learns the language to the level where they feel really comfortable functioning in it at the deep friendship level. Even for those who have excellent language ability, sometimes the culture gap makes it challenging to have more than a small handful of local people who truly become both peers and close personal friends.
Because of these linguistic and cultural challenges, especially for missionaries who have been on the field for less than 10 years, connection and friendship with other missionaries is vitally important for personal and spiritual health.
But if the missionary community in your local area (or regionally) is a revolving door of comings and goings, it is difficult to make and maintain friendships that will get you through hard times.
This is surely hardest on single missionaries but even for those who are married, we all need meaningful relationship beyond only our spouse, especially good friendships with those of the same sex.
Strategic Planning over Personal Well-Being Can Be Harmful
Missionaries tend to focus on accomplishing the mission of reaching as many places and people with the Gospel as possible. Because of this, strategic planning in the placement of missionaries is sometimes prioritized over placing people in teams where they will thrive.
Missionaries should be ready to endure suffering, deprivation, and loneliness for the sake of reaching the lost, right? Well, yes, but needless suffering isn’t God’s plan for anyone. If you can put someone in a sustainable situation rather than a meat grinder that will daily test their grit and endurance, then why not do it?
I have noticed that sometimes mission leaders place a missionary couple (or two singles) in an out-of-the-way place to plant a church, perhaps with the help of a local Christian, though perhaps not.
If missionary teammates are available, two families (or a family and a couple of singles) might be placed together, but having a team is not always prioritized.
The important thing, in the mind of mission leaders, is to have as many missionary units in as many places as possible in order to plant as many churches as possible.
On paper, this looks really good. There is a whole country (or people group) to reach, so why cluster all of your missionaries together in big clumps, thus creating little ex-pat bubbles, rather than spreading people out to plant more churches?
Sometimes, you might have a seasoned missionary with 10-20 years of service who might be happy to go out to the middle of nowhere to pioneer a new work alongside a local Christian or three, and the work hums along well and the missionary does not feel a lack of fellowship.
However, if you throw a new missionary or a young couple with small children into the same situation, it might end up being more than they can handle as they face obstacles of language and culture, but don’t have the local fellowship and support to both survive and thrive spiritually, emotionally, and personally.
Social media helps as much as it hinders in this situation, both alleviating the sense of isolation and exacerbating the perception that other people and old friends are doing well and enjoying life in some other place much more than you are.
Prioritizing teams might seem less strategic than placing as many people in as many places as possible, but if those people on their own burn out and leave before they are able to plant a healthy, stable, church, then you are both shooting yourself in the foot ministry-wise and not caring well for the missionaries in question.
What seems like a good long-term strategy might only be a short-term gain.
We Need to Talk about Loneliness
Loneliness is surely not the only important factor in missionary attrition, but from former missionaries I have talked to, I think it is an important one that does not get talked about often enough. Maybe it is not talked about because it is embarrassing to say you are leaving the mission field because you (or your spouse, or your kids, or all of you) are feeling lonely and isolated.
What Can We Do about Loneliness?
Life is rarely ideal and the COVID-19 situation over the past year or so has meant that a lot of missionaries have not been able to be where they want to be. Long-awaited teammates and new recruits have been delayed. Most problems are multi-faceted and don’t have simple solutions.
Nevertheless, missionaries themselves, mission leaders, and sending churches could do well to re-emphasize or re-prioritize both 1) attainment of high-level language and culture competency that enables meaningful friendship with national Christians, and 2) putting people in teams for the sake of long-term missionary retention and ministry effectiveness even when clumping people together doesn’t seem like the most strategic thing to do.
That said, loneliness is not insurmountable and it is not a terminal disease. Even in non-ideal situations, it is possible to pro-actively reach out and form friendships, though there may be time, distance, and other obstacles to overcome. God is Jehovah Jireh and He will provide the people we need in our lives at the right time, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Read more on this topic: How the Loneliness Epidemic Should Affect the Way We Do Missions
Karl Dahlfred has served with OMF in Thailand since 2006. He has taught church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted in the editing and translation of Thai Christian books at OMF Publishers Thailand, and engaged in church planting efforts in Central Thailand and Bangkok. In 2020, he completed a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh and is currently preparing to return to ministry in Thailand. Karl and his wife Sun have three children. His blog and list of published works may be found at www.dahlfred.com