Taking Responsibility for Missionary Attrition
by David Parker
Once upon a time, in a typical, well-intentioned Baptist church, a man and his wife surrendered to what they described as God’s call on their lives for missionary service. The excitement of their decision permeated the church. The pastor recognized them during the invitation and said a few words about the church’s longstanding commitment to missionaries and the remaining task of world evangelism. Folks from the congregation came by after the service to shake their hands and offer words of encouragement.
Shortly thereafter, the pastor counseled the couple concerning their need for Bible college training and the need to raise support. Since they were already mature adults, they did not feel the need for the entire program being offered at Bible college so they decided to spend a minimal amount of time getting whatever they could. After all, they had already wasted several of their adult years; and people on the mission field were dying and going to hell. Time was of the essence, and they needed to get there as fast as they could. Their pastor conceded to their truncated plans for training as long as they agreed to spend some extra time helping around the church for a period of time.
While away at Bible college, the couple heard that missionaries were affiliated with mission boards, so they applied with a board that the school recommended and were accepted. The mission board required them to attend a week of training in which they were instructed on the use of forms for filing reports with the board involving their tax accountability to the IRS, the handling of their mission support, and a few other things. In addition, the candidates received a list of churches to contact and were offered some tips on how to raise support. Within five years, the couple had raised support, gone to the field, returned home, and were away from the Lord and out of church. Something went terribly wrong. What happened?
Why do some missionaries not make it? Why do some quit even before getting to the field or before the end of their first term? The truth is, there are many different reasons; but some of these issues are the result of leadership failure. My objective is not to place blame; blaming does not solve anything. However, until we discern where the ball is being dropped, we will never figure out a way to stay in the game – no matter how badly we say we want to win. Further, I acknowledge that there are multitudes of reasons missionaries do not make it, having nothing to do with leadership. But today, I write concerning things that we as leaders can change – things we must change. So the question is, “How can leadership affect the rate of missionary attrition?” I think there are at least two things we can do.
First, we can tell them they are not going to be sent until they get all their training (this includes relevant cross-cultural training). The problem is, there is an overt blindness among many leaders to recognize a missionary’s need for specialized training. Sometimes, I think the average pastor believes that all a missionary needs is a call, a passport, a plane ticket, and missionary support. This perspective suggests that being a missionary is a matter of geography. Missions is not simply doing overseas what we do here. It is much more complicated than that. Understanding in this area may be facilitated by encouraging the pastor to visit the church’s missionaries on the field and really listening to them. Sadly, I know missionaries who have been on the field for more than a decade and have never been visited by their pastor.
Yes, missionaries need theological training (everybody agrees with that); but they also need cross-cultural training which addresses issues directly related to life and ministry on the foreign field. This includes topics such as spiritual warfare, coping strategies for culture stress, interpersonal relationship training, and training in culture and worldview. Missionaries need to know how to learn a language when there’s no available language school, how to produce all the vocal sounds which are not inherent to their native tongue, how to evangelize and disciple people having different learning styles and those who have had no previous understanding of the Bible – people who have never seen or heard of a Bible or Jesus Christ. This is why any college that claims to provide missionary training that does not include these vital areas is not going to help your missionary candidates survive on the field. Additionally, this is also why hanging out and helping around the local church will not fully prepare a person for the cross-cultural challenges he will face. Neither of these processes alone serve to equip missionaries with the skills they need to operate as cross-cultural workers for Christ.
It is wrong and irresponsible to send families off to the mission field without relevant training. These are by and large good people who are simply not prepared for what awaits them when they step off the plane. Most of them succumb to defeat in a matter of months. Others may hold on a little longer not wanting to admit defeat as a matter of personal pride. Those who return home in this condition are seriously wounded, embarrassed, and ashamed. They cannot face their pastor and church, and they begin to experience other spiritual struggles which often make it difficult to attend church anywhere because of a lack of understanding as to what happened to them. These people need help; and if they make it, it will take several years of healing for them to recover fully. Recovery is rare because this kind of help is not available on every corner.
We need church leaders and sending agencies today who understand this need for special training and who love families enough to tell them the truth – “You will not go out of this church until you are fully prepared.” Men who are not afraid for someone to be mad at them for the short-term (or longer), knowing that they are reducing casualties in the long-term. Lives are at stake in the negligent sending of people who stand up and say, “I want to go” without first ensuring they are ready to go.
The second thing leaders can do to reduce missionary attrition is to say, “No” to people who are not ready because of some personal issue in their lives. This is not just a pastoral issue; there is a need among mission boards for leaders to square off with missionaries whom they know need to be stopped from going to the field or pulled off the field. Nobody likes to do this kind of thing because it is messy and hard to explain; and it does not look good either for the church or board’s missionary reputation. It is easier to overlook it and to hope it heals itself. However, it never does.
Sometimes, a pastor is tempted to allow a missionary go to the field even though he knows in his heart that, that person or his wife should not go right now because of sin, lack of preparation, some maturity issue, or a failure to demonstrate personal evangelism and discipleship passion in the local church. The pastor knows if he “puts his foot down,” the missionary’s family (who are in the church) will not like it. This weighs on his decision and may steer him against his better judgment. What is needed today are spiritual leaders who will care enough about a man to tell him he is not ready, why he is not ready, and then assist him in getting the help he needs so he can be sent. When these areas have been corrected, the church may proceed to send that man.
C.T. Studd (missionary to China, India, and Africa) made this elitist request concerning the sending of new missionaries:
Send us people with initiative, who can carry themselves and others too; such as need to be carried hamper the work and weaken those who should be spending their strength for the heathen. Weaklings should be nursed at home! If any have jealousy, pride, or tale bearing traits lurking about them, do not send them, nor any who are prone to criticize. Send only Pauls and Timothys; men who are full of zeal, holiness and power. All others are hindrances. If you send us ten such men the work will be done. Quantity is nothing; quality is what matters. ‘FORWARD EVER; BACKWARD, NEVER!’
Alternatively, to express this in a pecuniary context, “Why don’t we spend God’s money in the sending of missionaries with the same care we exercise in our personal finances (assuming we are frugal)?” We may find that this practice would constrain us to make better decisions that result in higher expectations, strategic placement, and better accountability of missionaries.
What is needed today is for leaders to recognize this need for special training and to “bar the door” to the exit ramp for anyone who fails to prepare adequately. Imagine telling me that your son has decided to go to war, and I suggested that he go straight to the conflict without any training. I might argue: “He is a man. He is in his mid-twenties. He has already wasted a few years by not having gone when he was younger. They really need him over there right now. Besides, at his age as a young adult, he probably has enough life experience under his belt that he does not need any special training.” You would probably look at me in disbelief, thinking that I was crazy for suggesting such a thing. You might respond, “He is going into combat. He is going to be experiencing things that he has never faced before. He NEEDS SPECIAL TRAINING for that!” You might even accuse me of being “off my rocker,” ignorant of the nature of combat, or apathetic to your son’s well-being (irresponsible); consequently, you would be right. We should feel the same way about missions – anybody failing to see the need for special training is crazy, ignorant, or irresponsible. Let’s make sure that none of these people are leaders of churches and sending agencies.